Thursday, September 29, 2011

Charity Begins at Home

Warm and fuzzy mothering was not the stuff of my youth. After all, there were 6 of us and it was the era of hands-off parenting. Throw in chronic depression and a family-owned business and there wasn't much time for intimate talks about bruises to the heart. Motherly advice in my family consisted of a few nuggets of wisdom repeated often enough that, like the location of its birth-beach to a sea turtle, they are forever imprinted upon my psyche:

"God helps those who help themselves."

"Charity begins at home."

"Don't say anything you don't want the world to know."

"If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all."

Interestingly, the last two commandments apparently did not apply to Mom. She's never hesitated to verbalize her observations and opinions about those nearby and she seems to assume that those about whom she opines are as deaf as my Dad is.

"What? Why are you giving me that look? She can't hear me. I was just saying.... (disgusted sigh)".

Mom's discreetness filter has always had rather loose "mesh", but as her dementia worsens it has grown looser and looser. At Dad's recent Chemo #2*, while my sister took Dad back to have blood drawn before the infusion began, Mom and I sat in the waiting area. It is a large room, in a nice new cancer treatment facility and, thankfully, was sparsely populated at that moment because it has acoustics like Carnegie Hall.

"Look at that woman over there. Do you think she is wearing a wig?"
(Hand in front of mouth, palm facing outward; eyes directed toward the suspect.)

"So many of these nurses have tattoos. They look like tramps. Why do they do that to themselves?"
(Rhetorical question; no answer expected.)

"Everyone around here looks so sick."
(Scanning the room.)

I engage in an internal debate. By shushing her, will I draw more attention to her remarks? Did anyone else actually hear her? Will they know that her comments are not intended to be hurtful? How can I divert her- FAST?

"How about a magazine, Mom?"

I hand her the only publication within reach: Field and Stream. I kid you not.

She takes it and gives it a once-over. "I don't think I've ever seen this magazine before."
(Probably not, safe to say, and if she had, she wouldn't remember it anyway.)

She flips the pages. "Look at this! Deer urine? They sell deer urine?"
(It was worth a try.)

I see my sister waving us over. They are ready to start Dad's infusion. I help Mom up and reach to take the Field and Stream from her hand.

Gripping it tighter and glaring at me, she says, "I'm still reading that."
(Alrighty, then.)

Mom's unsteady on her feet, so she holds onto my hand as we walk the corridors to the treatment room. I slow my pace and look down at her. Her hand is softer than I can ever remember it being. She is dressed nicely, in a blue print silk blouse. Although she never wore much makeup and no nail polish, Mom has always taken great care with her appearance. She walks slowly, slightly stooped over. When did she get so fragile; so old?

The treatment room reminds me a bit of the set of  The Office. It is a large, high-ceilinged, open room. There are "work stations" throughout, each with recliners, IV poles and side chairs with low walls separating the "stations". Here and there are stands with a variety of wigs and hats. There is a low buzz of discreet, superficial small-talk ongoing.

When the nurse spots us, she steers us to the one private treatment area. It is enclosed in glass, but has full walls and a door as well as two recliners. I wanted to kiss her. I couldn't imagine three hours or more in the bullpen.

Dad was already settled into one recliner. He banters with the nurse inserting his IV while we get Mom settled into the other recliner. Mom points toward the outer room.

"See those wigs? They are free if you are having chemo. I told your father he should get one."

She smiles at him. He looks over at her and chuckles.

"I think I might like that better," he says, pointing at a cherry-red snood festooned with sequins.

Later, back at Mom and Dad's place, we get them fed and settled in. Dad is understandably tired and achy.

"I have no complaints; just a little tired, that's all."

Mom's ankles are swollen; her blood pressure is up and her oxygen level is low. We get her situated, put on her oxygen and put her feet up. I pull a bottle of nail polish from my purse.

"How about if I do your toenails, Mom? They look like they could use it."

"Oh; that would be nice." She leans her head back and relaxes.

**Cue Mambo #5 - "A little bit of taxotere in my veins, a little bit of something for the pain...". Credit goes to my sister for this one, which we performed, together, live at the North Coast Cancer Center just yesterday. Really. We did.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Now I'm not naming names, but....

I have a "thing" about names. The names of towns and cities affects how I feel about them. Take Elyria, Ohio for example. I'm sure it's a perfectly lovely place but it sounds like a disease to me. Malaria, Diphtheria, Elyria.

"Tell me, Doctor, what is it?"

"Mrs. Jones, I have bad news. You have a severe case of bacterial elyria. There is no known cure."

(Followed by much wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

Medication names affect me in a similar way. Why must drug makers use names for pharmaceuticals that sound like they have been plucked from the roster of this year's incoming kindergarten class? Celexa, Cymbalta, Allegra.

Maybe we should turn the tables on Merck and Pfizer and name our kids for the drugs we need, thanks to the little darlings.

"Meet my five year old twin boys, Xanax and Prozac and my 3 year old daughter, Valium."

"Oh, no reason, we just liked the names."

I am all for naming the drug for what it sets out to accomplish, but honestly, "Levitra"?  I feel dirty just saying it. They may as well have named it "Longschlong." I think it was for Cialis that they created the very subtle television advertisement that showed a studly, yet sensitive looking man passing his football through the center of a tire swing. Nothing subliminal about that one. Next up: darts hitting the bulls eye, followed by oyster shucking with a stiff blade.

It's trendy now to use geographical names for children: Dakota, Cheyenne, Savannah. But where, I ask you, are Newark and Zanesville, not to mention Poughkeepsie? On the other hand, it might create problems if you have, say, a Paris, a London and a Calcutta:

"Of course we love you all equally! What would make you say such a thing?"

I feel sorry for teachers. The latest in baby-naming seem to be the insertion of various punctuation marks, such as apostrophes, into names.

Personally, I blame it all on Prince. I mean, "the artist formerly known as Prince".

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ding-Dong, Cancer calling!

Attitude isn't everything; it's something, but it's not everything. If it were, then all the valiant people who have fought cancer with everything that they had with which to fight, would have won. To even say such a thing diminishes the spirit of too many courageous souls who did not survive it. And what about the ones who weren't brave? The ones who were scared and angry and whiny and lonely and depressed? Are they somehow less deserving of health?

But the ones who fight it with grace and nobility, they are inspiring, aren't they? My Dad is one of them. At 84, with half a lung gone and with a heart working at about 30% capacity, he has sailed through his first chemo treatment with hardly a symptom. He jokes about losing his hair - "All 5 of them." He says to the oncologist at his follow up, "I really have no complaints." And he means it. He visits the audiologist to be fitted for new hearing aids. He intends to need them for a good long while and I have no doubt that he will.

What rattles my father is the notion that there is even the slightest possibilty that he may not be here to take care of my mother. Mom has dementia. Whether it is Alzheimer's or not, I do not know and I am not sure it matters. What matters is that a former champion bridge player stares at the hand of Uno cards in front of her and struggles to make sense of them while my girls politely look away and wait for her to take her turn. That the woman who was a very good and proficient cook, is now puzzled by the buttons on the microwave. That the expert needleworker has unraveled and re-knit the same few rows of stitches countless times over the past many months. She's angry that my Dad sold her car; "I still have a driver's license. Look at it! It doesn't expire until 2013!" She's weary of doctors: "Why do they keep looking for something to be wrong with me?"

Some days she seems to recognize her limitations, on others, not. When we were on the phone a couple of weeks ago she said to me, "I have a kind of personal question for you, if you don't mind." She hesitated. "What kind of soap do you use? I know there is a kind I like, but I don't know what it is called. You have sensitive skin like I do  - what do you use? I need to tell your father what to buy." She no longer cooks at all; Dad does it all. He shops, cleans, does the laundry and monitors her medications.

The family has insisted that Dad get help since he has been recovering from surgery and going through chemo. My siblings and I have all made time to pitch in and help as we can, but the day-to-day remains with him.

Last week, the doctors revealed the results of the recent biopsy of lymph nodes in my mother's neck. They found cancer cells; cancer cells of the type that were removed along with half her stomach 20 months ago. Cancer cells of the type that we thought we wouldn't see again because they "got it all". Mom seemed pretty matter-of-fact about it, but Dad, the eternal optimist, was shaken. We still don't know what the treatment plan will be, as the consultation with the oncologist won't be for a couple of weeks.

Last Friday I accompanied them to yet another doctor for yet another procedure. This time it was to be a scope of Mom's stomach to see what is going on in there and if there are any signs of cancer at the site of the previous surgery. While Mom was being prepped and we were alone, I talked to Dad about what Mom's treatment might entail.

"Dad," I said, "Mom's health isn't as good as yours to start with. She may not be a candidate for chemotherapy."

"I know that," he said.

"It might be, Dad, that they will focus more on keeping it at bay for as long as possible and making her comfortable than on curing it, like they are doing for you. It may be that it has spread so far that it can't be cured."

He hung his head a bit and his lip quivered. He looked away and blinked. "I suspect that may be the case."

We turned to watch the news on the TV in the waiting area.

Afterward, as they waited for the health care aide to pull up the car, I asked my Dad if he had food on hand for dinner, as my sisters had made and frozen quite a few meals for them.

"No," he said, "I am going to the store when we get back." He glanced at Mom.

"I'm going to get some king crab legs and fix them for Mom tonight. I think she'll like that."

Oh, she definitely will. Maybe attitude isn't everything, but it is a lot after all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On the Highway to (Hormone) Hell

There is something wrong with a Mother Nature who allows both wrinkles and pimples on the same face; both gray hair and mysterious new chin hairs, both hot flashes and heavy cramps. Wouldn't you think Mother Nature would be a little more even-handed? Maybe even sympathetic? These days it seems like I've got way too much yin going on here for my own well-being, not to mention that of my family.

Ironically, or perhaps not for dear Mother Nature, as I enter the grand finale of the estrogen fireworks, the younger females in the house are feeling theirs begin to spark. B has been on this journey for a couple of years now, but it really hit fever pitch this year.

You've heard of women's cycles synchronizing? I'm moody; she's moodier. I'm weepy, she's weepier. I've got a pizza-face and she's borrowing my Clearasil. Poor Hombre is perplexed by all of this. His formerly sweet and somewhat sassy daughter routinely leaves the dinner table in tears. Any cross word results in an accusation: "You don't have to YELL at me!" Followed by more tears. Followed by, "I don't know why I'm crying, but I just can't stop!" Somehow, I remain my perfectly even-tempered, well-modulated, reasonable self. Yeah, right.

It also makes for interesting shopping. In the 30+ years that I have been hosting "Aunt Flo", I have, as I would assume most women have, developed certain clear preferences that make shopping easy - a box of these, these and these and I'm on my way. Well, that system is no more, since I'm buying for two. They now have "thong" panty-liners. Say what?! There are "Tween" size and "body-shape". Pre-wrapped or not. In lurid colors or discreetly pink. It can take hours to analyze the selections and make a choice. B prefers to let me do the buying without her. A on the other hand, loves to peruse the merchandise. The first time she was with me for "the purchase" she asked, in her unusually loud and deep voice, "MOM - DO YOU USE PADS OR TAMPONS?" Several other women in the aisle smirked at me with sympathy as they scurried away. They were probably afraid she'd ask them the same question.

When B had her first period earlier this year, we were more than ready. We had thoroughly discussed, over and over, what would happen and what to do. She had been packing supplies on every sleepover for months. After the first day or so, she decided that she needed something a little more substantial for night-time, so back to the store I went. I bought a couple of different boxes and told her to give them a try. About 15 minutes later, I heard her calling me from the top of the stairs. She was cracking up. She held out a large sanitary pad and said, "Mom! Look - it has wings!"and let it flutter down to the foyer floor. We laughed so hard, tears ran down my face. (She is too young to have seen the "The gosh-darn thing's got wings!" commercials).

Then to my surprise she said - "Get Dad! He's got to see this!". Hombre was so touched to be included in this tender moment that he teared up.

A week or so ago, A asked me to look at her armpit; she thought she saw hairs. I saw nothing, but gave her a noncommittal, "Hmm."

"I guess I'll be starting my period soon, too, won't I Mom?"

All I could think was, thank god we had the dog spayed. I don't think we can stand any more hormones in this house.

Friday, September 9, 2011

4th Grade Politics

They say all politics is local. I'd say all politics is elementary, at least it should be.

A announced on Tuesday that she planned to run for student council representative from her class. She thought she would like to meet with other kids to decide how things should be run at the intermediate school.

At dinner we talked about my student government experience in high school and in college. I was VP of Communications at my alma mater, Miami University. "Let Meg Pauken Do Your Talkin' " was my slogan. I told her about my nightly canvassing through all the dorms on campus, the student center and the library. We talked about the responsibility and the honor of being elected by your classmates to represent them. We all remembered canvassers visiting our home during the 2008 presidential primary and general election seasons.

After dinner, she wrote a short stump speech:

"Hi. My name is Anna. I am 9 years old. I have one sister, 2 cats and a dog. I would like to be on student council so I can help decide how things should happen at school. I like science and I like to think about how to do things better. I am good at thinking of new ways to solve problems. Thank you for voting for me."

We talked about the fact that she might not win, but it was awesome that she was brave enough to go for it.

Wednesday afternoon she bounced in from the bus. "How did it go today?" I asked.

"Fine. I didn't win but I'm not upset about it."

Ever the consoler, I offered, "Well, you haven't even been in school with these kids for 2 weeks and since you were new in the middle of last year, I'm sure a lot of them don't even really know you yet."

"Oh, no, Mom, I don't think that had anything to do with it. I got 2 votes but I almost got 3. One girl was going to vote for me but she got my name confused; she thought I was somebody else.

"The kid who won, he deserved to win. He had a really great idea. He is going to get them to put in a water filter because our water tastes terrible. He said it made somebody throw up. That's a great idea - it really does taste bad. Plus he gave everybody a dum-dum."

"So, do you think you'll try again next year?"

"Oh, yeah, I will, but I'm going to bring some candy to give out next time."

Who needs a course in government? She just learned about listening to the constituents, developing a relevant platform and campaign tactics all in the first two weeks of school. Can I say I am proud of her grace and pragmatism in the face of losing? I just wish she could teach that to the big boys in Washington!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dealer's Choice

I don't think my parents intended to raise a family of card sharks; it was just a cheap way to entertain six children. We would gather around the dining room table for hours-long games of hearts, spades and poker; dealer's choice, of course. We learned five card draw, blackjack and seven card stud, along with seemingly endless variations. One of my mother's favorites that quickly became mine was a seven card stud labeled "Deuces, jacks, man with the axe; a pair of natural sevens takes all". We were allotted 100 pennies each for bidding and quickly learned the benefits of maintaining a poker face, since we got to keep our take. I may have overplayed that; siblings mention a tendency I had to allow a tear to slip down my cheek when I had an especially good hand.

Later, as players graduated and went off to college, we focused more on euchre and pinochle. Family lore is that I became such a good euchre player that when I went to OU for little sibs weekend, I beat all the college kids. Allegedly this was a point of pride for my mother, who never actually said it to my face. You wouldn't want to give a kid a big head.

My oldest sister started at Ohio University in the fall of '69, the same year I started kindergarten. The next in line joined her in the fall of '71. The fact that I played competitively with them and their friends may have had more to do with the oddly shaped "vases" being passed around than with my card skills, but I couldn't say for sure.

I do remember quite vividly sitting in for various Knights of Columbus at church functions when the beer hit their bladders mid-hand. I always hovered around the card tables and occasionally someone would wave me over, "Here take my cards while I go to the john. Don't lose the game for me, now!". There would be much joking when the Knight returned. "Let her play for you; we did better when you were gone!" I loved the attention. I was the only kid at the table and again, I don't know that it was my skill so much as my relative sobriety that carried the hands,  but whatever; it was fun.

Last week, my Dad, my "glass-nearly full and I'm not thirsty - here you have it" Dad, and I talked about his upcoming cancer treatment. He had half a lung removed just six weeks ago and starts chemo next week. It will be followed by radiation treatment. We talked about the home health care aides that have been helping out and my mom's reaction to them. ("They all have tattoos, Meg! Every one of them!" )We talked about the sale of my parents' home. We talked about their ultimate move to assisted living. We talked about his need for new hearing aids, about the Indians, about my girls and their busy lives.

We did not talk about the biopsy being done just then on my mother's enlarged, hardened lymph nodes; about the fact that they might indicate the return of the stomach cancer we thought had been cured or even worse, lymphoma..

And then my dad said he was sorry. He apologized for "bleeding all over me". I told him I was grateful that I could be a sounding board for him, that I was available and willing to listen. That it was only fair: after all, he had  to listen to me complain about various boyfriends and other miseries for many, many  years.

But he was finished talking, at least for that day. I knew it when he shook his head a bit, patted my knee and said, "We have to play the cards we're dealt, Margaret, we have to play the cards we're dealt."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

George & Gracie

The nurse leaned over my mother as she sat in the recovery area after outpatient surgery. She was adjusting the pulse oximeter on her finger to see if she was getting an accurate reading of Mom's oxygen saturation. My father hovered nearby.

"I have one of those at home so I can check her stats. I usually like to see her in the mid- to high- 90's. She uses oxygen just at night."

He pats Mom's hand. "She's put up with me for 62 years now. We have six kids." Mom smiles at him; her inscrutable, Mona Lisa smile.

She leans back and closes her eyes. Kim, the nurse, says, "Wow! That's impressive. You must be doing something right. Do you use oxygen yourself?"

"No, I only put it on her at night. She's fine during the day."

Kim gives me a quizzical look.

"Dad. She wants to know if YOU use oxygen."

"Oh! No; I don't need it. I have a concentrator at home for her and I keep a pretty good eye on her. I check her and if it gets below 92-93%, I put it on her for a while."

Mom opens her eyes. "Laura? " Kim asks, "How are you feeling now?"

"Pretty good, pretty good." She looks over at Dad. "Did you know we've been together for 62 years? I've had six children."

Kim smiles.

The one that can hear, can't remember. The one that remembers, can't hear. At times it's like a Vaudeville routine and at other times, it just makes me cry.