Search ends in Albany

Today was my last day with my husband Fred in Newport. Tomorrow I’m taking him to an Alzheimer’s care home in Albany, OR where I hope he will be happier and better cared for. It had reached the point where he sobbed every day and wandered every night. A week ago, he walked right out the door and down the road. I’ve learned the official term for that; it’s called “elopement.” No harm was done. Grace of the Graceland adult foster care home found him and convinced him to come back for dinner, but it was a sign that it was time to do something.

I spent last Thursday and Friday driving for hours from one “home” to another in the Salem and Corvallis areas. It was hot, I was late everywhere I went, and after a while everyone looked demented to me. But Timberwood seems to have everything I was looking for: a caring staff, lively residents, great activities all day long, wonderful food, a nurse on duty every day, and an attractive private room. But it is a locked facility. It is an institution. It is a pretty prison.

And it’s two hours away.

Today, after I packed my husband’s clothes and pictures and CDs in suitcases and boxes, we sat on the grass on the hill behind Graceland, looking over the new greenhouse Fred helped build, past the neighbor’s red barn to the ocean. We played with the house dog, Lucy, and we kissed and held hands and snuggled. Fred was full of questions like “How will I get there?” and “Where will you sleep?” “I’m anxious,” he kept saying. I doubt he’ll sleep much tonight. Perhaps he’ll do one more naked show at 2 a.m. But tomorrow he’ll be in good hands. Just not mine.

Chico takes a ride

My black dog Chico has taken to jumping the fence. Every time I turn around, he’s on the other side while Annie, who’s shorter, is still on this side. If he could jump out, he could jump in, right? Apparently not. Until I coax him through the gate, he rustles through brush and trees and vines so thick a garter snake would have trouble moving around. I see him leaping, his tongue hanging out, his eyes glowing with excitement.

I have arranged for a large dog run to be constructed so the pups can’t escape and I can leave them without worrying about it.

Meanwhile, I guess I have a road buddy, especially on days when it’s just too nice to lock the dogs in the laundry room. I took Chico with me to visit my husband at Graceland yesterday. Chic’s a good rider. He sat in that passenger seat like a human being, watching the road, getting a little queasy on the turns, but holding it together. Yes, I know he should be in a crate, but he and Annie have chewed the fronts off their crates, so I don’t think I could attach a door anymore.

At Graceland, resident dog Lucy was not thrilled, especially when Chico greeted Grace with full-frontal enthusiasm. Lucy was growling, Chico was pulling hard on the leash, and Grace was feeling bumps rise on her cheek from an allergic reaction. “Oh my gosh, I have to take a shower,” she said, running off with pawprints on her white jacket. Oops. I never met anybody so allergic.

Fred was glad to see his buddy. They spent a long time snuggling and we three walked down the road past where the pavement ends high above the trees and the ocean. Chico did his practice sit-stays and down-stays just fine, and I got mud all over my dress boots. It was a lot chillier up on the hill; in fact, it had snowed that morning, so we turned back toward Graceland, where Lucy still stood guard. No way Chico was going in the house. I put him in the car, fully expecting him to chew up the seats, the grocery bags, the tissues, the headrests, something, but he sat up behind the steering wheel like an old man waiting for his wife at the grocery store. What a dog. No damage, just nose prints on the window. My car has finally been dog-initiated.

Fred and I watched him out the window as juncos and one robin mobbed the bird feeder and Rick and Lee tried to repair Lee’s car, which got dented up when he spun out on the corkscrew road up the hill. It was a short visit. A few hugs from the hubby, and I had to take my buddy home. Chico rode the whole way in his seat. After a while, he lay his head against the back of the seat with a look that said, “I’m so tired.”

But not tired enough. Within a half hour after arriving home, he was over the fence. A half hour after I let him back in the gate, he dashed out the front door when my friend Terry arrived to practice music. Do you know how hard it is to see a black dog in the dark? Unless you see their eyes glowing, they’re invisible. Fortunately, I heard my neighbor talking to someone and guessed where he’d gone. “Do you have an extra dog over there?” I called. Sure enough. Paula was barbecuing steaks, and Chico had decided to help. I dragged him home, but he was back over the fence again this morning.

I can’t wait till the fence builders return.

Gone to Graceland

Fred has lived at the Graceland Care Home for over a week now. The snow is long gone, and we have taken slow walks along the rural road with the dog Lucy leading the way. Every cat, dog and child in the neighborhood knows Lucy.

“It’s so quiet here,” Fred often comments as we go outside, the alarm buzzing until the door is firmly shut. We’re used to the roar of the ocean, sometimes loud and angry, sometimes whispering, but always there. It’s odd that I live up by the beach and my husband lives up on the hill. I visit every day, but it’s not the same as sharing a home. Fred often starts to cry when I say goodbye. My tears come as I face this empty house with the many reminders of all that has changed.

But this is not meant to be a gloomy blog.

Graceland was not named after anything related to Elvis. Grace, an immigrant from China, is an avid Christian and took Grace as her American name. Now she is using it for her care homes. She and her husband Rick hope to expand into a series of homes someday, but right now everything is new from the fresh paint on the walls and the bamboo flooring to the three soft sofas surrounding the big-screen TV in the living room. Residents Fred and Charley, a delightful nonagenarian with Parkinson’s Disease, are also new.

I’m getting used to the road. Each afternoon, I pass the Eureka Cemetery, turn left at the big green water tower an artist has decorated with painted fir trees, downshift for the long downhill corkscrew turn, rev up the steep incline on a 180-degree turn, keep climbing past the bright blue house and start looking for the gray house with the new-wood ramp and the black and white dog out front.

Bowls of fruit and pastel coffee mugs sit on the oval wooden table where the residents eat family style. Simple games–Chinese checkers, tic-tac-toe–and puzzles cover another table. Grace doesn’t want anyone sitting around staring at the walls.

Fred’s room is bright with the afternoon sun, everything clean, his bed always made. When I arrive, he rises from his chair, smiling. “Oh, you’re here.”

Soon we’re out the door for a drive or a walk down the tree-lined road, past the house with all the multi-colored play equipment, past the biscuit-colored kitten meowing for attention, past the big patch of smoothed mud where a new home is being built, down to the end of the county road to where the pavement yields to gravel and the road appears to go on forever.

At home, I have abandoned desk work, housework, dogs and phone calls to visit Fred. I am forced to relax and put my attention on him. We hold hands. We even stopped to kiss in the car one day. Let me tell you a Honda Element, an otherwise great car, was not built for necking.

Wherever we go, I get Fred back in time for dinner, leaving him on the front porch petting Lucy as I shift into low gear and rev up and down the hill to life with the dogs.

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?

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