Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Here In Tucson

One of the lovely and unexpected by-products of my visits to see my mom in Michigan is a perfect opportunity to visit my youngest daughter at school in Arizona.

Every time I come to campus, I take a photo of these three trees against the corner of this building. I just think the pairing is lovely. 

I am a super budget-conscious air traveler. I will fly at any crazy time of day, and switch planes at any random city, as long as it saves a few dollars. Toward that objective, I've found that the cheapest way to get to Detroit is through Phoenix.

I know. That makes no geographic sense whatsoever.

During my college days at beautiful Michigan State University, I was madly in love with the ivy-covered Gothic architecture. While this campus has a decidedly different vibe, I love the parallels between brick buildings and twining vine. 

But I'm not complaining. Because I've realized that for no extra airfare dollars, I can hop off my homeward-bound plane in Phoenix, rent a car to drive to nearby Tucson, and spend a lovely weekend with my fourth-born who goes to school at University of Arizona.

Palm trees. Yum.

That's what I call a win/win.

Walking back and forth between parking garage and dormitory. It was a lot hotter than it looks. 

During my most recent trip to the desert, my eldest daughter flew down from Seattle and joined us.  

Love that architectural detailing, and the cool shade of this north-facing portico.

What bliss to drop down into the warmth and intense light of the Arizona desert. After a week of hardscrabble weather in Great Lakes territory, ninety degrees and sunny felt like heaven. 

And you know, just to mix it up, on the other side of the street, we have modern minimalism, a colorful fleet of bikes, and that sassy little palm.

Our agenda was pleasantly relaxing. After a few months of being trapped on campus without a car, my baby wanted nothing more than to spend a few hours wandering the aisles of the closest Target, eat at some off-campus restaurants, and sprawl her 5'11" frame across a spacious double bed. 

Not her dorm. But a darn cute building.

And while I understand her enthusiasm for a much-deserved change of scene, I also treasure the time I spent with her on campus. It's so fun to see how she has made herself at home in this unfamiliar (to me) and faraway place, and I take comfort in watching the easy way she handles herself here. 

My bookends: fourth-born and first-born. 
You can tell by their outfits who has become accustomed to the ninety degree heat. 

As much as I miss my youngest when she is away at school, and despise every single one of the 1500 miles that separates us, I must say, I love with equal energy the moments that we have together, here in Tucson.


A Perfect Start

When I showed up at my mother's door, bleary eyed from an eleven-hour cross-country trip and keyed up with anxiety over what state she might be in, I was in for a shock. 

My dementia-addled mother greeted me with a cherry hello and informed me that a fresh batch of lemon poppy seed muffins was due out of the oven any minute. In the meantime, she suggested, why not sit down and enjoy a glass of cool water? 

Wow. Very thoughtful, Mom. 

As I opened the cupboard to help myself to a glass, my eyes fell upon a pretty sight. There on the counter stood the bright red serving bowl I had given her for her recent birthday. And with her characteristic style, Mom had filled it with a pleasing array of fruit. Two apples, two oranges and three bananas - artfully displayed and bursting with color. 

Even though I am a realist about my mom's Alzheimer's, and I knew we were facing some big challenges during this trip, I have to say that I was knocked off my feet by her welcome. 

My visit was off to a perfect start. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tricky Treats

A conversation from inside my head:

Hey, wanna make a deal? If you do some cleaning in the family room this weekend, you can buy yourself a treat to spruce up the space. 

Yay! I love treats. What exactly do I have to clean?

Oh, you know, just sort through that horrifying accumulation of flotsam and jetsam that has built up over the past few decades, including:
  • A landslide of greeting cards, notes and letters
  • Our sizable and well-loved but rarely-used collection of VHS and DVD movies
  • Several generations of family photos, albums, and memorabilia 
  • Books, books, books, books, and books. And more books. 

Ughhh.That sounds like a lot of work.What exactly can I buy as my treat?

Anything you want. As long as it's under forty bucks.

^ Three days later, after many scary hours of sorting and stacking, editing and eliminating, I was the proud owner of a (mostly) clutter-free family room and this new plant. Scoring the last perfectly-sized fiddle leaf fig at Home Depot for $13 and a stylish pre-owned basket at Value Village for a mere $5, my reward package came in at less than half of the total budget. 

^ So when I met up with this gem of a plate today for the pittance of 99 cents, I snatched it up in a heartbeat. The colors and design are so totally me it's ridiculous, and by gosh, I earned it.

* * * * * 

This is how I motivate myself to stay on top of the never-ending clutter-cutting tasks that come with managing a busy home. I trick myself into doing these jobs through the promise of some tempting treats, and the results are always satisfyingly sweet.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Helping With Honey

"Diane. Come here a minute."

Hmm. Red alert.

Though my mom has beckoned me thousands of times in my life, I've come to recognize the new and special meaning behind this exact phrasing.

Mom is in dementia mode.

"Coming," I called as I ran down the stairs and into her bedroom. She was just stepping out of her closet, and I noticed immediately the quirky smile on her face and the disconnected look in her eyes.

Uh oh. Definitely dementia mode.

I took a deep breath, buckled my mental seat belt, and tossed off my usual, "What's up?" as casually as possible.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked, clearly testing me.

"Sure, I do. But you tell me. Who are you?"

Conspiratorially, she leaned close and whispered, "I'm Clara Minnie Marie Belz Lewis."

Oops. That's my grandmother's name.

"Yes, she's your mother." I affirmed, carefully sliding the conversation back toward reality.

"Oh that's right, that's right! I'm the mother. I'm the grandmother." She was thinking deeply now, gently touching her chest as she reminded herself of each identity.

"So what's your name? Tell me," I asked.

Leaning even closer, she agreeably whispered to me her full name.

"Yes, that's right. That's who you are," I concurred. "But why are we whispering?"

"So Honey can't hear us."

"Who's Honey?"

* * * * *

For the next hour, my mom lay on her couch and calmly explained to me exactly what has been going on inside her mind. This is what she said.
For the last few years, someone else has been living inside me. Inside my body. Inside these clothes. 
Her name is Honey and she's a stupid fool. When Honey was growing up, her mother washed clothes in the river to make ends meet. But Honey has two sisters and five brothers so the family was always very poor.  She has no education, she's never held a good job. That's why she has no money. 
So when Honey heard there were a lot of older people in this town who had money, she came here to take advantage of someone. She moved in with me a long time ago, and even she's always promising me that she's going to skedaddle, she never goes.   
Honey is an asshole. She plays tricks on me, like hiding my shoes or my glasses, and then she laughs at me. She whines and complains about everything - my food, my clothes, my books - and I tell her to leave if she doesn't like it. But she just won't go!
And sometimes, Honey pretends to be me. But she is a fake. She doesn't know my kids' names. She doesn't know my grandchildren's names. But I do. The real me knows everyone's names. So that's why I have to whisper them. I don't want Honey to hear, because then she will know their names and can pretend to be the real me. 
As I listened to these revelations, my mind was exploding with new thoughts and ideas.

On the one hand, this explanation was super helpful. My intuitions had told me that my mom was experiencing her demented thoughts as a different person, and I often find my mom engaged in a dialogue that sounds like she was talking to another person that only she could see. This story definitely confirmed that my mom was using the identity of Honey to express - and to contain - her dementia.

At the same time, I was heartbroken. I can't imagine how confusing and scary it must be to feel that someone else is living inside your skin, and my mom's emotional pain and frustration were palpable. If I let myself, I could weep for a hundred years just to think of it.

However, pragmatist that I am, I knew that I could not let my own emotions surface in the moment. I needed to figure out how to respond to all this.

My first instinct was to protest. There's no one in this house, Mom, except you and me. You are safe here. I won't let anyone come in and bother you.

But then I realized that statement simply wasn't true. Though Honey is not a physical presence, the truth is that Mom's mental security has indeed been breached. In a nonliteral but very real way, an intruder named Alzheimer's is harassing her and refusing to go. And I can do nothing to stop it.

So in a flash, I completely reversed direction.
I think it's very nice of you to let Honey live here. She doesn't have anyone else to take care of her, and you are generous to let her stay. But this is your house, and you are the boss. I think Honey needs to follow your rules.
Mom agreed.

 * * * * *

So for the rest of my visit, when I would encounter my mom having a spirited session of self-talk, I'd ask, "What's going on? Is Honey giving you problems?"

And every time, Mom would say, "Yes!" and go on to explain exactly what Honey was doing wrong.

I would listen, and then suggest a phrase or two that might make Honey straighten up.

To watch my mom repeat those words back to her invisible Honey, as she looked right at the place where Honey was apparently standing, sent chills down my spine.

But the process seems to work. And now that I'm back home, we often talk on the phone about Honey. When I ask, Mom tells me about Honey's bad behavior, and then I suggest what she might say to get Honey back in line.

This, I realize, is a tiny finger in the dike that my mom has built to hold back the mighty seas of dementia. But for now, this is all either one of us can think to do with this monstrous problem.

For now, helping with Honey will have to be enough.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Facing Fall

Today was a red-letter, no-holds-barred, drippy, dreary, Pacific Northwest-kinda rainy fall day.

And despite the chilly wet winds and rolling dark clouds, I cheerfully slipped into my socks and Birkenstocks, and took my darling Ranger for his walk.

^ Here in the PNW, Birkenstocks are an all-weather shoe, worn with socks (or in my case, cozy footies) when the mercury drops a bit. Don't judge. 

^ To suit his evolutionary purposes as a hunter, Ranger's fur is genetically engineered to repel rain. From an overhead angle, he looks damp but not drowned.

^ On closer inspection, one can make out his double-layered coat's clever ability to wick the water away through his long and sleek outer fur, which leaves the lighter colored downy undercoat dry and fluffy. And that's how my boy stays warm in a downpour like today's. 

Now normally, at this time of year, I am whining and fussing about the change of seasons, depressed about the deepening gloom and longing for an endless summer.

But this year, I am embracing fall in all its decaying glory. So weird. I hardly know myself.

If you push me for an explanation, I'd say that this year, for the first time in a long, long time, I got plenty of warm, sunny summer. 
  • In mid-May, I hopped a plane to sunny Arizona and fetched my baby from college.
  • Within a day of our return, I flew off to Asia and spent seven sweaty weeks in the tropics.
  • I returned home by mid-July to soak up one of the sunniest Seattle summers on record. 
  • Capping off the sunshine season, I made one more trip to Tucson last weekend to enjoy the desert heat and even spend a few hedonistic hours lounging by the pool.
So bring it on, autumn. My cup of summer has been filled to the brim and I'm ready to face whatever you've got.

Friday, October 24, 2014


far left | my maternal grandmother's birth certificate

top left | my mother and her sister, about four and six years old
top right | my maternal grandparents and their firstborn, my aunt
bottom left | my great-grandparents on their wedding day
bottom right | my maternal grandparents' marriage certificate

far right | my great-grandparents' marriage certificate

This little gathering of family memorabilia hangs in the bedroom at my mom's house where I sleep. Each morning, as I walk back and forth between my closet and my bathroom, I pass this arrangement several times and often find that it preoccupies my thoughts. 

These are just a few of the people who came before me, who invested their entire lives in mine. 

They remind me of who I am and what I stand for.

Their silent voices ring forward through the years, anchoring me in their past and encouraging me on toward my future. 

I feel their support, guidance and overwhelming love.

And I think how nice it is to be reminded of my roots. 

Coming Home

My mom still lives in the sleepy little Michigan town where I grew up.

Within an hour's drive of Detroit and mere minutes from Ann Arbor, yet surrounded by lakes, rivers and infinite woods, our tiny berg was a perfect mash-up of metropolitan convenience and country charm. 

Times, however, have changed. Since my formative years, suburban sprawl has come to my hometown in a major way. 

Of course, I've been back to visit countless times over the years, and I've kept up with the transformation. On one hand, I'm glad to see the place prosper and grow.

But I must admit that there are times when I feel homesick for the way my hometown used to be.

I miss the wide open spaces.
I miss the untamed forests.
I miss the place that it used to be.
I miss the way my childhood stomping grounds used to make me feel.

Wild and free.

Now, there's no way to un-build all the new neighborhoods, un-pave the exponentially expanded parking lots, or de-yuppify the countless trendy restaurants and taverns that line Main Street in this new millennium.

But I have found a respite.

Dirt roads.

Much to my surprise, many of the old unpaved roads that criss-crossed the countryside back in the day and brought countless adventures to my youth still exist in their pure form. Sure, the busiest sections have been paved over, the more treacherous curves straightened out, and there are an awful lot of McMansions tucked here and there among the trees, massive subdivisions hiding just barely out of sight.

But last week, as I explored those good old backwoods trails, I discovered something pretty cool. If I squint my eyes and hide my iPhone, I feel almost as if I have been swept back through the decades to the hometown that I knew and loved. The place that made me who I am today. 

Wild and free.

That's how I feel when I'm driving on my hometown dirt roads. And that's when I feel like I've truly come home.