Thursday, February 27, 2014

Love Endures Despite Dementia and Loss of the Loved One

Mom and Dad, 1946
Photographer unknown
On my father's side, the men only love once. And once they wed, they stand by their choice forever.

Country Sweethearts
Dad's parents were childhood sweethearts who lived on neighboring farms in rural Oklahoma. They grew up alongside each other, had the same friends, went to the same school. In 1923, at age 18 they got married. They stayed together 66 years, until the morning that Grandpa got out of bed one morning and his heart stopped. Nothing else could have put an end to their union - it probably would not have occurred to them to even consider splitting up. They were strong on family.

With little more than a grade school education, they worked hard, survived the Great Depression, and raised two sons. Both of my grandparents took extra job training so they could advance in their workplaces. They encouraged their boys to get a good education and find secure jobs. After Dad's parents retired, they moved back to a farm in Oklahoma and realized their dream of owning their own property. Neither of them really ever stopped working, but they enjoyed everything that they chose to do.

City Sweethearts
My parents grew up just two city blocks from each other. Their families were very different and didn't know each other at all. Dad served in the SeaBees during World War II and didn't meet Mom until after he returned from overseas. They didn't realize it until later, but my father had been throwing the newspaper for Mom's family for years. He just never paid attention to that "skinny, fat-faced little girl" that grew up to be his wife. But when she was 19 and he was 21, they met while walking along the railroad tracks that passed alongside both their homes. He was tall, tan, muscular, and had his own car - something that many postwar men his age didn't have. She was blonde, slender, curvy, and looking for security. After about three weeks of courting - much of which was assisted by that car - they married in December of 1946.

Mom and Dad had many differences. He was easy-going and agreeable, she was more withdrawn and paranoid. My father wanted his wife to settle down, have kids, and let him support her. She wanted to have a career and work. That discussion went on for 10 years, until I was born. And 6 years later, my sister came into the family. My folks argued over money, food, time, and relationships with relatives. My sister and I tried to stay out of these discussions. Dad kept believing that everything would work out. Mom kept wanting more and different things than Dad understood or believed was necessary. In short, Mom didn't treat my Dad well. Despite this, they stayed married for 60 years, until she passed away.

Love, Hope, and Grief That Won't Quit
Dad had started to have problems with short-term memory before Mom died. When she knew that the lymphoma that had invaded her body was going to take her life, she wanted to make sure that somebody would take care of Dad. My sister, who was on the scene during Mom's last months on earth, says that Mom grew sweeter towards the end, even towards Dad. Mom made my sister promise that Dad would be taken care of, and she did. Finally, 8 years ago, my mother passed away.

With dementia, the short-term memory deteriorates first. When Dad came to stay with me 7 years ago, he remembered much more about Mom than he does now. Mercifully, the things that remain in his memories of Mom are mostly positive. The hurtful things that happened have been lost from his mental record. He no longer recognizes her when he looks at the most recent photos of Mom, but when he sees one from 1946, he knows her instantly. He is always surprised to hear that she has been gone 8 years! Even if I tell him that sad fact 40 times daily, his grief and amazement are fresh each time. One thing helps: we get out photos of the early days of their life and he never tires of those images. Thank goodness that Mom made those precious photo albums, pictures of young sweethearts pasted on the black pages of old folios, with captions hand-written in white ink. There, the dates never change, the wrinkles never set in, and the smiles never fade. Dad has only loved once, and he finds her there, every day.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bacon and Eggs and Memories with Daddy

Classic breakfast: Bacon, eggs, and toast!
Photo by Pam Stephan
Dad was the family's breakfast chef. Mom didn't like to get up early, and she never took us to school. That suited Dad fine, as he got up early to go to work anyway. He'd knock on our bedroom doors to wake us up, then head for the stove.

Rewind in Time:
My Dad and his brother grew up in a house where their father did the breakfast cooking while the mother got ready for her job at Williamson Dickie's clothing factory in Ft. Worth. In their family, breakfast was always a hot, cooked meal. Breakfast was never pastries or cold cereal or donuts. No sir! Real Men grew up on bacon and eggs and Mrs. Baird's white bread. My grandpa used a cast-iron skillet and most likely did his frying on a gas stove. In the early 1920's, as newlyweds, Dad's parents had joined a group of migrant cotton pickers. They signed on as the cooks for the crew, so they lived with the chuck wagon and provided meals for all the workers, moving from job to job as the crop was harvested. Grandpa made biscuits and gravy and Grannie fried bacon and eggs for about 25 pickers, a boss, and themselves. Coffee was always supplied with breakfast. It was hard work, but they had grown up on dairy farms and were used to long days in the outdoors. When the Great Depression hit, and cotton crops failed to do well, they moved to the city with their two small boys. Grandpa became a mechanic and Grannie became a seamstress. Dad and  his big brother attended school and found jobs in the city, in the years leading up to World War Two.

Dad, age 34, on a trip to Disneyland
Photo by Mary Simons
Fast Forward: My Dad comes home from WW2 and marries the girl who lived 2 blocks away. 10 years later, I am born. Once I graduate from baby food, my Dad introduces me to The Real Breakfast. This becomes the breakfast we kids eat most of the time until we get to senior high school.

Making Bacon and Eggs
When Dad made his school-age daughters The Real Breakfast, he made it the same way his father did. He put two slices of toast in the toaster - or refrigerator biscuits in the oven - and got those started. Then he warmed up the cast-iron skillet while he lined up the bacon and eggs and milk on the counter top. First, he cooked the bacon, keeping all the grease in the skillet and draining the bacon itself on paper towels. As those cooled, he would crack a pair of eggs and slide those into the bacon grease. Using a metal spatula, he would carefully splash a bit of hot grease over the eggs and cook them until done. When everything was ready, he put 2 slices of bacon, 2 eggs, and 2 pieces of toast on each plate and invited us to "dig in!" Dad did this for us faithfully for many years, both at home and on vacation.

Turn-About Time
Now Dad is 88, has dementia, and lives with me. After he retired and he and my mother started traveling around, they ate out for most meals, including breakfast. After Mom passed on and Dad come to live with me, he still wanted to eat out. I usually take him out for his favorite breakfast. But he if he is unwell or if it is Sunday morning, we dine in. Now I have taken up the mantle of Breakfast Chef. My husband helps, but some days it is just Dad and I. We head for the kitchen, I pour him some coffee and bring in the newspaper. While he reads, I get out the eggs, milk, bacon and toast. Now the meal has been updated: turkey bacon instead of pork, whole wheat bread instead of white, fewer eggs, and no bacon grease! Coffee is decaffeinated these days - thanks to the cardiologist - and is drip grind instead of percolated. When all is ready, I bring the loaded plates to the table, say the blessing and we "dig in!"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Humble Tasks: Footwashing

Dad gets a pedicure from me!
Photo by Karl Stephan
If Dad could see his feet, he would wash them, and if he could bend close enough to his toes, I am sure he would trim his nails. However, he has macular degeneration and a little arthritis, so getting down to his feet is not practical. After his feet had gone untended for a while they began to hurt. Dad seldom complains, so when he did gripe about his feet, I took a look and wasn't happy with how they looked, or how they smelled.

As I considered what to do about those feet, this Bible verse came to mind:

"Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty (snobbish, high-minded, exclusive), but readily adjust yourself to [people, things] and give yourselves to humble tasks." Romans 12:16 

In most cases, doing a pedicure might be a pleasant task. But Dad has always had a challenge with his toenails. These are thick nails, ingrown in places, and infected by fungus. Regular clippers won't begin to do the job. Imagination and lots of patience and empathy would be required. This would be a Humble Task for me to do.

I made up a foot soak in a large tub and got Dad to slip his feet into:
  • half a gallon of warm water
  • two capfuls of Listerine mouthwash
  • one capful of white vinegar 
He soaked his feet about 15 minutes and then I sat on a stool while he rested one foot at a time in my towel-draped lap. I must say that the Listerine and vinegar took care of foot and toe odors! A gentle rub with a washrag got rid of dry and flaky skin around the heel and sides of each foot. I gently used a curett nail cleaner around each nail and regular clippers where they would fit. Where nail were too thick, I used a PediPaws grinder to reduce the volume. I know - that product is meant for dogs, but it works just fine for this job too! Once the very thick nails were closer to normal thickness, it was easy to clip them. I passed up the ingrown nails, intending to find a podiatrist to work on those. 

I won't be noble about this and say that I felt saintly or selfless while doing this task. But it did get me to thinking about Dad's feet.

These feet have been many miles. They started out in a small town in Oklahoma, before the Great Depression. They took a small boy to school in Ft. Worth, Texas once the family moved south to find work. When that boy became a teenager, his feet took him all around the neighborhood as he threw newspapers, played touch football, baseball, and walked down to the icehouse and back for his mother. In 1943, these feet got on board a ship that sailed into the South Pacific with a new unit of Seabees who held a supply and refueling base during World War II. Back in Texas after the war, he walked many miles with road survey crews and while doing construction. After going to college and getting married, those feet faithfully went to work each day. When his kids were born, he walked with them, taught them to ride bikes and drive cars. In retirement, Dad and Mom traveled all over the country, walking around seeing the sights in every state. And these feet helped carry her ashes home after she passed away eight years ago. Dad has since traveled with us on vacation, strolled the beach on the Texas coast, walked around my neighborhood with the dogs, and pushed a cart around our local grocery store. I suppose these feet have walked around the world, so to speak.

Once the pedicure was over and I let Dad put some clean socks on, he thanked me. He slipped on his shoes and took the dogs out to walk in the yard while I cleaned up my tools and the foot bath tub. Since then, I have washed Dad's feet many times and trimmed his toenails. Perhaps he did the same for me when I was a baby. I'm just glad to be able to do something, no matter how humble, to keep him going!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Two Bad Weeks: Falls, Flu, and a Funeral

Dad plays dominoes with me even while he's in the hospital!
Photo by Pam Stephan
 haven't been adding to this blog recently, because we all got very distracted with health issues. None of it was enjoyable, and while I moaned and complained about it, my husband kept saying, "Just think of the blog material you'll get out of this!" That should have made me feel a little better, but it didn't, at the time. 

Sometimes bad things happen all at once and other times bad stuff just keeps happening, one thing after another, until you want to jump off the planet and get a cosmic break from it all.  We just survived two weeks of a series of hospital visits, falls, flus, and a funeral. I hope this year gets better, because it has started out very badly.

Fall #1 -Headbang Daddio Meets Concrete Sidewalk
Our first bad week got started on a Monday. Normally there is nothing particularly hazardous about Monday, but as we were walking to the cafe for Dad's favorite breakfast, he had a fall. His head met the concrete sidewalk before I could help him. He left a bloodstain on it that would make passing pedestrians wonder who had a fistfight right there. We skipped breakfast and went to the ER, then got stuck in the hospital overnight.

Fall #2 - Flush, Fall, and a New Friend
On Thursday of our first bad week, Margaret the home health nurse came over to check on Dad. As we went over his health history, he went to the bathroom, flushed, and fall on the floor with a thump! Both of us got him back up and then Dad and I packed a bag for another ER visit. Alas, we had to stay overnight in the hospital again, but got better treatment this time.

More Flu For Everybody!
While in the hospital, Dad had some stomach flu symptoms. A day after we came home, I woke up with the same rotten flu. My husband took care of both of us, then as soon as I recovered, he came down with it. But for him, we had to call an ambulance because he nearly passed out and he appeared to be having a heart attack. All three of us went back to the ER, this time for only three hours. We should get a family discount, don't you think?

A Grand Lady's Funeral
My mother's sister, Aunt Oveta, passed away and her funeral was held the day after our last ER trip. Since we were all still recovering, nobody could attend. I hated to miss this event, since she was the aunt I got to see the most while growing up. She lived to be 91 and passed away among family. God rest you, Aunt Veta - you are reunited with Uncle Howard now. 

And We Are Still Here!
After a bad two weeks, we are busy having home healthcare, physical therapy, and follow-up doctor visits. Dad is a bit more stable, though he appears wobbly once in a while. We haven't been to the senior centers since all this started, but we still play dominoes at home to keep in practice. The dogs love having us around more, so they are happy. As Dad likes to say, "We don't want to quit yet!"