The Sweet Hell of Caregiving


There’s nothing like it really, taking care of someone who is dying. Because every day is a crisis and a miracle, maybe the end, maybe squeaking through to see another day. And there’s no one to tell you how to do it, because how could there be? Every day is different and numbingly the same.

Some people call parents caregivers and, yes, they do give care, but unless their child has cancer or other special needs, it is not the same as that other caregiving, the one where parent and child are reversed, the one where everything is turned upside-down. Getting a kid to school on time with a freshly prepared lunch is a challenge, but it’s not feeding someone through a tube five times a day, it’s not going to the doctor three or four times a week, it’s not giving shots and breathing treatments and walkers and supplemental oxygen.

It’s not hearing that thump in the middle of the night, the night you were praying to finally get some rest. It’s not calling 911 in the wee hours of the morning, watching the room fill up with a dozen sleepy fireman, yawning as they wait for the paramedics to decide whether the patient stays or goes. It’s not trying to sleep in a chair in a trauma bay, being woken up by a doctor who wants to know exactly what happened, being woken up by a nurse who wants to know what medicine he takes, being woken up by a med student who is helping the doctor who woke you up fifteen minutes earlier. It’s being grilled by a social worker, asking why you weren’t there to help him get to the bathroom, trying to explain that you aren’t a robot, that you needed some sleep, that he tried to get the bathroom alone so you could rest. It’s being downgraded (upgraded?) from Trauma to the ER and finally to an actual hospital room. It’s hoping that this time the urinal won’t spill on the sheets. It’s tripping on the oxygen tube and bruising your ankle so bad that you wind up in a boot. It’s eating alone watching reruns of ancient TV shows because he is no longer allowed to eat real food. It’s struggling through a medical building with a walker and an oxygen tank on a dolly because the medical supply place has sent a wheelchair so big you can’t lift it. It’s being tired and lost and guilty and angry all at the same time.

Then one day, caregiving is over. And people go on as if you haven’t been living in a combat zone for months and months, as if everything is fine, as if nothing has ever even happened. But it has happened. To him, to you. And when you go to lunch at one of the old places, the places you went when it wasn’t quite so bad, when he could still eat, when it was just the walker and not the oxygen tank, you sit at his favorite table and you cry.


Death of a Dorm

So there I was, wandering the Internet for a work project on dorm essentials, when I started to wonder if anyone had posted a photo of my old dorm online. It would be kind of cool to take a look at the old place, maybe inspire me to write a fantastic post, so I typed in A. Richards Hall and hit Enter.

Up popped a Wikipedia article with a tree-shrouded photo and everything. It was just as I remembered it. A two story building made of pale red brick, shaped like a shallow U. Each side held six apartments with a large common area in the center. Each apartment had three bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. A sort of perilous bathroom, meant for multiple occupancy. Sink in the middle, then on the left, a shower and a toilet, on the right, a bathtub. Each of the amenities had a flimsy shower curtain to shield you from the prying eyes of whoever else was in the bathroom at the time. What the designers did not figure into their plan was my crazy roommate who found it hilarious to take a Polaroid of us in the shower or on the pot. She would snap a photo and run through the apartment holding it over her head while the injured party chased after, sometimes wet and dripping, trying to get the picture from her before it could develop.

The walls were made of cinderblock painted in candy pastel colors. The bedrooms were lime green, the hall strawberry pink, the kitchen a warm lemony yellow. Many of the holes in the cinderblock were half full of paint which was a good thing since a couple of my roommates were fond of throwing pies at each other. Luckily their pies of choice had fillings the exact same color as the walls. As long as they threw lemon in the kitchen and strawberry cream in the hall, it didn’t matter if they missed a few spots in the cleanup.

We lived in Apartment 8 which was upstairs on the right front of the building. There was a large tree outside, but since it was Winter Semester, it wasn’t much more than an impressive array of sticks. Which one of the pie-throwing roommates thought made it perfect for festooning with her roomie’s underwear in order to celebrate her birthday. Of course, more pie throwing was required in response.

They also stole a sawhorse. A 12 foot blue and white striped sawhorse. Brought it up the back stairs into the kitchen and left it there for weeks. It was right there for all to see, visible from our huge kitchen window, but the campus police never showed up to claim it. Eventually everyone got tired of going over or under it to get from one side of the room to the other and it disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived.

At the end of the semester, we were presented with an award for most spiritual apartment. Obviously the other girls in the building didn’t know about the sawhorse. Or the pies. Or the Polaroids. But we all shrugged and grinned like we deserved it.

Chockful of memories, I went to Images and typed in Heritage Halls, the name of the entire complex of buildings A. Richards was a part of, hoping for more photos.

And got a picture of a steam shovel taking a huge bite out of the side of one of the buildings.


I went back to the first photo and there beside the pretty image were some dates. 1953-2012. In fact, most of the images had dates beside them. 2012, 2013, 2014. Big renovation project. Not enough room. Not enough electrical outlets. Everything was being replaced, removed, upgraded.

Apparently A. Richards had been one of the first to go.

More searching, more destruction. I thought of the candy colored walls tumbling down, still embedded with ancient bits of pie. Of those useless bathroom curtains fluttering to the ground. Of all my happy memories landing in a pile of dust.

I found a photo of the new hall, four stories tall, beautiful, modern, rising like a gorgeous young phoenix from the ashes of the old one.

But it wasn’t my phoenix.

Drainage of the Stars

MGM Manhole Cover

So when I was a kid, we lived down the block from Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. I was too young to know for sure, but I think maybe it was my mom’s idea. She used to tell me all sorts of stories about the movie stars she saw coming in and out of the gates and how she would check every day to see what the weather was like on the huge wooden sky backdrop they would paint with puffy white clouds or beautiful sunsets depending on the movie being shot. On top of the main building was a huge glass sign with the roaring lion logo on it which you could see for miles around. She was so excited about being near that studio, but she could only see the bits of movie making visible over the fence. She never once got to go inside.

I feel a little guilty that I did.

Of course, MGM isn’t MGM anymore. The studio that gave the world The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain was sold off years ago, the back lot made into condos, the movie collection going to TCM. Nowadays all most people remember is the hotel in Vegas which doesn’t really have much to do with the studio at all except for the yellow brick road that used to run through the casino. What’s left of the original buildings became Sony Pictures and little by little everything that said MGM was removed or replaced.

Except for this lone manhole cover.

Which isn’t much to look at, but think about it. Maybe Dorothy stepped across it on her way to Oz or Gene Kelly practiced a dance step or two while waiting between takes. Or maybe, if it is old enough, Louis B. Mayer himself stepped on this humble metal circle. And now I’ve stepped there too, just for a moment, just long enough to feel the magic.

Not just for myself, but for my mom.

I think she would have been thrilled.

One Less Set of Footsteps

Calvin and Hobbes
Calvin and Hobbes

So Calvin just asked to go outside to pee on the tires and sit in the doghouse like he always does about this time, but today Hobby will not be going with him.

Or tomorrow either.

It was always a losing fight, old cat, aging kidneys, but he fought hard. For four months, he kept battling back from the dips and crashes that come with a body losing the fight against itself. Some days he was his old self, wanting to be held, sunning himself on the back step. Other days he looked like he wouldn’t make it through the night. But he did. Over and over.

But this week, he seemed a little more tired, a little less better when he got his fluids and his heart pills and his supplements. And his brother Calvin was a little more attentive, sitting shoulder to shoulder with him, washing his head.

Wednesday morning when I woke up, I couldn’t find him. Anywhere. He wasn’t under the bed, he wasn’t sitting on the bathroom rug, he wasn’t in the sandbox, he wasn’t in the kitchen. Calvin and I looked everywhere. Finally, I called him, although he hasn’t come when he was called for a long long time. And a dark little nose poked out of the kitty cave at the bottom of the cat tree.

In all these long four months, he’s never hidden, never gone off by himself at all. Mostly the opposite, not wanting to be alone. But today he wanted to be alone.

And that’s what cats do when they’re ready to die.

I rubbed his head, told him I loved him and walked back to my room, trying to decide what to do. Should I drag him out and give him his morning round of pills and potions or should I let this decision be his?

There’s not a handbook on when to let someone go. Oh, sure, there are graphs and charts and quality of life indicators, but that’s all external. That’s the way a machine thinks. The equation between people and pets is a lot more complicated.

I was on the phone with Brian, hoping he had the answer, medicate, don’t medicate, call the vet, let him be, when I saw Hobby staggering down the hall to the bedroom, his legs going all directions like a marionette with broken strings, but he was determined to make it down the hall, moving forward even as he veered to the side. I hung up the phone and ran to lift him onto the bed. His body stiffened and went limp and it was over, just that fast.

So today, for the first time in four months, there are no IVs to give, no potassium supplements to squirt into mouths, no pills to take, no accidents to clean. Calvin stretches out on the towel they used to share, staring down the hall at nothing, waiting for a brother who isn’t going to come.

And so we grieve in our own way. Calvin spent an hour with Hobby’s body, one leg draped across him, pressed as close as he could get. I write a blog post trying to justify not dragging him out and giving him his meds, even though they would not have had enough time to work.

But maybe it was better the way it was. I gave him permission to go, he gave me a chance to say goodbye.

And maybe there’s no more to love than that.



Walking Through WeHo


So back in the day, my friends and I were all about going to Hollywood. It was kind of a wonderland to us, a little rundown, but fascinating and full of history. There were theaters that looked like Chinese palaces and Egyptian temples, there was a hot dog stand shaped like a hot dog, there was Famous Amos Cookies in its little A frame cabin with the giant airbrushed cookie on the front. Of course, there was Carney’s, a real train on a real track, and a restaurant that looked like a Russian cathedral.

And there was Tower Records, not shaped like anything really except a large rectangular box with a big lip hanging down from the eaves, literally shoved into the hillside. The Hollywood Hills rose right behind the dumpsters in the parking lot. The building itself was red and the large lip at the top was painted a bright yellow with the name Tower Records in red block italic letters that leaned left instead of right. On the roof and sides of the building were an ever-changing pantheon of the newest albums by the hottest bands, one of a kind artwork airbrushed onto huge canvases that could be seen the moment you rounded the curve on Sunset. You could find anything there. Old records, new records, records from across the sea. Celebrities shopped there too. We never saw anyone famous there though.

At least as far as we knew.

Anyway, when I read that there was going to be a walking tour of West Hollywood, I wanted to go. So much history packed into such a small amount of space and most of it I had just whizzed past in a car without appreciating what I saw. Now what you need to know about West Hollywood is that it is far and it is crowded.

Which led to me being late and having nowhere to park.

Spanish style
Spanish style
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable's
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable’s

I stashed my car in the big parking garage at the huge shopping plaza on Sunset and hurried to catch up with the small group making its way down Laurel Ave. There were about fifteen people and a white silkie chicken named Blanche. I’m not sure how much Blanche actually got out of the tour, but she seemed to be having a good time.

Our guide Roy led us up and down the neighborhood, into secret courtyards where Gable and Dietrich once lived, past Jim Morrison’s last LA address and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s upstairs apartment, pointing out architectural features unique to California, fine work by famous architects. A little gem here, another gem there. History you could touch.

Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction
Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction

But interspersed with the beautiful architecture and fun stories were little eulogies. Roy would point at some huge faceless apartment complex and say “This used to be a gorgeous little Craftsman home.” Or he would point at another building, still standing, but restored in a way that totally destroyed its original beauty. The saddest sight of all was a small L-shaped courtyard which had been built in the silent film era. Its days were numbered. The residents had already been evicted. The grass had been left to die. Soon it would become just another four story apartment building.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's apartment
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apartment
Jim Morrison's place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)
Jim Morrison’s place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)

Now I get that property in this part of Southern California is hard to find. I know that businesses come and go and owners die or move away. I know that places change hands and the old owners have no say in what the new owners do to them. I get all that, but every time one of these little bits of history disappears, Hollywood loses a little bit of its soul. If everything that is unique about Hollywood disappears, it isn’t really Hollywood anymore. It becomes no different than anywhere else. And it was different. And it is still different here and there, if you know where to look.

Storybook Style
Storybook Style
Marlene Dietrich's balcony
Marlene Dietrich’s balcony

Hollywood architecture used to be like a wild, brightly colored Dentzel carousel, the kind of carousel where the traditional horses had been replaced by cats and bears and dragons with an occasional ornate bench for those who preferred not to ride. But as time went on and property values grew steeper, the exotic jumpers started to decline. You can fit more people on a bench than on a seahorse. So the seahorse was replaced by a bench. And then the stag and then the lion disappeared, each replacement bench becoming a little shoddier than the last. The day is coming when that last zebra will be replaced by a pair of lawn chairs zip-tied together and no one will remember what it was like to ride at all.

Cheers to the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance for trying to do something before that last zebra is gone.

On the way home, I drove past what used to be Tower Records. The building looked empty. The glowing yellow and red lip had been whitewashed out, the huge airbrushed albums were all gone. All that was left was an anonymous white box with the word “LIVE” written on the corner.

It was anything but.

Space Shuttles Are Magic

So I didn’t really expect to see the Space Shuttle today. I didn’t really expect to see anything today. It was a sucky end to a sucky week. My car broke down twice, my toilet clogged up, my sinuses are inflamed, my cat had to be rushed to the vet and my sore foot is killing me. I just wanted to curl up in a miserable little ball somewhere and ignore the world.

And yet part of me still wanted to see the Space Shuttle.

But seeing the Space Shuttle involved getting dressed and going somewhere far and standing in the hot sun and I wasn’t up for that.

I got dressed anyway.

Not dressed dressed, like presentable enough to be seen in any real public area. Just decent enough to go out in the front yard should the Endeavour decide to drop by.

But it wasn’t coming to my area. The route on the maps was not going anywhere near my house. In fact, it looked way more likely to go by my work. Which I wasn’t at. Because I was full of sadness and hate for the world.

I put on my shoes anyway.

Because there was an off-chance that maybe, if you found the right angle, you might be able to see it way, way off in the distance when it got to Long Beach.

Maybe I should hop in the car and drive over there now. Maybe somehow my decrepit little car would be able to get there before that huge 747 did.

But I didn’t go.

Because I was still full of self-pity.

The announcers on the TV said that the shuttle was passing over some tankers. Was it Long Beach or Huntington Beach? Long Beach. Parker’s Lighthouse. Rainbow Lagoon.

I went outside.

Nothing in all directions.

Of course, with all the wires and houses and light poles, seeing very far in any direction was impossible anyway. And I felt a little silly standing in my front yard looking for a shuttle that wasn’t there.

Until I noticed the lady in the cul-de-sac across the street pointing toward the houses on my side of the street, calling her family over to look. I crossed the street and looked back.


“Did you see it?” I asked.

“Yes! Right there between the houses. It was flying really low to the west.”

But LAX wasn’t over there. It had to come back and circle north somewhere. Maybe we’d already missed it. Maybe it was already gone.

A man walking a Chihuahua pointed back at the houses. “There it is! There it is!”

This time I see it, going east now, oh so tiny in the distance. And it is turning.

Toward us.

Holy Sacajawea.

I yell at my dad who is standing under the shade of the tree to come out in the street. “It’s turning, it’s turning. Look over there!” I yell at the gardener next door who has stopped his lawnmower to figure out what is wrong with me. “The Space Shuttle. It’s going to come by right over there.” He turns to look.

And, suddenly, there it is, bursting out from behind the huge tree, not more than 500 feet from the ground, softly blue in the hazy air. An entire 747 with the Space Shuttle Endeavour riding on its back, completing a gentle turn to the north, left wing dipped slightly in our direction.

I am jumping up and down in the street. I’ve forgotten that my car doesn’t work, that my foot hurts, that my face feels like it is wrapped in duct tape. The Space Shuttle is practically landing in my front yard.

I watch as it straightens out and heads for LAX, jet fighters in pursuit.

Maybe life is not so bad after all.

The King of Kindness

It wasn’t the best day to go to the Orange County Fair, what with the temperature predicted to be in the hot as hell range, but it was our last chance to see the Budweiser Clydesdales so we had to go. Well, that’s why I had to go. Lisa wanted chocolate-covered bacon, Elaine wanted to buy things and Mark…I’m not sure what Mark wanted to do. But there we were, way too early on a Sunday morning, going to the fair.

You know it’s a hot day when the kabob place runs out of water at 11 am.

But we muddled through, hiding in the air-conditioned exhibit halls, chugging down more water than would usually be humanly possible, watching Elaine buy this and that as we stood drenched in sweat from the uncharacteristically humid effects of the monsoonal moisture. By 3:30, we were dragging.

Unfortunately, the Clydesdales weren’t going to parade until 5.

Mark, totally aware that I was not going to leave that hellhole without seeing the Clydesdales, suggested that we go look at them in their stalls, pre-parade as it were. That way I could see the Clydesdales and we could leave earlier.

This worked for me.

So we made our way over to a huge white building with open sides where the horses were getting ready for their close-ups.

There’s a lot of work involved in getting a Clydesdale primped and ready to parade. Manes have to be braided with red and white ribbons, tails have to be pulled up into a bun and that huge beer wagon has to be pushed out of the shadows into the bright sunshine of the staging area before the horses can be led over in the order they will be hitched, rear horses first. I found it all fascinating.

Mark fell asleep on a picnic table.

An impromptu line of spectators formed to watch the horses walk by on their way to the harness truck. At the far end of the row was a wheelchair with a young boy in it. He sat there, face expressionless, arms and legs askew like a doll that had been tossed aside. Someone was speaking to him, but he gave no sign he had heard.

The first horse went by, huge hooves clicking on the concrete, coat glistening as he stepped out into the sun. A few minutes later, a second Clydesdale was led out of his stall, click-clacking his way down the line of curious onlookers, calmly going about his business.

But the groom stopped when he reached the boy in the wheelchair, the huge gelding coming to a halt behind him. After a moment, he led the horse forward, tugging his towering companion within reach of the vacant-eyed boy. The Clydesdale gently lowered his massive nose, nuzzling the boy’s dark hair with soft white lips almost as wide as the child’s head. The boy reacted to this unexpected contact, raising his small hands and slowly, tentatively, drawing them down both sides of the horse’s face. The gelding nudged him in acknowledgement and stepped back, but the boy lifted his hand again, stroking the end of the freckled nose before the groom smiled and led the immense horse away.

The boy collapsed back into his seat, the distant look returning, lost in his own world again.

Maybe this time it involved horses.

I don’t think that’s what Mark was dreaming of.