Sunday, September 25, 2016

I Rode The Bus And I Liked It

"Your self-imposed prison. That thing called your comfort zone. Challenge it. Stretch it. You will thank yourself." -Tony Curl

If every bus stop sat in such a glorious patch of sunshine and shadow, I might just ride forever.

* * * * *
"Mom, what if you took the bus?"

Since my car died last weekend after 348,000 miles of service, my family of five adults has been relying on my eldest daughter's Kia as our only set of wheels. 

Complicated? You betcha. 

Thank goodness my husband takes public transportation to his Seattle office. Once his employer began to offer free bus passes, he gave up his daily drive and our second car and has never looked back. 

My second- and fourth-borns usually ride the bus to work too. Convenient, fast and way cheaper than a car, the bus has been a great option in their lives since middle school mall days. They've had nothing but great experiences on our bus system and I'm proud of them for their street smarts. 

But me take the bus? ME? 

No no no no no.

Back in Chicago, I rode my fair share of those smelly, headache-making machines. I put up with the weirdos and the sardine-tin camaraderie for quite a few years, and have no desire to climb aboard a commuter bus ever again.

Still, as my daughter so rightly pointed out, the only logical way to get everyone where they needed to be was for me to take the bus.

So you know what I did?

I scrounged up two singles and a quarter out of the rarely-used cash section of my wallet.
I marched myself across the mall parking lot to the 113 bus stop.
And I rode the bus home.

You know what?

I liked it. 

The seats were neat and clean.
The windows freshly washed.
And the air did not reek of diesel fumes.

My fellow riders were a well-mannered cross-section of suburban America - mothers and toddlers, businessmen, young couples, college students, and a take-no-prisoners grandma riding a mountain bike. Different races, different cultures, different ring tones - on just a twenty-minute ride, I felt reconnected with the great American melting pot.

As they hopped off the bus, most passengers called out a thank-you to the driver.

No one in Chicago ever thanked the drivers.

* * * * * 

My bus ride took just a few minutes longer than if I had driven myself, but as I walked the last block home, I marveled at the difference.

Instead of bombing along the highway in a private bubble, wrapped up in my own concerns, my bus ride had opened me to the world.

Instead of feeling hassled and stressed by the normal traffic headaches, my bus ride tuned me in to the peaceful zen of my fellow passengers.

Instead of storming into the house with my mental to-do list pulsing in my brain, I came home refreshed, rejuvenated and relaxed.

* * * * *

Now, make no mistake, I'm still going full steam ahead on buying a new car. I'm totally pumped to get behind the wheel of a new machine, and I plan to drive it hard.

But every now and then, I think I will make a point to leave my keys at home, track down some actual dollar bills, and treat myself to a bus ride. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

He's Got Me Right Where He Wants Me

To eat out of someone's hand is to do exactly as they wish. 

Look at me feeding dinner to my prince.

Observe my outstretched arms, holding the bowl in midair, so his noble neck need not bend uncomfortably down.

You can't see inside the bowl, but trust me, this is no ordinary dog food dinner. 

His excellency will no longer eat processed kibble or even wet food from the store.

He prefers for me to cook him homemade meals. 

Ground beef and rice.
Chicken, cabbage, and carrots.
Scrambled eggs. With cheddar cheese and a dash of pepper, of course.

Now I never intended to create a culinary tyrant. But my poor boy has lost a lot of weight in the past year. His hips are downright bony, his ribs show clearly beneath his fur. And his appetite has steadily fallen off. 

That's why I'm only too glad to whip up three home-cooked meals a day for my little liege lord.  

And I take great pleasure in watching his majesty wolf down every delicious bite. He literally dances with excitement when he sees the next meal coming, and quivers with delight when I extend his bowl. 

So even though it may appear that I've got my good dog Ranger eating out of my hands, the truth is that things are quite the other way round. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Seeing Stars


"I will love the light for it shows me the way, 
yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars." 
- Og Mandino

Rain beat down on the windshield as I pulled my rental into the return lot and slid the gearshift into park. Sitting in the early morning gloom, I couldn't bring myself to turn off the ignition.

In two hours, I would be flying home to faraway Seattle and leaving my mother behind in Michigan to face her dementia alone. Based on the week I had just spent with her - especially our last sleepless, chaotic night - that was unthinkable.

In dark desperation, I remembered the wad of papers in my bag. Just the day before, we'd met my mom's new geriatric physician. He'd handed me this stack of flyers for in-home dementia care, and suggested that my mom might be ready for more support.

Yes. Absolutely.

And while I had no illusions about the lengthy delays and long lead times that would likely be required to get someone into my mom's home at night, I decided that before I got out of that car, I had to at least try.

The wipers slapped away the steady rain as I unfolded the stack of brochures and numbly dialed the number on the top page.

No answer.

Ugh. I slumped back against the seat, despondent, and wondered how I might summon up the hope to try the next number.

Then my phone rang.

"Hi, this is Joanna from Dementia Specialists. I think I just missed your call."

She listened as I stumbled through my story. And when I paused, Joanna kicked into gear.

"I can move a few things around and make time to interview your mom this morning. I'll get one of our girls in place by tonight. Don't worry. We won't leave your mom alone."

As I write this, two full years later, tears still flood my eyes as I remember the indescribable relief those words brought to me.

* * * * *

True to her word, Joanna and her team began looking after my mom that very day.

Compassionate.
Competent.
Committed.

Joanna's caregivers brought beautiful gifts into my mom's life.

They talked to her with genuine interest and treated her like an ordinary person.
They dealt matter-of-factly with the details of her disease.
They gently protected her privacy and her dignity.

My mom was not an easy client. She could not see how the disease was affecting her, she resented not only their supervision but even their companionship, and she treated these loving people as intruders.

But the caregivers understood the difference between my mom and the way the disease was affecting her behavior. They were patient, gracious, insightful, kind.

In time, my mom's walls came down and much to my surprise, relationships grew.

* * * * *

At the same time that miracle was taking place, much to my surprise, another layer of care was unfolding. Over the phone, at all times of night and day, Joanna poured countless hours into answering my questions, addressing my concerns, and educating me about my mom's disease.

She understood what I was going through emotionally, and gave me loving support.
She offered me insights and information about the disease, and helped me learn how best to interact with my mom.
She made me feel less alone.

Compassionate.
Competent.
Committed.

I am so grateful to Joanna, her caregivers, and all the staff at Dementia Specialists Homecare, for looking after not only my mom but also me.

Thanks to their help, the stars of hope and happiness now shine into our dark walk with dementia.

* * * * *

If you suspect a loved one may have dementia:

1. Get a diagnosis. See a dementia diagnostic specialist or a neurologist.
2. Find a dementia home care specialist and hire them right away to help you navigate this journey.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Gift For My Mom

If you suspect a loved one may have dementia:

1. Get a diagnosis. See a dementia diagnostic specialist or a neurologist.
2. Find a dementia home care specialist and hire them right away to help you navigate this journey.

* * * * *

Nasturtiums in red and yellow spotted at Kalaloch Lodge on the morning of her birthday remind me of my mom's beloved hummingbird feeders.

Today is my mother's birthday.

I sent her flowers and a card with a drawing of a hummingbird. Inside, I wrote her a note about the hummingbirds that would swarm around the feeders on her deck at home. She used to love to watch them.

I didn't know what else to get her.

Place mats and cloth napkins.
Pretty baking dishes.
A big red Fiestaware bowl.
Books. Anything by John Grisham or Jodi Picoult.
Jigsaw puzzles galore.
Hummingbird feeders.

These are the kinds of gifts I used to buy her.

Her life has moved beyond those needs.

My mom has advanced Lewy Body Dementia. Most days, she gets out of bed. She still enjoys a chocolate milkshake or an ice cream bar. A Heath Klondike is her favorite.

Her memory is surprisingly sound.

When we talk, she remembers me, my daughters, my dog. She remembers her old students and her teaching buddies. Her world travels. Her college days and high school days and a few sweet stories from her childhood. She listens attentively while I spin out the memories, and she responds to me. I know she understands. I know she loves to hear those stories.

She usually drifts off to sleep within ten or fifteen minutes.

I wish I knew more about what this life is like for her.

She's always been a smart, busy, resourceful person, flitting from project to project and working tirelessly from morning till night. And she's always been an emotionally complex person, with deep feelings and powerful hurts that she has locked up deep inside for a lifetime. Her dementia intensified all of these traits, and the past decade has been frantic, frenzied, furious, like the beating of a hummingbird's wings against a hurricane.

Now, the storm seems to have passed.

All things considered, she seems surprisingly at peace.

With me.
With herself.
With life.

Though I still wish I could give her a perfect birthday present, it seems that somehow, she has found the best gift of all.

And now she rests.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Solid Ground


In the past few days, temperatures have plummeted by 15 degrees or so.

Misty clouds have replaced the searing sun.

And while I have some mixed feelings about the change in season, let me say that Ranger is pumped.

Crisp September weather has put some much-needed pep in my pup's step, and after dragging through the long hot summer, this boy is back to his mischievous and playful ways.  

For months now, I've been able to let him go unleashed into the front yard, because all he wants to do is flop down in the shade and snooze. But this week, he's begun to slip off again, prancing beyond the borders of our yard, tail wagging happily as he patrols the neighbors' shrubbery and wanders down the street. 

And when waiting for me to tie my shoes and get going on our daily walk, instead of lying quietly on the front hall rug, he's been exploring this work-in-progress front yard dirt heap and biding his time in the mud.

Yes, he's a lot more work for me when he's feeling his sass. But I'm happy to chase my good old dog around again. 

I'm glad to see him back on solid ground. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Hello, September


Clear blue, sunny skies with just a hint of snap in the air. 

The first hints of red appearing in the leaves at the top of the tree. 

A fresh crop of homegrown apples, juicy and crisp and sweet, are ripe and ready for eating. 

Hello, September, and welcome to your special brand of late summer days. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Full Circle

If you enter the home of the Ambassador to Malaysia in Havana, Cuba, 
you will find this sweet portrait prominently displayed in the front hall. 
And once you ready my story, you will understand why.


This is a story about a dear little boy, his loving family, and my very special friend.

Pictured here is Amierul Wafiq Bin Khairi, third son and fourth child of my lovely Malaysian hosts in Cuba.

Wafiq was a precocious little boy from the start. Born in Washington D.C. of his diplomatic parents, he learned English as his first language and considered himself an American. When his family finished the U.S. posting and returned to Kuala Lumpur, two-year-old Wafiq expressed his displeasure with the move and wondered when they might go back to DC. Still, he contented himself by playing with Hot Wheels, memorizing the makes and models of cars, and otherwise being a normal toddler.

Until he woke up one morning complaining of aching feet.

And was eventually diagnosed with leukemia.

Surprisingly - or maybe not - Wafiq handled his illness with maturity and calm. Though he didn't like staying overnight in the hospital, his treatments did not set him back for long. He handled the dreary procedures like a champ and usually came home in good spirits, ready to play with his beloved toy cars and carry on his happy little life.

But over the course of a year, he grew weaker. His appetite paled, and his family began to fear the worst. On a quiet Friday afternoon, he laid down on his bed, closed his eyes, and peacefully left this life for the next.

Bless his sweet soul.

Now, back to the photo. This is the last photograph ever taken of Wafiq.

It seems that one of Wafiq's relatives had come visiting, and the boy asked this favored uncle to take his picture. Posing himself on a formal chair, Wafiq - who typically presented a serious face to the camera - surprised everyone with a smile. His mother says this is the only photo she has of her son's beautiful smile.

I can certainly understand why she treasures this precious portrait.

And I appreciate why she feels especially grateful to this particular relative whose special bond with Wafiq made this photo possible.

And it brings a special smile to my own face to hear that this uncle is the one and only Mohd Yuzairie, my first and best Malaysian friend, without whom I never would have met this lovely family and shared in the beautiful story of Wafiq's life.

And now my story is all told out. But the circles of friendship and family, life and love, continue to spin and spiral around us all.