A Story for Kati: Alice from Dallas and the Fire Crackers

Kati with Earl (Courtesy of Kati). She looks just the way she did when I took care of her.

This post has NOTHING to do with my mother. But it’s still fun!

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite babysittees, Kati Kovacs. She is now grown up; she teaches law at Rutgers University. But she is still young at heart. (I obviously set a good example.)

Kati and her brother Toby enjoyed the stories I told them when they were little. When I wished her a happy birthday on Facebook, I added a wish that I could tell her a story today. She suggested I put one on this blog.

So here is a story I originally wrote for my nephew Michael. Michael used to LOVE stories about my friend Alice from Dallas. (I think he really just liked her name.)

I started out telling him absolutely true stories, but over time the stories added just a little bit of fantasy. I’ll leave you to judge whether this one is strictly true. I will tell you this: Alice has won TONS of contests. She is the luckiest person I know.

Enjoy—and happy birthday, Kati…..

ALICE FROM DALLAS AND THE FIRE CRACKERS

Many years ago, when I was in school in Knoxville, Tennessee, I lived with another student whose name was Alice from Dallas.

Alice had many wonderful qualities.

She was smart.

She was funny.

She was highly efficient.

She was a terrific athlete: she was always winning tennis tournaments and bringing home awards, mostly silver trays we used for serving everyday food like peanut-butter sandwiches and doughnuts.

Alice was also lucky: she spotted every four-leaf clover she walked by, and she almost always won the many contests she entered. Some of the prizes were exciting, like a car she won by guessing how much money the Ford dealer had pasted onto it.

Some were less glamorous, like a five-year supply of laundry detergent or a box of pencil erasers.

Above all, Alice was adventurous. From time to time, her sense of adventure got us into a little trouble. This story is about one of those times.

One day, as we were munching on a snack of apples, cheese, and crackers, my friend Alice from Dallas said to me, “T.W., we need some new crackers.”

“No, we don’t, Alice,” I replied. “There’s a new box of wheat crisps in the pantry.”

“I don’t mean ‘new’ crackers as in just another box, T.W.,” said Alice. “I mean ‘new’ as in unusual, special, imparting a sense of wonder and excitement to our existence.”

“Actually, Alice,” I retorted, “I’m not sure that crackers’ purpose in life—if indeed crackers can be said to have a purpose in life—is to bring wonder and excitement to people’s existence.”

She glared at me and passed over the newspaper. “I disagree. Read this.”

I saw that she had circled this article:

GET MORE OUT OF LIFE WITH FIRE CRACKERS:
CRACKER COMPANY SPONSORS CONTEST TO FIND “FIRE CRACKER GIRL”

Today the Patriotic Cracker Company announced the launch of a new product known as Fire Crackers. These spicy cheesy wafers are designed to add flavor to anyone’s life.

To celebrate the new product, the company is holding a contest to identify a “Fire Cracker Girl” who will serve as a spokesperson for the crackers. Females between the ages of five and 99 are encouraged to submit an essay telling the company why they need Fire Crackers. The winner will receive a lifetime supply of Fire Crackers.

“A lifetime supply,” I mused. “That could be an awful lot of crackers, Alice.” But she was too busy scribbling her essay to pay any attention.

A few minutes later, Alice from Dallas cleared her throat and began reading aloud.

To whom it may concern:

My life is dull, monotonous, and in fact hardly worth living. I have boring friends.

“Thanks so much, Alice,” I muttered, but she continued:

And I spend much of my time doing tedious work such as writing papers and reading poorly written textbooks.

Yet I know life could hold so much more … if I only had Fire Crackers!

Fire Crackers would introduce me to novel taste sensations. The crackers would give me new opportunities to socialize. Above all, they would make my world infinitely more exciting.

Please name me the Fire Cracker Girl and bring Fire Crackers into my humdrum life.

Very truly yours,
Alice from Dallas.

“That ought to do it!” she said, and slid the paper into an envelope. “I can hardly wait to hear back from the cracker people!”

In fact, many weeks passed with no word from the Patriotic Cracker Company. We went about our lives, which were not in fact so very humdrum—doing our homework, going to class, playing tennis, giving parties for friends, and working at odd jobs to make money.

We pretty much forgot about the Fire Crackers.

One afternoon, we heard a knock at the door of our apartment. Alice opened it to see a man wearing a red-and-white-striped coverall with the words “Patriotic Crackers” on the front pocket.

“Where do you want your crackers?” he asked.

“What crackers?” Alice wanted to know.

“Your lifetime supply of Fire Crackers, of course,” he said. “Aren’t you Alice from Dallas, the new Fire Cracker Girl? I’m the truck driver from the company that makes the crackers.”

“I guess I AM the new Fire Cracker Girl,” said Alice with what I can only describe as a gloating grin. “Please bring the crackers into the living room here.”

“I’m not sure they’ll all fit in,” said the truck driver, looking around nervously.

“Exactly how many crackers do you have with you?” I asked in alarm from inside the doorway.

“Quite a few,” announced the driver. “I’ve got a hundred cases with twelve boxes each in them. My truck’s full.”

He disappeared from the door and returned with a hand cart full of boxes. “These are the first eight cases.” Before we had finished unloading those cases into the living room, more cases had appeared.

“We’ll just have to spread them throughout the apartment,” mused Alice.

“NOT in the bathroom,” I cautioned. “It’s too small, and anyway the crackers might get soggy.”

So the crackers didn’t go into the bathroom. They did go into both of our bedrooms, into the living room, into the hallway, and into the kitchen. “They’re blocking the dishwasher,” noted Alice, “but we can always wash dishes by hand for a while.”

She thanked the truck driver and sat down to gaze in awe at the big boxes stacked all around the room. “Let’s try a cracker,” she suggested.

“I’m not really hungry right now,” I said. “You go right ahead, though.”

She opened the first case, and pulled out a red, white, and blue box. It held ten large, red-speckled crackers.

Alice from Dallas looked carefully at the first cracker and without further ado sank her teeth deep into its crunchy surface.

Suddenly, her eyes took on an eerie glow. Her face turned bright red. Smoke began spurting out of her ears. And she emitted an extended, high-pitched squeal that got louder and louder and louder and louder. It sounded something like this:

“YeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

“Water!” she gasped. I ran into the kitchen to oblige. When I returned with a glass of water, Alice had finished eating her cracker and was lying on the floor exhausted. She gulped the liquid down quickly.

“That was totally AMAZING!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never tasted anything so spicy and exciting in my life. I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat more than one a day, though. I’m pretty tired.”

“Let me see,” I thought aloud. “Let’s say that the two of us can each eat one a day. That’s 365 crackers a year each, for a total of 730 crackers. You have 100 cases with 12 boxes in them, and each box holds 10 crackers. So we have 12,000 crackers. They should last—let me get out the calculator………. Good grief, Alice, we won’t see the dishwasher for another 14 years!”

“I told you we can wash dishes by hand, T.W.,” she insisted. “But I agree that this is not an ideal situation. Let me see what I can do.”

Alice was quiet for the rest of the day as she tried to come up with a plan for dealing with the Fire Cracker crisis. Eventually, I went to bed. From time to time during the night I woke up to hear the sound of typing.

In the morning, over a breakfast of Omelets à la Fire Cracker (scrambled eggs with cheese and crumbled crackers), Alice revealed her solution.

She had typed up press releases to all the newspapers, radio stations, and television stations in Knoxville. She had composed a chain letter for all our friends to pass on. The releases and letter invited as many people as possible to come to our backyard the following Saturday evening for something Alice was calling Fire Cracker Craziness.

Luckily, we had a HUGE yard—and it was filled to capacity Saturday at seven o’clock as people from all over East Tennessee gathered to see what would happen. Alice asked our fellow students to distribute Fire Crackers and cups of water throughout the crowd. She told them not to let anyone eat a cracker until she gave the signal.

Alice and I stood on the balcony of our apartment and faced the thousands of people waiting with crackers in hand. “Get ready for the most amazing experience of your life!” shouted Alice.

“On your marks,” she said, and everyone lifted up a Fire Cracker.

“Get set,” she laughed, and the crackers moved toward mouths.

“EAT YOUR FIRE CRACKERS!!!” yelled Alice.

For a moment, a hush fell over the crowd as we heard only the sound of all those teeth crunching into crackers. Suddenly in the twilight we saw plumes of smoke erupt from everyone’s ears. And then we heard the deafening cry of nearly 12,000 voices screeching:

“YeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

Our friends videotaped the news reports of the event to watch later that night. The next day we learned that the smoke had been seen—and the shrieking had been heard—as far away as Asheville, North Carolina. But no one who wasn’t present in our yard that evening will ever appreciate the full thrill of Alice’s Fire Cracker Craziness. Just thinking about it now, years later, makes my heart race.

The next day as we cleaned up the yard I apologized to Alice. “You were right, and I was wrong,” I told her. “Crackers can indeed bring a sense of wonder and excitement to people’s existence.”

“True enough, T.W.,” said Alice from Dallas. “But you had a point, too. Next time we need crackers I think maybe I’ll just buy ordinary ones from the grocery store. There’s a limit to how much wonder and excitement a girl can stand.”

THE END

Published in: on 1 November 2011 at 4:18 pm  Comments (5)  

Dodging a Bullet

Tired but happy to be home, Taffy gets a little puppy love from Baby Louis.

We’ve been on a wild roller coaster this week in the Weisblat household. Fortunately, the ride is over—at least for the moment. My mother is home surrounded by family and friends. She’s a little tired, of course, but then so are the rest of us!

It started, as my previous post indicated, last Tuesday. Taffy had been experiencing ups and downs—including a bout or two of fever—for a couple of days.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until she awoke on Tuesday with a completely new symptom, shaking, that her caregiver Pam and I decided it was time to call the doctor. The doctor referred us to the Emergency Room of the hospital in our county seat of Greenfield, Massachusetts. Off we went.

As she often does in public, Taffy perked up in the ER. (I perked up, too, since the two doctors we saw were extremely attractive and personable young men). She enjoyed chatting with the staff and was pleased when the X-Ray technicians told her she was wearing the “cutest socks ever.”

As the day turned into evening and the evening turned into night, however, she became tired. Around 9:30 pm we were told that her problem had been identified. She had a little hole in her stomach that was leaking all sorts of things out into the rest of her body. To make matters worse, that stomach hole was in her chest, thanks to her hiatal hernia.

The doctors talked me through our options, and I relayed them to my brother in Virginia by phone.

One option was surgery. This would have to be done at the Greenfield facility’s sister hospital in Springfield (just over a half hour farther from home) since the Springfield hospital had better chest surgeons.

If we were going to move her to Springfield, the cute doctors told us, we should do it right away. The faster we addressed the problem, the easier it would be to solve. And of course if she went septic during the night in Greenfield, it would be nearly impossible to get her down to Springfield for surgery.

The other option was leaving the thing alone and waiting to see whether it healed itself. The doctors didn’t present this as a very strong option, but they did present it, particularly since they knew we might not want to pursue surgery on our 92-year-old mother.

Taffy, bless her, didn’t understand what was going on at all but told me that she would do whatever her family wanted.

Frankly, we felt that we needed more information. We agreed to have Taffy moved to Springfield so we could consult with the surgeons there.

Taffy and I arrived in Springfield by ambulance between one and two in the morning, and tests continued throughout the night. At eight in the morning the surgeon who was considering operating asked me for a decision. I asked her what she would do if her own mother were in this situation.

She informed me that although Taffy had a 75-percent chance of living through the surgery, its aftermath would entail months of rehab in a strange facility with tubes in and out of her body. My brother and I quickly decided that our mother’s frailty in general and her dementia in particular rendered that option inconceivable.

The surgeons in Springfield then tried a procedure in which they placed a tube through Taffy’s nose down her esophagus. They said this would increase the chances that her stomach hole might heal. Unfortunately, the procedure terrified her, and she resisted so much that they couldn’t succeed.

A very nice young surgeon told me that it would be possible to try this procedure after sedating Taffy—but added that the sedation could be dangerous at her age and that she would very likely pull out the tube once she woke up. We abandoned this idea.

I asked the doctors to transfer Taffy back to the hospital in Greenfield at this point. It didn’t sound as though her chances of survival were huge, and I wanted to have her closer to home where it would be easier for my brother David’s family and me to go back and forth from home to the hospital (kind neighbors were caring for our pets, but we couldn’t ask them to do this forever)—and where friends could come visit her.

David arrived before the ambulance took Taffy back to Greenfield Wednesday afternoon. His wife Leigh and son Michael arrived in Hawley late that night by car.

And we waited.

The doctor in Greenfield informed us that the nurses would observe Taffy for a couple of additional days, pumping antibiotics and liquids into her system but feeding her nothing. If the hole showed any signs of healing after that, they would continue. If not, they would send her home with hospice.

Thursday was a discouraging day since our little mother was completely exhausted and had no fuel going into her body. I must admit to getting a bit tearful from time to time, although I was careful not to cry outright in front of Taffy.

Thursday afternoon the nurses added a little glucose to the fluids in the I.V.

Taffy perked up slightly and demanded to go home and to eat food. She wanted ice cream in particular.

It was hard to tell her that we couldn’t give it to her for the moment … and harder still to admit to ourselves that she might never be able to enjoy ice cream again.

Friday morning the doctors tested Taffy’s stomach again. They said they wouldn’t know for some time what the results were. So the rest of the family went home and for a swim while our dear caregiver Pam kept Taffy company in the hospital.

When we got home to change into our swimsuits we found a telephone message from Pam. She said that the doctor hadn’t shared the test results with her but added that Taffy had been allowed a liquid snack.

Our minister Cara, who was also there at the time, wrote me an email about this moment. “I was actually there,” she told me, “when the nurse suddenly brought in a tiny cup of apple juice and a tiny cup of strawberry jello (pink!)… I wish you could have seen Jan relish those two things! It was wonderful fun!”

I called the hospital and the doctor informed that our mother was indeed healing on her own. Some people are just hard to kill.

She came home on Sunday with the help of hospice. The hospice nurse on duty over the weekend wasn’t sure that Taffy was actually a candidate for hospice services despite the doctor’s recommendation that hospice become involved.

“I went for a walk down the hall with your mother in her cute little sneakers,” she told me. “She was adorable. I didn’t see a woman in decline. I saw a woman with a strong will to live.”

Nevertheless, the nurse approved Taffy for hospice services—which included a very convenient hospital bed for her to use on her return home—pending a future review. “After all,” the nurse informed me, “there are worse things than being dropped by hospice.”

There are indeed.

Taffy is much weaker after her recent hospital adventures. Nevertheless, she is beginning to eat a bit and regain some strength. She has enjoyed having her whole family around, and she and our dog Truffle had a joyful reunion when she returned from the hospital.

She has begun to venture back outdoors into the sunshine. And she has had lots of chats with people she loves, including our friend Anna from Boston, who brought her new puppy Louis to visit Taffy for a little pet therapy.

As you can see in the photo at the bottom of this post, Taffy is even beginning to help around the house again. In this case she was shaking a little chicken in coating so that it could be fried.

I don’t delude myself that my mother will last forever. The past week has shown us both how frail she is and how much her dementia will affect any health decisions we make about her in the future.

Nevertheless, I am happy to have her with us a little longer. The little girl she has become is sweeter and sweeter each day, and life seems more and more precious to her as she holds people’s hands, gazes at the trees about us, and giggles at silly jokes.

We’ll try to savor each small adventure as the days and months go by. And we’ll celebrate dodging last week’s bullet.

Back in the Kitchen

How Can I Keep from Singing

(Courtesy of Mohawk Trail Concerts)

I apologize for the length of this blog post! As we often do we have had our ups and downs this week in the Weisblat household. I’ve done snippets of writing here and there, and each time things went up or down I’ve had to add a bit to the “Pulling Taffy” chronicle. I’m afraid the narrative hasn’t ended up entirely smooth–but then life isn’t entirely smooth, either.

In general, the high spots of my time with Taffy this week have outweighed the low ones although they haven’t canceled them out entirely.

Last Wednesday—shortly after I wrote my post here about my mother’s sunny temperament and general feeling of being home, in fact—she took a turn for the worse.

Being attuned (finally!) to the signs, I took only a few hours to figure out that her symptoms indicated yet another urinary-tract infection. She was back on antibiotics by midday on Thursday.

She continued to go downhill, however. She barely moved her feet for much of Friday. Indeed, she spent at least half an hour on the floor that morning. She had decided to sit down there for a rest, and it took quite a bit of persuasion and muscle (sometimes I literally pull Taffy) to get her onto a chair.

Luckily, music, friends, and antibiotics eventually perked her up. On Saturday and Sunday she was back in stride.

The turning point came Friday night. We had talked all week about going to the first concert in Mohawk Trail Concerts’ summer season. We are lucky enough to be able to find chamber music ten minutes away from us, and Taffy has enjoyed the concerts since their beginning in 1970.

I was torn as the time to leave for the Charlemont Federated Church (home to MTC) approached Friday evening. On one hand, I knew that if we didn’t go to the concert, Taffy wouldn’t consciously miss it. And I didn’t want to cross the line between stimulation and torture by dragging her to an event that would tire her out more than it would benefit her.

On the other hand, I knew that she loved music and these concerts in particular. And, let’s face it, I was in the mood for a little chamber music myself!

So I worked hard to get her to the concert. We were actually a little late arriving because it took me so very long to transfer her from our couch to the wheelchair and thence to the car. I whisked the wheelchair into the church sanctuary just as co-artistic director Ruth Black was announcing the program.

An amazing thing happened when the concert started, however. In about ten minutes’ time my mother moved from weak and listless to energetic and alert.

The music cut through her brain and went straight to her heart.

Of course, it’s possible that the antibiotics chose that moment to kick in. Nevertheless, I credit much of her transformation to the power of that music. She stayed up until 10:30 that night and awoke refreshed the next morning, humming away.

On Saturday our neighbors at Singing Brook Farm here in Hawley organized their annual picnic by the Dam, a wonderful structure they fill every year so that the brave among us can enjoy an icy swim. As we nibbled we caught up with friends and neighbors—and watched Will Cosby and company put in the gate that traps water in the Dam.

Dam It!

In church on Sunday Taffy heard me sing all-American songs. More importantly, she was greeted by all and sundry with smiles and hugs. And our friend Susan brought baby Joshua to sit next to Taffy’s wheelchair. My mother was mesmerized by the almost-one-year-old child; the two happily (and, luckily, QUIETLY) played through the service.

Sunday afternoon my cousins David and Mardi stopped by with their teenage children. My mother couldn’t exactly identify any of the Smith clan (she took to calling young Brandon “Boy,” which reminded me of nothing so much as Tarzan), but she clearly had a wonderful time visiting with them and enjoyed being taken out to dinner. “I don’t know who those people are, but I really like them,” she told me as they headed home to Connecticut.

By Monday the happy but busy weekend had tired Taffy out. When I let her take too long a morning nap to recover she ended up without enough food and drink in her system. It was all I could do to get her to sip a bit of energy drink from time to time.

Eventually the drink plus a little food revived her. We went down to the Dam. Taffy sat in her straw hat drinking in the sunshine and the greenery. I managed a foray into the frigid water to pay my respects to the mountain laurel on the far side of the Dam.

As I wheeled my mother to the car I remarked that our dog Truffle, who had retrieved her tennis ball from the water several times, seemed very happy.

“This is heaven for her,” said Taffy. “For us, too. We will come here every day.”

It was a lovely thought. Unfortunately, as my mother tried to get back into the house (we’re working on a ramp, but for the moment we are stuck with a couple of unavoidable steps) she collapsed in a little heap. My neighbor Alice and her friend Jody managed to help me get Taffy into the house, feed her another very small snack, and settle her down for a nap.

She revived a bit later, but the weekend as a whole made me appreciate her increasing fragility even as it made me appreciate our friends, relatives, and neighbors.

I can’t really regret packing so much activity into a few days. Taffy adored her holiday weekend. I do think we’ll need to cut back a bit, however, since clearly fun has its price. As Taffy used to say in her more lucid days, “everything in moderation” is the key to happiness and health.

The ups and downs of our recent saga–and the role music has played in my mother’s happier moments–remind me of one of the songs I sang in church Sunday morning, the Quaker tune “How Can I Keep from Singing.”

The song doesn’t minimize life’s pains, but it does encourage the listener (and the singer) to keep on embracing the joys of life and music.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear that music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

On a Happier Day: Visiting and Noshing at the Dam

Our Other Old Lady

Regular readers know that more than one elderly female resides with me. The lovely Lorelei Lee, our (mostly) Siamese cat, turned 20 a few days ago.

I’m suspicious of attempts to compare animal and human life spans so I won’t tell you how old Lorelei is in feline years. But 20 is a significant age for her species.

She spent her birthday much as she spends many other days, although she was given extra special treats during the day—a morsel of pound cake here, a teaspoon of ice cream there.

Here was her basic schedule (which will be familiar to cat people).

Morning

Lounge in bed until forced out by cruel human who wants to wash the sheets.

Eat a few kibbles.

Use litter box, being careful to kick extra litter as far out of the box as possible.

Loiter in kitchen with large eyes until a shmear of cream cheese is deposited in a saucer on the floor.

Nap by self.

Noon

Hover at table during lunch begging for soup. Lap up soup.

Afternoon

Nap with Taffy.

Wake up and glare at vacuum cleaner.

Nap with Truffle (dogs make soft and warm napping companions).

Start yelling for dinner 1-1/2 hours before dinner time.

FINALLY eat dinner (baby food at this point in her life).

Use litter box, again kicking litter onto floor since previous litter has been cleaned up.

Nap by self.

Evening

Watch humans while they eat their dinner in the hope that a small amount of food will be deposited on the floor.

Negotiate with the dog when said food is deposited on the floor.

Stand by water dish emoting until fresh water with crushed ice replaces the old water.

Nap with Truffle.

Eat a few more kibbles.

Get into bed. Groom Truffle and Tinky. Sleep.

Lessons Learned

As I said, this is a pretty typical day in Lorelei’s life, although of course we don’t change the sheets and vacuum every day.

Just as I learn from my mother, I learn from Lorelei Lee. She has many traits a person could do well to emulate.

Here are a few of them.

First, the girl has admirable focus. I tend to get distracted. Once Lorelei Lee has decided it’s time to do something she exerts all her energy to make it happen. I’m trying to cultivate that attitude.

She’s also good at just letting go and relaxing, hence all the naps. I don’t need to take several naps a day, but I would probably benefit from one or two, especially when Taffy hasn’t been sleeping particularly well at night.

Lorelei is content with life’s little pleasures—food, companionship, comfortable surroundings. Yet she knows when to stick up for herself when she thinks something (like the vacuum cleaner) is out of place. She strikes a good balance, one I’m still seeking.

And of course she is beautiful and impeccably groomed.

I’m sure I’ll get there SOMEDAY. In the meanwhile, our elderly cat is a source of joy, amusement, and inspiration.

Lorelei and Truffle both value companionship--and upholstery.

Published in: on 17 May 2011 at 5:00 am  Comments (20)  
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The Best Medicine

When I was a child my family loved to spend time with our cousins in the Netherlands, the Brauns.

The Brauns were a fun clan—they always sent my brother and me chocolate at Christmas!–made even more special by the fact that they were my father’s only remaining family in Europe.

(My father came to this country in 1920 when he was almost two years old. Most of his relatives either immigrated to the U.S. or died in the Holocaust. The Brauns were hidden by Catholics throughout the Nazi occupation of Holland and in fact eventually converted from Judaism to Catholicism.)

During one memorable visit the Brauns took us to see a fascinating social experiment—a planned community that featured rows of apartments. The buildings were two stories high.

Elders lived in the lower stories. Families with children lived in the upper stories.

The rationale was that both older people and very young people benefit from being in frequent contact with each other.

I don’t know whether this community still exists. I hope it does.

I was reminded of it this week when I saw an example of the magic of intergenerational contact.

My mother is still recovering from her most recent infection, and she tends to be sleepy and a little confused.

On Tuesday, however, she got back a little of her customary focus when our delightful friend Joan Sutton came to visit.

Joan

Joan works with seniors and has a definite way with them. In the year or so that we have known her she has recommended doctors, therapists, and aides for Taffy.

She is clearly interested in older people, and they respond to her vivacity with enthusiasm. She tends to get more memories and more smiles out of my mother than just about anyone else we know.

This week Joan outdid herself in terms of stimulation by bringing along her two-month-old baby, Wyatt.

My mother couldn’t take her eyes off the baby.

She told him how good he was, examined his perfect little toes, held him, and generally had a wonderful time.

Even Truffle found the baby fascinating. As for me, I’m a sucker for anyone small and cute—and they don’t come much smaller or cuter than Wyatt.

Our friend Susan has promised to bring her baby Joshua to visit when we get back to Massachusetts so my mother can have another dose of baby magic.

If we could just bottle the feeling she gets when she’s with the very young, it would be a lot more effective for curing what ails her than most of the pills she takes.

Puppy Love

With Valentine’s Day looming I thought I’d talk about the importance of love in my mother’s life—specifically, puppy love (and kitty love as well). This love is strong and mutual.

I think that if my mother had to move to an assisted-living facility she might not miss me as much as I’d miss her. She would rapidly get used to whatever caregivers she had; she is generally cheerful and grateful for any help from any person.

On the other hand, I think she would be desperately unhappy without our dog, Truffle, and our cat, Lorelei Lee.

Taffy is more likely to recognize them than she is to recognize me. Even if she doesn’t remember Truffle’s name (this has only happened recently; for a long time Truffle’s was the only name she could call to mind with any consistency) she usually says, “There’s my dog. She’s a good dog.”

Most pet lovers know that the practices of caring for and stroking animals can lower blood pressure and stress.

Our furry companions also provide undemanding companionship—particularly to individuals who suffer from dementia.

Think about it. To Truffle and Lorelei, my mother’s dementia makes little difference to her essence. If they were dependent upon her for meals and exercise, it might matter.  I have been their primary caregiver as well as hers for quite a while, however,  so they don’t expect anything from her but love.

To them, Taffy is actually more appealing now than she was before she got sick. In her prime she was constantly in motion, hardly ever stopping to make a lap yet alone take a nap.

Now she sits or sleeps a lot of the time and always welcomes canine and feline company.

They don’t care that she asks the same questions over and over again.  They love to be talked to; they have little interest in the substance of her conversation. Let’s face it: English is not their first language, although Truffle has quite a large vocabulary.

And, like Taffy, Truffle and Lorelei Lee live in the present. The next caress, the next treat, is all that matters.

She talks to them, sings to them, cuddles them, and rubs them. She also gives them a LOT of food. In exchange, they provide loyalty, companionship, warmth, and unconditional love. 

Unlike her human companions, they don’t try to make her adhere to any schedules or eat nutritious food or bathe at certain times or remember a darn thing.

Lorelei and Truffle also make Taffy laugh—which is great medicine for any ailment.

I know that’s a cliché, but clichés are often true.

Happy Valentine’s Day from all of us………

Published in: on 11 February 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (14)  
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Guest Post: Joy in the Most Unexpected Places…

Kay's Parents (courtesy of Kay)

Kay lives in Austin, Texas, and blogs at My Random Acts of Reading. After reading her comments here about her experience with her parents’ dementia, I asked whether she would like to write a guest post. Here is her telling and touching contribution. Thank you, Kay!

My name is Kay and I am the daughter of two people who both suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia before they died. Tinky asked me if I would share some thoughts here on Pulling Taffy about my parents and the journey I completed with them over the last four years. I told her in a comment of my experience with the dark clouds that dementia brings to an individual and the family that cares for them. I also mentioned that if you look hard enough, even the darkest, most forbidding clouds have a silver lining – joy in the most unexpected places.

My parents were committed to each other and were married almost 63 years before my father died in 2008. My Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in about 2003, but we had known that he was having problems long before the official word. He did not believe the doctor and fought many of our decisions and efforts almost to the end. Dad was a career state policeman and spent many years fighting organized crime. When he declined into the past, his memories were very dark and dangerous. He was an expert marksman and had also been a Green Beret. About 18 months before he died, it became clear that for his own safety and indeed for my mother’s, he would need to live in a care center. We accomplished the move as best we could, but it took him quite some time to settle in and begin to adjust. Dad was always sure that he would find the way out and home. After a while, he began attending some of the activities, of which there were many, and joined in with other residents.

My Dad was not a singer at all. He and Mom were very involved with their church and Mom was an excellent singer. He always kind of mumbled along with hymns because he didn’t think he had a good voice. His care center used music extensively in their activities, finding that oftentimes residents would respond in positive ways or even be soothed by songs. Dad forgot that he was uncomfortable singing. He forgot many things of course, certainly that I was his daughter, but he became the most enthusiastic singer. Sometimes he would get frustrated with my mother and me when we couldn’t remember the second or third or fourth verse to a hymn. He’d proudly and joyfully bellow out whatever song was chosen with a big smile on his face, singing all the verses.

As we had to work harder and harder to distract Dad when we visited, we’d bring him a treat of chocolate ice cream in little cups. He had always been fond of ice cream, enjoying making homemade peach best in the summers. He and my mother would sit together and even though he wasn’t always sure exactly who she was, he loved for her to sing to him. She’d sing and I’d feed him ice cream. He’d be calm and gentle for a time. Those are very special memories for me.

Mother’s dementia was a bit unexpected to me. I knew that she often repeated statements and couldn’t comprehend or remember things. However, I thought it was due to her intensive time of caring for Dad at home and having to constantly answer his questions over and over. It became clear after Dad passed away that there was a definite problem. She lived in assisted living, more for the companionship of others than any other reason at first. It proved to be a good choice though because she was not nearly as strong as Dad physically. She declined fairly rapidly and we moved her to the memory care unit of her center in January of 2010.

I was sorrowful that she too would have to experience the uncertainty, fear and dark shadows of dementia, but I was much more experienced this time around. I knew what to talk with her doctor about and what I could request and try. I was much more proactive about many issues and called in hospice care at a much earlier time than with my father. Mother’s dementia was softer and gentler. She was the kind of person who took everyone under her wing and reached out to anyone she felt needed a friend. She continued that to the very end, making a new friend and trying to assist that lady with feeding herself when Mom couldn’t even manage her own food. Mother loved singing and reading the Bible and those activities were calming to her even on her most fearful days. Sometimes, I would just start humming a song when she was so agitated and she would usually respond gladly. I’d grab her Bible and open it randomly and somehow the perfect passage would be there and, again, she would be soothed.

One special memory I have is the day that I took my wedding dress with me when I visited Mom. She had made that dress for me 30 years before, struggling with the slippery satin and lace, covering the long line of tiny buttons with satin individually. I took along a picture that was taken of both of us on my wedding day, enlarged so that she could see it more clearly. She sat there holding the dress and actually remembering many anecdotes that I had never heard before. Her care center had little vignettes of normal life scattered up and down the halls in order to stimulate conversation or memories for the residents. I left my dress, the picture, and a little narrative about that special day there at her center so that she could see it as she wheeled up and down the hall. It’s there now, used as a special touchable display, even though Mom passed from this life in May of last year.

I urge anyone who has a family member diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s to prepare carefully for what is to come. Get the legal documents in order and plan for the time when decisions will be hard or impossible to make. And, trust me, that time will come. After that, live in the moment. Glory in the moment. Appreciate and enjoy the moment. Hug your family members and tell them you love them each and every time you leave them. Smile and look for bits of joy…they will be there…in unexpected places.

Published in: on 18 January 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (21)  
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Introducing Pulling Taffy

A new year is dawning, and with it a new writing project.

I’m Tinky “Dakota” Weisblat, a writer and singer from Hawley, Massachusetts. I’ll be spending winters in Alexandria, Virginia, starting this winter.

The climate in Virginia is kinder to my mother Jan, with whom I live. Jan (I often call her Taffy) is 92 and has dementia.

Alexandria is also a welcoming place for us because my brother David and his family live here.

“Pulling Taffy” will chronicle my adventures with Taffy and the rest of the family in 2011.

In some ways, I expect, my mother and I are typical of parents and children dealing with Alzheimer’s. As The Shriver Report documented this past fall, most caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients are female. So are most of those for whom they care.

Nevertheless, as anyone who has dealt with Alzheimer’s or another family-centric disease can tell you, there is no such thing as typical when it comes to these matters.

Why did I start this writing project?

I’m a writer. Writing is how I process information–and I’m pretty good at it. 

I hope that “Pulling Taffy” will help me document the progress of my mother’s disease and figure out ways in which to cope with it.

I also hope it will help me in my ongoing quest to remind myself that I have to take care of myself as well as my mother as the year goes on.

Last year, to tell you the truth, I generally let my mother’s disease overwhelm me. It progressed rapidly as the months went by, and I found myself increasingly withdrawing from the outside world in order to take care of Taffy.

This is good for neither of us. We both need the outside world. Despite her confusion about most of what goes on, Taffy adores seeing different people and visiting different places.

And I need to use my gifts—my brain, my writing, my singing—to remind both of us who we are. She doesn’t always remember, but I can.

Please join us on our journey in 2011. I promise my entries on this blog will not be uniformly serious! One of the greatest gifts of our household is that we never go through a day without laughter.

Published in: on 1 January 2011 at 4:00 am  Comments (12)  
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