Grandma and I channel Cheech & Chong


remember 8 tracks?

Ever feel like you’re stuck in a Cheech & Chong/Groundhog Day
mashup? I do.

I grew up listening to my parents’ 8-track tapes. My Mom regularly played everything from Jesus Christ Superstar to Doctor Hook & the Medicine Show at maximum volume, especially when she was cleaning house. One tape in particular stood out to me because it wasn’t music. Maybe it’s my imagination, but whenever my parents listened to Cheech & Chong’s self-titled first album, they seemed to always go straight to the track titled “Dave.”

If you’ve never heard the routine, there’s a guy named Dave trying to deliver drugs to someone’s apartment, but the guy inside is too high to understand what’s going on. I suppose because drug humor was pretty new at the time my parents acted like this was the most hilarious thing they’d ever heard. I guess you had to be there.

You’re probably asking yourself what any of this has to do with caring for Grandma. Well, as I said I heard this tape a lot growing up, and recently it dawned on me that one of my recurring conversations with Grandma is a lot like that infamous routine. I’m Dave, and Grandma is that guy who won’t open the door. It goes something like this:

“Grandma, what did you do with your lunch?” I ask.

“Well I ate it!” she replies.

“You couldn’t have eaten all of it because there was chicken. Where are the bones?” I ask.

“I don’t know anything about any bones,” she insists. “Maybe those people who were down here took them.”

At this point I know she’s either a) hidden her leftovers or b) thrown them in the trash, which I’ve asked her about a million times not to do because it attracts bugs.

I ask again. “The hospice people didn’t take your leftovers. What did you do with the stuff you didn’t eat in your lunch?”

“I didn’t have lunch.” she replies. “You mean supper?”

“For the love of god whatever you call it I brought you food and I want to know where the stuff you didn’t eat went,” I say, hurriedly slamming drawers closed and lifting chair seats with hidden compartments underneath in search of the missing chicken bones. Eventually I notice something that looks like food in her trash can.

“Why can’t you just leave your plate on the table?” I ask. “I don’t want you to put food in the trash because I don’t take it out every day.”

“Well they told me not to put stuff in there,” she replies. “So I don’t.”

“But your lunch is in there. So you do.” I reply.

“Well I was just trying to help,” she says.

“It’s not helping me when I have to play guess where you hid your food!” I yell, drowning out that voice in my head telling me to cut this conversation short and walk away.

“So I should leave my supper on the table?” she asks.

“Yes. Just like we’ve discussed a million times. I will take care of the leftovers.” I say.

“So let me get this. I leave my plate on the table when I’m done?” she repeats.

“Yes,” I mutter, even though I know the next time I come down to collect her dishes we’ll go through the same routine. That’s dementia: Amazing details from 50 years ago are as plain as day, but neither repetition nor recent reminders make anything new stick.

As I empty her trash and collect the dishes to go back upstairs, I wish my Mom were still alive. She’d get it when I told her I know how it feels to be Dave.


Grandma’s greatest gift


Grandma may no longer remember her own generosity, but her family will always be indebted to her for her many gifts that improved our lives in countless ways.

The basement is Grandma’s lair. And you never know what tales she’s telling down there.

This week, when Clark, the hospice chaplain, came upstairs after his visit with a puzzled look on his face, I braced myself. For literally anything.

“I learned something new about Margaret today,” he said, closing the door behind him.

“Uh-oh,” I said, every crazy story I’ve heard over the last eight years racing through my head.

“No it wasn’t bad,” Clark said. “I asked Margaret what was the greatest gift she’d given in her life. She told me when she was young her mother sometimes took in boarders. When she did, Margaret had to give up her room and sleep on the floor on a spot near the stove. At first her answer didn’t make sense. But when she explained that giving up her room was her gift to her mother, I understood how her answer fit my question.”

“Wow. I thought I knew everything about Grandma. But I’ve never heard that story,” I said, both surprised and relieved. Grandma’s filters disappeared a long time ago, so I was grateful she didn’t decide to share anything about her favorite topic, which is basically anything to do with her bowels. Rationally I know I’m not responsible for what comes out of her mouth, but if you’ve ever had a child blurt out something inappropriate in front of family, friends or even complete strangers, you understand the cringe of vicarious embarrassment.

Clark went on his way, but their conversation prompted me to think how I would’ve answered that question for her. From cars to tuition assistance to houses to live in, Grandma has given four generations of her family the support they needed when it mattered most. When I was young she and Grandpa bought a house for her widowed mother, my Mother and me to live in. When my Mother needed a bigger house for her growing family, they helped her out on housing again.

When I moved back from England after my plans to live there fell through, they bought me a car to get back and forth to work. When I found myself with a new baby and a year left of college, she and Grandpa bought my husband and I a house so I could focus on school rather than paying the rent. And when a nasty divorce left me reeling financially, she came through again, providing the down payment for the house that allowed me to finish raising my daughters in a neighborhood rather than an apartment complex.

My Grandpa provided the sweat equity that helped make those modest houses homes, but it was Grandma who provided the capital. From her humble beginnings on an Eskridge, Kansas farm, she went on to a successful career at Southwestern Bell. Between their two salaries and spendthrift ways, Grandma and Grandpa managed to provide for their own retirement and still help their family again and again. I help my own children whenever I can, but the modest gifts I’m able to give them pale in comparison to the ones Grandma gave me.

Of course not all Grandma’s gifts have been tangible. She’s taught me dozens of life lessons my Mother was unable or unwilling to teach. She married the man who became the best grandfather a girl could ever hope for. And she played the role of grandmother to every one of my girls, none of whom remember my Mother. The girls had other grandparents, but some of them were far away in England. They might not realize it now, but someday they’ll look back fondly on the years they lived with their great-grandmother. Despite the chaos and craziness, her presence in our household will give them a lifetime of memories and hopefully some insight into what being a family truly means.

Photo credit: igorklimov / 123RF Stock Photo

10,000 hours in the octogenarian trenches


Cute and cuddly, old and wrinkly. Appearance aside, these two people are nothing alike.

Ten thousand hours. That’s supposedly the amount of time you have to spend at something to master it.

I’d never claim to be a caregiving master, but even if I’ve only spent 16 percent of my time over the last eight years taking care of Grandma, I’ve racked up enough hours to know something. So to all of you who think caring for old people is like taking care of children, I’m here to say unequivocally that the two are nothing alike.

These are a few of my observations:

Childhood is finite — old age can go on indefinitely

It seems like yesterday my youngest daughter was that little swinging cherub. Now she’s a high school graduate and soon-to-be college student who’s taking a giant leap toward adulthood. I’ll continue to support her in every way I can just as I do my adult daughters, but she’ll no longer be a day-to-day responsibility. I have a lot of life left to live, but when I contemplate my future, there’s always a giant question mark hanging over me: How long will Grandma live? Considering her caregivers’ vague predictions, I might as well ask my Magic 8 Ball …

Children learn new skills — old people forget theirs

Shoe tying. Handwriting. Reading. It’s amazing to watch children acquire the skills adults take for granted. And it’s just as disheartening to realize Grandma no longer knows how to change a lightbulb or ask for a paper towel by name. Her hospice nurse says dementia may eventually rob her of her ability to feed herself. The subject of knowing which tasks she’s genuinely forgotten and which ones she just prefers not to do warrants an entire post.

Children accept parental authority — old people resent being told what to do

Of course children don’t always accept their parents’ directives, but as a mother of three I can say for the most part, they do. Grandma, on the other hand, fights me every step of the way. Whether I insist on organizing her food, giving her baths, or removing her shoes in bed, she always has an excuse for why she does it her way. You can’t put an 89-year-old dementia patient on time out, and reasoning with her is an exercise in futility. So I choose my battles, accept help from hospice, and check her hiding places when the pantry shelves mysteriously empty overnight.

Children grow more self sufficient — old people grow more helpless

Along with the new skills they acquire, children also typically grow taller, stronger and faster. At the other end of the spectrum, everything’s getting harder for Grandma. Shelves are higher. Room light is dimmer. Sometimes it seems as if her own personal gravitational field is pinning her to the bed and preventing her from standing up.

Children are flexible — old people hate change

Children don’t have much choice when it comes to accepting change. Their bodies grow, they advance in school, and each subsequent grade provides opportunities to play new sports, meet new friends and acquire new knowledge. Grandma eschews change with a passion. Whether it’s fear or stubbornness or plain old inertia, something compels her to wear clothes from the 60s, eat food from the 70s and reminisce about events that happened so long ago nobody else is alive to corroborate her accounts. Every time I find myself favoring the old and comfortable, I intentionally mix things up to immunize myself from the dreaded fate of being too set in my ways.

Despite their differences, I’ve come to realize there’s one major similarity between the very young and the extremely old: they both need the safety net that a loving family or a supportive community provides. And since I’m growing older along with everyone else, it’s not just altruism that fuels my hope for better eldercare options in the future. After all, there may not be a cranky but devoted granddaughter to prevent me from falling through the cracks.

Hooray for hospice

caption here

Nobody knows what the future holds. But for now, hospice is making life infinitely better for Grandma and me.

More than once this year, Grandma has mentioned how lonely she is. She’s lost the ability to read or write emails; even the phone confuses her now. When friends send her a card and I read it to her, she has no idea who sent it.

Now that I work from home to care for Grandma, I feel sort of isolated too. More than once I’ve tallied my daily conversations and discovered I talked to more cats than people. Of course I can walk or drive anywhere I want. But during the work week my best bet is starting a conversation with the Meals on Wheels delivery guy. I know if I bring up KU basketball I can corner him for at least a few minutes.

Luckily for Grandma and me, I finally made progress in my search for caregiving assistance. Because she has a qualifying diagnosis (in her case congestive heart failure with a really long technical medical name I can’t remember), Grandma is eligible for hospice care. With weekly visits from a nurse and a bath aid — plus regular stop-ins from a social worker and clergywoman, Grandma has visitors to look forward to. And even if they’re not here every day, I no longer feel like I’m bearing this burden alone.

Prior to this, my only experience with hospice was when Grandpa died. There was a hospice house in Topeka, and he went there a few weeks before his death. They kept him as comfortable as they could and were very accommodating about visitors at all hours. They couldn’t save his life, but they helped make his final days bearable.

This time around is much different. As I mentioned the hospice employees come to us, which has reduced the number of doctor visits I have to arrange. They provided a hospital bed that we managed to convince Grandma to start sleeping in instead of the ratty old recliner she’s had for years. Her bath aid gives her weekly showers so I no longer have to cajole her into bathing. The nurse even gets her prescriptions delivered. These things may seem trivial, but when you combine them they have made life much easier for me and more pleasant for Grandma too.

Of course my first thought when I realized how great home-based hospice is was that it couldn’t last. The news is deluged with scare stories of Medicare cuts and death panels, so you wouldn’t think something as wonderful as hospice could ever dodge the funding axe. But so far it has. And because Grandma’s diagnosis is for a chronic condition, she’ll be eligible for help for the remainder of her life. I resisted the urge to hug the nurse when she told me this, but only just.

Hospice cannot stop Grandma’s downward dementia spiral. Hiding leftovers in the filing cabinet … stories of being trapped in a non-existent crawl space … accusing me of feeding her table scraps … these are just a few recent highlights of her current mental state. Likewise, hospice cannot reverse Grandma’s heart failure. Her heart is slowly but surely wearing out.

But hospice has reduced the need to take her out of the house, which is a big plus during flu season. And they provide companionship from people who haven’t heard her stories a million times. Most importantly, they enable me to keep her at home a little longer, which is where she wants to be. Here’s hoping I can continue to manage her care with hospice’s help — and that Medicare continues to provide this invaluable albeit somewhat obscure benefit.

Out of sight, out of mind

This lamp is not only heavy and hideous, it could be a fire hazard. I can't in good conscious donate it to Savers, can I?

This lamp is not only heavy and hideous, it could be a fire hazard. I can’t in good conscience donate it to Savers, can I?

This post was inspired by the WordPress Daily Prompt.

Is there junk in my life? Oh hell yes! I have a basement full of old, broken, unused crap. But guess what? It’s not mine.

I suppose the ethical question is do I let it keep gathering dust until Grandma passes? Or do I start getting rid of stuff now? Her advancing dementia and the countdown to my daughter’s May high school graduation have convinced me to tackle the problem now. There are boxes Grandma insisted she had to have that I moved up here only to remain taped up seven years later; there’s an entire room she never goes in.  You can’t miss something you don’t know you have, but you can tackle getting an entire house in shape for a pending move in phases. I christen phase one Jettisoning Grandma’s Junk.

The ceramic owl lamp that weighs at least 30 pounds and flickers so excessively Grandma insisted it be unplugged before it started a fire: Gone.

The two enormous antique bookshelves full of dusty old westerns and romances that were probably read sometime in the ’70s: Outta here.

The nine unopened mystery boxes that could contain some priceless family heirlooms but in reality only hold more bizarre junk that Grandma couldn’t part with but has no practical purpose: Adios.

If I’m honest with myself, I know it’s not only Grandma who has junk lying around. When I moved here after my divorce seven years ago, I vowed to stay downsized. But little by little, crap snuck in. I have an office full of desks and computers my children and I abandoned for laptops at the kitchen table. I have electronics that are probably worth something on Craig’s List, but the thought of shady people calling me looking for components for their “projects” kind of creeps me out. I have a living room full of furniture we sit on approximately 3 times a year.

I read the other day the floating island of trash in the Pacific Ocean is now twice the size of France. Facts like that make me reaffirm my pledge to live simply. But what do I do with the junk I already have? Maybe I’ll haul it around for another 40 years and let my kids sort it out. Nah, seeing Grandma to the finish line has made me aware of many things, but most important among them is do what you can to minimize the burden you put on your family. My kids might not be as accommodating as me. 🙂

I’m my family’s matriarch-in-waiting

me_queenThis post was inspired by the WordPress Daily Prompt.

Prince Charles and I have a lot in common. We’re both waiting to take the reigns of our family dynasties. Oh sure, my responsibilities are smaller scale, but I don’t have a palace full of help either.

This is a just an example of my to-do list:

Laying the Queen Grandma to rest

There won’t be any foreign dignitaries and it won’t be televised, but I will be in charge of Grandma’s funeral. Her friends should have an opportunity to pay their last respects, but she’s already outlived most of them. If nothing else I’ll make green bean casserole (Grandma’s favorite dish) and we’ll play Stairway to Heaven full blast for as long as it takes to drink several bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.

Perfecting my wave

Kansas folks are friendly! Although we’re more likely to nod than wave to people we pass on the road. That’s probably because none of those old country trucks had power steering back in the day. Well we have modern cars now so it’s time we updated that.

Proclaiming official gathering places

Wherever the royal family vacations, a flag is raised at the castle. I assume the matriarch makes the call on where this will be. We will keep our festivities on the down low to avoid the paparazzi, but I will insist on the MU flag coming down whenever we meet at my oldest daughter’s house. Only the KU Jayhawk may announce our presence.

Preserving my family’s collective knowledge

There are entire museum wings devoted to Charles’ lineage, blood lines, etc. My Mom only filled in a few names in the illustrated family tree in my baby book. If I don’t do a good job, my grandchildren will never know about their great-great cross-dressing Grandpa and other colorful characters in our family’s history. I guess this blog is a good start. Thank god I’m writing it when I’m young enough future generations won’t doubt my sanity.

Ensuring my legacy

This is a tough one — how do I want future generations to remember me? I’m average height so Samantha Longshanks is out … For the time being I’m mentally stable so Mad Sam won’t work either. I still have some time to work on this one. If I depart unexpectedly I guess there are worse things to be remembered for than a plethora of cats and the awesomest music collection any woman ever amassed. Rock Goddess Samantha. I kinda like the sound of that.

Image credit: neftali77 / 123RF Stock Photo and anelina / 123RF Stock Photo

Someone’s up to no good? Must be They.

Why does They torment Grandma?

Damn you They! Pick on someone your own age!

House spirits come in many forms. Sometimes they’re just a nuisance, like the sock monster. Other times they’re playful, like I Dunno and Not Me in the Family Circus comic. Occasionally they’re sinister, like the ones on ghost hunter shows who throw rocks and chant the names of those they murdered.

The spirit living in our house is exceptionally evil, because it only torments one person — Grandma. It goes by the name of They.

They takes Grandma’s pens. It steals her cookies. It even makes her bathe! And just this week, They mysteriously cut the August and September pages off Grandma’s beloved kitten calendar. It’s the only thing she asks for every Christmas, so why on Earth would she deface it? It had to be They.

Grandma thinks I’m in cahoots with They. Why else would she says things to me like “I sure wish They would bring my flashlight back.”  Actually, I think she believes I am They — she just doesn’t want to flat out accuse me of stealing her things and damaging her prized possessions.

Up til now I’ve chalked up They’s shenanigans to good old fashioned forgetfulness on Grandma’s part. But the latest incident has me puzzled too. Did I sleepwalk down there and  delete 1/6 of that old woman’s year? I’ve heard of people doing weird things when they take prescription Ambien, but I’ve never woken up with scissors in my hand. And besides, I’m out right now anyway. So for the time being I’m pretty sure I’m not They.

I’m on alert for They’s next prank. There’s no stove to leave on downstairs so I don’t think it can cause serious trouble, but there are two phones, and I’m guessing They can dial 911 if there’s an emergency — like no bananas or the TV won’t shut off. You don’t think that could happen? Well obviously you’ve never lived with They.

Image credit: kurashov / 123RF Stock Photo

Girl wins boy, loses boy, marries cross dresser

Grandpa, why do you like to dress up like a girl?
I look suspicious; wouldn’t you if you weren’t sure whether Grandpa had a thong on underneath his suit?

No this is not a World News headline. It’s the story of Grandma and my biological grandfather.

I was already thinking about telling it when I read Remembrance and remembering, one woman’s loving tribute to her father and stepmother. The following is not a story I’ll share at Grandma’s funeral, but it’s too good not to tell someone.

First some background: Grandma and Grandpa (not the guy in the picture) met in 1939 and married the following year. Everything was going great until World War II broke out and he left Grandma behind to serve at Fort Hood in Texas. Grandpa’s heart murmur kept him stateside, but they were still apart.

Being the industrious woman she was, Grandma decided she’d go back and finish high school since nobody would hire her without a diploma. Since she was married, she had to threaten to write a letter to the local paper about how the town’s school wouldn’t let a serviceman’s wife finish her education before they let her enroll. Once she was in, she got good grades and held a part-time job, dreaming of the day her sweetheart would come back and they could pick up where they left off.

What happened next was really sad:

When I told him I had gone back to school he was really not happy. At that time in his life he was very controlling and told me what I could do and what I could not do. I said well I wanted to come down to Texas but you told me there were so many Army wives in Mineral Wells there was no place to live and you did not want me living in Ft. Worth or working there. We had a big argument but I stood my ground and he went back to Texas.

The argument continued by mail, and a few months later Grandma was served with emergency divorce papers. Mad and hurt, she gave Grandpa his divorce.

By May 1945 Grandma had finished school and moved to Topeka to take a civil service job. One day when she was eating lunch at the dime store near work she ran into Lawrence Johnson, a man she’d met the year before when she waited tables at her parents’ cafe. He remembered Grandma and started chatting her up — asking whether she lived in Topeka now and if she’d ever gotten her divorce.

Heartbroken and alone in a strange city, it’s not surprising Grandma started going for drives and attending church with Lawrence. Before she knew it he’d asked her to marry him. She told him she still loved Grandpa but he told her she’d learn to love him. He had a job, a house and a car, which — back in 1945 when men were still scarce due to the war — made him a pretty good catch. In her life story she skims over accepting his proposal and their wedding and fast forwards to my Mom being born in November 1946.

Through frequent moves and job changes, for several years Grandma made the best out of a bad situation. But little by little the truth about Lawrence leaked out …

First Grandma learned he was adopted, which made her furious. Next she learned he hadn’t really been sent home because he was injured in the war but because he was “unfit for association with other men.” Then one day while collecting his dirty laundry (no pun intended), she found a woman’s bra and panties in the mix. When she confronted him, he lied and told her they were hers. When she got up the courage to ask one of his coworkers why they never bunked with him on out-of-town trips, he dropped the bomb: Lawrence dressed in drag and went out whenever he was away on business. From that point on she started planning how to get out of the awful marriage to the man she never loved to begin with.

Several more years went by, because it was 1961 before Grandma finally filed for divorce. Throughout the 15 years they were apart, Grandma kept in touch with Grandpa’s mom through letters. When Grandma wrote to her of her divorce, Grandpa’s mom passed that information along to him. He too was unhappily married and heading for divorce, and for once fate did them a favor. He wrapped up his loose ends in Western Kansas and headed for Topeka with nothing to his name. Grandma let him stay in her spare bedroom and laid the ground rules for their second-chance romance. Grandpa agreed to everything, and they remarried in August 1962.

By the time I came along at the end of 1964, Lawrence was barely a footnote. The picture above is the only one I have of him; he slunk off to live somewhere else shortly after it was taken. I adored Grandpa. He was the only one I ever really knew, and I was the only child he ever really helped raise. I can’t imagine what cross-dressing Grandpa Larry would have been like, but I don’t think he would have chased me with his dentures out, or let me hang out with him in his workshop, or taught me the song about the goat who ate the shirts off the line or called me his sweet girl. Luckily, I never had to find out, and Grandma never had to worry again about finding lingerie in the laundry basket that wasn’t hers.

Image credit: zhanna / 123RF Stock Photo

Cage the radicals and dial back the crazy

Free radicals have already taken their toll on Grandma's brain. But I need to find help before she takes an irrevocable toll on my sanity.

Free radicals have already taken their toll on Grandma’s brain. And I need to find help before she irrevocably impairs my sanity.

My mother committed my father when I was two. She took her life when I was 22. So when I made it to my 40s with a mere case of manageable depression, I thought I’d dodged the bullet.

But seven years down the caregiving road, I’m not so sure.

Lately I’ve been agitated a lot. I’ve been thinking illogically. Maybe even deteriorating intellectually. If I were one of those people who reads a series of symptoms then self diagnoses, I’d say I’m schizophrenic. But I know I’m not. My grandma is figuratively driving me crazy.

Over the weekend she announced she needed to go to the doctor for reasons I won’t elaborate on. (Let’s just say they are in no way life threatening.) So yesterday morning I dutifully called and made an appointment. When the receptionist told me they could see her at 1:30, my teeth clenched. I couldn’t get a driver that fast, and I was buried in work. But Grandma was downstairs throwing herself a pity party so I made the appointment. As I hung up the rest of the day flashed before my eyes. I took a deep breath then headed down to get her moving. I was agitated before I made it to the bottom stair.

The doctor visit kicked off with a shower, which Grandma had refused all weekend. Part of me said “it’s only 10:00 — this is not going to take three hours.” But the other part said “give yourself a break in between.” Once the ordeal was over and she was dried off and half-dressed, I told her I’d be back down when it was time to go. Then I rushed back upstairs to get as much work done as I could before phase two.

Of course Grandma called me an hour and a half before we left asking if it was time to go yet. And to tell me she’d have to have help getting her walker upstairs. And to ask me how far away the doctor was. I might as well have answered “we’ll leave for the pumpkin patch at Halloween o’ clock with the wheelbarrow.” But I still tried to make her understand. Finally I said, “I’ll come get you when it’s time to go” and hung up.

I tried to refocus on work, but before I could I’d jumped up and grabbed the blueberries out of the fridge. “Take that free radicals. Don’t have time for lunch. Are blueberries really going to keep me from turning into her? How late will I have to work to make up for this appointment?” Anybody listening would seriously doubt my ability to think coherently.

Guess what happened at the doctor’s office …