Set Free

Fred was waiting in his wheelchair at 9 a.m. as I entered Room 11 at Newport Rehab and Specialty Care, my nose running, my head hurting so bad I wanted to amputate my right temple. The stress of the past two weeks had finally overcome my immune system.

Underwear, socks and toothbrush lay on the bed, and he was eager to go, so eager he teared up every time he thought about escaping Newport Rehab. It didn’t seem like such a bad place to me, but I could walk, amuse myself with puzzles, books, and the piano, and leave whenever I wanted to. I didn’t have to call an aide every time I wanted to pee. I could snub the bland canned dinner and take myself to Quiznos for a big submarine sandwich and real coffee.

So he was being sprung. They didn’t offer a new suit and a fistful of cash, just a pink spit basin and a ratty toothbrush, which he declined.

As I packed the suitcase, glancing warily out the window at the snow coming down harder by the minute, various women hurried in with pills and forms to sign. I barely read them, but I did get the impression that if they didn’t approve of where I was taking my husband, they’d sic the Department of Human Services on me in a heartbeat. In their eyes, I was no longer capable of caring for my own husband. Perhaps they were right, but many hours later, lying in bed alone, I had huge doubts. Have I done enough?

Fred, however, couldn’t wait to get to Graceland, no, not the Elvis place, but a care home up the hill behind the Eureka Cemetery where he would live with Grace, Rick, their son Li, Lucy the dog and several other gentlemen with disabilities.

Nurses and aides showered him with hugs and goodbyes. One congratulated him for going home while I shook my head and told her he wasn’t going “home.” Then Fred rolled out the door to freedom. The alarm squealed until someone inside shut it off.

Rick, who came from Graceland to help us, slung the suitcase into his truck. He helped Fred into our car and off we went, my windshield wipers pushing big snow patties back and forth.

That four miles was probably the most frightening drive of my life. I’m from San Jose. I don’t do snow. The road to Graceland is narrow and tightly curved, and I have yet to learn its ups and downs. The higher we went, the thicker the snow, until everything was white, the road, the ground, the trees, the houses. Even a tabby cat beside the road wore a snow hat and mustache.

Driving in first gear, holding my breath, I made it to Graceland. His new wheelchair had not arrived, so Fred walked across the snow, Grace and I each holding one of his hands. I doubt that he heard the subtle alarm of the open door. Soon he was settled on the sofa next to Li, a Newport High School student enjoying a snow day off. As they watched a Jurassic park movie with subtitles, I set up Fred’s new bedroom, plugging in the clock, arranging photographs on the dresser, hanging his clothes in the closet. When we brought him in, he seemed to like it.

Grace showed him the ocean due west out the window, the vast open space where a family of deer often come to graze, a red barn, a doublewide mobile home with a car out front, the houses and streets of Newport. Somewhere out there, if I had binoculars, I could see my church and Abbey’s pizza. The snow fell hard and thick and fluffy, like a picture on a Christmas card.

Then came the paperwork. A million questions along the lines of: Eating: Is he independent, needs assistance or totally dependent? Over and over. Then the contract and the writing of the big check, bigger than the down payment for our car, the gray Honda Element that mounted that hill like a sure-footed mule. Fred joined us at the big oval dining room table, eating from a bowl of orange wedges, sipping coffee from the green mug I had brought from home, as I signed my name repeatedly. At one point, Rick offered Fred a chance to sign, but he got stuck on the letter F. His back is better, but his Alzheimer’s is worse.

If I felt better and weren’t so worried about the drive home in my snow-covered car, I would have loved to stick around, take pictures and join Rick and his son snowboarding down the hill. But I had to go.

Fred, finally standing on his own two feet, hugging me good-bye, seemed surprisingly calm as I went off to what used to be the home we shared and left him at his new home. Perhaps it’s okay. During a moment when we were alone, he whispered tearfully, “You have done so much.”

Back in the snow, I let out my breath as I drove past the cemetery and moved into Newport proper. It was snowing hard there, too, the roads mushy and slick, criss-crossed with tire trails. But as soon as I crossed the Yaquina Bridge into South Beach, the snow turned to rain. As I greeted my muddy dogs at home, I looked for signs of snow and saw none. In fact, as I settled in at my desk, amazed to have a whole afternoon and evening to myself, the sun came out.

Except for puddles under the car and the head cold which is in full bloom today, was it all a dream?

The Tide Goes Out at Sea Towne

Sea Towne, a maze of bleached-board ramps and stairways, with a lifelike wooden sailor sitting in the courtyard, and soft music playing from hidden speakers, is Newport’s only so-called mall, but like the wood it’s made out of it, this charming sea of shops on Highway 101 between Subway and Sears has been fading for a long time.

Before my twice-monthly meetings in one of the offices there, I often stop at the Sea Towne bookstore. Owner Bill Terry has been a great supporter of local authors, hosting book-signings, displaying our works prominently, welcoming us like old friends. Since he first heard about Stories Grandma Never Told, my book about Portuguese women, he always says the same thing: Did I tell you my ex-wife was Portuguese? Yes, I say, you did.

In November, I did a signing there to promote A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s. The handful of sales I made that day were the only sales, he said. As I sat at my little table with my books spread before me, I noticed some of the shelves were bare. The faltering economy, plus the growing trend to buy books from the big online outlets, has hit independent bookstores hard. Why drive all the way to Sea Towne, where you probably won’t find the book you’re looking for, when you can order it from Amazon with a few keystrokes?

So yesterday, I was sad but not surprised to find Bill’s old store empty. A sign on the window noted that the future occupants had applied for a liquor license. Another sign, handwritten in black felt pen, noted that the bookstore had moved “around the corner.”

I followed the signs until I discovered Bill’s new store. It’s much smaller, the walls inside a startling shade of yellow. There was Bill, leaning on the counter. He had planned to go out of business at the end of last year, he said. Nobody was buying, and with the snow that smacked Oregon during the holidays, the Christmas rush never happened. He’s still trying to figure out how to fit his books into the reduced space. Four banks of magazines have been reduced to one, and the children’s section, once a sizable nook, is just one wall now. Right away Bill started apologizing for not having my books in a prominent display. No, no, no, I said. It’s still here; that’s all that matters.

I’ll be honest. I buy most of my books from Amazon.com. It’s just easier, but I ordered three from Bill in December and another one yesterday. If nobody shops at the bookstores, they’ll disappear.

The bookstore isn’t the only Sea Towne shop experiencing a sea change. The dog boutique is gone. Charisma Gifts has moved out. Several offices upstairs are vacant. As usual, I saw no one at the restaurant where the owners valiantly put up mouth-watering menus every day, serving a handful of customers at most.

Sea Towne still has a clothing shop, a home decorating business, a dance studio and numerous psychiatrists’ and counselors’ offices. I believe the key shop, a tiny cubbyhole opposite the elevator, is still going but it’s only open sporadically.

Sea Towne is becoming a ghost town, haunted by that wooden sailor who looks so real I always feel as if I need to say hello. My footsteps echo on the wooden planks. It feels as if everyone else has jumped ship.