Sunday, November 29, 2009

This Old House

When I was going through Kelsey's things trying to find the right quote to use for her memorial folder, I found a detailed list she had made entitled "Seattle". It was a list of things she needed to do before she could move there. I could tell it was a recent development based on some of the items, but it wasn't the first time she had gotten it in her head to try and get away from here. She had tried to convince me to give her bus fare to Boston at one point, having an online friend who had offered her a place to stay. She had considered Arizona after that, wanting to be closer to her aunt and younger cousins. She had not discussed Seattle with me, probably because I would have said the same things I always said, which all related to how she proposed to live. And I had pointed out more than once that wherever you go, there you are. You can leave the place, but not the disease. It would move with her. Yet, at the same time I understood her compulsion to leave. and a part of me wanted her to make her escape for a number of reasons. I confess that having her somewhere else, particularly as she deteriorated over the last year and Mother took more and more time and attention, was appealing just for my own selfish purposes. But, I also understood the desire to leave the shadow of her adolescence behind and try for a fresh start somewhere. Plus she had a big spirit, and it was being unduly confined here. She had been born and raised in Austin and aside from her time in treatment, she had never lived anywhere else (Round Rock versus Austin does not count - they are essentially different shades of the same color). The problem was that the practicalities outweighed everything else. She had no money and her prospects for being able to go to a new place and find work, shy and unwell, was slim (pardon the Freudian slip). So, to a large extent, she was stuck here. Her list of things she needed to do or pay off before heading off to Seattle was a big dream with little hope of coming to fruition.

Sunday morning as I went outside to put out the deer's food, I looked around me and realized I'm very much in the same situation. I would rather be just about any where but here. I looked up and down the quiet suburban street, hoping no one was peering out their windows back at me in my unfortunately coordinated outfit of slippers, flannel blue pajama pants and brown hoodie and thought how nice it would be to be someplace where no one could see what I wore to feed the various wildlife and where I wouldn't have to worry about the man from down the street driving by and yelling at me for feeding them at all. But, those are minor irritations compared to the house looming behind. This unusual, interesting house that we have occupied for the last 11 1/2 years, much to its detriment, holds way too many memories for my liking. I want to be away from it. I feel as though I am almost a character in a Stephen King story and the house holds me hostage somehow. As it is, I can barely stand going upstairs, and it has fallen into a sad state of dusty disrepair. I had a vague notion of spending some of the long weekend cleaning up there, but I trudged up the stairs once the entire four days and then only when I absolutely could not find what I needed any other way, and with a fair amount of delaying on my part. It's not that I'm scared that I will run into some otherworldly apparition up there, but there are echoes from both girls' pasts that will always be here for me. There is no secret that I've long yearned to go back north as it is. This has always been a place I was hoping to hang my hat temporarily until I could get back to someplace where there are real mountains and actual seasons (as opposed to really hot, spelled briefly by a few weeks of not-so-hot and about two days of actual cold). But now, I feel as though I might suffocate if I cannot get out of here; this place has become oppressive.

Of course, with my mom not in any shape to even make it here for Thanksgiving dinner, let alone be hauled across the country (although she herself almost daily talks about when she'll be moving back east), leaving the Austin area isn't really practical, so, like Kelsey and my mother, I am largely trapped here. However, I reason with myself, we could at least move back into Austin. Maybe back to Hyde Park, where my Sunday morning outfit and matching disheveled hair would be considered Big-Lebowski-Chic and probably admired, along with my Democratic tendencies, as proof of my individualism. Worst case scenario, it would not catch even a sideways glance. And whatever house we lived in would have lots of history, but it would belong to someone else, not me. I would be free to start a new chapter in it. But, these are all wistful thoughts. I am completely and irrevocably stuck here. At least for now.

All these thoughts make me sad. Sadder than I already am. I love this house. As much as I hate it. This house deserves better owners than us. Like our pack of dogs, it suffered as more and more of our resources funneled into other things. Built in 1980, the house needs a consistent level of care that we haven't been able to provide it. There is the break in the septic pipe, there is a hole in our back porch, roots from the ancient and massive oak out back long ago grew through the pipes leading into the house, making the upstairs bathroom unusable except for the sink (a situation we purposefully left untended for years to keep Kelsey from purging up there -not that it was particularly effective). I have popcorn ceilings still, for crying out loud. The list goes on. I do what I can with what I have left, but we have lost pace with the march of time. Without a rather massive infusion of cash or someone with more handyman skills than I possess, time will continue to chip away at this poor old house. Of course, the paradox is that I cannot even realistically think of selling the house without making some of these repairs, but I need to sell the house to be able to afford to make them because, like most of us, it's my biggest investment. See what I mean, Stephen King could not have entangled me any better.

I think the house must hate me for my neglect. Just as I hate it for housing all these memories, even the happy ones from the very early years, because they are so painful to face right now. But I saw two Super Bowl championships come to me from right in this room. I have all my deer here, including my beloved Red, who is named for the Katherine Hepburn character in The Philadelphia Story and who will respond to her name when I call for her. If you look out the windows just right, you can't really tell that you're not in Montana and there aren't mountains past the graceful oak trees that tower over the house. I can meander down to the creek at the back of the property and watch the egrets as they search for fish in the waning light of day, spotlighted by fireflies fluttering in and out of the shadows. How can I leave these things? Maybe the question is, how I can get back to the point where love of those things outweigh the shadows of the other things that passed within these walls?

Friday, November 27, 2009


Well, we knew it would be tough, this first major holiday without Kelsey. Finding the right words for it is a challenge. I really cannot. For me personally, the actual holiday itself was not as disastrous as I worried it might have been, but only because there was the busy work. Coordinating the meal, worrying over the house with eight dogs and the dust and muck that creates, pulling out the linen and china and crystal, worrying over whether Kelsey's Diva cat would make a mess of things, all of it served to distract me from the place at the table that I wasn't setting. I imagine things were harder for Marissa and Greg. They both pitched in to help with the preparations, however, and the day pulled off as a result of family effort, in a way that we really haven't had in a while. Dealing with Greg's mom was hard, I will readily confess it. Her own grief, as from the very beginning, clashes against our own. In a way, my mother's contempt for Kelsey has made it more bearable to deal with her. She rarely speaks of her and doesn't miss her, so comforting her is not among our many tasks. Kelsey always gravitated toward my husband's family, finding a level of understanding on that side of the genetic fence that she couldn't get from Mother. Maybe Mother couldn't go there because of the lack of actual blood ties, but I tend to think it was more generational. Mother was, after all, practically old enough to be Kelsey's great-grandmother and she therefore has a more buttoned-up approach to individual frailties. Add that to her advanced dementia, and it's a wonder she remembers I lost a child at all. But, my mother-in-law is another story. She feels her granddaughter's loss like an acidic burn because they were close, and she has not had the opportunity to process it and try and come to terms with it. That is very obvious every time we have any interaction with her. So, we try to limit that interaction. Because one thing we know for sure is that we cannot act as her outlet. She needs one, on that we can agree. But, it cannot be us. I believe we can also agree on that point. Yet, we know she means well. The situation is one of those messy scenarios that likely play out in every "PT" household. Everyone grieves in their own way and those ways don't always fit together seamlessly. The holidays put a spotlight on it. Intellectually I know that, but I did find myself wondering how I was going to get through Christmas if she pushes the same buttons. Worrying about it is premature, I suppose. I need to get all the way through this one first.

As it turns out, Mother was too tired to come over. The irony of this is that we put on the traditional holiday dinner mainly for her benefit. Greg's mother would have hosted us at her apartment dining room as an alternative. Further irony is that the receptionist had called me earlier in the day to say Mother was up front waiting to be picked up. I explained we hadn't planned on picking her up that early so we wouldn't wear her out. In the end, she did not seem to be particularly upset that she missed the time with us, and I have to accept this is just the way it goes when someone is 91 with multiple health problems.

I noticed Greg was a little more edgy than normal during the UT game and Marissa was hard to read, but we all got the hours to pass and the day to end finally. I failed, however, to mentally prepare myself for the next day. Black Friday. Traditionally, this is a mellow day. It's a day to catch up on chores or errands long pushed aside. This year, the linen tablecloth clean and pressed, the china stored away, the house still relatively dog hair free, the quiet settled in once more. I am not sure why, I guess maybe because I was so intently focused on surviving the actual holiday, I had no counted on the oppression that would come with that silence. As I have mentioned before, the quiet house gets to me. I think the same was true for Greg as well. Neither of us stayed at the house for long. I fled like a perp leaving a crime scene. Greg left before me. I spent the day out, coming home having suffered through a bad movie and with blond hair.

Now, it's Saturday. I have TNT on a little too loud. I have laundry waiting and poo to scoop in the yard. I cannot continue to flee the scene, but listening to Kyra Sedgwick's thick false Southern accent does not cover up the quiet in the background, and the yawning void it represents. I find that I am becoming impatient with myself and my frail state. I want to take control of myself again and enjoy time alone again (well, surrounded by a pack of dogs and an ill-tempered cat), but I can barely hear myself think with this stupid show on. So, I think I'll leave.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Perspective - Get Some

As everyone who has ever even laid eyes on me knows: I bleed the Black and Gold. Sometimes that is more fun than at others. Right now is one of the not-so-fun times. They just dropped a critical game against a team that they dominated statistically, and for whom winning is a real rarity lately. On top of that, our two time Super Bowl winning quarterback gets hit in the head (and this is the man who planted his face through a windshield and almost died a few years back), and our veteran, trusted back-up breaks his wrist. Things look dark. I have fought back tears all day. All I have, I keep telling myself, are these Steelers. They are all that are keeping me going. I rely on them. I can't imagine what will happen to me now. Overly dramatic? As Sarah Palin would say, "You betcha!" I wallowed in self-pity like a fat pig in a deep pool of mud. Then I came home tonight and read a comment left on "Steelers Today" Facebook wall. This raving jacka*s is calling for Coach Tomlin's firing, pointing out that Coach Cowher was a better coach (in his opinion) and only missed the playoffs once. Then he committed the Cardinal Sin. He finished by stating that he followed the Steelers more than most of us. I commented back in a less than discreet fashion. Here's the lack of boundaries coming out of me again, I'm afraid. I could have just grumbled a little at how horribly ignorant and probably racist he is, and then move on, but I'm not about to suffer this kind of insult, however. I just cannot allow his ignorance to go unchallenged. Someone had beaten me to the punch on correcting him on the fact that Coach Cowher did in fact miss the playoffs more than once (five times was the answer), but his response was polite overall. I was less polite. I called him both wrong and insane. I did not cuss, but only because I was afraid Mr. Steeler Today would block me if I did. I am livid beyond belief. I mean, c'mon. Let's refresh, shall we? Who are the defending Super Bowl champions? Mmm, that would be: US! Tomlin, in his young career, has not missed the playoffs, and we are still on pace to make them. We may not, but c'mon, who would dare call Jeff Fisher a bad coach and look at the start his team had this year? Greg has pointed out to me since we first met that the degree of separation between the best NFL player and the worst one is pretty minor. There are 1,696 players in the NFL out of 305 million people in the United States. It's a pretty exclusive club. The Chiefs didn't suit up to lose the game. It was a shocking loss, in that I'll agree. But, that's all it was. It wasn't the end of the world. But, you know what, it took that incredible dirtbag to bring me to that realization. My tendency is to hang all my hopes on the Steelers, particularly after all my other little forays out in the world have tweaked my grief rather than helped heal it. But, I was once again reminded that I have to do the work on my own. Big Ben cannot wipe it away for me. Coach Tomlin cannot call a play and make it disappear. So, I guess I should thank Mr. Supreme Jerkface for helping me get some perspective. I can only hope somone does the same for him. (And don't ever tell me you follow the Steelers more than I do - you incredible ignorant bleep!)

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I pointed out the irony of our situation to my grief counselor this week: this Thanksgiving, the kick-off to the dreaded First Holiday Season PT, in a way will be easier than the last several. How does one reconcile that?

For most of my life, Thanksgiving was my favorite of the major holidays. I mean, what's not to like? It's cold out (mostly, okay sometimes) so you get to have a fire (sometimes you have to open a window or turn on the a/c, but...), it's centered around some of my favorite foods (mmmm, turkey) and you get to watch football all day. Growing up, the one thing I didn't like about it was the parade. Dad would drag me out of bed at some ungodly hour and make me watch the Macy's Day Parade with him. In some ways, he was like a little kid. He loved parades. I liked sleep more. But Mother would give me a glass of eggnog with nutmeg on top, and that would ease the pain. Then she would serve the same thing every year. Turkey, stuffing, crescent rolls and cranberry sauce that came straight out of the can and still had the indents of the can molded into it when she set it on the table. There was never a deviation to the routine. Maybe as I grew older I refused to get up to watch the parade, but the day was predictable and - well, the word that sprung to mind was "safe". I guess I mean that it could be counted on. Everyone knew their role and fulfilled it year after year. It had a lazy, relaxed feel to it. That is how traditions are built, I guess. We hold onto what makes us comfortable.

Now imagine how it is to be bulimic on a day like Thanksgiving. It is the furthest thing from safe that there is. The entire day is centered around food and lots of it. (Well, unless you're us, then it is equally centered around food and football.) Generally, it is not just a lot of food, but a lot of calorically dense food. I will never be able to look out on the world from my daughter's eyes, but I would imagine it's really tantamount to torture. The easy thing to do then, one would think, would be to downplay that aspect of the holiday. But, on the other side of the coin for us always was our family and almighty Tradition (imagine a little Fiddler on the Roof playing here). When things were still staged at Greg's parent's house, the menu was out of my hands. But, even once it shifted, and I hosted it every year, I felt as though I was between a rock and a hard place. Particularly with the two grandmothers, whose traditions were now being handed down. For them, it was important to see those traditions carried forward; certain favorite dishes, table linens they once had, even the timing of the day (to eat before the Cowboy game or after!). And, there were other family members who had no stake in either of these opposing positions, other than that they deserved to enjoy the tradition and pomp and circumstance of the day like a normal, American family (presuming there is such a thing). I never knew how to equitably balance all those things, and the holiday eroded for me long before this particular year. This year, the menu is not the worry. I get to make the mashed potato dish Greg's mom made. I already have Mother's cranberries for her. I'll make the pumpkin muffins I've made since I was first on my own. None of that will trigger Kelsey this year. I won't have to worry and fret every time she darts into the kitchen, or pushes back from the table and immediately goes down the hall. I won't have to worry about how hard it is for her just to get through this day that's supposed to be a happy one. I won't have to worry how it tears her sister up to watch her behavior. So, again, how am I supposed to feel about that? Well, this year, I feel completely lousy!

I would like to get it back some day, this formerly favorite day of the year. I wonder if that's possible. I just put eggnog on the grocery list. Who knows, maybe I'll even get up and watch the stupid parade in Dad's honor to begin re-establishing a long lost connection with it. I kind of doubt it, though. Sorry, Dad, maybe next year.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Now That's a First

If someone who had recently experienced a life altering trauma were to ask me to tell them one thing to expect Post-Trauma (or PT as I will call it), I would respond, "Everything will be completely different from here on in." I look at the world from different eyes now. I see things differently and react to things differently. Things even taste and smell a little differently. The best way I can describe it is that it is almost as though you woke up the next morning in an alternate universe where things are very subtly askew. But, in point of fact, it's you who is different. And, with your different self, you now experience everything as though you're experiencing it for the first time. Initially, those experiences tend to be all hard if not downright horrific, but as time wears on there are actually some small surprises that are actually pleasant, like the first time I genuinely laughed at something. I laughed, then caught what I was doing with a little shock. However, like little earthquakes, there are after shocks, and that first brief laugh carried a big after shock. The dip back down was fairly severe, as though I felt guilty for having a light moment and had to be self-punished for it. But, the next time it got a little easier, and I trust that the trend will continue until there finally comes a day when I feel no after shock at all. Or maybe I should say I hope that's the case.

At any rate, since everything is being done for the first time in this new PT world, I can't really say how I will react. I am completely unpredictable, even to myself. Being close to me must be quite the challenge these days, and for that I am sorry. I hope that I can at least re-learn about myself, but I think how I am right now is not how I will be once all of this has been processed and just becomes the scar I carry with me rather than the open wound, so there's no point in really getting to know myself too well at the moment because I am a work in progress. And, I'm not sure I would like what I saw right now anyway. Because, while I am a deep pool of patience for some things I might not have been before, I become highly agitated with other things that would not have even really caught my attention before. As an example, I waded in way too deep in a situation the other day where I wanted to impress something upon someone and they weren't getting my message, even though I felt I was being very direct. I, in the recent past, would have stepped quickly away, having said my piece and let the rest of the chips fall where they may. But, this time I didn't, nay couldn't, really do that. I kept engaging in the conversation, trying to make my point (which I never really did, by the way). Later, because I was very upset over the situation, I wondered why I became involved in the first place. I finally concluded that it was because I felt a particular life view I hold was important to impress on my friend (which is that sometimes you express regret even if you feel you have done nothing wrong simply because the other person is hurt or upset by your actions) because losing someone over something so easy to avoid is just plain tragic. Really, I wanted to save my non-recalcitrant friend from ever looking back on the situation with regret or a sense of loss. And, she hurt another friend, and that upset me as well. My passion about it completely caught me off guard. I had no idea I would feel that way. I think I felt I could avoid someone else having a loss, even if it was just the loss of a friendship. Silly maybe, but there it is. I think maybe I have to re-learn boundaries in this new world of mine as well.

However, I have run astray. The real point to all of this is I have to do everything I've been doing for years and years once more for the first time. I had the first time I went to the movies, the first wedding, the first funeral, the first concert, even the first time I went grocery shopping. Every little experience is now colored through a different lens. Some I have done often enough that a routine has formed once more, others are still a work in progress. I have pushed myself to keep getting back out there. I think of myself a bit like a TV detective trying to break down a door; I may get repelled back a few times, but I'll eventually break through, maybe a little battered and bruised from my trouble. Greg is more cautious about venturing back out into the world as much. I'm not sure which of us has the better plan. I may power my way back to some level of normalcy faster, but first I have to endure watching someone celebrate his 24th birthday and feel the ripples of emotion as a result that Greg has spared himself.

The big one I think everyone who has been through a life altering experience knows they will have to work through is that first holiday. Technically, for us, that came very quickly. July 4th was only a couple of weeks following Kelsey's death. And, it was odd and hard, I think we would all agree. We were completely out of sync with the rest of the world. While everyone was celebrating, we were still in deep shock. But, Independence Day is a low maintenance holiday for most of us. Maybe a picnic and some fireworks, but it's not the huge affair other holidays are. We got lobbed a softball for our fist PT holiday. Now we're expected to move on up to the Big Leagues. We are about to endure our first Holiday Season. And how, pray tell, are we to get through that?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Deja Vu

There is a familiar feel to where I am now in trying to understand what is happening to Mother. I am strongly reminded of the early days of coping with Kelsey's eating disorder. First, there came the denial. Not flat out, bald faced denial, but a more subtle "it can't be that bad really" kind of a denial, followed by the realization "no, it really is that bad" and then deciding I better figure out what I'm dealing with. And, like I found with my early forays into the world of eating disorders, people who are involved in Alzheimer's care are happy to answer my questions and there is material on the Internet, but I have to go and look for it. I, for instance, learned that delusions and hallucinations are common amongst late stage Alzheimer's patients from a pamphlet I downloaded. But, as I experienced nearly a decade ago, no one has stepped up front and center and offered to navigate me through the extremely murky waters I now find myself floundering in. Of course, who would do that exactly? Who would be so bold as to assume I need and want the help? Most of you may be thinking that I am a smart enough person, I should just do the homework to figure it out. The problem I have found in both cases is my research is hampered by my own ignorance of the situation. Sure, people may be willing to answer my questions, but do I know the right questions to ask? Do I even know the right term to Google to find the resources I need?

Not always, I have found. And, like before, I have initially done more things wrong that right. As an example, I have spent the last year working to correct Mother on some of her more outrageous statements. I let it go when she calls me my dog's name or thinks that plastic flowers are real, but I have corrected her on some of the things I found harder to live with. When she asks me where something is that she tells me she has been asking for, but in fact never has, I have been quick to try and correct her. When she accused me the other day of both lying and stealing, I reacted like I would if anyone else accused me of such egregious things; I defended my reputation. I'd like to think I did it calmly, using my therapy words and tone, but I corrected her nonetheless, or tried to. I realized I did it in part because she's the mother. The mother is supposed to be the wiser one, the one who loves and supports you and gives you sage advice. It's almost as though I reverted back to the old days with Kelsey when I wanted her and expected her to just snap out of it eventually. I guess I thought if I corrected Mother she'd think about it for a minute, realize her mistake with a "Oh yeah, that's right" and everything would be fine. Well, Kelsey didn't simply snap out of it. Mother never will, of course. She will only get progressively worse. What I ended up doing was aggravating both of us actually. And, I am learning, aggravating Mother only serves to escalate her psychosis, if that's even really the right word for it.

Oof, and the anger. Oh, the anger is very familiar. It may be misplaced, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. As with a rebellious, scared teenage child, a failing, scared elder will lash out at the closest caregiver. I have been told that, and even though it helped to have someone say it to me, I recognized that is what is happening. I am the "safe" one, the one that will take it square on the chest and still keep coming back for more. Unfortunately, my chest is pretty bruised after nine years of this from my child and from the knowledge that I wasn't ultimately strong enough for her. I definitely am not sure I am strong enough for my own mother's volleys. But, well, I look around and there's no one else around. Greg helped out yesterday by making sure Mother had her TV on the right channel for the game, saving me from missing the start of it, but when it comes to the really tough stuff, that's not his problem. He's nursing his own bruised heart after all.

The one thing that is very different from before is there is no coming out of this one. I can rest a bit easier with the knowledge that, no matter what I do, Mother will never be cured. All I can do is try and make it easier on her and everyone else around her by not whipping her into a frenzy every time I see her.

I've wondered what the point is in making me relive all of these emotions and trials and tribulations again. Does the cosmos want to see if I learned anything from the first go round? Or is it just some sick twisted Karmic joke being played on me by some Raiders fan in the sky (surely one of them has made it up to heaven at some point)? Or is this just my turn and everyone will be tested at some point? Or, is it just random and this is just how my particular cookie crumbled, as Mother might have said way back in the day? I don't know anymore than I know why someone decided to allow the Browns to have a Monday night game. So, I'll worry over it some other day - it's time to turn this horrid excuse for a game off and get some sleep!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Life with Mother

I returned to Mother's side after my weekend away with a great deal of trepidation. What would I find? Would she accost me with some new accusation, rehash the last one like some interesting new twist on water torture, or would she have forgotten all about it? The one thing I didn't expect was that she would be lucid. While that is not a word I would use to describe her, she was contrite. She seemed genuinely sorry, as if she somehow knew something she had done or said had pushed me away. I felt even worse than I already felt, heavy guilt now mixing with my disappointments from the weekend. I brushed it all aside as my having been in Dallas, figuring it would harm nothing to have her believe I had been there for longer than a quick day. She even was aware that the company I work for maintains its head office there, so, careful not to lie, I just said casually that is correct, but I did meet Amy while there. (Obi Wan taught me well - and if you don't know what I mean by that, don't worry about it, it just means you're not a total nerd, unlike me.) I walked away from that visit wondering if her wild and crazy behavior the week before really did have more to do with her heart condition than her mental health. Because if her heart wasn't working correctly, I wondered, blood and oxygen surely wasn't getting all the way upstairs. Maybe, just maybe, with the new medication for her heart, she would be bearable again.

And maybe that was a contributing factor, but that new sweet Mom didn't last. She has swung back and forth like a pendulum all week. Even without a brain eating disease, this would have been a challenging week for her. Her sole remaining sibling is in rapidly failing health (a report I did not credit as real until a third party who happened to be in her room when the call came in verified it), she herself continues to have a rapid heart rate and now has developed pneumonia. The disease has taken full advantage of this to take her on a mental roller coaster ride. I actually saw her cry, I mean really cry, this week. She had cried in the hospital a couple of weeks ago, but she had been in a lot of pain mixing with her severe anxiety that day. Her crying jag this week was caused by nothing more than a bumpy ride in the facility van on the way back from a field trip. To put that in perspective, I've tried to think of the last time I saw my mother cry prior to these two recent events. If I give her credit for crying when my father died, which I actually do not have clear memory of her doing, it has been since January, 1992.

I have no doubt that her ancillary medical issues are escalating the Alzheimer's. But, Alzheimer's is, even by her medical team's admission, the primary culprit. It is a fatal disease. That actually does not frighten me, either for my mother, or for my own sake should I ever be unlucky enough to fall into its arms. Mother has lived with a fatal disease in Parkinson's for over two decades now. And, she's 91. The reality of her situation is that something sometime will be fatal. And, as near as I can tell, and from what I have researched, she is not in any pain as a direct result of the disease. If anything, it may be helping her deal with the general indignity of a body breaking down by simply making her unaware of the more unpleasant facts of her physical situation. There are moments where I think she knows something is amiss. She will make a statement meant to set the record straight about something to prove she is still in control of her facilities. I have heard her say that she knows the famous plastic orchid that we placed in her room is fake, only to proudly point out its new blooms to me the next day. She has introduced the nursing staff to my dog Cheyenne as a male, then she will tell them she knows Cheyenne is female. On Cheyenne's next visit, her name has been changed back to Hans or Shane, and she is once more firmly a male. But, in a way, those brief moments of clarity make the rest of it that much harder to endure.

I never know what is real and what isn't now. I don't know what to react to and what to write off as delusion. The head nurse at her nursing home suggests I look into everything rather than make a potentially harmful mistake of ignoring a legitimate complaint. She also suggested that I try to gauge the undercurrent of what drives the complaints and try to address that. As an example, she has repeatedly insisted that the nurses are on strike, which she wrinkles up her nose and denounces as being "disgusting!" Before I caught on, I would look out into the common rooms and notice more nurses than patients, most of them familiar faces, and wonder what in the world was happening. But, I was advised, maybe Mother feels she has not received enough attention that day and so the staff, to her mind, must be on strike. That's all well and good, but it's exhausting. I feel like Alice sliding down the rabbit hole.
The most frustrating part of the whole nasty mess is that she cannot be reasoned with, even when her behavior is detrimental to her own well being. Currently, that is manifesting itself by her refusing to stay on oxygen or to accept nebulizer treatments for the pneumonia. Confronted with her x-ray, which I was sure would sway her, she announced that the machine was outdated and the man who was operating it was an idiot.

Force her to accept treatment, you say? You quickly learn that the legal waters I am treading are murky at best. I do not have Medical Power of Attorney, but even if I did, unless Mother is completely incapacitated, she is in control of her own medical treatment. I cannot force her. Yet, when she pulls something brilliant like checking herself out of the hospital against medical advice, I am the one who has to drive her home. I have no say, in other words, but I have to be there to pick up the pieces.

All I can really say is: Alice, this ain't no Wonderland!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cougar's Day Out

So, the next day I drove the roughly 200 miles to Dallas to see my favorite American Idol, David Cook. For you long time blog followers, you will likely recall me mentioning him before from time-to-time. My interest is not strictly limited to his musical abilities, I have to confess. (And, yes, I am old enough to be his mother.) So were half the women there. I am not alone in this particular semi-obsession. It's the eyes. He can use them like a weapon. If he leveled those milk chocolate eyes straight at me and asked anything of me - anything at all - I would surely give it to him. Greg is aware of this with no ensuing protests. He indulges it knowing that snowballs have a better chance in Hades than I do of ever having those eyes meeting mine.

I went by myself, but had plans to meet my niece there. Severely directionally challenged, I arrived absurdly early rather than risk not being able to find it. Arriving a little more than three hours before doors were to open, I noticed women were already in line. I meandered around the area a bit looking for something to occupy myself, but not finding much, I simply lined up with them. When you join a group that early, you are in with the more passionate fans. I kept my iPod on to amuse myself, but I could see and hear enough to know some of these women had seen him multiple times. They knew his band and spoke about them like they were all high school buddies. And the ages ran the gamut. From the barely teens to women who probably could be my mother. Of the smattering of men in the crowd whom I couldn't immediately label as gay, I noticed the steely look I see on men accompanying their girlfriends to romantic comedies at the movies. They know they have to do these types of things in order to be granted permission for poker nights or to be lucky in the bedroom, but it extracts a heavy toll on their manhood, so they set their jaws and keep their eyes on the ground and just suffer through. I was amused by all of this, but couldn't help but wonder what Kelsey would think of her mother standing there with all of these women, all trying to get a look at those lovely orbs and hear delicious deep voice.

Once my niece joined me, and they allowed us into the venue, she very expertly guided us to a spot a little stage left, second row back. And there we stood for another hour or so waiting for the first opening band, casually chatting with the women lucky enough to be leaning into the barricade in front of us. They spent the time swapping stories of their concert experiences. A girl my niece knows casually ended up behind me and joined in the conversation. Very quickly it became clear I was surrounded by concert junkies. The two women in front of me clearly would go to anything and everything, but the group as a whole followed the Idols around as a preferred listening experience. My niece, I already knew, was a big fan of the show and caught Kelly Clarkson whenever and where ever she can. She had already seen David Cook a couple of times as well. But, she didn't stop there. She also runs a pretty wide gamut, from country to punk. She announced this was her eighth concert of the year covering a tri-state area. I was doing a little running math in my head, and was flabbergasted at how any of these young girls could afford to do that. And, as they conversed away, each trying to out-do the other regarding the people they'd seen and the seats they had gotten and how much they knew about each artist, I watched them constantly fiddle with their iPhones. I seriously need some financial advice from these girls, I decided, because I can't afford either their lifestyle or their toys. I would have been highly, highly amused by all this but for the fact that my back was really beginning to protest standing for that many hours with no support. I am, I thought more than once that night, decidedly too old for this.

However, I made it, and both his opening bands were good and not bad to gaze upon in their own rights. They were engaging young men, clearly enjoying what they do. I ended up coming home with both of their cd's, and I will gladly see either band again. But, they weren't the show I came to see, and finally, more than five hours after I began standing around south downtown Dallas, my Idol came on stage. I caught myself audibly saying "Oh my God, there he is." when he walked on. I was like a teenager on her first date with the guy she's had a crush on all school year. And, I was not disappointed. Those eyes lose nothing in translation in real life. I already knew he wasn't particularly tall, and could use some work with a personal trainer, but he is, in my opinion, completely and utterly adorable. And an awesome showman. He fancies himself a rock star, as does his band. I was also amused by that. I think to a certain degree his status as American Idol, the pop music machine, must frustrate him, but if it does, he doesn't let his audience know. He chatted with them, he flirted with them, he tossed himself into them. He seemed genuinely excited by their adoration, and it is no doubt at all to me why some of these women border on stalking him. He seems like the guy next door who is really nice. He is a natural showman. I was happily distracted by my little voyeurisms. But then something happened.

He pauses the set and calls the band members for the two opening acts out on stage to announce that his bass player, a kid named Adam, would be turning 24 at midnight. I'm sure, if anyone would have looked at me at that moment, they would have seen the shock on my face. I felt my eyes go wide in order to take this kid in. He's cute in his own right, shaggy haired and thin. And, there he stood, my daughter's age and about to turn one year older. Of all the nights for me to be in the audience. But, I blinked once or twice and joined everyone else in singing Happy Birthday to him, all the while with him looking genuinely embarrassed and uncomfortable. I was shaken by the experience. There was this very young person I had seen on Saturday Night Live, in videos that I have on my iPod, a former lead singer of a reasonably known regional act, who I always assumed was a bit older, and then I was faced with the reality that, already fairly successful, he was about to hit a milestone my child won't have the chance to see. I don't resent him for working hard and making a semi-name for himself backing up the man who used to back him up (they were in same band in Tulsa, OK pre-Idol), but it was the reminder of my child not being there for any more birthdays that got to me. I sincerely hope this young man lives long and, as Spock would say, prospers, but I mourn the fact that my own flesh and blood will not.

I realize too that when things like that happen to me, those little shocking reminders, they wear me out. It's as if I become automatically ten years older with each small reminder. I must be two centuries old by now. As I climbed back in my car to drive home, I was exhausted. Granted, at almost the half century mark, I had stood without a break for nearly eight hours, but it was a deeper level of tired than that. The fact that I made it home without killing someone is a minor miracle. I actually drifted off twice, just briefly, on the long drive back. I won't put anyone at risk like that again, I can tell you. And what about my poor precious car?! I could have damaged her! I still feel a little jet lag from my "wild" weekend, and can barely keep my eyes open now.

A few days went by before I could really put my finger on why I continued to feel so drained and down. I knew I would have, as Sarah Palin might say, "gotcha" moments, but I was surprised when they reached out for me at events I thought would be safe havens, and I knew that was part of it. The disappointment I felt at having been reminded so fully of my loss when I wanted so badly to forget it just for a while was fairly intense, and the strain of it exhausted me. I realized I had been trying to push past the normal course of the grief. I was trying to circumvent it and fully rejoin the human race again while I had a free moment, and that idea rose up and bit me in the behind. The grief just will not be ignored. For now it is just a part of me, and I cannot leave it behind. I know that now. So, now, I have to learn to co-exist with it. I wonder if David Cook, who only a short time before me suffered his own catastrophic loss, would understand what I mean.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Getting Lost on the Way to the Short Cut

I learned something this weekend. I learned that there are no short cuts on the way out of grief. You just have to do the work, you just have to do the time.

This was my big weekend away. With Mother seemingly convinced I was both a liar and a thief, I decided I could skip visiting her for a couple of days to allow that thought some time to pass. I had a full agenda to fill all this free time. First there was the Pow-Wow. This is a time honored tradition for me actually. This was the 18th annual event in South Austin, all but four or five that I have attended. Originally sponsored by Native American parents of Austin students who wanted their children to understand their heritage, it has grown to an ambitious single day Inter-tribal event, the largest indoor Pow-Wow in the country. At first, I went with both the girls, then only with Marissa, then Marissa made sure she had a friend along and then, finally, I was on my own. But, I look forward to it anxiously every year. For me, there is something calming and cleansing about the experience. I call it getting centered. I recharge my battery by listening to the drums, the stories, watching the dancers, walking among the vendors, and eating fry bread. For the longest time, however, I watched the traditions play out with a tinge of bittersweet longing. The sense of belonging and family I would see amongst the dancers and their families was something I was both drawn to and jealous of. Finally, I reconciled myself to the fact that I was an outsider invited to look in once a year and learned to simply appreciate the invitation. Last year I snuck away from Mother's hospital room to grab a couple of birthday gifts, eat my piece of fry bread and catch just a couple of dances, only to find out a month later that someone had gone into Mother's room while I was gone and made $350.00 + worth of calls to India. This year, I was determined to allow myself as much time as I wanted, maybe all day, to soak in the atmosphere and watch the dancers. I have never had the luxury of staying all the way until the end of the competition, which wraps up at about 10 PM. This year, I thought, if I wanted to, I would. No one cared where I was or what I was doing. I was totally free.

But, I hadn't counted on a couple of things. First was the drive down there. Every year it has been held at an Austin Independent School District sporting facility called The Toney Burger Center located off Brodie Lane in far South Austin. Every year I have gotten lost on the way. Nowadays, I only become vaguely lost, taking a wrong exit or turn, quickly realizing my mistake, and finding the right way. This year was no different. I almost automatically took the exit that dumped me by Kelsey's old apartment. As I swung myself around, I passed the book store I had taken her to when we were looking for a planner to help her track her bills, and the restaurant where we ate lunch and the market she liked to shop at. This was her world. South Austin has a vibe to it that suited my daughter better than the staid, conservative bedroom community I raised her in. I felt her everywhere. I thought I could shake it off once I got into the facility. But, then came the Grand Entry. Generally my favorite part of the entire day, it is an awesome display of all the dancers accompanying a color guard into the arena to "open" the competition. Since this is more of an educational event, this Pow-Wow has three. As I watched the midday Grand Entry, they came to the traditional Memorial Song, and the Emcee asked the audience to remember those who were no longer in the arena or in the stands. I became so emotional, I drew looks from the audience around me, but I endured it. However, I found that sitting on the hard bleachers of the auditorium hurt my back, and I ended up leaving even before I usually do. I'm not sure what I felt as I left and drove back, once more, past the places Kelsey frequented, but it wasn't centered.

Not to fear, there was the David Cook concert the next day...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Control Issues

You would think that after having lost one of the two things most precious to me, not much would frighten me anymore. Well, there's still the loss of the other most precious thing (Marissa). And, the idea of a home invasion really freaks me out. Not that I'm that worried about it; I have eight good reasons not to be, but the idea of one is terrifying to consider. I worry about the Steelers every time they fly for an away game. (That's not as random as it might seem. Also a figure skating fan, I began following the sport right as the US team was rebuilding from losing their entire team in a plane crash. So, I worry a little. Things happen, give me a break.) I'm afraid of fire. House fires specifically. (I was at the vet the other day while a house was on fire a couple of streets away. Everyone else was going about their business as if nothing was happening. It was all I could do not to run screaming from the building.) And I'm afraid of Alzheimer's. It terrifies me. I'd rather have almost anything happen to me personally than to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. My theory about why it frightens me so badly is because I would lose control over my own thoughts and body. I grew up in a household with a military officer and a domineering woman who didn't like to be told what to do. Control is something I was practically bathed in. The idea of not having any over your very inner most thoughts and having it be your own body robbing you of it...well, I shudder to even consider it. And, it's not just a vague, "Oh, I'd really hate to have it" kind of fear, it's a lose sleep worrying about it kind of fear. I read once that people who have a hard time staying on task were more at risk for the disease than others, When we were moving into our first rent house as a young married couple, Greg's mom was helping unpack and said in exasperation at one point that I couldn't stick with any one task. I worried the rest of the day about whether or not meant that I was at risk for the disease. I was 24 at the time. So, I've worried over this for a while. Every time I can't remember a name or the character from a movie or why I went into this room or that one, that needling little voice will taunt me, "Maybe you're a prime candidate for Alzheimer's. Maybe you already have it!"

Well, Mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I'm face to face with my arch nemesis, and terrified to death of it. I lost my daughter to The Beast, my name for her eating disorder, and now Mother is in the throes of this horrible thing. Actually, I am learning, it is not a new thing for her. She is, as best as I can tell (no one has stopped long enough to really say) in the last stages of the disease. I read a pamphlet from the Alzheimer's Organization that breaks it down into seven stages, and I estimated she is firmly at stage 6.5. This is a new diagnosis for her, but it is not a new condition. Her nurse practitioner took some time with me the other day, which I really appreciated, and she was the one who laid it out the best of anyone so far. She explained that Mother, being a highly intelligent woman, had been able to mask it and compensate for it very well, but that she is in a very advanced stage of the disease. As a matter of fact, she told me, they are treating this as her primary condition. All other issues, including an alarmingly high heart rate, are secondary when they are determining her care. Which is why she is not in the hospital as I write this. Her heart condition warrants it, but it is so distressing to her that everyone - and I do mean everyone, me most of all - determined that trying to correct the heart rate by other means is best. What all this means, I realize now, is that she has probably been progressing with this for years. Everyone involved with her knew she had senior dementia, but several times Alzheimer's had been ruled out. So, how do they know the difference and what is the difference? From watching health care professionals work with her in the past, they ask her a series of questions to determine if she knows who she is, where she is and what is happening. She has always been able to answer them. I am learning this is not all that uncommon, it is not called out for what it is until it is fairly well advanced, because things begin to happen that are unmistakable. And, I can tell you, they are hard to accept as a relative, so I would imagine I'm not the only family member of an Alzheimer's patient who has tried to sweep what they are seeing under some mental rug and blame it on medications, exhaustion (on both parties part) or just simply "quirky old Grandma", but eventually it can't be denied anymore.

We began looking more closely when she randomly pulled all her cash out of her investment account. I was highly alarmed by that, as I've mentioned before. An evaluation was done at that point and the diagnosis came out of it. So, it's been a month or so since that label got placed on her, but I will readily confess that I wondered even then if it wasn't a convenient way for the doctors to give me what I needed to try and protect her from herself. However, some of the signs that they were right kept creeping up. She would tell me things that she seemed to believe wholeheartedly, but I could really find no evidence for. For instance, that the nurses at the nursing home were on strike and how "disgusting" that was. She would elaborate on how she had not been fed until 2:00 pm and there was no one to dress her. Yet, she seemed to be dressed and, as I would look out to the central room, there seemed to be lots of staff around, and regular, familiar faces, not temporary workers. Then there was the evening she told me a man who had worked the scene at the drug party where Kelsey was murdered had come and talked to her about it. I was horrified. I had to leave. I spoke to the psychologist who helped with her evaluation about it and he assured me nothing like that happened. Yet, this is what she tells everyone there, that my daughter was murdered at a wild drug party. I find that horribly hurtful, because to me it just indicates what she thinks of my daughter. This is how her mind worked around her death. I'm not sure why it matters really, but it does. But I still rationalized it somehow as that is how she is when she is tired. I just couldn't quite face it full on. Yesterday I had to. Because yesterday I realized she is highly delusional and is having hallucinations not just when she is tired, but on a regular basis. I had to meet her and the facility's driver at the cardiologist where she promptly accused me of lying to her about giving her her Medicare card (sort of a story in and of itself, but she had insisted on having it back, and I finally gave it to her after she yelled at me, but I had tucked it away in a strong box in her closet). She then said it was stolen, at which point I became alarmed because that card is her life blood, if she loses it a lot of really bad things could happen, which is why I didn't want her to have it. She said she had called Camp Mabry to get a new one, and I began to suspect that something wasn't quite right. Then she theorized I had stolen it. I explained I had put it in the strongbox, and she said I wasn't telling her the truth because she had someone bring her a chair and she had stood on it to look for the card and it was gone. I knew then none of this was true. She cannot stand, and she certainly cannot balance on a chair, and no one at Hearthstone is crazy enough to let her try. Yet she repeated these things over and over. She couldn't quite decide, it appeared, whether I was more of a liar of a thief, but I certainly was to blame.

Once we parted company, I had the nurse on duty go into her room and check. There was the card where I had left it. Mother's comment was that I must have snuck in her room and put it back. They made several copies of it, but Mother refused to let them secure the card. She has it with her right now. I doubt anyone is going to get it away from her at this point.

The other thing I am learning is that the primary caregiver, which is me in this case, is often the focal point for all the patient's anger and angst. I know now that this probably accounts for the explosion in 2007 over sending Marissa off, and to a large extent, I take comfort in that. Her reaction was less the real her than the disease, but the enormous heat of her hatred toward me yesterday was intense. And, here's the thing: there is no one else. I can't simply turn to a brother and say, "Okay, it's your turn for a while." or have one of us deal with her finances, and the other one her dirty laundry, and keep the peace that way. I have to do it all. I cannot separate myself from her as much as either of us may want that right about now. I know I beat this poor dead horse all the time, but I continually confronted with the reality of it.

I can tell you one thing, I am using this as an excuse for a full weekend off. I am about to head down to south Austin for the annual Inter-tribal Pow-Wow and then to Dallas tomorrow for David Cook. She is so angry with me for my supposed crime that she does not want my company, so I'm going to take what positive I can from that and have a weekend dedicated to myself for once. But, when I drag in from the 200 mile trip home tomorrow night, I will have to face this thing, this horrible awful thing that scares the pants off me once more.

More about it later - for now, I am off for some fry bread!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Doggone It

There are a lot of things about living with dogs that make life more complicated. The most obvious is that you can never just pick up and leave town for a few days. With cats, you could probably get away with that. Not so with dogs. Particularly older dogs with special needs and medications. Then there's the dog hair. It gets every where. It's on your clothes, in your car, in your briefcase, for crying out loud. Like wearing black? Forget about it! And your home will be covered in dust. I always say that I clean twice as often to keep a house that's half as clean. And that's if you never have any behavioral problems, like chewing up books or shoes or other dogs. Then there's always the little accidents. Plan on keeping lots of paper towels, cleansers and a carpet shampooer close by. And don't forget air fresheners. There are not enough in the world to keep the house from smelling like a wet dog on a rainy summer day. Oh, and don't plan on sitting all the way through a movie unless it's at a theatre. There's no way you won't have to put in on pause to let some dog in or out, probably multiple times.

So, why do I do it? Because no one, and I do mean no one, loves you like your dog. They give themselves completely over to you. They believe in everything you say and do without question. They are always glad to see you, and they don't care what you look like when they do. Fat, skinny, old, young, you are the most beautiful human they have ever beheld. They would lay down their life for you. They accept it when you are cross with them and forgive it. They will protect you from intruders, and they will try to protect you from things that intrude into your heart. If they can't, then you can see how it hurts them too. Yes, without doubt, no one loves you like your dog. And, here I am surrounded by a house full of unconditional love.

And all these loving, gentle creatures lived through all of the chaos like the rest of us. They were hardly immune to it. I didn't understand it for the longest time, but we would have occasional dog fights break out. I did know enough to know that certain times would be more prone to setting it off than others: the holidays, for instance. But, sometimes things would be seemingly just dandy and one of them would jump another one. Almost always, the one doing the attacking would be Noelle, the Dalmatian, and the one being attacked would be Ashley, the pit cross. Ashley never started a fight, but she could certainly finish one. Generally Noelle would emerge the worse for wear. At one point, my vet was so concerned, she all but insisted I work with an animal behaviorist. I actually spoke to one and was considering it when Kelsey left for residential treatment the first time. Then a funny thing happened. The fights all but stopped. And not gradually, but suddenly. Occasionally, Noelle would act like she was thinking about it. So, I would separate them again, and every once in a while something would actually break out, like a year ago when the cat knocked a bird out of the tree and all eight dogs wanted it. But, it was pretty immediately clear that the tension in the house centered around the eating disorder, and as soon as it was out of the house, so was the reason to be combative. Noelle did try and challenge Chappy when he first came to live with us. He turned all 85 pounds toward her, raised his ears just a bit as if to say, "You really want a piece of this? Well, bring it on." and stared at her. She literally turned tale and left the room, and has never even remotely challenged him again. As a matter of fact, things have mellowed to the point where Noelle and Ashley lounged on the couch together with me as I wrote the previous post. I still act with caution and generally make sure they are separated when we're not here, and it's still clear that Noelle gets jealous of Ashley if she thinks she's gotten too much attention and still probably wouldn't invite her to a slumber party, but no one ends up with stitches any longer.

At first, I thought they fought for the usual doggy reasons: two similarly sized females, one being introduced into the house as a full grown adult when the other one was already established. But, looking back on it, I think it was more because Noelle is joined to my hip whenever she can be and Ashley was "Kelsey's dog", coming into the household about the same time Kelsey began to slide. As I mentioned, Ashley slept upstairs and spent most of her time with the girls. She would lay on the landing when the girls were down here. I think Noelle came to symbolize the tension surrounding Kelsey's eating disorder with Ashley, maybe even blame her for it. I thought the fights might pick up when Kelsey moved back in, but they didn't. I think I'd had enough therapy under my belt by then to keep my tension level steady, at least in comparison, and they are, after all, older and slower. Maybe it's just too much trouble to pick a fight these days.

I worried again about how the dogs would react on the long horrible flight home after receiving the news that Kelsey had died. Why in the world would I even think about such a thing? The thoughts just kept streaming in, that's why. I could not just shut the brain down, and I worried about all kinds of random things. But, I thought for certain that the old behaviors would emerge with the undeniable tension that was sure to permeate the house. That never happened, I am relieved to say.

I don't remember how they reacted the night we stumbled in from the airport. I was too sad and tired to really pay much attention. But, the next morning and for the next several days after I noticed something odd. It was almost as though they had gotten together and given themselves an assignment to look after us. Seemingly every day one dog in particular would be on duty. That dog would be by my side in particular wherever I went, including poking his or head in the shower, looking up at me solicitously, as if to say, "Can I get you anything?" The first day it was Chappy's turn. The cheerleader. He brought toys to me, sat with me, did little goofy things to try and catch my attention, but I don't think I really noticed what he was up to until my mother-in-law came over. As much as we love her, she made things harder that first day. Her ideas on how things should be handled for the service were different than ours, and certainly not what Kelsey would have wanted, so we were trying to gently tell her no as she cried, so Chappy tried to block her from me. Literally. At one point, she went to hug me, and he slid himself between us, almost knocking her down.

After that, I noticed that one dog in particular seemed to be the one who stayed just a little closer on any given day. Even the blind dog and the oldest, senile dog took their turn. Precious, my oldest, was particularly sweet when she tried to be comforting by leaning her tired, frail frame into me. The one dog who didn't take a turn was Cheyenne. She seemingly could not handle the weight of the grief. I tended to sit outside in the mornings, surrounded by the pack, drink coffee and cry. Really cry. Cheyenne would look at me pityingly, as if begging me to stop, then slide under the deck. Occasionally she would pop back up to see if I was still crying. If I was, down she'd go. If I'd stopped, she'd stay with me. It is as if the level of the grief was just too much for her to bear in her owner. She has always been very intuitive about my moods, trying to cheer me up when I'm sad or upset, burying her head in my leg often and pawing at me, letting me hug on her if need be. But, she became overwhelmed with my being overwhelmed and let the other dogs have a turn looking out after me.

She has returned to her role as my chief care taker, and I have noticed that she always seems worried about me now, doing the head-butting-into-leg-thing often, never letting me wander into the bathroom alone, and making sure she's watching nearly every move, as if she's a little bit worried I'm going to do something drastic. I didn't understand why she seemed to think I was sad now, after all this time, until two people told me recently that I am sad and it's noticeable. I think I had stopped realizing my current state was anything less than normal for me. I guess it is the new normal, it's just not a good normal, and Cheyenne is aware. So, I guess I will know when I come through this when she no longer gives me that sad, worried stare, and lets me have some privacy in the bathroom again.

I know that dogs feel sadness, they grieve when we grieve. I just still don't know if they understand who is missing, and what they think about that though. I watched Ashley in particular for some clue to that, but Kelsey had long since stopped paying much attention to her in favor of Tum-Tum, and Ashley had resigned herself to it with the same quiet patience she generally has shown for everything in life. So, aside from taking her turn in the rotation, I didn't notice a change in her behavior. And, I really don't know if they still recall who was lost even if they once understood it. Do they think she's just on a long trip maybe? Do they care particularly, other than they want us to be happy? Do they miss her terribly and just buck it up so as not to add to our burden? Are they glad she's gone maybe because they know that means so is The Beast? While I can generally communicate with my animals, the deer who come every day included, those are the deeper questions I have not yet been able to discourse with them about. Maybe someday we'll get to that point. In the meantime, I can only ponder. And light a soy candle - it smells like dog in here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Eight is Enough

So, I've written about my friends and my family, but I haven't really told the whole story of my family because I have not introduced you to the most plentiful members of it; my dogs. I know I have mentioned in passing that there are eight of them. Add to that the two cats and the Beta fish, and it's quite the zoo. Why do I have so many? Well, the answer sort of depends on how you mean the question. I can tell you how they all came to be here, but if you want to know why I ever wanted to gather that many around me, then that's a complicated answer dating all the way back to my childhood. Briefly, like just about every other kid, I liked animals as a young girl. Most of my peers eventually grew out of it, but I never really did. As with many things about my personality, I think it had a lot to do with being an only child in a small town. I just made friends with animals easily, and there were more of them around than there were eligible friends. I tried to be friends with a popular girl who lived behind us. She didn't like me, but her yellow lab did, so the dog joined a circle of four legged companions from the neighborhood who hung out at my house. And in addition to that core little group, I could just attract them. Having some dog or other follow me home was not that unusual, like a nerdy Piped Piper. My childhood friend Nikki was walking with me once and watched as a dog and I became very excited to meet one another. Completely straight faced, she said, "You must have been a dog in your past life." I didn't think that was a bad thing to say to me. Like every dog loving child, I dreamed of being a vet until one day I saw a girl in my class coming in from the playground with a pretty deep gash on her knee, bleeding profusely. As I recall, she was actually fairly calm about it, but I felt a little queasy, my stomach did a couple of flip flops, and I knew then and there my calling lay elsewhere. What I then dreamed of doing was making a successful living and just having as many dogs as I possibly could have. And for a while after we moved into this house and this property, it looked like that might actually come true.

When we moved here eleven years ago, I had four dogs. Three of them are still with us, and the remainder, with the exception of Chappy, joined us our first years here, before Kelsey and Marissa demanded the level of attention and funding that they did. And I accumulated them by reputation mostly. Word got out that I was a sucker for a lost or needy dog. All of the dogs came from either a shelter or were strays except for two, one who belonged to a policeman who had to give her up in advance of being assigned a police dog. One other was from a litter from a Dalmatian that belonged to a friend of my sister-in-law. My husband drove to Fort Worth and back to pick her up for a birthday surprise in 1995. Hence her name, Myrna, for the actress with whom I share that birthday. I got calls from people I knew and people I didn't telling me about a dog under a kill order at a shelter or a stray who needed a home, and I would think to myself, "What's one more? We can afford one more." But then one became two and so on. Who knows where I would have ended up if first Kelsey and then Marissa had not put a stop to it. I eventually learned to say no because I no longer could give them the attention and care they needed, and the money it takes to care for this many animals was competing with the money I needed to care for my human children. Only one dog has joined us since, and his is an interesting story all in and of itself. Actually, they all are. I could devote an entire blog to just these guys alone; they all have unique stories and personalities.

Once things began heating up with the humans, I did consider, I confess it, disbanding the pack and trying to place them in separate homes that weren't as dysfunctional as ours. I never got past considering that move though because I would look at all of their faces and imagine saying goodbye to any one of them, and what it would do to them to split them up, and that would be the end of that. But, in keeping them altogether, they have paid out in the kind of care they deserve. In a group of that many dogs, even in the best of times, some things fall by the wayside. I would try walking them back in the day in groups of twos and threes, but what working woman has time to consistently do that? So, I tried to make sure they at least got run-around time in a portion of our property in the far back, but it has been vandalized to where there are holes that they can slip through, and I've never had the time or funds to fix it, so only certain dogs can accompany me back there. I don't brush their teeth individually and Greenies for that many dogs is cost prohibitive. I don't bathe them as often as I should (that was the girls' job when they were younger). They get a mid grade food, but not the really good stuff. And, as the medical bills piled up, they got less trips to the vet. This year, I got their shots at a low cost clinic held at the nearby elementary school. There was no physical exam and all the expensive bells and whistles that a vet normally does.

For all of that, my husband tells me they are spoiled and very happy. Looking around me now, that seems to be true. They seem content and comfortable. As you may have already gathered, that means I am surrounded by a slumbering group of geriatric dogs. There will be more losses we have to endure over the next few years. We had been steeling ourselves for them. I have lost dogs before and it's painful. In some ways, it's more painful in the short run than losing a human friend or family member because they are so utterly dependent upon you, so the loss is so very personal. Of course, that is before you lose a child, and feel that kind of searing hole in your heart. Then, you tend to put the loss of a pet in a different perspective. Nonetheless, each of my pack holds a piece of me and that piece will be lost when they leave me, so I push those days as far into the future as I can. For at least two of the oldest, there my be very little push left. I take one to the vet tomorrow. Already diabetic and blind, she now has an enlarged mammary gland, and I expect the worst. So, I thought now, while we are still together, I should tell some of their story. Because they are a part of the family and endured what we went through too. They reacted to it like we did: at first, badly, then recouping somewhat and learning to function better with The Beast in the room. It has taken me this long to write about the dogs in particular because I could never quite decide how much they understood about what was happening, up to and including Kelsey's death, and how much they were just reacting to the emotions of their humans. I still am not totally sure. They feel loss, and they know when people they love are gone (I have a number of cute stories about our biggest dog, Chappy, who loves Marissa in particular and his reactions to me and her when she's left for any extended period of time). Kelsey was in and out of the house many times over the last few years, so I'm not sure if they really understand that she's permanently gone or if they just knew that something catastrophic had happened that caused us to be very sad. I believe very much in the intelligence of canines. They understand, I believe, certain things on a level that we do not. I believe they can sense a person's essence and know what is in their heart better than we can. That is why I trust my dogs' reaction to strangers. If they have a bad reaction, then I'm on guard. But, they have limits. Mainly it's a language barrier, if you will. They have to infer from a situation what is happening. When I took Marissa to Alldredge, I couldn't tell Chappy that she'd be home in three months, so he could just relax, for example. So, for that reason, I don't know what they all think. Nor do I know how long they think it. The school of thought is that dogs have short memories, so have they already forgotten who Kelsey is? I tend to dismiss that actually. If that was truly the case, then there would not be stories of dogs making their way across country to find their owners. Chappy after a few days would not have cared that Marissa was gone. Maybe they don't remember which of them left the puddle on my floor ten minutes after it happened, but I think the humans in their lives imprint on them permanently.

I will introduce you to them briefly, in no particular order, as the end of part one of my saga. There is Cheyenne, Mother's favorite and the Alpha dog. She is part Husky and part Coyote. She is a serious dog with occasionally fits of frivolity. She rules the house with a somewhat iron grip. She hates it when I leave, and will occasionally decide to try and stop me by getting in my way to try and block me, or pawing at my shoes so I can't put them on. She is highly intelligent and very intuitive. Noelle, the Dalmatian, is much her opposite - good natured and none too bright. She loves me most of all, and is rarely anywhere but by my side. When she is excited, which is often, she bangs her tale into anything close by and bares her teeth, which causes her to sneeze. People not familiar with the breed are scared of that look, but it's basically a wide grin, almost a laugh. Tawny, who is also known as Weiner Dog and Weinus, is an odd mix of breeds, but we think part dachshund, which gives her the tendency to dig. She is an escape artist, which is how she came to be with me. She was found wandering down the middle of the road in a property we manage. She is highly social, and loves it when we have company. Ashley is part bit bull. To try and calm the reaction that engenders, I call her a terrier mix officially. While her temper has gotten shorter with the other dogs as she's aged, she is a loving and gentle companion to us. She was Kelsey's favorite and Ashley loved her deeply in return. She lived upstairs with the girls during her first years here. Chappy, the class clown. The largest of the dogs at 85 pounds, is a total Gentle Ben. The only dog who likes to swim, he's the one who wants to play, romp and cheer you up. Mryna, a Lab/Dalmatian mix, is the nurturer of the group. Before she went completely blind she tended after the others, keeping them clean. She still will seek them out by smell to wash out ears and eyes when needed. Luke, a collie mix who hates being brushed, is usually a hot mess, but has spent most of his days happily being the only male until Chappy came along. He even pees like a girl. Think of him like the gay friend in the group of women. Then there is Precious (and no, I did not name her that). She is the oldest and is completely senile. She is Lab/Malamute. She loves Greg most of all the humans, having come from a policeman's family where the man ruled the roost. She suffered in my eyes from one cardinal sin, she wasn't my Daphne. She came to us too soon after I lost a dog of similar size and build, and I was still in deep, deep mourning. Until Cheyenne, I never thought I'd love anything the way I did Daphne, and poor Precious has suffered a bit of an attention deficit because of it. Even Mother once commented that she was the best of the dogs but got the least attention, but she has been a steadfast and obedient companion.

There is the cast of characters who were with us when the news hit that Kelsey had died. Next up, how they handled life with The Beast and now without it.