Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sandwich Generation - the rubber hits the road

kw: book reviews, short fiction, short stories, poetry, caregiving

One of my earliest memories is of leading my grandfather by the hand to take a walk around the front yard of his winter house in the desert. I was about six years old. My last memory of him comes about six years later, shortly before he died; it is my only memory of him speaking. In those days it was called "hardening of the arteries." It was probably Alzheimer Syndrome. He was peaceable in his dotage and my grandmother cared for him until the end.

Take a look at this face. This is his grandmother Elizabeth when she was about sixty. This is an Alzheimer face. He wore a similar face much of the time: disconnected and vaguely unhappy. This woman's daughter, my great-grandmother, died in her fifties. From dementia? We don't know.

My mother and her sister inherited the syndrome. My aunt was more cheerful about the prospect, telling me (before she lost the power of speech), "If I'm going to go crazy, I intend to enjoy it!" My mother coped the best she could, and we felt fortunate she didn't stop speaking.

My last memories of my mother, just a month before her death, began when I walked into my parents' sitting room where her gurney-bed was: she looked up and called me by name. She hadn't spoken my name for five years or more. During that last visit, which lasted just four days, she called me by name a few more times. I am told this is common. In both her case and her father's case there was a rallying and greater clarity in the last month or two of life. Somehow I knew this without being told, and expected she would not long survive my visit. Six weeks later I crossed the country again to attend her funeral.

My father would tell a more arduous story. Until he was 80 he cared for her himself, but he had to hire a nurse to help during the last year or so. He got so burned out. So did the nurse. After Mom died she went into a different line of work.

Now I sometimes wonder whether I'll be next in line. It used to worry me a lot. Here is a poem I wrote to my mother (but never showed her) a few months before that last visit:
I held your father’s hand
When I was just a little boy.
He needed help to find his way around.
He was like a friendly puppy,
And he liked to be with me.
When I’d walk around the block, he’d come along.

The only time I heard him speak,
I was nearly 12.
I was asking for some tweezers for a thorn.
He spoke up, and said, “I have some!”
And he led me down the hall
To his tool bench at the back of the garage.

A retired piano tuner,
He had tools of every kind:
Wrenches, screwdrivers, a tuning hammer, saws.
The tweezers that he handed me
Were longer than my hand.
But I managed to pull out that thorn with them…

More than forty years have passed,
And as we walk around the block
I must hold your hand, so you can find your way.
This is something in our family,
They say it’s in the genes.
When it is my turn, who will hold my hand?
Had I known a certain volume was being prepared, I'd have submitted this, perhaps with some small chance it would be accepted. I've just read Living in the Land of Limbo, edited by Carol Levine. It is subtitled "Fiction and Poetry about Family Caregiving", and is one of the more touching and memorable volumes I've read.

Ms Levine has organized the book well, because "family" means relationships in all directions, up, down and sideways. I noticed that many of the writers are Chinese or other Easterners. The Western way seems to be to warehouse people when we get uncomfortable with them, and then feel virtuous if we happen to visit at least weekly. Folks seem to add it to their list of duties right on a par with "going to church". "OK, an hour for church on Sunday morning. Check. An hour with Dad (or Mom or Aunt Rose…) on Wednesday afternoon. Check." If you've never heard the song by Harry Chapin, "The Cat's in the Cradle", click and listen to it now.

I usually abhor "free verse", but the poems in this book are so touching I didn't mind. The various pieces got me to think about all my relationships. I am so glad I knew all my grandparents, and that our son got to know all four of his. I am glad for "immediate family" of course, but also for aunts (one still living) and uncles and cousins, and those second and even third cousins I've been privileged to meet. One good friend of ours helps out his cousin frequently. He wonders how she goes on, with so many ailments, and a husband in even worse shape! They are fortunate he is available to help out.

Well, it is clear a book like this is hard to write about. It is the best kind of book, one that triggers self-reflection and self-revelation. I have little fear of Alzheimer's Syndrome now. I seem to have inherited my father's brain (he is 93 and still pretty competent) rather than my mother's. And if I do succumb to dementia? It is in God's hands. A wonderful book like this shows we need not feel alone when we need to care for someone, or need care ourselves. We have plenty of company.

Now I must reveal my identity explicitly, which I haven't done before in this blog. The poem above, titled "Memory", is Copyright, 2004 by Larry J. Van Stone. Please contact me if you wish to use it, using a Comment to tell me your e-mail address; I monitor Comments, so the Comment will not appear unless I Publish it to the blog, which I would not do without your permission.

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