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.

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

1350bldg

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.

Saved
Saved
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.

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.

Two or Three Degrees of Separation

 

So I lied about no more cemeteries. I had to see one more grave, the place where Buster Keaton was buried. Because Buster and I, we go way back.

Back in my wild Hollywood days…well, okay, they weren’t that wild. Mostly cruising down Sunset Boulevard and eating late night sandwiches at Canter’s Deli, but just go with me here. It’s my reminiscence and, in my mind, they were wild.

Anyway, Mike, Leah and I used to go to a lot of plays. They wanted to be actors. I just liked the excitement of hanging out in Hollywood all night long. During the course of these adventures, we met a wonderful lady named Jane who was a stage manager at the Las Palmas Theater. She’d been in the theater for years and had all sorts of fascinating stories about actors and acting.

Sometimes when some old movie that she thought we should see was on, we’d go over to her place, a duplex in North Hollywood, drink cream sodas and watch TV with her. (I never really cared for the cream sodas, but the only other choice was chocolate soda which seemed wrong on many levels.) She lived in the back house of the duplex, the smaller of the two. And on the wall up above the TV set was a huge oil painting of Buster Keaton, three or four feet high, with an expensive looking frame and a little key light at the bottom that threw light up onto his face. A small brass plaque on the frame had his name in fancy letters. Buster Keaton.

Just in case you couldn’t tell.

The painting was something of a mystery to us. I mean, anyone can have an obsession, but the Buster Keaton shrine seemed a little much. Beautiful, but totally overpowering. So one evening, Mike got up the guts to ask Jane why she had a huge expensive oil painting of Buster Keaton in her living room. She looked up at it a moment and shrugged.

“He was married to my sister.”

Now we had met Eleanor in passing once or twice. I don’t think she quite trusted us. I don’t know that we looked all that dangerous, but she would usually disappear into the front house soon after our arrival. But she didn’t look anywhere near old enough to have been married to Buster Keaton.

So Mike repeated it, just to be sure. “Your sister was married to Buster Keaton?”

Jane nodded. “Yes. That painting is from the Brown Derby. They gave it to her before they tore it down.”

We all look up at the painting as if it was a lost Da Vinci. So not only was Eleanor married to Buster Keaton, but the mystery painting came from the Brown Derby?

“THE Brown Derby?” Leah says, just to be sure.

“Oh, yes.” Jane gets out of her chair and goes to a bookcase over on the far wall. She pulls out a rectangular wooden case and sets it down on the dining room table. “These are his poker chips.” She opens the case and there are the most beautiful poker chips I’d ever seen. Mother of pearl maybe, dyed various colors. She took out a blue one and passed it around. “Buster loved poker.”

I just kept running the poker chip over my fingers, marveling at the color and the smoothness and the historicalness of it. Buster Keaton’s poker chip. I wanted to keep it, but, reluctantly, I handed it back.

Now we come to the most tragic part of the story. Because there we were, in that house full of Buster Keaton’s things, not ten steps from Buster Keaton’s widow, and not one of us had ever actually seen a Buster Keaton movie. At that point in time, they just weren’t available anywhere. So there I was, aching to ask questions, but having no idea what to ask.

Jane told us a few stories about what Buster was like and how he loved trains, but we were friends with Jane. I didn’t dare approach Eleanor without some concrete questions in mind.

Fast forward a few years. While I was out of state at college, I finally got to see “The General.” I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t wait to get back to California and see Jane and talk to Eleanor, finally full of all the Buster questions that I hadn’t had before. We made a quick visit while I was home for the summer, but Jane had been ill and we couldn’t stay long. She was happy that I’d loved “The General” and said Eleanor would love to hear my comments about it, but she was off at a silent film convention so I’d have to come back another time.

But that other time never came. We never saw Jane again.

But I’ve never forgotten sitting in Jane’s living room, watching TV under Buster’s mournful gaze. I’ve always felt very close to him, almost as if I’d known him for real.

So one last cemetery trip, to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, beside the wall near the Washington statue, to an elegant little tombstone etched with oak leaves. Someone had left him a huge bouquet of red flowers. And there was a little worn spot in the grass where people had stood to take a picture of his headstone. I leaned down and touched the edge of his monument.

So near and yet so far.

Requiem for Charlie

Charlie wasn’t my cat. He’d belonged to someone once, but it wasn’t me. He showed up yelling at my back door one morning, not quite grown, black and white with a lopsided Charlie Chaplin mustache on his upper lip. His buddy Punkin, big and fluffy and orange, was beside him, silent, Teller to Charlie’s Penn, but looking just as hungry.

They were very clean for strays. Clean and well aware that food came out of back doors. Dumped probably. Or abandoned when someone walked away from their foreclosed home. They looked up at me with every expectation of being fed even though we had never met each other before in our lives. Charlie pressed up against the screen door and squinted up at me with bright green eyes.

I folded.

I dug a can of cat food out of the cupboard and split it between the two of them. Charlie started to purr at the top of his lungs, eating and purring through his entire meal. Punkin occasionally gave me a pleased golden stare between bites.

And suddenly I had some outside cats.

Now my inside cats are older and Siamese, sure of their territory and unwilling to share. But Charlie was never one to recognize boundaries. He’d come in anyway, just to check things out or sleep on the bathroom rug.

Charlie claimed the abandoned doghouse out back. Punkin took up residence on the roof of my car. I had to run the gauntlet to go anywhere. First belly rubs for Charlie (but not too many because he got feisty) and then some head scratches for Punkin while I tried to convince him that I needed to drive his bed to work. Charlie would be there to meet me when I got home, running up when I opened the car door, purring. Punkin would lead me to the house and dart inside to steal some dry food while I got a can ready for them.

About a week ago, Charlie showed up as usual, purring and wanting attention. He took me to the back door and ran inside, but he didn’t want any dry food. Instead he walked through the kitchen, paused a moment, then walked into the living room and hid behind the TV. An hour later, he sauntered out again and flopped over on the floor. I petted him and he purred, but he still didn’t want any food.

I checked him over to see if he was all right. No bites, no sore spots. He didn’t have a fever. His tongue was nice and pink. He looked fine, only he wasn’t. I can’t even say what exactly was wrong, but somehow he wasn’t quite Charlie.

I made him a dish of tuna, which he didn’t want, and coaxed him back outside. He sat by the back door looking up at me and purring. I told him that if he wasn’t acting normal in the morning, I was taking him to the vet.

I never saw him again. We looked all over, but there was no sign of him anywhere. He wasn’t in his doghouse, he wasn’t in his flowers by the back door, he wasn’t watching birds at the end of the yard.

He just wasn’t.

And he still isn’t. In my heart, I hope he found some incredible new place to live. In my head, I know he probably hasn’t.

But Punkin and I can still pretend.

Perennial

Bruce’s amaryllis is getting ready to bloom. Which is a miracle really, because I forgot to cut it back. Amaryllises thrive on abuse apparently. If you whack off the leaves, deprive them of water and let the bulb poke out of the soil way farther than you think it should, those things will bloom like a son of a gun. This particular amaryllis has red flowers.

Bruce gave it to me two Christmases before he died.

Amaryllis is kind of the go-to flower for a quick Christmas present. A bulb in a pot. You water it and, bam, instant flower. I got one from my sister a couple of years back. It bloomed wildly and then sort of passed away.

But the one Bruce gave me seems to go on forever.

I have to admit I wasn’t too kind to it when it first arrived. Not that I fault Bruce for getting it for me. I’m notoriously hard to shop for. Even when people know my favorite obsessions, I’m not always obsessed with them that particular day. Brian took me to Dark Delicacies bookstore. “Look at all the vampire books!” My response: “Oh, Irish ghost stories.”

It’s like that.

Anyway, Bruce gave me this flower. Well, it wasn’t a flower yet. It was dirt in a pot. Ummm…thanks. I put it out in the garage, intending to one day plant it somewhere in the yard.

Eight months later, Bruce was diagnosed with HIV.

It’s funny how your brain works at times like that. How you want to do something when there’s really nothing you can do.

My first thought was to bring in the plant. As if somehow my treatment of a Christmas present had caused the whole thing. But when I went out to get it, I discovered it was covered with slugs. Big slimy slugs of all shapes and sizes, eating holes in the bulb and leaving shiny trails all over the pot.

I was furious.

I got a stick and knocked them all off. I washed the pot clean. I brought the amaryllis inside and put it in the window.

In the morning, there were more slugs.

I don’t know where they came from. Out of the dirt, out of the bulb. Maybe one of them had laid eggs in the dirt, I don’t know. I cleaned them all off again.

Next morning, more slugs.

The reasonable thing would have been to just let the slugs have it, but I couldn’t do that. Not with Bruce’s Christmas present. Not with Bruce in and out of the hospital. So I killed slugs. I killed a lot of slugs. I guess in my mind, if I saved the amaryllis, Bruce would get well.

But slugs are a lot easier to kill than the HIV virus.

Bruce died in August. The amaryllis bloomed for the first time the following Christmas. It blooms almost every Christmas or sometime around the beginning of the year. Even when I forget to prune it.

Maybe Bruce got the right present after all.