Journeys

 

stewart

It is precipitous, this fall to mortality to which I have a front row seat.  Seems like yesterday Uncle Bobby was waxing on about old girlfriends and pontificating about the perilous future of our country.  In a matter of weeks, we are navigating new terrain.  It’s unsettling, this new place, and it calls forth an oddly tireless exhaustion, driven by the grief that is moving into my soul.  A grief in limbo. A larger grief is yet to come, but it has begun its insidious arrival.

Uncle Bobby is still here, but not in the same way.

I already miss the recliner chair that he spent too much time in this long winter. It’s emptiness nicks at me each time I walk into his apartment.   I don’t like the hospital bed in his room.  I wait impatiently for him to give me some indication that he is coming to peace.  Instead, he seems defeated, agitated, and so very tired.  His voice has lost its deep timbre, and today, as he tried to articulate I saw only exasperation in his attempt to moisten his own lips.

“I’m sorry for this baby talk.  It’s all I have.”

No need for apologies, unless they are from the Good Lord to whom Uncle Bobby gives a nod every day.  I want an apology from the Good Lord for stealing this more than good man’s dignity.  I confess that I don’t understand this painful part of taking one’s leave. I want the Good Lord to cease the lessons of suffering and get on with the redemption already.  Uncle Bobby deserves no less.

There is a philosophical query many of us casually engage in​ while we still have our physical and mental health: Would you rather lose your mind or body first?

I am now very sure of the answer.  Take my mind, Good Lord, I could not bear to watch the decay of my body with full faculty.

There is nothing of Uncle Bobby’s body that hasn’t been assaulted.  It is bruised from head to toe, just from shifting in his bed or the caring manipulations of nurses while they bath and change him.  His eyes need warm compresses to alleviate a building film, and reading even the menu of food that he will ultimately just push around his plate with his fingers is futile.  The fingers and the food?   His flattened hands have lost all fine motor skills. He can no longer draw  a plastic cup to his lips to drink with  regular success.  He tries and tries, and spills and spills.  His legs have not borne his weight in three months, his toes are riddled with open cuts threatening infection.  Bed sores spread on his back and bottom as he perseverates about a relentless itch that is a symptom of the overall breakdown of his skin.

He does have his hearing, though.  He can hear loud and clear.  His hearing is so acute that he can hear every creak in the building.  His hearing often interrupts his sleep.

In a rare late-night visit this week to meet a new overnight caregiver,  I was audience to the “sun downing” people  make reference to in the elderly.  As I spoke to Yolanda, his 11-7 guardian, I heard Uncle Bobby’s voice, not calling to anyone, but speaking in sure sentences.  I quietly entered his room to see his right hand gesticulating in the air while he gave what appeared to be a speech.  His voice was sure and strong, his eyes open, but not awake.

“The Congress needs to meet with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Not just the heroes, but those who suffered as well.  Our country must hear from all good men who served……”

Suddenly, Uncle Bobby is Jimmy Stewart and I am observing a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, and it is entrancing.  Uncle Bobby’s mind is busy, racing in the night.  He has things to say, opinions to voice.  He is a patriot, a World War II Veteran of the South Pacific who suffered in ways we will never know, and at night when his world is quieter he says what he has wanted to say for a lifetime.  He is too much of a gentleman to foist his humble opinion on others in the light of day.  A gentleman who is not yet ready to let go.

Sometime this winter I thought June it would a good time to grab a getaway on the coat tails of my daughter’s summer college experience.  While she studies in Savannah, I’ll steal away to Charleston and try it on for future fit.   What’s a week when I haven’t been away for more than 48 hours at a clip in nearly two years?  Historic Southern charm seemed like a great idea to get the reboot I need. I root for the ocean, Spanish Moss and the sweet smell of magnolia to ease my concern that maybe this liberal Northeasterner might be “too much” for the gentile South.  It’s my year of my reinvention, right?

Let’s put a pause on that, shall we?

Tonight I decided to abbreviate that trip.  72 hours is all I suspect I can stand to be away from Uncle Bobby’s journey.  Even that will be a challenge. I will settle my daughter in and get back to the business of Bobby.  It is the only thing that makes sense to me on this night of a nearly full moon.

They’ll be time for re-imagination galore at the end of his journey.  I’m on his time for the time being.  He is frightened and I am his constant.  I can try on Charleston any ol’ time.

The journey?  Well, the sands have picked up pace in the hourglass.

As for the Good Lord, I confess that despite my religious pause, I can’t quite seem to shake the old Catholic out of my soul. The Good Lord might want to take a listen right now.

“I need you to get busy with the business of Bobby, help him find peace and quiet his extraordinary mind.  It’s time for an assist, Good Lord.”

The assist is well earned.

Food , Glorious Food

Several years ago I had the great fortune to direct a middle school production of “Oliver!”  Little did Charles Dickens know that this dark story of orphaned boys in early 19th century London would be brought to life with such grandeur.  Notably, The opening number, “Food, Glorious, Food!”  perfectly captures the yearning for comfort food.  So good is that opening that you can almost taste the morsels which make the sooty-faced orphans pine.  Do we eat to live or live to eat?

When my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in September of 2005, it took nearly 3 weeks for the doctors to make an accurate prognosis.  It was imperative that they find the source of the initial cancerous cells first. That wait was almost inhumane, but my mother bore it with remarkable stoicism.  I suppose she knew that the cause mattered not at all, the result would be the same regardless of where those insidious buggers began their destruction.  Of all the Irish luck,  the roulette wheel landed on the adrenal gland, giving her an extraordinarily rare cancer with little evidence of successful treatment, and no positive outcome at the stage 4 level.  The prognosis was 3 months to live.

My mother, father and I left that prognosis meeting in silence, each of us digesting the news which was delivered with compassion by an oncologist whose name I don’t even recall.  We drove the 10 miles from his office to my parent’s suburban colonial, each in our own stillness  Mom was exhausted when we got home and went directly upstairs.  Not knowing what else to do, I followed her and asked her what she would like for dinner.  Seems a silly question in light of the news, but dinner plans were important in my Irish Catholic home.  Throughout my life the day seem to start with the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”

She sat on her bed,  thought carefully and said, “I think I’d like some meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.”  Okay then, that was easy enough.  I ran out to the market and got the goods and prepared while she napped, while my poor dad sat in the den struggling to wrap his mind around the inevitable.  

Meatloaf is best made with your hands; it’s nearly impossible to meld the hamburger, onions, eggs and breadcrumbs properly with a spoon and my mom’s kitchen had no such modern convenience as the Kitchen Aid mixer.  The old fashioned way was best, and there was something cathartic in preparing that loaf and finally pressing it into a bread pan, topping it with a Heinz Ketchup glaze and setting it in the 350 degree oven.  Mashed potatoes are more work and in my mom’s kitchen the Foley ricer was the tool of mashed potatoes.  Once they were boiled, peeled and cut, the stainless steel contraption would do its magic, smoothing out the potatoes so that just the right amount of milk and butter would create a creamy, fluffy concoction.  Green beans take no effort at all.  A quick boil and shake of salt and there you are.

Mom had lost significant weight in the months before diagnosis and her appetite had dwindled significantly since the word Cancer had been introduced nearly a month before.  In a twist of Irony, she often mused that she wished she had eaten what she wanted during her middle years, rather than battle her weight.  Juicy hamburgers and creamy sauces on pasta were traded for white fish and chicken, chicken, chicken after a heart attack stopped her in her tracks in her early fifties.  She survived the heart scare and thought perhaps that might be enough medical complication for a lifetime. There is a hint in there somewhere that we ought to live a little more freely while we may.

I prepared her plate of food, which she wanted to eat in her room.  On the tray, I put a placemat, silverware and a cloth napkin with a sterling silver ring.  A small glass of whole milk was a bonus and I carried it up the stairs carefully.  She was awake, but lying down when I walked in.  Upon my entrance, she scooched up and rearranged her pillows.  In that moment, she may as well have been just battling a cold or the flu.  Regardless of the dire information of the day, her countenance was peaceful, tired, but she was, as always, receptive and polite.  You could almost forget in that moment that the number of nights in the home she lived for 45 years were nearly over;   that nights of peaceful sleep were now numbered.  She asked me to put the tray by her side in the empty space to her right.  

I sat on the floor next to her for thirty minutes or so, but we did not talk of cancer or doctors or what happens next.  As I remember it, we spoke of my children and how long I would stay this visit. We planned my return the following weekend.

Mom didn’t touch a morsel of that meal on that October night.  Nor did she eat a bite of the roast chicken, baked potato and broccoli I made a week later.  Same for the pork chops, applesauce and potato she requested subsequently.  Her appetite was long gone now, and her tastebuds were muddled with medication.  It took me some time to understand that it was the smell of those comfort foods she craved; the soothing effect that comes from the aroma of the foods we love.

Mom passed away not 7 weeks later on the greatest food day of all time: Thanksgiving.  I’ve grown to love the irony.  Her death was met with kindness to my dad from all corners, and that kindness came often in the form of food.  His freezer was filled for almost year with casseroles, lasagna, chicken parmesan, chili,  and creamy soups.  Not a soul worried for him about carbohydrates, salt or sugar intake.  Not one person prepared white fish for him in the year following my mother’s passing.  Food, high calorie, delicious food, was their show of love.

This musing of mine is brought on as I watch Uncle Bobby’s appetite dwindle to nothing.  His most notable activity each day is to go to breakfast and dinner at the assisted living home.  He gave up lunch months ago, and sustains himself midday with Oreo’s and Fig Newtowns.  He will occasionally slip in a wedge of apple in a nod to health.  I puzzle at the menu at “Maplewood”, as it reflects our generations obsession with healthy eating.  The menu is fancy and announces “farm to table freshness”.  It’s impressive in its breadth and attention to detail, but Uncle Bobby and his dining companions often comically remark on the offerings.  

“What’s this, Fra Diavolo with roasted red peppers?”

“”Sea Bass? Where’s the fish and chips?”

“Since when did brussel sprouts become popular?”

I get the marketing of assisted living.  I understand that the elegant presentation in the dining room is not really for the residents, but rather the families who are trying to come to peace with the fact that the comfort of home is gone now for these elderly loved ones.  So while I understand it, I wish I had the courage to march into that kitchen and meet the chef face to face and announce, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, hotdogs with mustard and relish, spaghetti and meatballs.  That’s what they want!”

But like Dicken’s orphans, they will push their fancified gruel around the plate, and fill their imaginations with the glorious food they loved throughout their lives.  If they are like Uncle Bobby, they will wish for the midday to come so they can inhale some Oreo’s or Fig Newtowns, or his other guilty pleasure: buttery Ritz Crackers.  Food, Glorious Food, Indeed!