Measures of the Heart

“When,” I asked, “do you know when something is so broken it can’t be fixed, and you just trash can it?”

I looked into my painting teacher’s blue eyes as he struggled to find something nice to say about my watercolor attempt. He breathed a sigh of relief (I think) and said, “That’s a really good question.”

I mean, I don’t give up easily—if you’ve been reading my saga for the last too-many-to-count months, you know that. But when you are confronted with a huge dark purple blob, encircled by some menacing black blobs, none of which has any symmetry or shape—well, it’s time for that question.

When to quit? It’s an issue I face every day—my homemade fudge that is hard as rocks, the Irish jig that just won’t slide out from under my fingertips, the cane that I still need if I’m going on longish walks (like around the big box stores).

I considered the question again last week when I visited my step-father. He’s 90, lives alone in a city that’s a 6 hour journey from my home, drives his own car, and pretty much cares for himself. But he’s becoming less and less able to cope with the hard work of daily living—cleaning, groceries, bills and such. And yet he fights hard for independence and privacy—and I feel selfish for loving him and wanting him protected and safe.

Driving to Chicago to visit him, I listened to Public Radio—and heard an interview with Mary Ellen Geist, who has just published a book, “Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, A Daughter’s Return”. Like one of the patients at Orchard Creek, Geist’s father Woody was a singer, and music was the way he could communicate, even into his years with advanced Alzheimer’s. Geist herself left a major radio anchor job in New York City to come home and help with her father’s caregiving. Music was the touchstone of their relationship.

But after two and a half years, Geist and her mother are exhausted. “We have been looking at nursing homes,” she says. “We have been talking about the emotional and physical toll that having my father at home is taking on my mother. But he is so sweet, whistling as he sits on the couch….

“The family is paralyzed. My mother, most of all, seems as if she is caught in amber, petrified, unable to move…I sometimes think we keep him here with us for us, not for him…. I am not sure anymore that we can give him what he needs.” (Geist, Mary Ellen. Measure of the Heart. Springboard Press. Page 211).

And there’s the real question: not when is it time to throw up one’s hands in despair and ‘trashcan it’–but when it it time to say “This answer no longer works. I need to find a different solution.” Even more, we need to examine the pattern to which we are clinging so desperately. Is it an answer that perhaps doesn’t work, but one with which we feel familiar and comfortable? Do we cling to it because to abandon the solution seems cowardly or possibly socially unacceptable?

I don’t know. I took my painting and tore it into tiny pieces. Then I went home and began again following Duncan’s suggestions, this time beginning with the light colors and adding dark ones only as needed. I think it’s a beautiful painting.

Life, however, is not that elegantly simple.

Triumphs

I know I haven’t written for a couple of weeks, but I’ve been busy having triumphs! So, pardon me, but I will just spend this blog entry updating you a little, and then we can get back to our regular programming. Here goes:

First, the camping: 6 days in Vickie, my Van…much fun. There’s something to be said for being a handicapper: I had this great camp site near all the action, with lots of electricity and water. I could run the AC when it got up to 90 (which it did), and turn the lights on when it thunder stormed (which it also did). I was close to the showers and the food, not to mention all my friends. The only problem I could figure out was driving the van for any length of time—lifting up my right leg to step on the brake was the exact motion that the PT Guy and I have been working on, and I haven’t quite got it yet. Fortunately, the music festival was only an hour and a half from home, so—a short drive.

Then, at the end of July, I graduated from PT. I was really sorry, as I was beginning to enjoy the visits, masochist that I am. But I could see I was getting stronger and more flexible, and the progress was encouraging. I liked my PT guy, too—he was getting to be a familiar presence in my life. But he said, “You don’t need me anymore”, and he left, covered with cat hair from my pouf-y cat who loved sitting in his lap while he counted reps.

Next in line was my first plane trip since the final surgery. QD said that there was no reason to give me any kind of identity card or such, because if I beeped I would get the security once-over, no matter what he wrote on any kind of card. And of course I beeped. What a great way to get attention! People in white shirts and black pants were all over me. “Hey, hold it!” I said. “This is a titanium HIP, not a concealed weapon.” But QD was right: it made no difference to them. I feel so secure….

At any rate, traveling with a cane is a good tactic, too. People help you get your carry-on out of the overhead bin. And they give you the aisle seat. And employees of O’Hare Airport actually OFFER to help you. (I know, I know, that’s almost more than the mind can comprehend, isn’t it?) I managed to walk rather than ride in a chair, which I did before the first surgery: this is real progress. It was really quite easy, all in all.

And finally, yesterday I turned in my wheelchair to the medical supply people! I hadn’t really been using it because I needed it: I was grabbing it because it was such a handy place to sit. Then I remembered QD’s rather stern admonition to “quit thinking like an invalid.” I don’t think the wheelchair was a sign of invalidism so much as of laziness on my part, but it was time for it to go. I really DO have some nice furniture in my living room…

I’m still using a cane now and then—mostly just for long walks, like at art fairs and in big box stores, or up my long driveway to get the mail. But more and more I keep forgetting where I put it, and that’s a good sign.

And I still go back to Orchard Creek every week, to visit my friend Roseann. She has a perfectly lovely apartment there now, overlooking the creek and the trees. Her family is nearby, too—but there’s nobody who will bring her chocolates and trashy magazines about movie stars—so I’ve taken that on as a mission.

Besides, every time I stop by, I get to see my good OC friends.