Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tender hearts

Sometimes all it takes is a simple look from my parents to either break my heart or melt my heart.
Daddy can break my heart in an instant. Sometimes when I'm leaving their house, he'll look at me in disgust, kind of wrinkling his upper lip. His eyes look straight at me, then he picks up his hand, waves it in a dismissive way in my direction and turns his head away from me. Often he'll add, "Just go then." Of course, I have to walk back to his side and repeat that it's time for me to leave — to go back to work, to my family, to make supper for him, to do our grocery shopping, whatever the rest of the day holds. Guilt makes me hug him one more time and assure him I'll be back. "When?" he wants to know.
But it was Mama who grabbed my heart last night. I was sitting at the dinner table with them. Like most nights, I had taken down their supper. I had eaten quickly at my house so I could linger over mealtime with them. Daddy had shredded barbecue chicken on his plate with a bowl of mixed vegetables, two deviled eggs and a biscuit. A slice of marble pound cake waited for him on the counter.
I knew Mama wouldn't eat the barbecue chicken; it would be unrecognizable to her and too hard for her to manage on her fork or to eat with her fingers. Instead she had a chicken biscuit cup I had taken out of the freezer the night before, two deviled eggs her sister had made for her, a sweet potato biscuit and a bowl of vegetables.
Everything but the vegetables was arranged in separate quadrants on Mama's bright red plate. The plate is a relatively new addition to the kitchen. The contrast of the light-colored food on a dark plate makes it easier for Alzheimer's patients, like my parents, to see the food.
I was sitting across the table from Mama, just watching her. Mama needs a lot of encouragement and direction to get through a meal. She has to be reminded to eat almost each bite. She loses her concentration and just stares. Last night, I didn't say anything to her at first. But I'm glad I was watching her, otherwise I would have missed the look.
Mama tilted her head to the right, looked at everything on her plate and smiled. It was a pleasant smile, a smile of anticipation. She actually looked happy to be sitting at the table and pleased with her options. She touched everything on her plate, like she was taking inventory, and then chose what to eat first: the chicken biscuit cup. Her hands, which usually shake when she eats, were unsteady once again as she took the food to her mouth and started eating.
Since last night, I've thought often about that happy look on her face. It brings me joy to remember it. I actually did something right! I took her a meal she wanted.
But it was a very different emotion that rocked me to the core Saturday. I was sitting with them for a few hours while the sitter was at another obligation. I was in charge of lunch and was encouraging Mama to eat a bite of the wiener I had cut into bite-size pieces. I wasn't patient enough, I'm sure, but I kept saying, "Mama, please eat." Instead, she would pick up her cup of tea and take a swallow. She did this maybe three times, and I grew more and more impatient. I put a piece of the hot dog on her fork and said, "Eat this. You have to eat or you'll get sick." She hates it when we feed her, but I tried anyway, and guided the fork to her mouth. "Take a bite."
My voice was too firm for my tender-hearted mama, I'm sure, and she started to cry. Her sitters had told me she had cried for an hour or so at the time most days that week, now it was my turn to listen and try to make her stop. I wasn't very successful. She ate very little at lunch that day, but she cried and blew her nose for at least an hour. There were wet tissues and napkins everywhere from where she was wiping her eyes and her nose. I had made her miserable because I encouraged her to eat and grew weary when she wouldn't. And all she could say was how mean I was. Broken heart again. Hers and mine.
After days like Saturday I feel like a big jerk. I wish I could be more patient. I wish I could always be happy and upbeat. I wish I could be something other than human, I guess.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Aunt Nellie Rose, I'll miss you

Early morning phone calls seldom bring good news.
In about a week's time, I've gotten two before 7 a.m. Monday's came as I was getting ready for work.
My cousin Nancy was calling. Our Aunt Nellie Rose Lassiter was very sick, and her daughter, Cathy, wanted us to know.
Aunt Nellie Rose has been very sick before, many more times than anyone should have to endure. But she was a fighter. The smallest, but toughest, fighter in the family. I gave my children the news, and Anna grew teary eyed, recalling a missed chance to see her great aunt just the week before.
Aunt Nellie Rose was on my mind as I drove to work and while I sat at my desk. I kept thinking back to my favorite memories of her. When the cousins were all young, elementary school-age, we'd gather at Granddaddy's Rock Ridge farm on the weekends. I loved playing with my rough and tumble Lassiter cousins, although it came with a little danger. Those three girls could get in all sorts of trouble, and Aunt Nellie Rose could sense it. I was a little scared of her, especially when she started calling out her girls' full names. I swear, 40 years later I can close my eyes and take myself back to the dirt driveway or the area around the two-seater outhouse, where the mischief usually occurred. Shivers still run down my neck and across my arms when I recall her shrill cry: "Debbie Jo!" "Cathy Rose!" "Betsy Jean!" I don't know what she did to them when she caught them because I'd run the other way before she called "Lisa Helen!"
Those thoughts were fresh in my mind when Cathy called just before 9 Monday morning; I wasn't expecting to hear that my beloved aunt was gone. She always bounced back, but not this time. After collecting myself and making a few calls I stopped to gather my thoughts and to remember a much happier time.
Several years ago, Daddy had to have several heart procedures at Wake Med. Aunt Nellie Rose lived in Raleigh, so she called and volunteered to sit with me during one of them. I declined, saying I'd rather spend the time alone. I didn't want to make small talk; sometimes it's just too much effort to make small talk. She came anyway. At first, I was a little annoyed, but within a few minutes, I was so happy to have the company. It was the only time the two of us have ever spent time alone. When you're part of a big family, there's seldom time for one-on-one visits. We did make small talk at first, but then she started talking about my Daddy, who's 15 years her senior. Aunt Nellie Rose knew stories about my daddy that no one had ever shared. She gave me an insight to his life just before he was shipped overseas during World War II and the wife and child he came home to several years later. She didn't hesitate to share stories about his first marriage — stories that others had probably thought taboo to tell. She waited around with me to see her big brother after the procedure was over. She sort of filled in for my mother, who has Alzheimer's and was not up to sitting with me all day at the hospital. I was very grateful for the fill-in mom, which is how I view all of my aunts.
We haven't seen the Lassiters much in recent years. Each family has had its own sicknesses to contend with. But Cathy brought Aunt Nellie Rose and Uncle Jimmy to see Daddy and Mama when she could. This spring, they came to Wilson soon after Daddy's rapid mental decline began. I wasn't sure if he'd even know them. During the visit, I looked for clues to see if Daddy really understood this was his sister sitting in the wheelchair in front of him. I wasn't convinced he knew, until it came time for her to leave. Aunt Nellie Rose scooted over to where Daddy was sitting, reached out and held his hands and told him goodbye. He looked her straight in the eyes and said, "I've loved you since the day you were born." My heart skipped a beat. It was one of those moments when time stops; I'll never forget it.
When the Lassiters came back just over a week ago, more than six months had passed. Daddy has grown increasingly worse both physically and mentally. The morning they were supposed to come, I called Aunt Nellie Rose. I wanted to prepare her for what she would see. Daddy was hallucinating that day, a side effect from an antibiotic to treat recurring pneumonia, and it's not pretty to see. She said they wouldn't come if I didn't want them to. "No, no," I told her. "I want you to come; it's important that you come."
So all of the siblings gathered at my parents' house a week ago Saturday. I think we all sensed it would be the last time they'd all be together, but it was my daddy who was the sickest, and the one everyone assumed would be next to go. We talked, laughed and told stories. It was almost like old times. Someone suggested we take a photo of all of them, but we didn't because Daddy looked so sick. It's not how we wanted to remember him.
Whenever the siblings gathered, we always took photos. We have photos from birthday parties, Christmas parties and anniversaries. But my favorites are from the pig-pickings we had when the cousins were teenagers.
The whole crowd would gather at Granddaddy's farm for one weekend in October. It was a homecoming for the siblings who had lived there and the grandchildren who had played in the fields. I find it very fitting that Aunt Nellie Rose died in October, the month for homecomings.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Golden evening

My family and I have been savoring these glorious days of early autumn, especially relishing in the coolness of early evening when we can take a walk without getting too hot or too cold.
On many evenings, my husband and I sit under our carport, watching as the foxes and a stray cat or two come up to scour our back lawn for the birds' bread crumbs or food our cat, Sammy, has left unfinished. Or we sit on the front yard bench and watch the neighborhood walkers pass by with their dogs or children.
Last night, I walked the short block down the street to my parents' house and visited with Mama on the front porch. Sammy walked with me, as he often does, but stopped before he got too far, distracted by a rival neighborhood cat.
The porch was quiet. We both commented on the mandevilla, still blooming across the front porch rail. I asked her if she was cool; she said "a little," but she liked the way it felt. I did, too. She noticed the intense red and orange glow as the sun started to set, and she even heard the call of birds as they settled in for the night. "Listen," she told me as she tilted her head towards the birdsong and smiled.
Earlier that day and even the day before, I had wondered if Mama was losing her hearing. She had stopped responding to my questions or directions. "Mama, will you please eat your chicken?" "Mama, do you still have a headache?" She'd just look at me with a blank stare, with no indication she had heard me and certainly no response. It happened over and over. A progression of Alzheimer's, I thought. And I'm sure I was right.
But, by ourselves last night, she was talking and answering questions. I know why. There were no distractions. No telephone ringing, no TV actor talking in the background, no one emptying trash or hauling laundry from one room to the next, no equally debilitated husband hollering for help or demanding attention. It was just the two of us, and we both loved it.
After a few minutes on the porch, I looked down the street and saw Sammy in the next yard. He was taking his precious time, sniffing the grass in his never-ending hunt for prey of any description, from grasshopper to squirrel. I called his name, and he came at a gallop. By the time he was in the yard, Mama spotted him. She reached down her hand, moving her fingers in an effort to get his attention and calling, "Here, kitty."
Sammy jumped onto the porch and made a beeline to Mama. First he rubbed against her leg and the outstretched hand, then he put his paws on her knees to test the territory and jumped up onto her lap. He rearranged himself until he got comfortable. Mama rubbed his back; I rubbed his head and under his chin, hopping he'd stay content and linger in her lap. He did just that.
Over the summer, Sammy would often choose everyone's lap except Mama's. She'd call him, reach down for him, and scold him when he wouldn't choose her: "You mean cat," she'd say.
I'd get so mad at him. I told my husband I wished I could bribe him. You know, "If you'll get in Grandma's lap and be still for 10 minutes, we'll go get a milkshake." There's no bribing a cat, of course. But things change, and over the last few weeks, Sammy almost always chooses Mama's lap.
Last night, she petted him and talked to him in a higher pitched voice than what she normally uses. The voice we all save for talking to babies and pets:
"Have you had any supper? Are you hungry?" she asked him at least five times. Each time, I'd tell her that Reggie had fed him both dry food and canned food and he shouldn't be hungry. "I don't have anything to feed you," she said. Mama always made sure man or animal was fed if they visited her house.
As she stroked the cat's fur, Mama talked about how pretty he was.
After about 20 minutes, Sammy fell asleep and drooped a little bit off Mama's lap.
"I sure don't want you to fall and get hurt," she said, looking down at the orange, purring cat in her lap.
He didn't fall but stayed put a little longer. Then he hopped up and stretched out on the cool bricks of the porch and fell asleep.
I stayed a few more minutes before returning Mama to the house and her spot on the couch beside Daddy.
I'm so thankful for these golden evenings of autumn and for a tomcat that can't be bribed.