Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Grammy is a Slayer of Rattlesnakes

Dear Munchkins, 
Did you know that your grammy is a slayer of rattlesnakes? Who'd have thought it? But a slayer of rattlesnakes is what I became because once you hold your newborn babes in your arms, you know you will do anything and everything to protect them. When I was having my children, your dads, we lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains on 55 acres, and it was very hot each summer, which meant that from April through October, we ran into many unwelcome rattlesnakes on our property.
What did I know about rattlesnakes before I moved onto our mountain? Almost nothing. I knew they were poisonous and that it was wise to stay away from them, but I had been raised on Disney movies, and I thought all animals were my friends, or could be if I treated them with kindness and respect. I didn't believe in killing any animal.
Alas, Disney does not prepare you for nature "red in tooth and claw."
My first introduction to a rattlesnake was from a distance. I was hugely pregnant with Amy, and it was SO hot that I had stripped down to my panties only. I was watching Gordon clear brush from around the house with a scythe. He pulled back a piece of wood, and out leapt a rattlesnake. I had no idea until that moment that a snake could leap, though I suppose a more accurate word would be spring. Well, it was one angry snake, and it went after Gordon with a vengeance. Gordon was running down the driveway pursued by this snake. When he got to a level spot, he swung his scythe wildly about, trying to fling the snake aside so that he could kill it. It was truly an epic battle. While I watched, I wondered if I was to be a widow before my Amy Angel was born. Finally, Gordon prevailed.

The next summer, I had my first interaction with a rattlesnake. I was carrying Amy across the deck to put her down for a nap when one of our cats acted peculiarly, so peculiarly that I stepped towards it, which made all the difference. When I stepped, I felt movement next to my shoe, looked down, and saw a rattlesnake coiling and rattling. I jumped back, horrified to know that if I had not stepped toward the cat, I would have stepped on the snake and been bitten. For years after, I only wore cowboy boots when outside.

Over the years, we had many near misses with rattlesnakes. We learned they could climb the steps to our deck because we saw one do it. We lost a cat to a rattlesnake, and a dog almost died, but she was a smart dog and stayed still for two weeks, while we gave her water. She lost all her fur, but she lived.

Then, one day, Hugh Evan ran up to tell me there was a rattlesnake on a hay bale. He had been jumping on the hay stacks when the snake started rattling. Gordon was at work, and I didn't dare leave that snake in the barn because the kids played in the barn. Amy stayed in the house to watch Hugh and Grant, who were quite young, and Gavin, who was six or seven, went with me. The rattlesnake was still on the bale of hay and rattling like mad. I had no moment to be afraid for myself. I picked up a pitchfork and pushed down hard, pinning the snake to the hay bale. I had to stand really close, but the pitchfork held him closer to his head, so while he could rattle furiously, he could not strike. Gavin got the only weapon at hand, which was a hoe. I made Gavin stay safely back, and, while pinning the snake with my left hand, with my right hand, I hacked and hacked at that rattlesnake until I got its head off, which I buried deep in the ground so that the dogs could not dig it up and be poisoned. Gavin and I tossed the carcass into the chicken coop because chickens think fresh rattlesnake is a tasty treat.

By the time we got back up to the house, we were late to meet Gordon for lunch, so the kids and I hopped into the van and headed down the mountain. When you have four young children, you don't have much time to think about yourself, so it was quite some time until it hit me that I had actually killed a rattlesnake to protect my children. Wow. I was quite proud of myself.

Only one other time did I kill rattlesnakes and that was when a neighbor called me and asked me to do it. Her toddler had started to walk barefoot out of the house, but the wire doormat seemed to be wiggling, so she picked up her son, slammed the door, and called me. I came to her place armed with a shovel because I don't use guns, and discovered several baby rattlesnakes tangled in her wire mat. I chopped up as many as I could, but one got away into the brush. I had warned our neighbor not to let her children go barefoot outside, but she thought I was exaggerating and being dramatic. After that day, her children wore shoes outside. 

Our family has many more rattlesnake stories, but no others where I slayed one. When I think back on these adventures of rattlesnake slaying, I recall Dallben's words in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, "For each of us comes a time when we must be more than what we are." Faced with protecting my children and a neighbor's children from poisonous rattlesnakes, I was able to harness my terror of the snakes, and become more than what I was before I had children, which is, bottom line, a mom who does anything and everything to keep her children safe.

Love you, Munchkins,

Grammy, aka Kate

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Orange Juice, Cowboy Boots, and a Typewriter

Some days, when dementia caregiving seems like it is going on forever with no end in sight, I like to remember simple, lighthearted moments in Gordon's and my relationship before dementia raised its ugly head and took away everything we had together. Today, I am remembering orange juice, cowboy boots, and a typewriter.

Long ago, in the early days of our relationship, when Gordon would take me out to breakfast, I would ask him if it was okay to order orange juice for breakfast because, for me, orange juice, which I liked a lot, had always been an extravagance I could not afford, and I did not want to presume that Gordon had enough money to buy it for me. Gordon would always reply, "yes."  

Then, one morning in San Francisco, we were at breakfast, and I hesitantly, politely asked again, wishing I could forgo the allure of orange juice, but my will was too weak. Gordon leaned across the table, took my hands in his, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, "Katinka, I love you more than anything in the world, and all I want to do is take care of you for the rest of our days. We may not have a lot of money, but we will always have each other, and I promise you this, you can have orange juice everyday of your life if you want it, so please don't ask again." He grinned and kissed me.

In addition to orange juice, cowboy boots are another lighthearted moment I am remembering. For one of our early Christmases, Gordon got me a pair of cowboy boots. I stared at them in amazement, not quite sure how to put them on, or why I would ever wear them. Gordon explained that he hoped we would live on a ranch one day and have horses, which he had raised before his divorce. Horses were dear to Gordon's heart. He got me the boots, he said, because he wanted to share a part of himself with me that was a part of his essence, his truest self. It was such a lovely gift, his explanation being the loveliest part, and we did end up, for many years, on a ranch with horses, and I wore out that pair of boots and another pair completely before we had to give up the horses.

But the most special moment I am remembering today is the typewriter, and not just any typewriter, but an IBM Selectric II.  I love to write, always have, and when Gordon and I were first together, I was plunking away on the keys of a very inexpensive typewriter that had no correction feature, which meant that I had to retype a page if I made an error, or use white-out, which meant the whole world (a bit of hyperbole) knew when I'd made a mistake. Gordon saw and heard--expletives sometimes escaped my sweet, innocent lips--my frustration, and he asked what would make my life easier. I laughingly said, "An IBM Selectric II, but it costs a fortune, though you can get a perfectly good refurbished one for less money, but it is still pretty expensive." I told him not to worry because I could borrow my friend's IBM if necessary. Besides, we were both newly divorced and on a tight budget.

Imagine my surprise and delight, when on Christmas morn 1982, six weeks pregnant with Amy, I opened a cleverly camouflaged box that contained an IBM Selectric II. Gordon immediately apologized for getting me a refurbished one, but for me, in that moment, that typewriter shown brighter than all the stars in the sky. Why? Because the gift represented Gordon's belief in me--not just as his wife and the mother of our future children--but as the writer I knew myself to be. I cried and laughed, and we hugged and kissed, and I felt humbled and treasured at the same moment--I knew myself to be a woman deeply loved by the the man whom I deeply loved. 

That typewriter was a symbol of Gordon's belief in me, and I typed on it for many years until the Loma Prieta Earthquake tossed my bricks and boards bookshelves onto it and smashed it beyond fixing. Smashed though it was, I kept it until two years ago when we had to move to a rental house with very little room to spare. 

These days, Gordon no longer takes care of me. He has no interest in what I drink or wear or write on. But once he did, so I write these memories for my children to remind them of what their dad was once like, and I write them for my grandchildren so that they will know the man I, their grandmother, once loved, the man who talked me into having our children because he believed in me as a mother as much as he believed in me as a writer.

Take care,

Kate

Monday, July 6, 2015

Light in the Tunnel


Some days, by no means all, I wake up disappointed that I am still alive. It’s not that I want to be dead, because I do love life and all its wonders and delights, but I cannot see any light at the end of my particular tunnel, and I am so damn tired and worn out emotionally that some mornings I don’t want to get up and keep going through this tunnel anymore. I need light; I need hope; I need to know there’s an end I will live to see. I want to be happy to be alive, but mostly I am only resigned because I am a dementia caregiver for my spouse. Dementia caregiving is a life I would not wish for anyone, not even my worst enemy, if I had any enemies, which, come to think of it, I don’t know if I do, but it’s one of those things people say. When you are a caregiver for a spouse with dementia, you enter a kind of isolating hell you never knew existed. Everything is turned topsy-turvy, inside out, and upside down. You are in a strange land with no road map, no guideposts, and no translator.

Before I continue this post, which may be considered quite negative by some readers, and I suppose it is a pity party post in a way, I want to make clear that my children are the light of my life, my joy. Purely and simply, our love for one another is what keeps me going. In addition, I am immensely grateful that my youngest son and his wife allow me to live with them and, more importantly, not just live with them but make a home with them. Their love, good humor, and help with my husband on a daily basis make life bearable, for the most part.

But what about the least part? A good question, which I will attempt to address for your illumination and understanding.

When my middle son developed schizophrenia, the psychiatrists and psychologists that we saw tried to explain that life is all about perception. I struggled with this idea because I loved my son with all my heart and did everything to help him. Why couldn’t he see this? But he firmly believed that we, his family, including and eventually mostly I, his mother, were cursing him and ruining his life. Everything I said or did was twisted into an ugly misinterpretation/misperception, and all my loving words and actions were contorted into vile lies that became, through some unfixable chemical imbalance in his brain, my son’s reality. Our two realities, while sharing the same actual events, were diametrically opposed to one another. How could that be? My logical brain reeled. My heart broke. My hope, however, did not and does not waver. It may be a mother’s heart talking, but I believe one day my son’s brain will clear, and he will see things as they truly are, and feel once again my unwavering love for him.

Dementia, however, is different from schizophrenia. It is not the challenging, possibly impossible, matter of getting a chemical imbalance corrected; it is the brain atrophying, dying, never to revive, and taking with it your loved one’s reality as well as your own reality, which is intrinsically linked to your loved one’s. Whether it is forgetting with Alzheimer’s Dementia, hallucinations with Lewy Body Dementia, apathy and indifference with Frontotemporal Dementia, or a host of other brain changes that are part of the many existing dementias, the changes in our spouses plunge us caregivers into nightmarish existences, no two of which are the same.

But for all the day-to-day horrors of dementia caregiving that remarkably turn into routines—that’s how resilient we humans are—perhaps the worst thing to happen to a caregiver is to have a family member or friend disparage your situation, your caregiving, and, bottom line, your sacrifice because caregiving is a sacrifice. Your life is on hold indefinitely. So any comment that makes light of your caregiving is a slap in the face that stings and stings.

For reasons nobody, doctor nor layperson, understands, people with dementia are often able to rouse themselves and present normally for a few minutes. So, if you are having a family barbecue or wedding or birthday party, your spouse, whose dementia behaviors make your life difficult at best and a living hell at worst, may, for a few moments, be jovial, polite, and engaged, behaviors you never see in your day-to-day life with your demented spouse. Then, a family member or friend says something like, “He/she is doing so well. Caregiving can't be so difficult for someone so nice and easy to get along with,” implying that your description of your caregiving life is an exaggeration if not a flat out misrepresentation. You want to scream, and, for a moment, you feel like the living embodiment of Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

Why do people make such hurtful comments and implications? We caregivers often discuss this in support groups because we all encounter it. The word perception might be suggested here, but I flat-out  reject it, unless the different perception is an excuse. Often, I believe, people want to protect themselves from having to do something. Your caregiver’s life is so unimaginable that to imagine it would be to want to help, to alleviate, to comfort. But everyone is so busy, and genuine helping takes time away from weekends, holidays, and vacations, so friends and family may create a fictional alternative to your reality in order not to imagine it, and, as an extra benefit, not to feel guilt. 

Truly well meaning people, I have found, do not make glib comments. If in doubt about what to say, it's better to be silent and give a hug, thereby adding light to the tunnel.

Caregivers live a lonely life filled with anticipating the next minor problem or major disaster; it is a daily life of guaranteed uncertainty; but most of all, we live a life of loss. Memories, jokes, shared glances, shorthand comments, traditions, sitting companionably together, making toasts to the future, all the simple things that make up a marriage, a relationship, are gone. We go into our futures, beaming with pride at our children’s graduations, dancing with delight at their weddings, celebrating with pleasure their jobs, and holding with exquisite joy and awe our new grandchildren, alone, all alone. The irony that is dementia is that our spouse is not dead, but still very much alive.

Because our spouses are alive, our caregivers’ desire to share these celebratory family moments with our spouses is as natural as breathing, but when we do try to share a special moment with our living, breathing spouse and are met with complete indifference, it leaves us gasping for the breath of a reality that is no more. We are in a tunnel with no light nor end in sight.

And what we caregivers need in this seemingly endless tunnel of dementia caregiving is companionship and validation because we do not get either from our demented spouse. We long for and appreciate kind words, thoughtful expressions of caring, and hugs. We need to feel connected to the outside world. My daughter takes me to lunch each week, and this is a highlight of my week. It gives me something to look forward to.  My eldest son sends me NPR articles to read that keep me engaged with the world. My best friend John regularly gives me verbal pats on the back in emails. Students post things on Facebook for me. Each and every expression of kindness and caring helps and makes me smile.  It is some light in the darkness.

Some mornings, though, when I wish I hadn't woken up, all that gets me up to face a new day is remembering that once upon a time, my husband and I had a great love for one another that resulted in our children, my favorite people in the whole world, and that awareness gives me the energy to live through another day with hope that I will one day see the end of the tunnel.

Take care,

Kate

Saturday, June 20, 2015

My Life So Far

At 6:55 AM tomorrow, I turn 64 years old. The song "When I'm 64" by the Beatles was released the summer I was 16. My paternal Grandpa loved to sing along with me to the hit songs on the car radio, and he always made wise or funny, and sometimes both, comments about the lyrics. Grandpa was 62 the year that song came out, and while I didn't think he was elderly, I certainly thought he was old. He asked me if I would still need him when he was 64, and I assured him that I would still love him and need him in two years. My turning 64 seemed a lifetime away then.

Now that "lifetime" has been lived, and I am turning 64, and I wonder if anyone still needs me. My children are grown, educated, employed, with spouses/partner, lives of their own, so the answer is probably no. But is "Will you still need me?" really the right question? Do I want to be "needed?" A better question might be, "Will you still want me?" Because I sincerely hope that my children and my friends will still "want" me when I turn 64 tomorrow.

Putting that question aside for the moment, what do I feel at 64? Is there something more I want to do before I die? A valid question because whatever else you are at age 64, you are on the downward slope of life's arc, life's journey, and death is the next really big milestone, which we all hope will give us the answer to why we made the journey in the first place.

So I am spending my last day of 63 pondering my life so far, and what I think is that it has been a damn fine life. I have experienced great love, a best friend, good friendships, rewarding work, and deep, abiding joy. I have read thought-provoking books, listened to music that made my heart soar, seen art that took my breath away, had conversations that lasted all night, and have never run out of curiosity about the world and everything that is in it. I love my children more than my life; I love my pets almost as much as my children; I love food and wine and laughter and Scotland, particularly Orkney.

Of course, there have been sorrows too--a husband with dementia, a son with schizophrenia, an unpleasant childhood, but, on balance, the positive has far outweighed the negative.

For me, one of the best things about being 64 is knowing who I am and not caring too much what anyone else thinks, except for my children. I care very much what they think.

Who am I? I am an introvert with no ability to chitchat, who prefers one-to-one interaction; I dislike large gatherings unless it is a gathering of like-minded individuals whom I know fairly well. I am an insomniac. I get lost everywhere. I have nightblindness. I worry too much, crossing imaginary bridges, trying to prepare for all eventualities. I prefer comfy clothes to stylish. I will never be slender again because I love to eat. I speak my mind, often before thinking, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I am honest and loyal and caring. I am passionately curious, and I am wise, though sometimes I feel like Cassandra. I delight in shared, meaningful glances, verbal shorthand, and in-jokes; basically, I love to share. I am a reader, a thinker, a film lover, a teacher, and a writer. I like my life to resemble a tapestry. I treasure my friends, and I am a rememberer. I believe in truth, love, and God, but I do not go nor belong to a church. I am a seeker, a cynic, and an optimist. I love life.

Hmm, so is there anything more that I want to do? Yes, lots of things, like meet and get to know my granddaughter Grace Marie in September as well as all my future grandchildren, write another book, write a play, go to Orkney and Shetland with my friend Lisa, maybe experience romance again, and laugh with my friends as we grow really old. However, I can honestly say that if I were to die soon, I would have no regrets, nothing major left undone. That's a pretty good way to feel when you turn 64, don't you agree?

Now, back to the question, "Will you still want me?" Only you can answer that, but I sincerely hope that the answer will be "yes" because I still want all of you.

Take care,

Kate, aka Kathleen, Kathy, and Mom

Monday, January 5, 2015

Why I Read

Long ago, when I was four years old, my mother was ironing and watching TV. I was sitting on the floor cutting out photos from a magazine and asking my mother to read all the words on the pages. My mother kept telling me to watch TV, but I told her that I didn’t want to watch TV; I wanted to READ!

My poor mother grew so exasperated. What was she to do with this little girl that didn’t want to watch the new black and white TV set that so transfixed our family in 1955? How was she to teach me to read?

With a sigh, my mom sat beside me on the floor and showed me some words and pronounced them. That may have been my first moment of known joy. I quickly cut out words from the magazine and pasted them under the cut out photos, making my first story. Then, I went on to read words to my mother, stunning her, but mostly she was grateful that I caught on so quickly so that she could go back to ironing and watching her program.

A year later in kindergarten, I was incapable of taking a nap, being an insomniac even then. One day, I was whisper reading a story to a little girl lying next to me on our nap rugs. The teacher, a harridan called Miss Campbell, who never should have been allowed within a 100 miles of a child, with a nasty tone in her voice, asked me what I was doing. I told her I was reading a story to the girl next to me. Miss Campbell got a cruel smirk on her face and said, “Well, little Miss Smarty Pants, you are a liar; you can’t read. Kindergartners don’t read.” I told her my mom had taught me. Miss Campbell cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West and said, “Then, you get up here right now and read to the class. That will teach you to lie.”

So, I made my way to the front of the class, picked up a book, and read it perfectly. Instead of praise, Miss Campbell began frothing at the mouth, unable to keep her dragon steam inside. She marched me to the principal’s office and called my mother. When my mom got there, Miss Campbell and the principal admonished my mother for teaching me to read. My poor mom. She said, “All I did was show her a few words, and she did the rest. She was eager to read. Nothing would stop her.” Then, the teacher and principal told her what she’d done was wrong and that the school knew best about teaching, blah, blah, blah.

Fortunately for Miss Campbell and me, I got pneumonia in both lungs and was absent the entire second semester of kindergarten. My grandma came to help care for me and read to me for hours each day, as I had to lie in a mist tent and be still. She brought me the Greek myths and adventure stories, and had me read them to her. In hindsight, those were glorious months of reading, reading, reading and talking, all day long, about what we read.

Those few months came to define for me, from then until now, what an ideal relationship consists of—fellow readers discussing books and ideas together, sharing the joy and wonder of discovery.

I have no idea why or how I learned to read so young, why it was a need, a passion. I loved stories more than anything, and I wanted to write them as well as read them. Certainly, both are still a passion to this day. I cannot imagine a day without reading, without writing, without learning something new. Reading is as necessary to me as breathing.

Books have, quite simply, saved my life. They got me through a terrible childhood, and they’ve helped me deal with my middle son’s schizophrenia and my husband’s dementia. They have been my steady friends when my human friends seemed lost to me because I could not find (or thought I couldn’t) the right words to connect until a line from a book, play, or poem showed me the way. Books have kept me from despair, kept me sane, and are a steady source of joy.

I’ve pondered the reason for my desire to own many, many books as well as my reluctance to part with them, and in the last week or two, I think I’ve finally stumbled upon the answer—somewhere in each book is, I truly believe, a bit of truth that I want, nay need, to discover.

Most of my life, I have searched for answers, particularly the answer to why we are here and what we are supposed to do with our time. I clearly remember at age ten, walking the neighborhood streets on the 4th of July and wondering about the why of it all. I came home and eagerly asked my parents, but they told me to quit asking ridiculous questions.  I didn’t stop asking questions; I never have; I never will. I ask questions about anything and everything, and read far and wide, in my determination to attain answers or maybe just some wisdom. Nothing frustrates me more than not understanding why. Nothing.

My bed is surrounded by bookshelves; each room in our home has bookshelves; they are filled with poetry, drama, philosophy, politics, film, literature, myths and legends, and much, much more—thousands of volumes of treasure, some discovered, some yet to be discovered, and some to be rediscovered. And in each one a tiny piece of the answer I search for, or so I hope, which is why it physically hurts when I periodically cull my library at my children’s request because there is no more room. What if I missed a piece of the truth in a book that I donated?

So, whenever I have extra money, you guessed it, I buy more books, heedless of the lack of space, sure that one day, if I read widely and wisely, an answer, maybe the answer, will become clear to me. Until then, I shall happily keep searching, while wondering, sometimes, if the search itself might be the answer.

Take care,

Kate, aka Kathleen