Thursday, February 18, 2010

Alzheimer's: Please don't pass the salt

I've heard a lot of touching and funny stories about Alzheimer's disease in the last few years. The following is among the most memorable.

A woman told me how her loved one with Alzheimer's seemed eager to help with dinner one night. On the stove was a pot of homemade spaghetti sauce that the primary chef had prepared. She instructed the person with Alzheimer's to simply keep stirring it while she stepped out of the kitchen momentarily.

Returning a few minutes later, the chef thanked the assistant who was still busy stirring. Everything was carried to the dining room table, and the family gathered for one of its favorite homestyle meals. Someone took the first bite of the sauce and started coughing. Yuck! What's wrong with this?!?!?

A quick investigation discovers that the temporary cook had innocently added her own special ingredient: an oversized pinch of epsom salt.

The lesson to be learned from this story?

Never leave someone with Alzheimer's unattended in the food preparation area for safety and to avoid the addition of too many pinches of anything. Your tongue, throat and stomach will thank you.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

That Valentine's Day, our hearts were full

It was the simplest and perhaps truest form of love.

A memorable Valentine's Day was chaperoning my son, who was only 9 years old, when he went out with a girl he called his friend.

You can't get much more stereotypical than this: pizza and soda for dinner (just ice water for mom and dad who are watching their weight), and then a drive over to the ice cream shop for a scoop of anything but vanilla (low-cal frozen yogurt for the chaperones).

The little girl was quiet, her voice barely above a whisper when she talked to us. (Of course, they had chatted up a storm in the car.)

"What pizza topping do you want, hon?"

Whisper whisper whisper.

"I'm sorry, hon, which one do you want?"

We caught it this time.


Her gentleman friend ordered the same pizza topping and soda before they scurried off to play on the video machine. That was a reassuring feeling, handing over $2 worth of quarters to the pair. At least that was still fun to do at this age.

My heart ached and laughed during the evening. In barely four months, my little boy would reach that hallmark of 10. He was sensitive yet caring, quiet yet the socialite, polite yet still a child. He was the blend of our hopes and dreams, and we knew the toughest days were still ahead.

The baby cheeks were long gone, replaced by a handsome young profile and just one dimple when he smiled. His glasses accentuated his vibrant eyes instead of masking them. His eyes were like mine, brighter green in the morning and a more tired shade as the day wore on. His father could always tell when we were tired, just by looking at the color chart in our eyes.

Our son had both of our curly eyelashes that his grandmothers envied. His pudgy little nose was a duplicate of mine, but the mouth was his father's, most often racing in the open gear. Except this night.

His voice was low and quiet, rid of the argumentative tone from the day before, but one I knew I'd hear again. His words were carefully chosen, nurtured, convincing. It was amazing what charm one little lady had over one little man, my little boy.

Then I studied this young lady who had spellbound him. She was quite pretty, dark eyes, a smooth thin face, three inches taller than her escort. But she was a year older.

Yes, my little boy had fallen for an older woman. He was quite taken by her. Notes from her were taped to his bedroom door. Her picture had a prominent spot in a small frame next to his bed. But if you called her his girlfriend, he quickly corrected you.

"She's a friend who's a girl."

Some of the kids teased him mercilessly about his “girlfriend.” It was painful, but I told him to ignore them. If she was just a friend, fine, then be friends and ignore what those other knuckleheads have to say. Of course, that's easier for a mother to say since it had been 23 years since she was that age.

I don't remember much about when I was nine or 10. I was too busy playing softball and basketball with the boys on the playground to pay much attention to nature’s gift or curse of puppy love. I could spar with the best of them throughout grade school and only gave it up in junior high because recess wasn't part of the curriculum.

But all my schooling had not prepared me for a night like this.

The simple act of liking someone was in its purest form this night. The deep-rooted feelings of love are wrapped up in innocence, before it becomes complicated and fragile. But at this age, it is in a delicate state, and warm fuzzies mean a lot. And the fear of rejection starts early.

What I was experiencing watching my young man in action put my feelings in a whole new dimension.

My baby was growing up. He was like a little man. And while I panicked inside of the prospects of him growing up, deeper inside me I felt a sense of relief, of comfort. He was well-mannered, considerate, fun-loving, a listener, a talker, a truly caring human being. Somehow it made me feel stronger and self-confident, that I was doing OK as a parent, as a human being.

It warmed my heart and made me chuckle as my husband and I walked behind them when we left the ice cream shop. They held hands as we walked in the darkness illuminated by the street lights and moonlight.

As we took her home, my son put his hand on his companion's back as if to protect her as he walked her to the door. He gave her a hug, and she thanked me before closing the door. It was short, sweet, nothing elaborate.

The night was a whirlwind that started with a discussion of homework and ended with a hug. As we drove home, we didn't say much. As my son and I unlocked the front door, he looked up at me beneath the floppy hood and orange stocking cap and said, "I hugged her, Mom."

"I know, honey," I said, as I drew him to me and felt the warmest I ever had in the February wind and rain.

"C'mon, mom," he said inside, leaving a trail of winter clothing behind him. "Let's sort through the Valentine's candy."

That Valentine's Day, our hearts were full.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Flying high on Valentine's Day

I spent most of the night of Saturday, February 12, 2000, on the phone making airline reservations for two days later. Roger and I hadn’t been to the Sunshine State together in nearly seven years. We enjoyed visiting his family at different times, and I still joke that that’s the secret of our marriage: separate vacations. His siblings and parents had probably forgotten what we looked like as a couple.

We had never jumped on a plane for a quick getaway. Now we could, since our almost 18-year-old son was old enough to stay home to take care of the cats and the house and get himself to school without us nagging. Our newly discovered independence was exhilarating.

In anticipation of the trip, I focused on my work all day Sunday and Monday morning, making sure I had finished everything for clients before my week’s absence. Roger ran errands while I made phone calls. As I shut down my computer, he startled me.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said.

I turned to see his familiar smile hidden behind this huge, colorful bouquet. The flowers were gorgeous. Their natural perfume permeated the air. I shook my head.

“Why did you do that? We’re going to be on an airplane today!”

He reminded me that it was Valentine’s Day and that he loved me. In that instant, I felt smaller than my five-foot-one-and-a-half inches. I apologized at my outburst and hugged him. I knew in that moment that I was the luckiest and most-loved woman in the world, all because he had remembered it was Valentine’s Day.

Nobody would keep me from embracing these flowers as I walked through the airport and carried them on board, ready to hold them for more than 1,000 miles. A flight attendant smiled and asked who had given me this brightly colored ensemble of Mother Nature’s finest.

“My husband.” I gestured to Roger ahead of me as we wriggled down the narrow aisle. “He remembered to get me flowers for Valentine’s Day even though his mother just died. We’re on our way to her funeral.”

No mistaking the sudden glisten in her eyes.

“He sounds like an incredible man.”

Yes, he definitely is.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Grown" men need to cry, too

A woman described how her husband broke down sobbing after he discovered he could no longer change a tire … a skill that he had mastered years ago as part of the male ritual of learning to drive and routine car maintenance.

Yes, it's a "guy thing."

However, his expression of deep sadness is part of the grief process and accepting loss, and it's okay. He's a stroke survivor, and this is one of those "moments of truth" a survivor must face periodically and work through. It is also a reminder of just how amazing his progress has been since that horrifying day of his "brain attack," what skills and abilities he has reclaimed or reshaped to better fit his new life.

Whether it's a loss caused by a brain injury or a stroke, an individual must recognize new limits and opportunities. Is a woman no longer a "real woman" because she can't perform certain household duties that were once her domain? Is a man no longer a "real man" if he can't perform certain household duties that were once his domain … like change a tire? Absolutely not!

Bless the "grown" man who cries because he's administering a deep cleansing of his soul. He will see himself and the world clearer when his tears dry.

We need the losses to better understand and appreciate the wins. That's not only a valuable credo for survivors but for all of us. If we do not fail occasionally, we will not learn how to savor the true value of success. That's why survivors may need some extra encouragement at times to remind them they're only a few steps from the next achievement …

Like asking for help to change that tire.