Walking the Cats

For a couple of years during my childhood we lived in Trinidad in the West Indies. My father was employed there as an engineer and we lived in a company owned residential compound. Every night after dinner my parents took a walk together down the middle of the quiet road that meandered through our small community. The post dusk air was delicious with the smells of ocean and tropical flora. There were no sidewalks; the narrow road was lined instead with oleander and hibiscus and palms. My sister and I would get on our bicycles and accompany our parents. We rode our bicycles everywhere within the compound during the day but we were not allowed to go out on our bicycles after dark except for this evening ritual. We kids knew these few roads thoroughly, every angle and bump, but at night, they took on a different character. There were tall yellow-hued street lights here and there, but not many, so there were regular stretches of near darkness. The long cast shadows created by the lights gave strange tone and shape to otherwise familiar surroundings.

The residential compound was surrounded by sugar cane fields which were home to feral dogs and cats we often saw slinking in and out of the edges. The fields were also home to the never seen but much speculated about cane-man. The cane-man was a wild, child-hating, machete-swinging concoction served up to us regularly by the other kids who had lived there longer than we had. It was assumed that the cane man lurked near the dark stretches of road at night, so it was with fearful squeals and false bravado that my sister and I would race our bicycles ahead of our parents and into the treacherously dark zones. We never went too far, just far enough to taste the thrill of near fear, always looping back to circle the two walkers for the reassurance of parental presence before speeding off again.

Until we moved to Trinidad, I had never known my parents to take a walk after dinner. That in itself was exotic. They walked purposefully, their stride more athletic than a stroll. They talked, but didn’t hold hands. They walked for the exercise. And maybe to wear us out on our bicycles before bedtime. Regardless, it was an evening ritual which I loved. What I remember most is riding my bicycle like a happy drunk in the intoxicating night air, and the simple joy of seeing my parents taking a walk together. Looking back, it has become a memory of two people together as a couple; people who, to my child’s mind, had previously been nothing more than parents. At age twelve, I endowed that walk of theirs with a mysterious intimacy. The heightened excitement of it taking place after dark was a potent factor I was just beginning to appreciate as a preadolescent. Those tropical years were a good time for my parents, and a giddy time for us kids; a bright treasury of security and happiness we shared for a few more years before being swallowed up by the darkness of my mother’s death.

I live on the east coast of south Florida now, in the subtropics. My elderly father, who has dementia, lives alone, right around the corner. I look after him, including bringing him all his meals. My husband and I have dinner with him almost every evening. One night after dinner as I was feeding my father’s two outdoor cats, the smell and temperature of the ocean breeze suddenly evoked the memory of those after-dinner walks in Trinidad. I hadn’t thought about that period of our lives in quite a while. When I went back inside I asked my father if he remembered those walks, and he said yes. Often when I ask him if he remembers something from our mutual past, he says yes, although his face says no. By his claiming to remember some things, I am not sure if he is accepting my gift of returning a long lost memory, or if he is giving me the gift of not disappointing my desire to relive and share. Whichever it was in that case, I suggested we go for an after-dinner walk. My father looked surprised, then intrigued, and so we went. The sun had officially set behind a bank of towering clouds, and the ambient light it cast was glowing pink. It was beautiful. After a slow start, my father found his stride. Like forty years before, he did not stroll, but set out with as vigorous a pace as he could manage. Walking in that air was like swimming in a therapeutic lotion, and I loved it, remembering a happy childhood time. Suddenly I heard the tiny bells of cat’s collars. My father’s two cats had followed us from the house, slinking along the curb in fits and starts, We went two blocks, and then my father said we had to go back. When we turned around, the cats, just behind us, stopped and sat down with tails twitching nervously as we reversed course. As we neared the driveway I heard their bells ringing and the cats shot past us, obviously relieved to be back on familiar ground. They immediately sat down and began to clean themselves thoroughly, as though in the course of the adventure they had become soiled, or at the very least, had worked up an un-cat like sweat.

We walked after dinner for the next few nights, my father, my husband and I, with the cats, Liz and Rani, following us. The teeny jingle of their collar bells always accompanied us. My father and I did not hold hands as we walked together, but I stayed close enough to be able to support his arm if he should wobble. The weather was the same every night; perfect. Then the superficial clock shift of daylight savings time ended. The next night it was just as beautiful, but dark, when we went out for our walk, and my father’s stride was a little more tentative. There are long stretches between our streetlights, and when we hit the first of the more dimly lit areas, he said we should turn around. The next night our walk was also ended when we hit the shadows. The next night my father just said it was too dark to walk at all. I picked up an ever present mega-battery hurricane lantern, which casts an enormous light, and cajoled him to try it again. That worked for a few more nights, but it was obvious that the extra light and our proximity were not enough to make him feel comfortable outside at night. The next night he simply declined to walk after dinner and went up to bed. When my husband and I left to go home that evening, Liz and Rani were sitting right outside the front door, waiting. They had become used to our nightly walks. As we walked out to our car, they raced down to the street, then stopped to wait for us. Not wanting to disappoint them, we took the cats for a walk.

My father never wanted to walk after dinner anymore, but every night the two cats waited immediately outside his door for their turn, their faces practically pressed up against the glass. If I opened the door too quickly, it would bat them off the mat. Once we were outside, they would race down the driveway ahead of us, their collar bells jingly raucously. Every night we walked a little farther until we finally reached the small park in our neighborhood. Walking through the park the cats were giddy, racing up tree trunks, leaping down to chase each other up the next tree. The scrabbling of their claws on bark sounded like soft chuckling. Unlike my father, they relished the dark and it’s potential mysteries.

The cats played with bold abandon in the park, but they were more cautious along the road. When the occasional car approached, they slipped into the closest available plant cover until it had passed. Conversely, they were immediately drawn towards other walkers like magnets, stepping right in front of them to be petted, and thus often tripped over in the dark. People walking dogs, however, got a very wide berth, accompanied by arched backs and twitching tails. The one thing that stoped the cats in their tracks and completely immobilized them was another cat. Whether the other cat sat in its own yard just staring at us, or approached cautiously, Liz and Rani froze. No amount of cajoling or reassurance could get them to move; We had to pick them up and remove them from the cat stare zone before we could continue. It makes one wonder if this is where the word catatonia originated.

One night my sister called me on my cell phone as we were walking back from the park. Being focused on giving her the daily Daddy report, I didn’t notice until we got back to the house that Liz wasn’t with us. I called and clapped, but no Liz. We had to retrace our steps for two blocks before my calls produced a streak of rocketing cat. Liz came running up to us, crying her abandonment the whole way. Something had detained her, most likely the eyes of another cat, and she had lost sight of us, finding herself alone and immobilized in foreign terrain. I picked her up and cuddled her as she purred loudly in relief and Rani rubbed up against my leg. Reunited and reassured, we went home.

Now my husband and I walk the cats after dinner every night. At first, I simply couldn’t disappoint the cats, but I too, have become addicted to the ritual. It is my meditative transition time between Daddy duty and the rest of the evening. We don’t walk for the exercise, though, we stroll. The night air is a soothing tonic, the soft respiration of the earth laying itself to rest. The night sounds of crickets, and birds settling into their roosts, are muted and gentle on the ear, like whispered reassurances. Often we hear the soulful wails of distant trains. The huge Florida sky offers stars and slightly glowing clouds for decorative lighting, and the condo and car lights from across the lake twinkle prettily. The night blooming plants release their perfumes, harmonizing to the warm bowel-y smells from the storm sewer drains. We see other people and their pets out for their own walks and we greet each other quietly so as to least disturb the spell we are all under. There are brief sightings of raccoons, possums, and the occasional fox, all intent on more serious evening business than we.

When we walk the cats, my husband and I walk as a couple, holding hands. We talk. We always comment on how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place, which leads to an acknowledgment of all our many blessings and a grateful squeezing of hands. This is a happy time in our lives. As we stroll, the cats race ahead and back to play around us, not unlike two excited little girls on bicycles. The jingling of their collar bells are like squeals of childish laughter, a hopeful music to protect us against the dark stretches, now and those surely to come.

Proud as Sin

I have always loved the word “hubris.”  I learned it in English class when I was fourteen.  We were discussing Greek mythology and it was brought up as an example of how to really tick off the gods: to have “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.”  I love the soft, unassuming sound of the word hubris, how beautifully it juxtaposes the meaning.  I use the word whenever possible.  It is very potent for me, because I think I am a little too well acquainted with it’s manifestations.

It’s a good thing my father is an atheist, because with Pride being the deadliest of sins, he would be in deep doo-doo otherwise.  They say Pride is the worst of the bunch – Lust, Sloth, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy – because Pride enables all the others.   I can honestly say that of all those, my father’s only real sin is his Pride, but being a nonbeliever, the concept of sin doesn’t bother him anyway.  The virtuous counterpart to Pride is Humility, but the number of times in my life I have heard my father justify himself and fault everyone else makes me doubt there’s much of that in there.   He almost never apologizes, for anything, and he is hard pressed to offer forgiveness.

My father was brought up in the Southern Methodist church, which is how we were raised until Mother died, and then everyone was pretty much on their own.  In my experience, it seems that religious indoctrination was not a strong suit with the Methodists.  They hit all the obligatory bases that a church is supposed to, but what I remember most about the church going experience are the pancake breakfasts, the spaghetti suppers, and the occasional cake walk.   I know now that these were fundraisers, that the church didn’t inspire enough fiscal generosity with religious overtures to pay the bills, so funds had to be eked out of the congregation via cooking.  As a child, of course, food was easier and more fun to digest than religious doctrine, and therefore most memorable, but you’d think something of a religious nature would have stood out and stuck with me.  It was all too bland, however.   I disliked everything about going to Sunday school and church, except for the doughnuts they served.   Methodism is just not a brickbat kind of denomination.

So I can only assume from my own experience that my father’s religious training was also more like glancing exposure.  Maybe they never warned him about the seven deadly sins, that being more of a Catholic thing.  I’m guessing the perniciousness of Pride never came up.  And even if it had, my father is the type who would see all the bad pride in others, and only good pride in himself.  Bad pride is what other people have when they don’t agree with you and get in your way.  Good pride is what you’re entitled to when you are . . .  my father.

My father was the middle child and the only son.  He was only one of two male cousins an extended family dominated by girls.  He was always pick of the litter.  He was worshipped by the whole family, with his maternal grandmother as head cheerleader.  He was smart and creative.  He was all-american-boyishly handsome, with bedroom eyes and a sweet as pie smile.  He was fearless and ambitious.  As a teenager, he worked several jobs to pay for flying lessons so that he could become a fighter pilot should the country enter WWII.  He got his wish, and he flew one hundred and ten missions by the time he was twenty-one.  He helped liberate France.  Most importantly, he survived.  After the war, he got two masters degrees in engineering and had a successful working career.  He had a good marriage, raised four kids to self-sufficient adulthood, had a second career as a business owner, and then a later life avocation as an art photographer.  All good endeavors, all successful outcomes, all things to be proud of.

My father saw himself as a beacon of honest virtue in an ever encroaching  fog of Sloth and stupidity.  He has always credited his Pride for his accomplishments, and that’s fair.  Those would indeed be the result of good pride, virtues like a strong work ethic, Diligence, Temperance, and Kindness.   He worked hard and followed the rules.  He also knew how to create beauty and fun.  If Pride was that which motivated him to higher things, then he has a right to be proud of that.

He would not recognize or even acknowledge some of his other prideful accomplishments, however.  The darker ones, the bad pride ones.

We, his family, and the things we did, were never quite good enough for him.  We all lived under the pall of my father’s lurking disapproval, which could be both subtly demeaning and overtly withering.  It was always his Pride that justified his Wrath.  Looking back, I can see that my mother took the brunt of this.  I don’t think she was as happy in their marriage as he was, because everything was always strictly on his terms.  They grew up together, so she was well trained and stayed busy with her four children, but I remember seeing moments of what in retrospect I recognize was not Humility but full blown frustration and resentment.  I think she was often depressed.  My older brother, the first born, should have been the next generation’s golden boy, but instead he struggled to grow up in my father’s shadow, failing to live up to like-father-like-son expectations.  He has always been a little tentative, a little diminished, like a plant that never got quite enough light.  The main damage done to us three girls was that the first time out of the gate we all married men who were too much like our father.  Thankfully, each of us eventually corrected that mistake, but only many unhappy years later.  In textbook manner, the things about our husbands that were most like our father made him disapprove of them and vice versa.  All of their bad prides butted heads a lot, so familial relationships were strained.  For too many  years, my father avoided close relationships with our families, so today his grandchildren are strangers to him, and most sadly, he to them.  I say sadly, because under the influence of good Pride, my father was mostly a great dad, sweet and inventive and lots of fun.  His moments of Charity and Kindness were profound.  Had he allowed himself, he would have been a terrific grandfather.

My father worked for several different companies during his career as an engineer.  We were led to believe that each job change was either a promotion or a recruitment to a better company.   It was only last year when my father participated in a life history project for a memory center that I learned that all those job changes were because he had been fired.  Each time the circumstances involved what he called his “integrity”, specifically his having more of it than his boss, and maybe that was true.  But even in his telling of the stories there was the smell of bad Pride all over the place; Envy and Wrath, theirs, and definitely his.   In the end his resume must have been pretty tattered, so he opened his own business, a retail hardware store.  That worked.  With his Diligence and his ability to control everything to his high standards, it was a very successful venture.  It supported him well for thirty years, and when he sold it a few years ago, it set him up with a good retirement.

Dementia is a cruel challenge to anyone’s pride.  My father hangs on to his as best he can, and thankfully mostly the good kind.  The bad kind still shows up now and then, but less and less often.  The good kind also seems to be a comfort to him these days, and he talks a lot about who he was and what he did during the war.  He has dug out pictures of himself from that time and I have framed them for him so he can have a gallery of them across from his bed.  He spends most of his time lying in bed these days, staring at those pictures.  He points them out every day and talks about them, always the same stories over and over.  The pictures and the stories fill him with Pride, and having lost so much else of his life to this disease, it is wonderful to see him full with something he so cherishes.

I take care of my father now.  Many people tell me I should be proud that I am such a good daughter.  Unfortunately, I just can’t put the concepts of me and pride together in one thought.  I don’t think one should be proud of simply doing the right thing, of assuming a necessary responsibility, of paying one’s debts,  or of loving.   Trust me, this is not virtuous Modesty.  It’s just that Pride of every stripe has only been my father’s department.  I just hope that, somewhere in the ranks of all he has ever been proud of, there might be a little room for me.

The Service Dog

My husband and I have always kept two dogs at a time. For the dogs’ sake, and ours, the symmetry of a family of four always seemed to work best. When one of our dogs would pass, another one would somehow show up to take it’s place. There is never a shortage of good dogs needing good homes and they always find us. The most memorable of these was Otis, a true rogue and poet. He was a houndish mutt of such profound presence and personality that after he passed, his absence left a big hole in my life that no two normally wonderful dogs could fill. After our new second dog had found us, I still felt an aching loss. There just wasn’t enough dogness in the house. I toyed with the idea of adopting a third dog, but balked at the asymmetry and the extra responsibility. Instead, I decided to investigate being a puppy raiser for a service dog organization. Puppy raisers raise and train the dogs until they are mature enough to go to advanced training and then placement with their life partner. As a puppy raiser I could have a third dog, but just for a year or so. This appealed to my emotional need of the moment and gave me an out down the road if indeed three dogs turned out to be more than I cared to deal with. Plus, I would be nurturing a helpmate for someone who needed that dog much more than I did; a good cause combined with breathtaking reasoning and no small amount of selfish neediness. Danger, Danger.

Researching online, I found a Florida based organization that provides service dogs to people with mobility disabilities, mostly wheelchair users. I sent the group an email inquiry about puppy raising, and the director called me the next day. We had an hour long chat, which, unbeknownst to me, was an interview. At the end of the conversation she informed me that I could pick up my puppy in two weeks. I panicked. I had done lots of obedience training with my own dogs, but this was a whole different level of training responsibility. The director assured me I would do fine, and that I would be provided clear guidelines and support for raising my dog from an eight-week old butterball peepot to a mature and capable service dog.

Two weeks later we drove up to the middle of the state and picked up our puppy. Labrador and golden retrievers are the prominent breeds used for mobility disability service dogs. These dogs often act as hands and arms for their partners, so having a built-in passion for retrieving and carrying things in their mouths is a necessity. I had known several pet goldens in my life, and based on all of them, I disliked the breed. I thought they were a stupid and slobbery breed, so I was disappointed that we were given a golden puppy and not a lab. My husband pointed out that this should be seen not as a disappointment but an opportunity, that my prejudice was being tested. Love those tests.

He was right, of course. Raising that dog was a revelation. I would like to claim that I also trained him, but he seemed hard-wired from the beginning to know the list of thirty verbal commands I was to teach him, not to mention the various tasks he was to master. Every time I taught him something new, it was if he had been waiting for me to learn the command so he could then show me how it was done.

Retrieving dropped things and giving them back to their partners is a big part of what the mobility service dogs do. I quickly learned that whenever I dropped something in the house or the studio, which was often, I should not pick it up myself. When this dog heard the sound of anything hitting the floor, he would come running to retrieve it and hand it back to me. If I had already picked it up by the time he got there, he would look at me like I was the one who needed better training. He was the server, and I was the servee. That’s how it worked, otherwise I was interfering with his life’s mission and passion. I would have to drop the thing again so he could pick it up and give it to me, thus setting the matter straight. One day I had a guy repairing an upstairs window in my house, and he dropped his screwdriver down onto the patio below. Who knows where the dog had been until that moment, whether inside or out, but he obviously heard the sound, came and figured out that the screwdriver was the dropped object, and figured out who must have dropped it. By the time the guy had climbed back in the window and reached the top of the stairs to go down and look for his tool, the dog was coming up the stairs with the screwdriver in his mouth to return it.

The constant accompaniment to any kind of service performed by this dog was a wagging tail and a big golden retriever smile. The only time the dog looked put out was when you didn’t let him do something for you. He was always thinking, trying to anticipate your next need so he could meet it before you asked him. We often took him with us when we went out at night, much to our two personal dogs’ resentment. Socializing the dogs to know how to behave in public, in stores and in restaurants, is important. Whenever we were preparing to go out, he would stare expectantly at us, tail wagging, asking to go along. One night I was getting dressed to go out and he gave me that inquiring look. I told him yes, he could go with us this time. Elated, he dashed off down the stairs to wait for us by the door, or so I assumed. A few minutes later he reappeared with my car keys in his mouth. He had found my purse, wherever I had left it downstairs, and had gotten the keys out to bring to me, knowing I would need them next. This was not something I had taught him to do.

We ultimately raised and trained four service dogs, two goldens and two labs. Contrary to my previous prejudice, I loved the goldens. They were very serious about their work and therefore the easiest to train. But I loved the labs, too; they had a better sense of humor about the job. It was as if in the middle of learning a new task, they had to stop every so often to tell a joke. We would get to the same end result as the goldens, eventually, but only after much mutual cracking up along the way.

When you finally deliver your mature dog back to the organization for advanced training, it is best if you leave with a new puppy in your arms. This helps ease the wrenching separation you inevitably feel from the dog you have loved and nurtured for a year an a half. You can’t focus on feeling sorry for yourself when you have an un-housetrained eight week old puppy on your hands. Yes, turning the mature dogs in was heartbreaking, but the joy and excitement of starting over with a new puppy was huge. The challenge and fun of preparing them to serve their future partners was magical. All four dogs were placed with wonderful partners and I see them from time to time at reunions. When we meet again there are ear to ear smiles on everyone. Although the dogs remember me and we have a big noisy, slobbery love fest for a few minutes, they now have a meaningful mission in their lives and a partner that they are devoted to. Their partners have in the dog a best friend who assists them to be more independent, and who gives them unconditional love and chronically cheerful companionship. By puppy raising I got to make a profound difference, for possibly the only time in my life, in eight other lives, human and canine. It doesn’t get any better than that.

When I turned in my last service dog, I didn’t bring home a puppy. It nearly killed me. During the tenure of the last dog, my father had moved down into his own home around the corner from us. Seeing him everyday instead of only talking to him long distance, it became quickly apparent that what had seemed for years as simply the eccentricities of old age was something more serious. His now obvious dementia made him require more of my help than we had anticipated. When everyone asked why I hadn’t taken a new service dog puppy, I joked that I didn’t have the time and the energy to train a service dog and my father at the same time. Not a very funny joke, as it turned out.

I see now that all those years of training the dogs was just a set up. It’s like the service dogs truly anticipated what my future needs were going to be. It was really me who needed and received the appropriate training so that I could become a service dog for my father. This is what I tell people, but this is not a joke, either. I don’t have children, so I had no basic parenting skills like patience and effective communication with an uncooperative being. My father had taken care of me when I was young, but now the roles were reversing, quickly, and suddenly it was my job to anticipate his changing needs and to serve them. To call it a learning curve is ridiculous. This experience has been more like a monster rollercoaster ride where you are constantly in fear of being thrown to a horrible death, or of surviving only to throw up all over yourself and everyone around you.

What the service dogs taught me is how much better cut out for caretaking they are than I am. The dogs could not teach me how to be naturally happy in this job, but they did teach me how to do it well. Their secret is that, unlike me, they would never even think of trying to fix someone’s disability; that kind of effort only frustrates everyone involved and makes them all unhappy. Instead, the dog’s sole focus is to make their partner the most successful person with a disability they can. It took me a while, with much frustration, but I finally got this. I cannot fix my father’s aging or his dementia. Instead, I am trying to make him the most successful old man with dementia I can. This isn’t a job I love, but it is gratifying, at least. Success for my father means his being able to continue to live alone in his house. It means eating nutritiously, getting daily exercise, and being safe. Success is his not being made to feel dependent on someone else for all those things, although he is. Success means not having his lack of memory pointed out to him, or putting him in confusing, thus embarrassing, situations. Success is his being left alone to his own thoughts, no matter how scrambled they are. Everyday, as I repeat the same thing to my father or answer the same question for the umpteenth time, I think of the service dogs, tails wagging madly as they happily repeat the same task over and over and over. The dogs retrieve dropped objects; I do the same with bits of my father’s life. I retrieve lost words and moments of awareness. Unlike the dogs, I have to make an effort to smile as I’m serving, something they do automatically and sincerely. I have to admit, though, that when I do smile, the burden becomes much lighter.

Out of necessity for his well being, I guide my father through his daily life now, but I try to make it seem like I am no more than tail-wagging companionship. Ironically, I think I am like the golden retrievers I trained, taking it all a little too seriously. I need to be more like the labs; I should lighten up and learn a few jokes.


The Crossword Puzzle

Every Sunday I tear the crossword puzzle page out of the back of the NY Times magazine.  The following Sunday I tear out the answer page and staple the two together and stack them on a shelf.  Granted, if i get through the whole puzzle with out having to consult the answers, it’s not a problem, but let’s face it – I’m not Bill Clinton.  I work the puzzles in pencil, and I am never going to get 1) sports trivia, 2) contemporary television trivia, or 3) the name of any of those damned little Eastern European rivers, lakes, or bays.  I like the Sunday Times puzzle because it is hard enough to exercise me, but not impossible to do, and I like the cute little inner puzzles – it’s like working two muscles groups at once.  And thankfully, the magazine paper is very eraser friendly.

Whenever I am going anywhere that is likely going to involve any waiting, I grab a couple of the stapled puzzle sheets and pop them into a pretty leather folder (purchased just for this purpose) to take with me.  As soon as I sit down to wait for whatever it is that constitutes that day’s exercise in delayed gratification, I take out a puzzle to work on.  They are great for traveling, too.  They are sufficiently engrossing that they even make flying tolerable.  My fantasy vacation is to be lying by some gorgeous pool with nothing to do but work these crossword puzzles all day, with a cute pool side waiter in close attendance.  An Eastern European waiter with a degree in geography who knows sports and TV trivia would be perfect.

I started doing the Sunday Times crossword years ago when I was losing my vocabulary.  Because I am a visual artist, my work is nonverbal, and although I listened to the radio in the studio and talked frequently to the dogs, my vocabulary skills were diminishing.  I began finding myself in conversations where, in the midst of making some profound point, I wouldn’t be able to think of just the right the word I wanted to use.  I hated trying to be clever and all of a sudden sounding ditsy.  So, I turned off the radio, started listening to audio books instead, and began doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzles.

I have a collected stack of these puzzles because weeks can go by when I don’t work on one, and depending on individual wait times, I may work on the same one over the course of many waiting room stays.  Still, my vocabulary has improved tremendously.  I catch myself using words that sound so appropriate and cool that for a moment I don’t much care if they’re quite the right ones or not.  Sometimes in conversation a word will pop into my head that I didn’t even know I knew, but that sounds great; I use it with a question mark, asking the other person if indeed it sounds right, and regardless of whether they know or not, I score big language points all the same.  Obviously my subconscious loves the oblique and mischievous relationships between many crossword clues and their answers, and she keeps a little notebook of the most artful and fun ones for reference.  I can be blathering on about something in the most pedestrian way, and she will suddenly whip one of these obscure words out for me and toss it in the ring.   It never fails to catch me, and often the other person, off guard, and so I either wind up sounding like William F. Buckley or Mrs. Malaprop.  Never mind; they are both heroes to me.  Ah, language is a many splendored thing.

The trick to crosswords is the fact that way too often, a clue will have several possible answers, all of the right letter length.  Without any letters filled in from auxiliary words – wait, contiguous words; no, adjacent words – it’s hard to decide which answer to use.  So you try to fill some of the adjacent words – no, peripheral words – to get enough letters to solve the clue.  Of course, sometimes there are several possible answers that have similar letter constructions, so you can still be stymied and put in the wrong word, which then messes up your chances of getting the peripheral – no, intersecting  – words right.  In other words, solving the puzzle can often be a mind boggling conundrum of obfuscating clues and obtuse answers.

I didn’t know at the time I started doing crossword puzzles but I was in training for a different realm of vocabulary challenges. Trying to understand the workings of a mind with dementia is literally a crossword puzzle.  Sometimes the course of my father’s thoughts seem obvious, and then the next moment you realize he’s made a sharp left turn and you’re still going straight.  Suddenly we are no longer on the same page.  It doesn’t help that he has lost much of his vocabulary.  Often you can’t get a direct clue as to what he is thinking or wants to say, because he no longer knows himself, or worse, he knows but can’t come up with the words he wants to express it.  That’s when you have to look for intersecting  – no, neighboring – clues; facial expressions, hand gestures, what we were just talking about, or which way the wind is blowing.  I offer up word choices that I hope are correct until he agrees with one.  If he doesn’t like  any of them, I offer a multi-syllabic zinger that I know is not right but that sounds impressive, and he will always go for that.  He knows it’s not the word he wanted to say, but at least he appreciates the joy of it’s sound and is happy to use it.   That may seem dishonest, but by the time we reach that point, he’s forgotten what he was talking about in the first place.  He used to be an avid reader and I can see that he still enjoys saying a great word.

With this particular puzzle, there is no answer sheet to peek at for help. The way I cheat sometimes is to agree with whatever he is trying to say and then change the subject. I am trying to learn his vocabulary of recurring memories and concerns, and from that, I can often fill in the blank for him.  If not, I move on to the next set of squares and hopefully an easier set of clues.   My father’s dementia is a puzzle we must work together.

Now if only I could get hold of that cute pool side waiter.

The Club

Born in 1953, I have always been a member of the Baby Boomer Club.  Just recently, I have  joined another very populous club, the Baby Boomer with  Aging Parent Club.  You don’t apply for membership to this club; you are chosen by fate.  For that reason, new members like me are initially confused and somewhat noisy, clamoring about our trials and concerns like startled geese.  We tend to talk too much about the club and the details of our initiations whenever anyone will listen.  I have a friend who was inducted into a different club, the Baby Boomer with Young Child & Aging Parent Club.  She’s always too tired to talk, though.

I have two good friends whose fathers are the same age as mine, and we were surprised and delighted to find that we had all been inducted into the club at the same time.  Our fathers live in different parts of the country and don’t know each other, but they all facilitated our memberships.  The password for this club is the phrase, “And how is your dad doing?”  When someone asks you that, and you hear yourself asking them that back, you know you are in.  Just a couple of years ago, our three answers to that question would have been very different.  Now they are pretty much the same.  At first I chalked this up to just our all being in the club and adopting some catchy members’ lingo, but the larger truth has finally dawned on me: our fathers have joined a club of their own.

Last summer was a big one for our fathers.  They all broke one of their parts.  C’s father fell and broke his hip.  J’s father fell and broke something in his heart.  My father fell and broke his mind.  C and J’s father’s falls were actual, and were quite possibly caused by their parts breaking first, not the other way around.  My father’s fall was figurative, but ironically was much further, there being no hard surface to stop his descent.  C’s father’s hip was repaired and he went through rehab and is back home again.  J’s father’s heart was repaired and he went through rehab and he is back home again.  My father’s mind was not exactly repaired, but it was given a new coat of pharmaceutical paint and from the outside it is looking much better, although some cracks are still visible if you know where to look.  Although he never  physically left, he is home again, too.

It seems our fathers’ broken parts experiences, however diverse, was some sort of initiation into their secret club, because they all seem to be sporting the same badge, a virtual bandage, these days.  Since last summer, our very different fathers have begun to resemble each other more and more.  Like old couples, or people and their dogs.  Comparing notes with my friends has revealed that our far apart fathers mirror each other without trying, or even being aware of it.  We children watch this and simultaneously marvel and cringe.

Members of our fathers’ new club all adopt the same reserved body language.  They are no longer very expressive.  Our fathers seem to like the secrecy aspect of this club and don’t talk about it.  In fact, they don’t talk much at all.  Maybe they take a vow of near silence when they join up.  They must communicate instead via telepathy, with each other perhaps, and surely with the club president, the Grand Poobah,  whoever that is.  This guy must be quite charismatic, because they spend more time listening to his covert communications than to any of us.  They are so taken with this new club and it’s activities that they have all given up their previous interests, like reading, watching television, and any kind of puttering.  To us, they look profoundly inactive, but if you watch their eyes, you see that they are actually quite engrossed in secret club business.

One thing I’ve figured out that my father is doing since joining the club is going through the storage boxes of his life, tossing out old files of memories.   My father was always a pathological pack rat – he never threw anything away – so this activity, cleaning out and downsizing one’s archives, must be a club mandate.   Every now and then he will come across something of interest and will mention it in passing, but then it gets tossed out, too, never to be heard of again.  I suppose this is a good thing, that he is finally able to get rid of a lot of old stuff he’s never going to use again, but it distresses me.  Although these memories are his to do with as he pleases, I worry, in my own pack rat way, that he, or I, might need some of them some day.  He seems indifferent, however, obviously more interested in club opinions than mine.

I also think this club has a major Buddhist slant, because contemplative meditation seems very popular, if one were to judge by our three fathers.  None of our fathers would have been so taken with this formerly pooh-poohed practice unless it was prominent in the club schedule.   Prior to their joining this club, they never had time for this sort of new age silliness, much less interest.  They would have snorted at the idea of just sitting quietly for hours, and only ever puttering in the basements and garages of their consciousness.  Now they find time for little else.  It also seems they are expected to practice restraint in their bodily pursuits, especially eating and drinking.  The club clearly promotes an ascetic discipline.

We kids have a really hard time with this.  Our father’s absorption in what we can’t understand is frustrating.  We are all still hooked into an exterior life model, all running around and cramming our waking hours with what we hope is important stuff.  We still credit conversation, reading, and even television with making valuable contributions to our awareness, and we don’t understand why these things no longer fascinate our fathers.  Perhaps we are embarrassed that that’s the best we can do, while they have discovered the real deal.  The world of external information obviously has nothing to offer them anymore.  They seem to get all they need from the club newsletter which is streamed directly to them in telepathic code.  We remain outside and clueless.

That we, as chatty club members ourselves, want our fathers to now share information about this secret club of theirs is hysterical.  When did they ever do the “sharing” thing?  Looking back, we now see that they obviously started the club’s strenuous and covert initiation process a long time ago.  The major falls they all took last summer were precipitated by similar minor ones occurring over the course of preceding years.  Some of those stumbles we knew about, but brushed off to the various vertigos of old age.  Many more they never told us about, hiding the evidence and always pretending they were up to nothing in particular.  This is required in the by-laws of the club, of course, it being a clandestine order and all.

This would seem like a severely austere club but for two things.  One, members are encouraged to eat lots and lots of ice cream.  Two, they are instructed to crack wry one-liners when you absolutely least expect them.  We think they are trying to amuse us and we are charmed, but really this is their subtle way of making fun of us and our constant bugging them with feeble intervention attempts.  Our three fathers are all very intelligent men, so we should trust their judgment about this club and leave them alone.  At least we can take comfort that they all joined a club with a sweet tooth and a sense of humor.

So how are our fathers doing?  Despite how we, the progeny, want them to be doing, we have to allow them to be how they think they are; just fine.   They look quite content as they listen past us to catch some communiqué from the Grand Poobah, or look past us to peruse the most recent newsletter.  Often, their hands are moving slightly and mysteriously, as if they are all but fingering invisible decoder rings.  They are obviously only putting up with us and our fussing around anymore, but the club is big on good manners and so our fathers are gracious in their tolerance.  We struggle painfully with all this; they don’t.  Perhaps we are just resentful, feeling left out and dismissed,  because despite having our own club, none of us has been invited to join theirs.  Yet.

An Awkard Stage

My sister recently sent me some old family photographs she had come across.  There was one of me, taken when I was twelve or thirteen.  It is a horrible picture.  I look like an adolescent alien trying to emerge from inside an angular bursting-at-the-seams child, with bulging elbows and knees and nose and teeth.  I had new heavy-hardware braces then, and a criminally bad haircut with short bangs.  I have never looked good in bangs.  It was one of those captured-in-time photographs that you can’t burn fast enough.  My sister had stuck a note on it which jokingly read, “an awkward stage!”, which should win her a prize for the understatement of the century.

The pictures of my awkward stages in life greatly outnumber pictures of me where I look fairly put together.  I always liked to think i just wasn’t photogenic, but now that I think about it, my life has been a steady stream of awkward stages.

Once when I was complaining about having to have my picture taken for a magazine article and knowing˙ it would be unflattering, a friend told me how to fix that.  He said to look straight into the camera and think “I am really good at what I do”, and the picture would turn out great.  Damned if it didn’t work.   That made it clear that what had been photographed all along was not my face, but my deep seated insecurities about, oh, everything.  If I think back through the rogues gallery of my most unflattering images, I recognize that unfortunate look in each one of them.  The most flattering images I recall I realize were taken when I was relaxed and happy and feeling like I was really good at whatever I was doing.  So now when someone points a camera at me, I try to hold the same thought – I am really good at what I do.  Sometimes it works, but it’s not easy to quickly rodeo all my features under that umbrella, and so, often as not, another awkward stage goes on record.

The silly thing is, I am good at much of what I do.  I have a successful career as an artist, I have a happy and fun marriage of almost 30 years, I have good health, I keep (with some help) a passably clean and organized home, I am a good public speaker, I am practical, punctual, economical, and reliable.  You would think I would be able to take a good picture any old time, but insecure waters run deep.

When I shared this reflection with my sister of the unasked for old photographs, she said, “Oh, you’re just insecure about taking another bad picture!”  Maybe she’s right, because that would certainly be enough.

My husband never took good pictures of anyone or anything until digital cameras came along.  Now that he can see what’s in the frame before he shoots, heads are no longer lopped off and things are aligned as nature intended them.  This is a good thing, except for the fact that he is smitten with his success and is constantly either pointing his camera or his phone at me and anyone else within range. For a while all his pictures of me captured a witheringly annoyed and thus highly unflattering look, so I continued to fulfill my own prophecy.

The camera always took great pictures of my father.  One, he is very handsome, and two, he never doubted that he was excellent at whatever he was doing.  That meant he was always right about everything, which has often been awkward for the rest of us, but never for him.

My father is going through an awkward stage now.   For a decorated WWII fighter pilot with two engineering degrees and three successful careers, dementia is about as awkward as it gets.  Sometimes that awkwardness shows in photos of him now, but not always; for the most part he still thinks he is good at what he is doing.  He knows, however, that he is not doing so well at growing older, and the insecurity that that fosters shows.  He makes choices which don’t serve his best interests, but he can’t see that, so when the results are not good, he is confused and hurt.  In his mind, he is still always right.  I try to keep him believing that, because having lost so much of his former self, the worst thing he can lose right now is his self confidence.  It is all he has left to sustain him through this awkward stage.

Gifts and Presents

When I started taking care of my elderly father with dementia, the word “gift” started showing up a lot.   I would hear someone else refer to their similar situation as “a gift”.  When people asked me how it was going with my father and I would be truthful, it sounded like complaining, so I, too, started saying, “But it’s a real gift to be able to do this.”  So maybe it is a gift, but it is certainly no present.

I was eleven the only time I remember my father giving me a present.  Normally, my mother took care of shopping for and delivering presents, but I wanted an iguana, and my mother wasn’t fond of reptiles.  My father loved reptiles, and so this present, Gus the iguana, was solely from him.  I choose to distinguish here between gifts and presents; a gift can be inadvertent but a present is presented, offered, deliberately passed from one set of hands to another.  A present is deep giving.  My father gave me an iguana as a present.  And it wasn’t my birthday or anything.

After my mother died when I was fifteen, I was well cared for, but there were no presents.   I was provided with necessities by my father because I needed and asked for them, but those don’t count.  Even asking him for things was uncomfortable, so at some point I just stopped.  I baby-sat to make my own money so I wouldn’t have to ask.  I had been accepted to and was supposed to go to a New York art school after high school, but when the paperwork came from the admissions office the summer after I graduated, I found I couldn’t ask my father for the money to register.  I should have considered going to college a right, a necessity, but it was such a big ask, it seemed more like requesting a frivolous present.  The admissions paperwork sat on the dining room table all summer until its various deadlines expired, and so I never left.  There was never a discussion.  I’ve often wondered why he never asked me about going off to art school, something that had been planned for years.  My wiser sister recently pointed out that it was simply because he didn’t want me to leave.  She is two years younger than me, and that summer, she was a rebellious teenager.  She and my father were often not speaking to each other.  As a third party mediator, I filled in the gap for them, I suppose.  Or maybe after my mother’s death just two years earlier, my father couldn’t bear the thought of one more person leaving.  He never said anything about the thick, five hundred pound elephant of a college envelope that sat conspicuously in front of him all summer.  Eventually I threw it away.  I don’t know what he thought about the whole issue.  I’lI never know, because I never asked.  What should have been an major life present to me, a chance to go to art school,  turned instead into another inadvertent gift.  I had to make my own way as an artist.   I had to work harder, take more chances, and put myself and my work out there with no support system.   I had to educate myself.  As a result, I have a wonderful career as a visual artist on my own terms.   My work is unique to me, maybe even odd, but at least it is not the predictable product of an MFA program.  I still regret not receiving the present I expected, but the gift has worked out really well for me.

So, in over forty years of birthdays and Christmases, my father has given me no presents.  He has always said he doesn’t believe in those events, so he doesn’t do presents.  I have accepted this arrangement completely.  I still give him presents, but I never look for anything in return.

In spite of this arrangement, or perhaps because of it, I must acknowledge many gifts from my father, all inadvertent.  I inherited his robust health, a smidgeon of his good looks, his independence, his creativity, his great legs, his love of nature and animals, his dislike for coffee and raw onions.  I also got his agnosticism, his too-fine prematurely gray hair, his control issues, his parsimony, his paranoid intolerance, and his thin skin, both literal and figurative.  Notice how I also got his self-righteous judgementalism.  He has acknowledged most of these inadvertent gifts and he takes great pride in them.  He considers them to be the most desirable gifts one could receive, because they come from him.  That’s one thing I didn’t get from him;  his un-deflatable, self-confident, larger-than-life ego.  It’s something I’ve long lamented.

I still get no presents, but as I am taking care of my father, he gives me gifts he will never even know about.  There are so many they are piling up around me, some as yet unopened and unexamined.  Many are things I did not want and would never have asked for, but these are gifts, after all, not presents.  My father doesn’t do presents.  Gifts just land on you; like bird droppings, you get to decide if they are auspicious or not.  Some of the gifts have proved very useful, and others, though they made no sense to me at first, have become cherished favorites.  Some will never fit me just right, will always chafe and make me uncomfortable, but there’s nowhere to return them.  I have outgrown some of them, but they are always replaced by others.  Who knew that in his old age, my father could bear so many gifts?  Maybe he had them stored up all along, and now that dementia has knocked his guard is down, they are spilling out of their own accord.  Some of these gifts will only be opened after my father is gone, because I know it is only then that I will be able to undo the complicated emotional knots that tie them.

Even if my father had given me wonderful presents my whole life, it’s probable that I would remember very few of them now.  Except for the iguana.  His recent gifts, however, are going to be pretty hard to forget.