Category Archives: Elder care

Passing

I live in a house of many rooms.  Each room is different; and someone I like or love lives there.  But, now and then, I can’t go into a room of my house any more.  The door isn’t just locked; it’s gone.  The wall where it was is smooth and cold.


I was washing our red 2003 Corolla in the driveway one sunny afternoon, when a lady paused in her walk and gazed anxiously at me.  She was wearing a long black wool coat and a little pillbox hat.  “Do you know the lady who lives across the street?” she asked.

I glanced over at the squarish little workman’s house across the way.  A narrow cement walk bisected its minuscule front lawn on its way to an awkward little porch.  Inside, I knew, a side-hall kept two tiny bedrooms out of sight.  At the far side of the living room, a door led into the kitchen, the origin of many popcorn balls and Rice Krispy treats in my daughters’ trick-or-treat bags.

“You mean Victoria?”  I answered.  “She’s not there any more.  She died.”

The woman began to sob.  Why hadn’t I said “Passed away” like a gentleman?  I left my rag and hose and walked over to her.  “I’m sorry.  Was she a friend of yours?”

“We were friends once,” she said.  “But there was an argument.  And after that I never spoke to her again.  I’ve been walking past her house these past few weeks, trying to work up the nerve to tell her I’m sorry.  And now I never can!”img_3278

The improv comedy group called on the audience for skit ideas.  My father had just passed away.  His death was the first that struck close to me, and it was suffocating me.  “Death,” I said.

The players looked at each other.  “I don’t know …” one of them muttered.

“Sure, we can do it!” another urged.

One put his hands in front of him, and crept up to them as if he were using a walker.

“Grandpa!” exclaimed the other in a high voice.

“What is it, Jimmy?” muttered the “old man.”

“It’s my puppy!  He’s not moving.  Do you think …?” he sobbed.  The material was tragic, but the delivery was hilarious.  The audience roared.  Including me.


I was snowshoeing in the Central Cascades one day.  The snow was a bit dingy, and too crusty from rain for skiing.  The sky was an opaque ceiling, a vague gray-white mass, close.  I made a little lunch-camp, putting on a fleece, sitting on my blue foam square and looking up at a nearby peak.  It jutted into the fog, its top obscured.  I couldn’t see the top, but I had a pretty good idea what the top was like.  Logically, it had to be a continuation of the visible sides of the peak.  There wasn’t a MacDonald’s up there; just more snow and trees.  There might be a few crags, a bit of meadow or an avalanche chute, but no fantasy palace. What we don’t know has to be an extension of what we know — not radically different.


C: … I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

O: Oh yes, the, uh, the Norwegian Blue…What’s,uh…What’s wrong with it?

C: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. ‘E’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!

O: No, no, ‘e’s uh,…he’s resting.

Monty Python, “Dead Parrot Sketch”img_2485

Now and then when I visited my mother in her nursing home, I would see that she’d lost something, and I grieved for it.  Then I’d walk around a decaying light-industrial neighborhood that was nearby, and photograph it; somehow this made me feel better.

She lost the ability to turn her radio on and off, because it was too complicated.  I put a green sticker on the knob so she would know which one it was; but it didn’t help.  Then she lost the ability to push the red nursie button on the cord clipped to her pillow.  Instead, when she wanted something she beat on the wall.

While I was wheeling her to the beauty shop one day, a friend of mine drove up in his electric wheelchair.  “Mom, this is my friend David,” I said.  Mom nodded at him with an odd, ironic look on her face.  I wondered if she would ever speak again.  She didn’t.

A day or two later, a nurse came up to me and reported that my mother wasn’t eating.  I sat down at her table and talked to her, and offered her a little spoonful of food.  She willingly took it in; so I offered her another.  I was just starting to feel pleased with myself when the food  spilled out of her mouth onto her blouse.  She’d lost the ability to swallow, or perhaps the interest.

My brother came over from Hood Canal; and my daughters flew in.  We took turns sitting by Mom’s bed in her darkened room, talking to her now and then, holding her hand and offering her a wet sponge to suck.  On one of my shifts, she was breathing like a steam engine on a steep incline — deep, rapid gasps.  I talked to her quietly, and tried the sponge.  I’d arranged two straight-backed chairs facing each other next to her bed.  I put my feet up and watched her.  After a while I dozed off.  I was startled awake.  Something had changed.  It was quiet.  She’s just resting, I told myself.

I went out and brought back a nurse to check her.  “She’s passed,” he told me, and left.


“We’re all here waiting to die,” another nursing-home friend told me.  “It’s the last stop, the big Waiting Room.  Now and then, someone’s name gets called.  They go in the boss’ door, and they never come out.”img_2336

Passing means you’re moving faster than whoever you’re moving past.  It’s meant to be a comforting, soulful metaphor; that we’re all going somewhere, some further ahead, some behind but with uncertain speed.  All of us passing, at last, out of sight.

When a candle burns down, the flame doesn’t go anywhere.  It just isn’t.  When a computer breaks, its software doesn’t go anywhere; it just isn’t.  There’s no comfort in this soulless metaphor.  Not to exist is a disturbing concept.

What am I to make of this passing, dying business?  I think that what you see is what you get.  When I get to the top of the mountain, there won’t be anything special there.  So I have to think about what matters to me in life, and concentrate on maximizing what matters.  I believe that what matters most is love.


Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun
You only live but once
And when you’re dead you’re done

B.B. King – Let The Good Times Roll

Grandpa’s gun

Television was never more exciting than when, in the mid-’50s, Seattle’s KIRO-TV started broadcasting. Now we had three channels to choose from! I loved westerns–who didn’t? I even had props to make me feel I was part of the show; a silver cap revolver with a white plastic handle for The Lone Ranger, a cowboy hat whose brim Mom trimmed with a strip of blue curtain-balls for the Cisco Kid, and a cap flintlock musket for Davy Crockett. What a sight I must have been, in that hat, wearing glasses, and armed to the teeth–some of which were missing.

I especially liked a Cisco Kid episode in which the heroes tricked the robbers into thinking a large posse was after them by throwing a handful of bullets in the campfire. What a smart move, I thought–until somebody pointed out that the exploding bullets could randomly hit and kill friend and foe. I’d thought a gun was a kind of remote control that switched off bad guys. The bullets, I now saw, were the real agent of death. They were such little things; how did they do that? I don’t remember what questions I asked or what explanations I got. But I thought about guns differently after that.

 One day, I was alone in the playroom where, unlike the living room, my wood-block towers were permitted to continue to exist. Some grown-up furniture stood near the door. On this day, I was exploring Mom’s sewing machine cabinet. It was a massive old console made of glossy dark wood, trimmed in a streamlined ’40s style, with some drawers on one side. Here I found pins, spools, scraps of cloth and patterns. And, in the bottom drawer, I found a pistol.

I took it out by the handle. It was a revolver like my cap pistol, but a lot heavier. Next to it, I found a red cardboard box that held rows of metal cylinders. It dawned on me; This is a real gun. Frightened, I put the things back in the drawer. I never told my parents what I’d found.

When I was older, Mom told me stories about her past. Her father, whose parents had emigrated from Germany, had been a plastering contractor in Chicago. This was before Sheetrock was invented; in those days, to finish an interior wall, wet plaster was applied to a screen attached to the studs. Chicago was a tough city during the Great Depression. The working-class neighborhoods of Germans, Poles and other nationalities weren’t especially friendly to one another.  

When a couple failed to pay for a plastered ceiling, Grandpa went into their house with a length of pipe.  He said he’d knock the ceiling down.  

Give him a check with legs,” the wife told her husband in Polish–a check that would bounce.

But the Polish and German words for “legs” are the same. “If you do that,” Grandpa said, “I’ll come right back here with this pipe.”

Each payday, Grandpa would call his men into the room one at a time, and pay their wages in cash. He put a gun on the table to keep everyone polite.  

Grandpa didn’t approve of his daughter’s beau, a bank clerk; nor, apparently, did Grandma. “When you meet a man,” she lectured her daughter, “Look at his hands. If he doesn’t have calluses, stay away!” Because that man was not an honest laborer. I doubt that Dad passed the callus test. Yet my parents married. When Dad came home after the war, I was born, and they announced they would move to Seattle. Faced with the prospect of his daughter living in Indian country, Grandpa gave Dad a gun to protect his family. And I know where it is, I thought.

Life in Indian country was good. Dad worked for a Seattle bank, specializing in foreign trade. My folks had another son, and they put us both through college. Dad managed the bank’s first overseas branch. He made Vice President and retired. Then things started going downhill.

Dad was plagued with dengue fever, which he’d caught in India during World War II. He had a bout with skin cancer and nearly lost a leg. He had prostate cancer; by the late ’90s, it had metastasized, and he was racked with pain. Dementia clouded his fine mind. He had heart trouble too, and unexplained attacks during which he fell and was temporarily paralyzed. Once Mom asked me to come and help her pick up Dad. We couldn’t lift him. So we had to call the Fire Department to pick him up and take him to ER.  

Now Mom tearfully told me another story. “He’s asked me to help him die. I told him I couldn’t do it.” Someone from the Hemlock Society came to talk to them. There were thought to be ways to end one’s life with a minimum of suffering; but they were risky and complicated. “He said that Dad would have to do it himself.”

I could understand why Dad wanted to die. And I thought it was his right to choose to stop the suffering. But not with that antique pistol. The risk of a shot going awry and causing even more grief was too great.

I reminded Mom about Grandpa’s gun, and asked her if it was in the house. She made a vague reply; looking back on it now, I think she’d already begun to worry about it. I asked if I could look for it and take it away. She said okay.  

Although they’d moved several times, the sewing machine cabinet had moved with them. Its bottom drawer was just as I remembered it. Here was the payroll guard, the Indian killer, the Lone Ranger’s trusty iron, with enough bullets to throw in a campfire and simulate quite a large posse. Mom didn’t think to ask how I’d found it so fast.

I didn’t know how to tell whether the gun was loaded, nor whether the safety switch was on. Just handling the gun to try to figure out if it was safe felt too freaking dangerous. So I put it in a paper bag with the box of bullets and carried them over to the firehouse.  

“There’s a gun in this bag,” I told the officer who let me in. “I want to get rid of it.” He didn’t act surprised. Like parishioners in confession, people must often show up in firehouses with rumpled bags of nasty things with which they can no longer bear to live. He took the bag. I thanked him and left.

The firemen came to Mom and Dad’s place a lot after that; and Dad went to the hospital a lot; and he hurt. Mom said he pulled the sheet over his face to hide his pain. In 2001, following a loving visit with Mom, my brother, me and my wife and children, Dad passed away in his sleep. He was 92.

Bazaar Tales

Recently I joined the Auxiliary of a local retirement home to help put on their annual bazaar, their main fundraising event. I learned, I worked and I laughed–including, of course, at myself.  It’s pretty cool how dedicated the Auxiliary is, and with what determination they propel their cause.

Donated items have been accumulating all year.  In September, the Holiday Bazaar project begins in earnest  Working in the narrow, high-ceilinged corridors of the building’s basement, we bring cartons of donated items out of a densely packed 15-by-40-foot storage room—one of several that are allocated to various volunteer groups and are stuffed with donated items. We inspect and price the items, then repack and reshelve them.

We hand-write prices and attach them to items, using pretty tags cut from greeting cards. My informant explains that, starting in 2004, the Auxiliary made Christmas handicrafts to sell in the Bazaar. “We had fun, but we got tired.” That effort didn’t produce much income. The Auxiliary has had better luck selling items donated by families and friends of the retirement home and its residents. Some items are remnants of other volunteer fundraising efforts. Another project is a holiday raffle basket, which typically sells for about $200.

In early November I join the team again. This time we’re in a large conference room with a kitchenette. The periphery of the room is marked off with signs like “Glassware” and “Ornaments.” Bears are so special that they have a category to themselves. We discuss items that are tough to categorize; is a large, rather homely Santa vase glassware or an ornament? We repack the sorted items in boxes that are numbered for the bazaar tables for which they’re intended.

bears

At 7 AM on the morning of the bazaar, setup goes quickly, thanks to all the preparation. I’m doing the baked goods table, working with bags and boxes of cookies, zucchini bread, fudge and cupcakes. To my left, the gift basket raffle is setting up; a long football pennant is draped over the basket. I make a sign, “Baked Goods $1 Or As Marked,” and shuttle empty boxes to a back room.

I move a wooden spice cabinet with glass-panelled doors out of the way under a table. I deliver a misplaced Corning ware casserole dish that for some reason was in Baked Goods to the appropriate table. From across the room I hear a glassy crash; it took only moments for someone to put a foot thru the spice cabinet.  Briefly, silence reigns; a triage conference ensues.

“We could mark it down to a dollar,” a woman suggests.

“Put a ‘Free’ sign on it,” urges another. “It will save having to throw it away.” I never see the spice cabinet again.

An old hand comes by to check on my baked goods table. With a few adjustments, she gets half again as much stuff on display. It’s a good thing, because busy bakers arrive every few minutes with more goodies; Hawaiian cinnamon bread, pecan cookies, lemon bars. Now and then, passers by linger over the table. Just because the cashier isn’t ready doesn’t mean people can’t look. A woman hands me a shopping bag full of frosted cupcakes. “Thanks,” I say and put it under the table.

“No,” she says, “They need to be on the table.”

“I don’t think I have any room left,” I point out.

Swiftly she makes premium room for her masterpieces, consigning the unguarded plates of lemon bars to a pile in a back corner.

At 10 AM the sale is officially underway. The first-floor lobbies and halls fill with people. Shoppers and volunteers alike are smiling, talking and laughing. My informant hands me an armload of box-lids that can be used as trays. “Offer trays to shoppers who are picking things up,” she cannily advises. “Then their hands won’t be full; so they’ll buy more!” I do, and I can see it’s working. Now and then, as gaps appear among the baked goods, I add more from the boxes under the table.

tables awayThe sale goes on for two days. Then the packing crew arrives. Unsold goods are boxed and shuttled to the basement storeroom by a fleet of basket-carts. Pushing one of these thru the narrow basement hall is like entering a holiday mineshaft.  A woman in a winter parka is holding open the heavy door to the parking lot.  I get my own coat and spell her off the boring job.  She gives me a grateful look and finds something interesting to do.  Moments later a custodian walks up, fishes a cement brick from inside, props the door open with it, and I’m free.  I don’t tell the woman she was doing the job of a brick; that would be cruel.

Soon we’re collapsing tables and rolling shelves away. In less than two hours the job is done. Some of this bounty of donations will return for the next fundraiser. Other items will appear in the retirement home’s thrift shop throughout the year or be shared with other fundraising projects.

This year’s bazaar earned over $8,500. The funds will support resident programs and services.