The Sweet Hell of Caregiving

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.

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California Browns and Blues

Brown is the New Green

So we’re having a drought here in California. A serious dry-up-and-blow-away-in-the-wind kind of drought. Lawn watering is strictly rationed. No watering before 7pm and you can’t use sprinklers except on your designated days (Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday if you’re even. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday if you’re odd.) The lawns are mostly dead, bare patches of dirt with a little oasis of oat grass or a solitary dandelion adding a splash of color, but I water for the sake of the trees. The jacaranda has cut out the middleman and pried its way into the sewer line so it’s nice and green and stopping up the plumbing now and then, but the citrus trees out back need some help. Laden with green lemons and oranges, halfway to being edible fruit, they need a drink now and then.

So, after 7 on my designated night, I turned on the back sprinklers. Long ago they used to be automatic so the switch in the yard is a bit dicey with wires and electrical tape all around in a way that makes me a little nervous to touch it. I carefully grab a tiny black knob at the back and twist it once, twice. A hissing noise starts and then suddenly the air is filled with arcs of cold water. The wet dirt and the thirsty trees immediately begin giving off wonderful smells in celebration. I get a little damp turning the knob because the sprinkler controls are right there at the edge of the lawn in perfect range of the two closest sprinklers. But I turn it on and dash inside with hardly a splash.

I keep one eye on the time, let the poor parched growing things outside have their three minutes before I go to turn off the sprinkler.

And it doesn’t turn off.

I keep turning and it keeps sprinkling. On me. And it’s cold.

I turn a little more frantically, anxious to stop the unwanted shower.

And the little knob comes off in my hand.

A tiny geyser of water bursts from the hole it should be in.

Great.

I try to shove the knob back into place, but now I am not only trying to find a tiny hole on the backside of a scary sprinkler head by porch light, but that hole is spewing enough water to push the knob back out again. I push and turn. The knob pops out. I push and turn. The knob pops out. I push and turn. The knob pops out of my hand and lands in the only long green grass in the entire lawn.

Somewhere.

Water is starting to drip out of my hair and run down my face. And I’m getting a little panicky. I can’t leave the sprinklers running all night. The water Nazis will come and take me away.

I run into the house, dripping as I go, grab the phone, call the local plumber. But at 9pm, he has apparently shut off his phone. Okay, I guess I’m on my own.

I find a flashlight and run back into the sprinkler spray, which is becoming less fun by the minute. The extra light is just what I need. There is the knob, all wet and shiny in the grass.

I grab it and shove it back into the hole. Water spurts up through my fingers. Water rains down onto my wet hair and soggy shirt. Pretty soon I’m going to be wearing my monthly ration of water.

I think it’s reached my underwear.

As I start to turn the knob for what feels like the hundredth time, I suddenly realize that I’m turning it the wrong way. I shake water out of my eyes and try again, turning to the right instead of the left. The knob wiggles a bit, still not quite seated in whatever spot it belongs in, then suddenly the screw bottom catches, rotates, actually does something. The sprinkler hisses and the water stops.

I stand there, grateful, freezing, happy Lawn Dude won’t be coming to drag me away.

No way I’m watering the front lawn.

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.

But…but…

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.

Purple Haze

So this year, instead of breaking my foot for the holidays, I decided to tear my retina. Well, actually gravity decided for me. Apparently sometimes the jelly stuff in your eye (the vitreous) decides to part company with the retina. If it comes away cleanly, no problem. If it takes the retina with it, all hell breaks loose. There are spiraling stringy floaters and huge flashes of light.

A little like Fourth of July inside your head.

So off I go to the eye doctor. He shines the world’s brightest light into my dilated pupils and starts shouting directions. “Look up, down, left, right. Look farther to the right. A little farther.”

Any farther and I would have been looking over my own shoulder.

“Hmmm…there’s a tear at 7 o’clock. We’ll have to laser.”

We’ll have to what?

“It’s just a small tear. We can stop it. The rest of the eye looks stable.”

Go back to the part about the lasers…

He turns to the nurse. “Get her set up.”

She takes me to another room which looks exactly like the room I was in, except there is some kind of large gray box on one side with a list of laser instructions taped to it. The nurse gives me painkilling eye drops. “There shouldn’t be any pain. Just some very bright lights.”

Then why are you giving me painkilling eye drops?

The doctor arrives and puts on some impressive-looking headgear. He leans closer and shines a light in my eye. I was wrong about the other light. THIS is the brightest light in the universe. “Look to the right. Now don’t move, don’t move, don’t move.”

The world explodes into bright yellow and orange. I know at any moment I am going to be blinded forever. I know that the San Andreas has waited over a hundred years for this moment. I know that I will be unable to keep looking insanely far to the right for one second longer.

“Okay, we’re done.”

The room is bright purple. A really pretty bright purple, but purple just the same.

“The colors will fade after a bit,” says the doctor with the purple face.

And the back of my eye begins to throb in a low intensity way, not exactly painful, but not exactly pleasant, as I quickly make my escape out the door.

So much for painkilling eye drops.

Dungeons and Day Trips

San Juan Capistrano small

San Juan Capistrano. The mission the swallows come back to. Built by Father Junipero Serra three centuries ago. Real California history.

And I have a piece of it.

Well, maybe not a piece of the actual mission, but a piece of the stone the Great Stone Church was built from. Probably. Well, okay, it looks really similar. And it did come from the mission gift shop.

But let me start at the beginning with Elaine and her Groupon ticket. Because I’d dragged Elaine to a bunch of cemeteries, she thought it was her turn to drag me somewhere. Not that I actually had to be dragged to see the mission, but it did take us a while to get down there.

I was in the mood for some Mexican food and the guy in the information booth told us that the El Adobe was a good place. So we walked the few blocks down to the restaurant which the guide book (sheet of paper from the information booth) said had been made from two adjacent adobe buildings. Before becoming a restaurant, it had been a courthouse and a stage stop.

Cool.

El Adobe Patio

Since it was a nice day, we decided to eat outside on the patio. After a yummy meal, we headed inside to use the restrooms. While I was waiting for Elaine, I read a history of the building which they had hanging on the wall. All about how Richard Nixon used to eat there and how they’d found a dungeon when they were remodeling one of the dining rooms.

No way I was leaving without taking a look at that.

So when Elaine got out, I asked the hostess if we could see the dungeon. She smiled and led us through two dining rooms and into a small storage area before pointing down three brick steps. “It’s down there.”

At the foot of the steps was a door with steel bars. Apparently this had been the jail when the main building was the courthouse. In the center of the small room was a dark circular table with red napkins on it. Around the walls were bottles of wine. And behind the bottles were adobe walls with carvings in them, left by long ago prisoners.

Some of them are still supposed to be haunting the place.

Dungeon Room

Elaine has accused me of being more interested in the dungeon than the mission which is absolutely ridiculous.

Did I mention the dungeon is haunted?

Okay, the mission is haunted too so I guess it’s a tossup.

The mission grounds are beautiful, but there actually isn’t much left of San Juan Capistrano building-wise. A huge earthquake in 1812 took out most of the Great Stone Church, although what remains is pretty impressive. The earthquake did quite a number on the little town too so the townsfolk decided that instead of rebuilding the church, they would use the ruins to rebuild their own houses.

Can’t really blame them.

One of the buildings that may have been repaired with bits of the Great Stone Church is the El Adobe Restaurant. The one with the dungeon.

See how this all ties in?

Camino Bell

The bell on the walking stick is the sign of El Camino Real, the road (or more commonly a footpath) that ran between the missions.

Swallow Condos small

Swallow condos. No swallows around, though. Wrong time of the year for them. They come around on March 19th.

Great Stone Ruins

The remains of the Great Stone Church. Huge and haunted.

Tallow Vats

Tallow vats. Because who wouldn’t want to see tallow vats.

Serra Chapel Altar

Serra Chapel. The oldest building in California and the only place remaining where Father Serra is known to have celebrated Mass.

Lizard on a Hot Rock small

One of the local residents.

Doorway

Arches. I love arches.

Relic

Gray cross, blue sky.

Of course on the way out, we had to go to the gift shop and I noticed that some of the displays had a little piece of cream and rust sandstone holding the descriptive cards. Now these little pieces of sandstone were exactly the same color as the sandstone in the Great Stone Church and seeing as how pieces of it were “liberated” after the earthquake, it seemed logical to me that these rock markers might be actual chunks of the mission itself.

There happened to be one sitting on the counter when I went to buy my official souvenir refrigerator magnet so I asked the lady behind the counter if it was indeed a piece of the mission. She picked it up and studied it a moment. “I don’t know. These are made for us by the woman who does our crafts. I don’t know where she gets them.” She dropped it down beside the cash register. “It might be.”

When she picked it back up again, I saw that a nickel-sized chip had broken off. She saw that too and smiled. “Here.” She started to give it to me, then laughed and put the fragment in a little plastic jewelry bag. “Just in case.”

And THAT was just as cool as the dungeon.

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.