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Gone

April 4, 2018

I’m still in the middle of the gone as the anniversary of my father’s death nears. Some nights I wade in the grief around 6 pm when PBS NewsHour comes on and the seat next to me is vacant. There’s no 2 oz of Dewar’s to measure in the shot glass and pour into his insulated glass with just enough ice, a cherry, and a splash of bitters. I don’t go to the pantry to fetch a Rykrisp and spread the thinest layer of Merkt’s on it like I used to a year ago. No, Jod, can you get me a spoon? so Dad can fish the cherry out of his glass.

God, how I miss the rituals. Those rituals though make the gone so fucking difficult.  I wish I had an imaginary box of each ritual or small moment in the closet to unpack so that I could select one each time I get sad. I’d layer on each memory as if preparing for a winter hike in the Northwoods. Whether it be an imaginary box of small moments or a movie in my mind, these bits of magic–they are here with me–even though he’s gone.  Sure, some days that consolation prize feels as fantastic as the Mr. Coffee they’d give to the losing contestant on The Match Game, other days I am grateful it for the blessing it is.

Either way, I acknowledge the gaping hole that is the gone. Shit is different. I’m different. Everything is different. Loss creates this hole where substance once was. Be it a relationship, a job, a friendship, an activity, anything that was once a part of your identity–if now gone--you might feel like you need to plug the hole with a shitty wad of Double Mint gum that won’t conform because the loss is too real, too raw, and too recent. What’s the saying, “Time heals all wounds?”

That’s bullshit.

The gaping hole changes form a bit. It may scab over or shrink a little as life continues and you figure out how to live with your respective gone. The thing is you might not be 100% healed because you’re not 100% YOU anymore. You’ve changed. The gone changed you. It had to, didn’t it? Unless you are a completely soulless individual (which you clearly aren’t because you’re reading this book), loss changes people. That’s the gift like a  plate of fries next to the shit sandwich that grief served you with your gone. Get it? And now you’re standing in the kitchen with this shit sandwich of grief, but you’re still here-standing. You acknowledge the hole next to you where the ritual was or the memory or the person. You see it. You feel it when you need to or want to. Some days you take down the box and try on the memories like preparing for that hike in The Northwoods. Other days you praise The Almighty for a heaping hot plate of fries next to that grief sandwich and keep it movin’. The fries so tasty, you might not even take a bite of that grief sandwich, not today-anyway.

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Rejoice: You made it out alive

 

The knocking of the 1980’s refrigerator serves as a reminder that I am not alone when I am my most depressed. The birdfeeders out in the yard hang and sway content with the charcoal sky that seems to never turn blue here.

When the ice falls in the freezer I jump a little and turn my attention to the family photos that dot the refrigerator. Heat and neglect have caused old memories to bend and curl.

The tape mere decoration.

The kitchen clock, off by an hour, ticks and tocks as it always has since Mom and Dad bought this house in 1975.

Sometimes, in moments of sheer desperation to remind myself of my father, I turn to channel 216 and hear Wolf Blitzer tell the latest Trump tale that makes the crease on my forehead even more pronounced.

The Make America Sane Again baseball cap on the shelf mocking me from behind.

It is in these mundane moments of the day that I miss my father the most.

So I hide my unkept hair under his mint chocolate chip green Pine Meadow winter hat as I take out the garbage.

Or I scream, Goddammmmnnn it, Dad! when adjusting the logs in the fireplace because his goldenrod yellow fireplace gloves have a hole in the thumb. That hurt. A Lot.

And most mornings I make my way up to the exact spot where he laid in his hospice bed for two whole days.

I turn on the light by where he left us all last May, lace up my gym shoes and set my timer.

Then, I pop my earbuds in and Sia is reminding me what I need to remember:

But I survived
I’m still breathing, I’m still breathing
I’m still breathing, I’m still breathing
I’m alive
I’m alive
I’m alive
I’m alive
I found solace in the strangest place
Way in the back of my mind

And yea, I breathe.

And remain hopeful.

And grateful.

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Roaming Rosie Strikes Again

 

The amyloid plaque tangles have created two dueling personas inside Mom’s brain. On the left, our beloved Rosie Posie; on the right a scared, but forever fiesty woman who often accuses her children and others of commiting heinous acts against her.

What a fucking shit show. That, my dear, is what I was thinking when I got a frantic call from Li last week.  On one of Mom’s escapades, she paid ZERO mind to the barbed wire fence that is supposed to keep trespassers like herself out of Arlington Lakes Golf Course. Instead, she opted to enter the course through a breach in the fence and onto the golf course she roamed amidst golf carts, golf balls, and um, well a myriad of foursomes on the tee.

 

Li: Jodi. OHMYGOD. You have to come. Your mom, she’s on the golf course. Jesus. She’s by the water.

Me: What? Fuck. Where are you?

Li: I don’t know. She went walking. Wouldn’t stop. I think we are by Harvard/White Oak? I don’t know. We are in the trees.

Me: Fuck. Jesus. Ok. I’m coming.

Mind you, when I took this call I was sitting in a teeny tiny cube @ The Arlington Heights Senior Center with this nice woman from Catholic Charities. I had just turned in my FMLA paperwork and wanted to find out about applying to be Dad’s full-time caregiver, but I digress.  One story at a time.

I thank the nice woman and she assures me there is no explanation necessary. After all, I was basically sitting on her lap in her cube. She heard the entire exchange. She hands me a piece of paper with phone numbers that I will never use for a stupid idea that doesn’t even matter and gives me a look like Good-God-What-are-you-doing?-and-damn- I -feel -sorry- for-you.

Nobody got time for a pity party. Now a shit show, though…..Plenty O’ Time for that.

Remember, I’m just doing the doing. Today, the doing requires me to persuade Mom to come home with me.

Joooddddiiiii! We are here! Joooodddiiii!! 

I inadvertently drive right by them. Making a 3-point turn in the middle of White Oak, I pull up and there is Mom. She reminds me of one of those little people statues you place on top a wedding cake, except without the gleaming smile, clean, glossy hair, and pretty dress. Mom’s face a mix of fear and confusion, the concrete stoop her pedestal.  The barbed wire fence her cage.

Oh, Hi, Mom.

I make sure she can hear the smile as I speak to her.

Hi.

Her greeting communicates she is OVER IT. Zero fucks she cares to give me or anyone else in that moment. She says hello because even with her memory gone, she is always polite.

I want to go HOME!

Now, there are three problems with that request:

  1. Mom is pulling and banging on a barbed wire fence which will not make an exit easy
  2. That fence has a lock on it that she tussles
  3. She is surrounded by trees with no clear path out

Mom, you are going to cut your hands. The fence is sharp. PLEASE Mom. You gotta stop grabbing it. I want to take you home, but you can’t get out this way.

I don’t care if I cut my hands. I wanna go HOMMMEEEE!

Li is busy negotiating with Mom to follow her through the bushes, but Mom is not having it.

I am not going with you! You are a bad woman! You keep hitting me! 

The allegations of abuse continue. I literally have no idea how I will get her home.

I am starting to get scared. Mom is strong and pulling at the fence with such force, I am not sure how she’s not cut her hands yet.

For the first time since the inception of this disease, I consider calling the police on my own mother. I don’t see a way out.

She beats me to the punch!

I‘m gonna call the police on you!

Mom, well that’s funny. I was thinking the same thing. I don’t want to have to call the police, but you have to calm down. Li is trying to help you.

I stand opposite of Mom with the barbed wire between us.

Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t have to calm down. You are so mean to me. I hate you!

With this disease, every day, every moment is different. Some days are better. Some days are a hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Today, I’m realizing that I’ve made the situation worse. She is escalating because I am trying to reason with the version of herself that makes such a hearts, stars, rainbows ending highly unlikely.

Li and I agree that I get into the golf course and attempt to lead Mom out. So,  I drive to the opening in the fence and walk the 18th tee before getting to Mom and Li. I imagine golfers are like, WTF? But, whatever.

The fun and games continue.

Look, there’s your daughter, Jodi. She’s come to get you, Rose.

Hey, Mom. Let’s go home, ok?

In this moment, I try to imagine what my Mom sees and feels. From her perspective, atop the concrete stoop, there is a mess of bushes, sticks, trees, with no discernable way out. She is in unfamiliar territory with people she doesn’t recognize. And I am asking her to take a leap of faith and trust me.

I pull her. She fights back.

I stop. We are quiet. Mom’s panting. She is beginning to get tired. Being afraid takes energy.

Just then, I channel Dad and am reminded of what he would say to her when she is struggling.

You’re doing good, Mom.

You’re doing real good, Mom.

You’re ok.

That’s right. You’re alright.

She hesitantly takes my hand and I lead her out of the trees.

Home.

 

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Tough Love

nurse ratched

What is this?  A conveyor belt of pills?! Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Jesus Christ, Jod. I gotta take all these pills?

Dad asks in gasping breaths after he appropriately massages his face. A sure sign of disgust and aggravation we all know well.

Unless you wanna die sooner, yea you gotta take these pills, Dad.

Is this the last day?

No, one more after today.

With his weight down to 149, Dad’s hazel eyes have become more prominent in his sunken face, especially when he’s exasperated. It’s funny, Mom keeps commenting on his beautiful, blue eyes when she sees him downstairs now. As I sit here next to him, they are very much hazel. And they are communicating confusion, annoyance, and helplessness.

In this moment he reminds of the character from The Fly Guy books my kids love. A bulging eyed fly with a cape. Except Dad can’t fly.

Maybe I need to look at this pill situation we have downstairs. Are you sure you got this right? I feel like I just took these pills earlier. All I am doing is taking pills. I swear I took 18 pills this morning. 

Oh, joy! Dad is micromanaging me and second guessing my stellar home-health-care-babysitting-medication-management-skills.

Hmmm. That’s a tough one. Since I can’t read the directions on the pill containers or count using simple math…You’re right, Dad. I might just have fucked up this already fucked up situation even more. THANK THE LORD you are on top of things!!!

I scream and flip the plate of pills on the floor and stomp my feet while giving Dad the finger.

Just. Kidding.

I have become the best primary teacher I know channeling immense amounts of humor and while practicing my inside voice.

Dad, you’re killing me here. (the irony of that statement is not lost on me). I didn’t even give you your diuretics and heart meds today because you are freaking out. Hate to tell you, but you are getting fewer meds than you’re supposed to which makes me a bad nurse.

Jessuuussss Chrisstttt. What exactly are all these pills doing for me? I feel like absolute shit. Death warmed over.

Here’s where things get tricky, folks. Sometimes Dad forgets what is really going on with him. The tick-tock of father time is a bitch when it comes to the rare disease he has. We could tip toe through the tulips and pretend that things are all sunshine, roses, and rainbows, but how is that helpful or honest?

So I just say IT.

“These little pills are fighting the proteins that are trying to kill you. We can scrap it, but then you’ll just die sooner. Rather than later.”

Silence. I hand dad one of the eight chemo pills he has to take and a glass of water.

Take a big sip and tilt your head back. Then swallow, Dad. You always forget to tilt your head back and that makes things harder on you.

One down. Seven more to go.

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Don’t come for me unless I send for you

Minefields of red, rough patches traverse Mom’s forehead. Planted by the mixture of forced heat from the family room vent and the winter air, they  are a hazard Rosie remedies daily. She shoves her four fingers into her mouth and gives them a good, solid licking.

I am struck  at how this movement is so similar to how she’d help us put on our winter mittens as kids. The crisscrossed, colored yarn hanging from each sleeve became small circles she’d shove our 4 fingers in. Then, quickly, she’d usher us out to make a snow fort so she could get some peace. Today, I’m guessing her 4-fingered approach provides her with less comfort than an empty house did years ago. So, I intervene attempting a more conventional approach.

Mom, you want some lotion for your face? See that bottle right next to you?

She looks at me like I’m nuts.

In the quietest, most constant voice I can muster–I see you rubbing your face. It must hurt, Mom. I do the same circling motion on my face I’ve seen her do. See, mine is dry too, but this lotion helps.  I model for her, putting a small amount of Lubriderm in my hand and up to my face.

Noooo, I already did that. She deadpans me. I don’t need to do it again. No, you’re not going to tell me what to do. I don’t want to do that.

Silence.

I turn away from her. Exasperated, I talk to the couch cushions that face me.

Well, then continue to basically lick your face, Mom. Pretty much feels like leather I am guessing.

Or shit–your face must feel like SHIT. I say that to myself in my head.  Fuck.

I am tired. Attempting to not get held captive by grief.

Crying in the car or shower is my typical mode of operation when my eyeballs cooperate. For a crier, I am not a slobbering mess. At all.  Instead, I have a refrain from Sia that I secretly belt out in my head:

I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart

I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard

 

To be a rubber band, it’s about the business of doing: wrestling compression socks onto Dad’s crusted, old-man feet, weigning him as his doctor instruced, handing the pills, the water, the glasses, doing the cooking. Helping Mom brush her teeth, crushing her pills, cajoling her back into the house. Just trying to get shit done.

I just do the doing.

I don’t have time for being.

Being sad. Being afraid. Being lonely.

Being anybody, but Joe and Rosie’s daughter. God, I never even realized this until I am typing these words.

With all this doing, my heart has been taking some tugging. Unlike the video with Shia and Sia, our cage isn’t some merry-go-round of failed relationships. It’s the damn Am-y-loid that’s holding us hostage over @ 1202 S. Patton.  Now, I’m no doctor, but isn’t it somewhat sad, almost twisted that BLOOP! This protein has penetrated Rosie’s brain and Joe’s heart?  As one of my sister’s said the other night, “We said goodbye to Mom long ago, but now dad’s sick? It’s too much.”

So, yea we gotta a bunch of elastic heart’s over here.

Thing is– Just. Not. Dad’s.

At some point or another each one of us kids has told our father about his heart.

Dad, stop getting so upset over stupid stuff or you’re going to have a heart attack. If that happens, we are REALLY screwed.

Oh, how the universe heard us.

I’m fucking useless.  Useless, I tell you. You’ve got two invalids in this house, Jodi. Two goddamn invalids.  

To which I politely respond, Dad, will you please stop saying that? All this negative self-talk. Jesus, if anyone wonders where I get it from.

This gloom and grief is bullshit. This watching our father catch his breath as if he’s just rounded the 18th hole is well, fucking maddening. Rosie with her decaying mind and Joe in a body that won’t cooperate; some days the heart is tugged too tightly.

But that grief, she better not come for me.

While doing the doing, I was sorting through mail and bills the other day and found two cards addressed to me.

sympathy card

At first, I read the words, without really reading. I just didn’t have time to be sad. To be missing my work family. To be grateful for thoughtful colleagues and friends.

But then, damnit. She came for me. That bitch, grief.

I sat there in the kitchen crying silently. My head down, cursing myself for being sad. For being lonely. For feeling inadequate. Like I can’t do enough. Like I can’t be enough. For them.

Fuck, what am I doing?

Then, I look up as Mom is rounding the bend into the kitchen.

She stops. And in the crispest Rosie voice she hands me my heart back.

I just want to say I’m glad you’re here because you’re one of my most favorite friends.

I smile.

 

I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart

I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard

 

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This Your 77th Year

moms-bday-cardMom wears Dad’s caramel colored fleece inside the house now.  Often I catch her looking down at the black zipper, mumbling something to it, and then up and down it goes a couple times.

“No, I can’t do it. It’s Mary Ann’s.” Or, “I’ll just roll the sleeves up a little like this,” she’ll say cuffing the each end of her jacket so the other two shirts she is wearing are exposed; one white, another brown. Oh, how she adores the color brown!

This brown fleece seems like no big deal, right? I mean it is winter in Chicago. With the thermostat at 70 degrees, it can be chilly. What makes her ensemble complicated is what happens when we try to go outside.

“C’mon, honey we are going to go for a ride. Let me help you put on this nice purple coat,” Dad says holding the coat at the collar, the two arms shrugging in mid-air.

“That’s not mine. I already have this one,” Mom points to her chest.

“Rose, you have to put this on because it’s cold outside. This is the coat that you love, honey,” Dad continues to hold out the coat as he circles Mom.

“I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to play these games with you,” Mom is more defiant now.

Dad lays the purple coat on top of the couch and walks into the kitchen.

Two minutes later, he’s back to try again. Likely, she will have forgotten that she doesn’t want to put on the purple coat. Groundhog Day. All day. Everyday. Fun and games.

“C’mon Rose, let’s put on your coat. We are going for a ride,” Dad tries again. The power of perseverance!

“Oh, I’d love to get out of this house. Ok, I can do this. I know how to do it,” Mom coaches herself through the process. Yep, her left arm finds the arm hole just fine. The right one takes a bit more time as she bends her arm in search of the hole. Dad shakes the coat a tad to help her put it on. Mom’s chin meets her chest, as she stares down at the bottom of her jacket before each hand dotted with age spots, pushes each side of the coat together.

Toe to toe now, Dad’s salt and pepper crown just inches away from Rosie’s bowed and greasy head. He starts the zipper for Mom.

“I know how to do this,” she reminds him.

“Well, I know you do. I am just helping you, honey,” Dad says with a smile.

I’m outside now, walking in front, ready to open the car door for Mom. Ready to coax her inside.

It’s days before Christmas and we are running to Thuringer Meats to order a sirloin tip roast and a ham. Inside the store, Mom walks right over to a package of cookies whose acquaintance she’d like to make.  Dad redirects her. I get busy placing the order so we can make a quick getaway.

Alzheimer’s makes small tasks a bitch and half, as Dad would say.

The wind is biting as I watch Mom shuffle her feet to the car.

“Come this way, Mom. Let me help you into the car,” I say.

The three of us settle in. Then, I change my mind.

“Dad, you know what? I think I am going to go back and buy you some fish for dinner. We can try it tonight. Just wait in the car with Mom.”

Purchase made. I open the car door and before I can close the door, Mom speaks to me.

 

“Ohhhh, hi Jodi,” Mom sings with all the life and twang reminiscent of her old phone message days.

“Hi, Mom,” I say super perplexed.

I am stunned.

“Dad, Did you just tell Mom my name when I was inside?”

I mean–I have to accuse him of playing the name game as he sometimes does. Which, if I am being honest, typically turns into a sad trip down I-don’t-know-lane.

“Nope. I didn’t tell her. I swear.”

For that split second, I was transported back in time. To a time where Mom was my Mom. Where she knew who I was. Maybe who she was. Who we were to each other. Now that might be a leap, but in my heart and mind, I have to believe.

It’s ironic how insignificant a name might seem until it is never repeated by those who love you. 

And then poof! The light and life are gone in an instant. Mom’s back to mumbling about how the kids are tripping her, calling her fatso.

It’s like the phone’s been disconnected, but I am still holding the receiver.

As we make our way back to 1202 S. Patton..I am thinking. How can I get that feeling back? So I go searching in the basement. I don’t know what I am exactly looking for, but finding old pieces of Mom makes me feel better. I pick through a couple shoe boxes where I stumble upon an envelope.envelope-for-mom

Why did I write to Mom in New Hampshire? I think as I take the card from the envelope. I stand there in the basement play room and read. I read the card a couple times. I am taken by the last line of the card. I bolt upstairs. I find dad at the kitchen table, cursing his pile of paper; while searching for his glasses.

I hand the card to Dad.

“Just read it,” I say.

An excerpt from her 60th birthday reads:

I cherish your friendship, I wonder at your selflessness and am moved by your commitment to our family. Thank you for being a wonderful example of a mother. I look forward to the years to come. I only hope I can show you the care and nurturing that you have shown me. 
I love you,
Jodi

Dad closes the card.

“Well, you are sure doing that now, kid. Caring for her now. Jesus. It’s unbelievable,” he shakes his head.

“Fuck, it’s like I knew even then. It’s such bullshit, you know?”

“You better keep this card, Jod. To remember,” Dad hands the card back to me.

We often joke about how Mom might think she’s at a restaurant, a variety of her children, the waitresses and waiters giving her milk, a cookie, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as she sits unexpectedly on the couch.

Then, though I think about how the simple act of serving our mother allows each of us to feel some sort of connection and closeness that has long since passed. In small acts, we are repaying the unconditional love and care she gave all of us for so many years.

On this, you’re 77th year, Rosie Sebastian Arndt know you have so many who continue to love and care for you. Love you, Mom.