Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The New Normal

Mom and Dad have moved to assisted living. Their apartment is large and sunny and furnished with their own things, moved from their home in South Carolina. The DNR's have been signed and are at the ready. Dad's radiation has been completed. Now we are in a vacuum, waiting for what ever comes next.

The Move was, itself, an experience. I met Laszlo, the mover, at the storage unit at 8 a.m. on a cold, rainy Thursday in January. As we emptied it out, I was struck by the realization that what was left of the material possessions of their 62 years together fit into a 10'x15' storage unit and I was looking at it. It seemed so small compared to their lives and experiences. The boxes and barrels surely couldn't hold all the living they had done. Was this what it all came down to? A bunch of boxes and some furniture? Surely not.

I knew it was for the best. I knew this was the stage of life they had entered. They need the help and the services. Their apartment is very nice. The facility is lovely, with all of the amenities they could ask for. And yet this was the first step down a path from which there would be no turning back. Mom may not realize it, but Dad did. Tears rolled down my face as I drove ahead of the moving van, leading the way to their new home.

I had graphed out on paper precisely how their furniture would fit into the space. I directed Laszlo and his daughter/helper. The boxes accumulated quickly. I started opening them and putting things in closets, cabinets and drawers as they made multiple trips up and down from the truck to the second floor. So many decisions. I didn't like the way the two love seats looked in the living room.

"Laszlo, you can hate me for this, but I think one of the love seats needs to go back to the storage unit and we need to bring the two arm chairs instead."

He smiled. "It's fine, Ma'am. What ever you want. Where should I put this bee-yoo-tee-ful chest?" (in a thick Hungarian accent)

"Over there. Thanks, Laszlo."

He seemed to sense my emotion, or perhaps he was this tender with the belongings of all of his customers. Either way, I was grateful beyond words.

As I unpacked the wardrobe boxes, I saw the results of my week of sorting and purging back in November. Maybe I had saved too much, but I knew that seeing the dresses she had worn and loved would make Mom feel at home. She wore this one to Heidi's wedding; this one to Natalie's. Oh, and here's the one she wore to mine; can it have been twenty years ago? She would remember it. The beautiful Misook knit outfits Dad had picked out for her. She loved those, even if she didn't really go anywhere to wear them anymore.

It was a long day, with two trips to and from the storage unit to the apartment. I wanted to have it all unpacked and set up before Mom and Dad arrived on Monday. I wanted it to feel like home. I didn't want them to be overwhelmed by the chaos and all the unpacking. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for them. I knew the move itself would be a big adjustment.

Two of my sisters came up and stayed with Mom and Dad that weekend. They packed up the things from their condo that Mom and Dad wanted to take with them. They brought a load over on Sunday and we unpacked together. Washing wineglasses and organizing the kitchen; unpacking candle holders and framed photos, we chatted and remembered and lamented.

"Do they really need kitchen twine?"

"Mom insisted she needed it in case she wanted to cook a turkey."

"She's not going to cook a turkey! When did she last cook a turkey?"

"Oh, for god's sake, stick in the drawer! You know she'll look to see if we pitched it and she'll pull it out of the trash. Let her keep the damn twine if it makes her happy!"

We laughed, knowing it was all true: that she would never make another turkey and that she would indeed check to see if the twine had been thrown out. She remembers the most peculiar things.

Ann laboriously folded the multitude of towels I had crammed in the linen closet haphazardly. Christine hung the shower curtains and put out the bathroom supplies. I assembled lamps and screwed in light bulbs.  We arranged the plants and tchotchkes on table tops. And so it went on, all afternoon.  At the end of the day, as we surveyed our work, we thought it looked pretty great.

The plan was that Dad would have his final radiation treatment on Monday morning and when he returned to their condo, he would pick up Mom and drive the hour-and-a-half to the new apartment. Once they were on their way, Ann and Christine would give me a call so I could meet them at the new place, which is only 3 miles from my house.

I arrived before they did. I sat in the lobby and watched residents gather for a "mystery" bus trip, with their walkers and canes, a couple of them in wheelchairs, chit-chatting amongst themselves. They seemed like a pretty happy bunch. I knew my Dad could not picture himself in this group, at least not yet.  I worried and waited.

While they had a lengthy intake interview with the director of nursing, I unloaded their car and unpacked a few more things. Then they met with the intake coordinator and received their emergency call buttons, which each resident is required to wear on his or her person. Mom's dangled from a "pearl" lanyard. Dad's was on an elastic band around his wrist. He didn't say anything about it, but I could see him fiddling with it. He was embarrassed to be wearing it, I could tell. I think he felt "marked", like he was on house arrest, but his only crime was getting old. I pretended not to see him fussing with it. I hadn't quite known how to prepare Dad for it, so I just didn't. Cowardly on my part, I know, but there have been so many difficult conversations in the past few months; I just hadn't wanted to go there. I felt guilty, like I tricked him somehow.

When they finally got up to their apartment, their names were on the name plate and the wine cork wreath that Dad made was hanging on the door. The sun was streaming into the living room and it looked beautiful. Mom pushed her walker through the door and paused.

"Oh, this is nice!"

"You kids did so much work here. It looks great. I could never have done all this," Dad followed.

I took their coats and hung them up while they walked from room to room, looking around. I saw Mom open the kitchen drawer where the twine was tucked. She didn't think I saw her.

She opened a cabinet.

"Is all of this mine? I think some of this must belong to someone else."

"No, Mom, it's all yours. Ann and Christine and I unpacked it all and put it away for you."

"I don't think so."

"Really, we did. It came from your house in South Carolina. It did."

She turned away, but I don't think she really believed me.

A few minutes later, she called my name. She was in the master bedroom and the linen closet was open. She pointed.

"I, I don't think those are my towels. I think someone left those behind."

"No, Mom, they are yours. I checked every cupboard and closet before any of your stuff was moved in and it was completely empty. It was clean. I promise."

She shook her head.

"I don't think those are mine."

"It has been almost a year since you were at your house in South Carolina, Mom. Maybe you just don't remember. I know it's hard, but trust me. I was there and I told the movers exactly what to pack. I watched them bring the boxes off the truck. Every box we unpacked had "Pauken" written on it.  Really. You didn't know you had so many towels, did you?"

She looked away, still confused, trying to get her head around it all. I showed her where Christine had unpacked her clothes into the dresser; where I had hung her things in the closet.

We walked back out to the living room, where Dad was standing, looking out at the view from the windows all around their corner unit. He nodded and smiled.

"I think this will be just fine. I like it."

He turned to Mom and looked at his watch.

"Happy hour starts at four. Why don't we go and have a glass of wine?"


  1. This brings me to tears Meg.

    Lazlo. The twine. Her dresses. Your sweet dad and the bracelet. His gratitude and his spirit. Doing all this on his last day of radiation, and then he can chin up and say, "let's go have a glass of wine."

    I think they can measure the kind of lives they've lived by the devotion of their children. Even though it is hard, you are doing such a good job.

  2. you kill me
    damn you
    you kill me

    this is so beautiful and you are so wonderful and I want to hug your parents and my parents and well...

    it scares me, too
    scares me to think this is my very near future
    with my own parents
    and I could FEEL your dad...the way you write about him...that bracelet...

    (just sighed loudly...did you hear it?

    keep on writing
    through all of this
    bind it, publish it, share it

    so good
    so sad
    so true
    so beautiful
    so PAINFULLY beautiful
    and so real


    and now I have a frozen pizza to cook...

    you and your parents are in my prayers

  3. Absolutely beautiful.... very raw and real...