Shoveling dirt

Guess I’ll lie on the floor awhile.

I have just finished shoveling 16 fence holes worth of dirt into the holes the dogs have dug. After about the fourth one, you start to sweat, your back starts to ache and then it begins to spasm. You guzzle cold water but never need to go to the bathroom. About the 10th hole, you realize the reason the wheelbarrow pushes so hard is that it has a flat tire—and you have no idea how to fix it. You daydream about a handsome man dropping by and insisting that you hand him the shovel, but no one comes.

You shovel and you shovel and you shovel. You take breaks, sip water, lie on the deck trying to straighten out your back. You put on your dead mother’s hat to protect your already sunburned face. You shovel until the dirt is spread everywhere. You learn that mud is heavier than dry dirt but stays on the shovel better. By the the last pile of dirt, you have fallen into a rhythm. Fill the shovel, walk it over, dump it. Stop thinking, feel the rhythm. It must be how men who do this all day keep at it. Their muscles develop as mine have not. I will be very sore tomorrow.

It’s late, you hurt, but it’s done. You know the dogs will scatter some of the dirt around again, but you hope enough is left that when the fence people come tomorrow, they’ll see it and say, “Wow, you did all that by yourself?”

I probably should have called someone to help, but it’s done now. I go out to the far end of the yard, remove my mud-caked snow boots, my woolly gray socks and Mom’s hat, and stretch out under the Sitka spruce. I feel the grass and pine needles tickling my back through my tee shirt. Looking straight up through the branches at the blue sky, I can see red blossoms where the sun hits. I admire the rough bark of this tree, so old, so strong, a wonderful home for birds and squirrels. I remember lying on the grass at my childhood home on Fenley Avenue and think this is now as much my home as that is. I have earned possession of it by my hard work.

The wind chimes tinkle in E minor. A squirrel chirps. A hummingbird buzzes by. A Monarch butterfly glides past. They don’t care if there are holes in the lawn, but I am proud of my work. I hope the rain and seed will bring out the grass and make it lush again.

I finally stand and walk barefoot across the lawn. The grass feels good on my feet, cool, soft, sap-full. I feel the warm wood of the deck, the cold roughness of the sidewalk, the colder smoothness of the concrete laundry room floor and then the nubbiness of the carpet that massages my toes.

Finally, after so much winter, I am warm.

A quiet meditation

March 12, 2009: I skipped yoga class today. Sorry, Yogini Sue. When it was time to go, I was sitting in the sun playing my newly tuned piano, free of the dogs for once because they’re in the kennel while the concrete around the new fence posts hardens. I decided it was more important to sit in the sun, to hear those sweet notes, to eat leftover crab pizza now when I’m hungry, to read in the sun and drink my iced tea the way I used to do before the dogs came, to study those steel fence posts that mark the boundaries of my new dogs’ new home.

I need a day for healing. Yesterday was very difficult. Our visit to my husband’s neurologist in Corvallis brought many tears. Fred wants to come home, but the doctor confirmed that he needs to stay in the care home. I can’t give him the care he needs. The man I used to know is gone, robbed of himself by Alzheimer’s Disease, but I still feel his pain as well as my own loss.

I’m looking forward to shoveling the dirt unearthed by the posts, flattening out the holes my dogs have dug, smoothing out my yard. It’s a day to savor, a quiet meditation. This is what I need to do today, play the piano, letting the music fill my soul with sweet sounds, let the sun dry my tears and warm my heart, let the good physical labor test my muscles and make me stronger despite my recent birthday.

Today is a day to look around, eyes washed clean by so many tears and see beauty, not struggle. It’s a day to feel the sun, smell the roses, hear the music, watch the robins, let the dirt scatter over my boots, feel the rough edges of the shovel against my hands.

I have done all I can for my husband and my dogs. It’s time for me.

I will do yoga again soon. Today I will do this instead. Namaste.

It’s a good day to be a dog

It’s one of those days when I wake up and I cannot see a single reason to launch myself out of bed. I think about the difficulties of keeping my leaping dogs from jumping the fence. I remember that my husband, who has Alzheimer’s Disease and doesn’t live here anymore, didn’t know my name yesterday. I think about my birthday coming up next week and how no one will be around but the dogs. The bed is warm, there’s no reason to get up early, so I think I’ll stay there. But I know that the longer I lounge, the less time I will have to get anything done, plus the dogs are hungry and I need to use the toilet, so eventually I do get up. I shower, eat breakfast and dress in yesterday’s clothes.

The sun is out. After breakfast, I join the dogs, Annie and Chico, on the deck. In my jeans, tee shirt and two layers of sweatshirts, I’m almost warm. I decide to be like the dogs today, with no agenda, just living in the moment.

We live a half mile south of the Newport airport. Most of the small planes and helicopters that take off from there buzz over the house and are gone, leaving no trace. As I gaze at the scattered clouds, I notice a plane rising straight up, leaving a contrail that starts back behind the eastern trees and goes all the way across the sky like a white rainbow. I watch it go through the wispy clouds, disappear in the thicker clouds and come out the other side, finally ending somewhere behind the western tree line.

Over time, the contrail moves with the earth and slides southward, its edges going in and out of the thunder clouds that have trapped the sun so well that I can comfortably stare straight at it. It looks like a full moon. Nearby I see a patch of colors, not a rainbow, but a rain-patch of pink, blue and yellow.

A few minutes later, the plane gone and the rain-patch faded away, I stare at the holes in the grass and wonder what to fill them with. I look at the sticks on the other side of the fence. This time of year the berry bushes, tall as the gutter on the roof, look like something I ought to cut down, but in a month they’ll be green, covered with leaves and flowers, followed by bright orange salmonberries. The robins will grab the berries and carry them to their nests. The bare alders will fluff out as if clothed in tiered Mexican skirts with flowers in their hair.

The official first day of spring is only two weeks away, although those of us who live on the Oregon coast know that it will probably continue to rain through June. A wet Fourth of July is not uncommon. Still, the flowers and the sun bring comfort and the promise of our delicious Indian summer when I can spend my days on the deck and watch my hands, face and neck turn brown.

The contrail has fluffed out now, like it’s crocheted, and it’s moving slightly, going more and more to the side.

The hot tub is the main dry place to sit right now. Annie is here with her head in my lap, and Chico, after a sloppy face kiss, is walking across, making it feel like a rocking deck. Will these plywood boards hold our combined 350 pounds? We’ll see. Crashing into the chilly water below would be a shock.

Now the contrail looks like the vertebrae on a spine being pushed into the gray-black cloud from both directions. In a minute, the left side is gone, the right looking like a frayed piece of wool. The light has dimmed. A cool breeze rattles the wind chimes. Rain is coming. It’s time to go be a dog in the house.

Dinner at the Nursing Home

I hope I have been through my last dinner at Newport Rehab and Specialty Care. Tomorrow my husband moves to an adult care facility up in the hills behind the cemetery. His room will have an ocean view and beautiful grounds. I hope he’ll get the care he needs there. He has Alzheimer’s Disease and is moving rapidly into the third stage, the one where they forget everything. Three weeks ago, I could never have imagined it would be so soon, but now the wheels are turning so rapidly I’m dizzy.

As torturous as the last two weeks at Newport Rehab have been—mostly due to excruciating boredom for both of us—I’m going to miss some of the people there. I was especially touched by Vivian and Paul, a married couple both staying there, Vivian nearly deaf, eating very little, but one of the few allowed to walk, and Paul, immobile in his wheelchair, gruff, often with food coating his lips and chin. Every night Vivian would rearrange the table to make things more convenient to Paul, as she probably has for most of her life. Whatever he ordered, she had the same. When she couldn’t hear, he spoke for her.

Often Vivian’s brother, Lew, joined them, saving the leftovers for the white poodle he brought with him. Both Vivian and Lew have bright turquoise eyes and pure white hair. Lew said he and Vivian are the last of five siblings. He showed us photographs of him and his late twin brother and of him and his wife on their wedding day. She’s gone now, but she spent a year at Newport Rehab. He knows the place all too well.

These were our tablemates at one of the round tables covered with pink or green cloths. The other night, a particularly bad night for Fred, I watched Paul reach his hand across the table toward Vivian. She placed her hand on top of his and they smiled at each other.

I was undone. I barely made it outside before I started to cry. It was so sad and so sweet at the same time.

I sat near the piano, which I often played over the clack of plastic cups, the blare of the nearby TV, and the incessant talk of a character named Ricky. I don’t know what his malady is, but his arms and legs don’t seem to work right, and he has no filter on what he says. He told us he’d been in Walla Walla prison and also cooked on the Mississippi Queen. Many times I heard him say, “These are my waning years and I’ll do what I want.” He frequently asked the aides for vodka and a cigar, but he also made mean cracks about their young bodies that caused them to hurry through their chores.

Then there was Dorothy, always wrapped in layers of afghans and shawls, bent over the table. Whatever the aides told her she was getting to eat, she would say, “Oh, that sounds good.” Every night. I’m not sure she can see. The girls would explain to her what was on her plate.

There was Joanna, whom we heard coughing across the hall and could see sleeping her days away, and Ruthie, who dozed between bites.

And so many more, men that could been my father staring at their plates of overcooked, mushy meat, and canned fruits and vegetables, with plastic cups of milk and apple juice lined up in front of them. One delightful little man with suspenders seemed tickled just to have someone cooking for him.

Each night, the aides started gathering the patients at 4:00 for the 5:00 dinner, and then the patients sat there, waiting. The young workers would go around asking what they wanted to drink, and handing out silverware wrapped in green or pink napkins. The meals would come out slowly, each with a card listing the patients’ special needs or requests. The default, if you couldn’t eat or didn’t want the featured entrée, was always a grilled cheese sandwich or a hamburger.

It wasn’t great food, but the staff was so kind, putting up with Ricky’s B.S., cutting up meat for big men in wheelchairs, encouraging Dorothy or Vivian to eat a few bites, quietly wiping faces and hands, and rubbing shoulders.

Family members could eat there, too, and I did a few times. It beat cooking and I would be starving by the time I got home if I didn’t. It was the best $3 meal in town.

In between, we sat in Fred’s room, a generic hospital-type two-bed room. Luckily, he didn’t have a roommate, so we could use the other bed as a sofa or I could lie in Fred’s bed while he sat in his wheelchair. Sometimes we went to the “Fireside Room,” a big lounge with cushy sofas and a giant TV which mostly went unwatched. On Superbowl Sunday, I started a puzzle there while Fred fell asleep during the National Anthem. Over the next seven days, I got so sick of that puzzle I never want to see it again. I hope someone finishes it. I suspect it will sit there a long time before someone thinks to put it away.

Tonight as I played my last round of old tunes on the piano, Ricky talked the whole time, and Vivian applauded after every number. “They like it,” she told me.

After dinner, as we left the dining room, I leaned into her good ear and told her Fred was leaving in the morning and I probably wouldn’t see her again. Her eyes teared up, and so did mine.

Emergency time-out

Dear friends,
My husband fell and has been in the hospital this week. He will not be coming home for a while if ever, due to a long-term illness that has gotten much worse. I have been looking at nursing homes. So I have not been able to post anything new this week, but I will as soon as possible. The newsletter will also be delayed. Thanks for your understanding. Please feel free to post your own questions, comments and ideas while I’m doing the hospital shuffle.