Sunday, November 27, 2011

Making Sense of It All

I recently returned from 8 days away from my family, by far the longest time I have ever been away from either my Hombre or my girlies.  My Dad, one of my brothers and I drove to South Carolina to clear out my Mom and Dad's house, which has been sold.

Mom did not come with us. She was still in the midst of radiation treatments for her recurrent cancer and her health is too fragile for her to make such a trip. It was probably for the best anyway. This was and still is her dream house. The wallpaper she so carefully selected nearly 30 years ago had been stripped and the walls painted a neutral gray while she has been in Ohio these last eight months. The furniture was not all returned to its previously precise placement by the workers, nor were pictures and artwork re-hung. I can only imagine how disturbing it would have been for her to return to her home and find all not as she had left it. No, it was better that she did not come with us. Besides, we had a big job to do. There would be no time for her indecision and contemplation of the artifacts she had carefully folded, wrapped and tucked away; no time for her lengthy retelling of their origin and significance; no time for  her reliving the events memorialized by them.

Dad, ever the optimist, had originally planned on going alone. He thought he could do it himself in a matter of a few days. My siblings and I quickly vetoed this plan, having had many opportunities to observe the packed-to-the-gills state of the closets, drawers and shelves in the house.

We embarked six days after Dad's final chemotherapy treatment. He had blithely assumed he would sail through this one as he had the others, but he did not. This one hit him harder, with severe fatigue and nausea, dry mouth and lack of appetite. The stress of his worries - about Mom, about the closing on the house, about his health, about saying his good-byes - took their toll on him, too. He had trouble sleeping and an odd rash broke out on his face. He faintly offered to help drive during the two-day trip down and did not protest when we declined. My take-charge Dad was only too happy to relinquish the decision-making about what to give away and what to keep. He was relieved, in fact, to do so.

My parents survived the Great Depression, which provides all the explanation needed for the state of closets and cupboards. We tried so hard, my brother and I, to imagine which of her belongings Mom would most want to have around her in the limited space of their new apartment. Which mementos meant the most? Which would she even remember she had after all these years? We found elbow length evening and everyday gloves from the time when ladies wore gloves. We found her dissection kit from college biology classes. We found the dance card from her senior prom. We found her grade school autograph books, with all the silly little nothings that ten-year olds, even in the 1930's, said to each other. It was funny; it was agonizing.

We tried to set aside things that would be meaningful to our siblings. Hospital discharge papers of my younger sister, complete with newborn footprints; letters home from my older brother while on a long-ago camping trip through Canada; the note to my Mom from my six-year-old older sister upon the birth of her new little sister; cards celebrating the birth of another sister. And so on. It was an awesome responsibility, sorting the history of our family and trying to anticipate what everyone would want.

While a constant parade of visitors, old and dear friends and workers filed through, my brother and I sifted. We tossed the baskets full of strips of fabric clipped from pants that had been hemmed, the endless supply of  rubber bands from produce and inevitable recycled plastic containers. We laughed over the old pantyhose cut into strips to tie up plants and uncancelled stamps torn from envelopes and squirreled away for re-use. Box after box filled with hotel shampoo and lotion bottles, bars of soap, shower caps and shoe shine cloths were discarded. Drawer after drawer contained the ubiquitous free address labels sent by charities seeking donations, along with old shoelaces, twist ties and notepads. We couldn't just dump entire drawers, since there may well be (and often were) old photos tucked in there, or letters or cards or all three.

Mom had been an avid cook, crafter and sewer. We found pile after pile of recipe clippings and household hints, along with decades' worth of cooking and decor magazines. Craft supplies filled entire cupboards in her laundry/sewing room.

It was frustrating and exhausting. I couldn't understand why she saved all of this stuff, this junk. Somehow, after seeing it all there, in her home, it finally clicked. She had grown up in a time of such scarcity, such lack, that she simply had to be prepared for the next Great Depression. She would be ready. Her ingenuity would be her salvation and her family's salvation. As for the craft supplies, who among us can easily accept that they have done the last of something they once loved to do? The last round of golf, the last fishing trip, the last knitted sweater? Who can just give up, throw in the towel (or the embroidery hoop) and say, "I'm done"?

All week long, as my Dad said his goodbyes and sorted his own history, he would look at my brother and me and shake his head.

"You two drew the short straw this time, didn't you?"

Truthfully, I don't see it that way at all.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I am so pissed off right now.

The news this week has really brought me down. Two seemingly unrelated threads are really the same old story: a person in power (usually male) having a sense of entitlement toward other humans in positions of significantly less power (usually women or children) and bystanders doing nothing to stop the illegal activity.

Presidential candidate Herman Cain first had "memory loss" about his abuse of women in professional settings. Once his memory (partially) recovered, his acolytes and the media went into attack mode:

"She's blonde."

"She's attractive."

"She's a single mother."

"She's had financial troubles."

"If this were true, why didn't they come forward sooner?" (We know that at least two did!)

Um, maybe because they knew they would be attacked - LIKE YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW.

I don't think I know a single woman who hasn't experienced inappropriate behavior in some form by male colleagues. There is a very large sub-set of this group who have experienced such behavior directed at them by a male superior. It has happened to me. More than once. And no, I did not report it. Why? I am certainly no shrinking flower, but in each instance, the potential cost of such action was too  great. Put simply: I needed the jobs. I had to support myself and my family. I knew that if I spoke up I would be forever marked as "difficult", "not a team player" or even worse, written off, fired, let go at the first opportunity. The legal community is small and word travels fast. I could not afford the potential, likely, backlash.

The people working around me saw these episodes or knew of them. Certain men have reputations in the workplace. When I was a young lawyer, partners that I worked for witnessed judges and other lawyers making vile, humiliating comments to me and did nothing. They were men who would never have said such things to me themselves, but they did not defend me or support me. They ignored the episodes as if they never happened or maybe they were especially cordial afterward - buying me a coffee or lunch. This was their way of saying "thanks for taking one for the team," but it was the kind of thing they would never have to "take for the team." I would tell myself, Don't let the bastards get you down. You are tough. You can deal with this. And so I did. Just as the women abused by Herman Cain did. That they endured does not make his actions legal nor absolve him from responsibility for them.

And just how does this relate to Jerry Sandusky molesting little boys in the locker room at Penn State? Because, once again, we have a person in a position of power imposing his illegal desires on other human beings, this time those with not just less power, but with absolutely no power. And even worse, we have witnesses, not just to the rumor and innuendo that surely must have been rife in, of all places, a locker room, but to the actual physical acts.

We know that a 28 year old assistant coach saw Sandusky, naked, anally raping a naked little boy in a shower in the locker room. We know a janitor saw Sandusky orally raping another naked little boy in the shower in the locker room.  Neither witness stopped the illegal acts. Crimes were being committed against children, and witnesses did not stop them! If you saw a thief grab someone's purse, you'd yell, "Stop!" wouldn't you? So why wouldn't you say, "Coach - let that kid go. That's not right."

We know the assistant coach reported the incident.We know that officials at the university took the step of taking away Sandusky's keys to the facility. That sends a message, doesn't it?

Joe Paterno is revered at Penn State and elsewhere. If he was such a great guy, why did he let this happen? And he did let it happen. Sandusky's known activities go back to the early 1990's up through at least 2006. The assistant coach told Paterno what he had seen. Paterno knew what the university's response had been to that report. He knew Sandusky had a charity that effectively "groomed" under-privileged boys. He could have fired Sandusky. He could have gone to the police and asked them to investigate. He could have insisted Sandusky get help for his "problem." He did nothing and he was the power in that organization, make no mistake. What 10 year old boy could stand up to a system like that? What hope could he possibly have had that someone would believe him and make it stop?

Children are not chattels. They are human beings. No one has the right to do these things. There are laws against sexual activity with minors. And yet, in Joe Paterno's locker room it was allowed to happen. That's not such a great legacy, is it, "JoePa"?

What was it Jesus of Nazareth once said? "Whatsoever you do to the least of my children you do unto me"? Yeah, something like that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Like Sand through the Hourglass

This time it was her heart that landed her in the hospital.

Mom hadn't been feeling well for close to a week. Nothing specific; some nausea, vague discomfort, a little swelling, poor appetite. A night of vomiting. Then she was a little short of breath and finally she just couldn't lay down on the table for her radiation treatment. Her blood pressure was way up. The ambulance was called and rushed her to the hospital. She came home 4 days later and about 16 pounds lighter with three new medications added to the roster. She also has a new diagnosis: "secondary pulmonary hypertension." A condition for which there is no cure.

The last time she was admitted, it was congestive heart failure and out of control blood pressure brought on (we think) by an untreated UTI. Before that it was a bad fall.Who knows what it will be next time. As my Dad often says, "Getting old ain't for sissies."

She has finally acquiesced to using the walker, although it's clear she finds it cumbersome. She tolerates having her oxygen on around the clock and accepts without complaint Dad's daily checks of her blood pressure and oxygen saturation level.

"He's always fussing over me," she'll say, shaking her head.

Along with her discharge from the hospital, the "Hospitalist" ordered home visits from a nurse, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist.  The nurse visited for the first time Saturday, while I was there. She went over Mom's history, her symptoms and her medications. She checked Mom's vital signs and talked about warning signs that warrant a call to the doctor. We talked about her cancer.

"Is she getting chemo?"

"No, right now she is just getting radiation on the tumor in her neck."

Mom pulls aside the collar of her blouse and gently presses down near her clavicle. 

"I think it's getting smaller; don't you Jim? Doesn't it look smaller to you?" She looks at me and I nod, even though I can't see any difference.

"So just palliative care then?" asks the nurse.

My Dad looks stricken. He nods, his voice thick, "At this point. But if things change we may reconsider."

The topic changed to her health care power of attorney. Yes, she has one; no, she doesn't remember who. The hard copies are at their home in South Carolina.

"Do you have a "DNR"?

Mom looks blankly at the nurse.

"No," my Dad says. Mom still looks blank.

"A Do Not Resuscitate order. That's so if your heart stops - do you want them to bring you back?" the nurse asks.

Mom doesn't answer. She is confused. She doesn't understand. I don't think she wants to make that decision or even talk about it. I don't think she really knows what she wants at this point. The nurse slides a folder across the table and tells my Dad that the forms are all in there along with pamphlets that explain them. She seems to assume that they will want to fill one out.

"You'll want to have copies on you, so if the paramedics come, they will know what her wishes are."

She is cheery, this Nurse Heather. A local, small town girl. She is upbeat and full of chit-chat. I'm not sure she knows about Mom's dementia. It isn't obvious at first. A couple more visits and she'll figure it out. There wasn't really a way for me to bring it up to her politely in front of Mom.

As the complications and conditions grow in number, I am somehow less concerned with the details and more concerned with the feelings. I want my Mom to be treated with respect, to have her dignity. Even if she can't remember, even if she gets confused. I have always hated it when caregivers talk in sing-song to the elderly, like they are babies.  These are people who have lived long lives full of joys and sorrows, excitement and boredom. They have made the important decisions as well as the less important ones. They have opinions.

But does she really need to decide right now, in the middle of this lovely October day, whether she wants them to "bring her back"? Can't she just sit and look out at the lake, watch the birds and enjoy the scenery?