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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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.

The ghost of William Stafford was there

Last night, nobody came to our Happy Birthday William Stafford poetry reading and that was fine with us. We three women watched the clock tick past 7, realized we were the only people coming, kicked off our shoes and gathered around the boom box to listen to a CD of the former Oregon poet laureate at his last public reading before he died in 1993.

Host Marianne Klekacz, who had optimistically set about 30 chairs in a circle in the Newport Library meeting room, couldn’t understand why all those folks who had said they’d be there weren’t. Their loss. Marianne, Dorothy Mack and I, co-coordinators of the Oregon Coast Branch of Willamette Writers, munched cookies and listened to this down-to-earth poet read and talk about his work as if he were right there in the room. His voice and style reminded me of Woody Guthrie.

Most Oregon poets are crazy about Stafford, whom I had never heard of before I moved here from California. He was American Poet Laureate in 1970 and Oregon Poet Laureate from 1975 to 1993. He published 67 books, including Traveling through Dark, which won the National Book Award, and Stories That Could Be True: New & Collected Poems. For all the Stafford facts, visit the Friends of William Stafford site.

What impresses me most about Stafford is his work ethic. He got up before dawn to write a poem every day, including the day he died. Considering he lived almost 80 years, that’s a lot of poetry.

Last year we had a big crowd at the Stafford reading, including people who had known him in life. This year, we were competing with a big literary event in Lincoln City, plus the inauguration of President Barack Obama. So we sipped our tea and ate our cookies and listened to Stafford. Weary of the hard blue chairs and tired of staring at the “state flowers” quilt on the wall, I slipped to the floor and did some yoga stretches on the turquoise carpet, keeping my body busy while my brain followed the poet’s words. I have a feeling he would have approved, saying, “Go ahead. Make yourself comfortable.” It was a well-spent evening.

***
Our Willamette Writers chapter usually meets on the first Tuesday of the Month. On Feb. 3, we will welcome Samantha Ducloux Waltz, who has written essays for many magazines, newspapers and anthologies, including A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s, which has one of my stories, too. She’s going to share how to write and sell personal essays. The program is at the Newport Library, 7 p.m., free as always. Snacks will be provided, but no ghosts.

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.

Off Highway 20

BURNT WOODS, OR.–Out in the middle of nowhere, you park on the gravel amid the pickup trucks, step past a nodding chicken and a dog sleeping on the porch, and walk into a cafe that smells of pancake syrup and old wood. Four guys in baseball caps sit at the next table. An old fellow in overalls leans on the counter talking to the middle-aged woman in the kitchen.

Open the stained menus. The food is hearty, biscuits and gravy, cheeseburgers and fries, chicken fried steak and hash browns, all served with giant unmatched cups of strong coffee. Vegetarians have one choice: grilled cheese sandwiches.

Before you know it,you’re involved in a conversation with the other customers, whether it be the Beavers and the Ducks, the snow up the road or the price of gas. The four guys are working on the clearcut up the hill you can see through the dusty windows. The last of the loggers, regulars at the cafe, will soon head back to work.

A teenage daughter in torn jeans wanders through, clearing sticky plates. The cook’s husband stops at the four-top, pulling up a chair, leaning his thick arms on the table.

After all these years, we still feel a little like outsiders, Californians in disguise, but we’re getting the hang of it, the denim, fleece and flannel wardrobe, the lack of boundaries, mud on our shoes, and the warm, comfortable diners like the Burnt Woods Cafe that serve as country living rooms where we all get warm and fed and catch up with the news.

Lozenge on my teeth

As I crawl into bed, the wind huffs and puffs against the walls and windows. Outside, the trees bend and dip. Patio furniture scatters like Lego toys. Pine needles turn the street orange. When I turned the TV off, the news was all about snow in Portland. Again. Here on the coast, we have had precipitation in the form of snow, hail, and rain. It has come down in puffs, rocks, needles, sheets, drizzles and gully-washers. The extended forecast? More of the same. It’s enough to make a born-again Oregonian scream, “I want to go home!” I want to make like the Canada Geese and fly south in the fall. But of course, no one can afford to buy a house these days, especially in the Bay Area. So we put on our slickers and waffle-stompers and go on.

***
One of my jobs is assistant director of the contemporary choir at Sacred Heart Church, over the bridge in Newport. It’s a wonderful brick edifice opened the year I was born, very old-fashioned inside with creaky blond-wood pews, lots of statues and a giant dying Jesus on the cross up front, much like the church I grew up in before it got modernized. The choir sits in chairs on a plywood platform to the right of the altar.

Our director’s husband had open heart surgery last month. I was in charge the whole month of December. However, she was coming back yesterday and wanted to pick out the music, as well as play the piano. Fine. I needed a break. However, she didn’t actually pick out the music until late Saturday night and she was going to be very late on Sunday. She e-mailed the list of songs to the choir, but I was the only one who was online at that point. I had hoped to get to church early and organize the music, but somehow when my alarm rang, I shut it off and went back to sleep, waking up an hour later. It was a miracle that I managed to shower, eat breakfast, dress and be in the car at 9:15.

When I arrived, the choir was in a dither. Although she didn’t have the list of songs, another choir member had already started trying to do the music. There were papers everywhere, and nobody knew what was going on. I was singing the psalm and had not practiced it. Meanwhile there were microphones and music stands to set up. We were still figuring things out as we tumbled out of the chapel into the sanctuary. Father Brian stopped us early in verse two of “We Three Kings”. I thought he had paused to welcome our director back. But no, the number on the board was wrong. He asked us to start the song over from the top so the congregation could sing along. Lord, Lord.

When I went up to the lectern for my solo, I was still sucking a throat lozenge, trying to chase off the gunk in my throat. I had to either get rid of it or sing with this chunk of yellow stuff in my mouth. So there I stood on the altar, biting down, feeling as if the crunching sound was so loud the reader could surely hear it. In fact, it might be going out over the microphone across the whole church. Crunch. Crunch. Swallow. I had pieces of lozenge stuck to my teeth. Picture me clutching my choir book, gazing the over the lector’s shoulder at the sacred words, and trying like crazy to push the sticky lozenge remainders off my teeth with my tongue. There’s a period right after sucking a lozenge when your throat is still adapting to it not being there, and that’s when I took my place at the microphone, nodding at Mary Lee to play the introduction. I had no idea what would come out.

It could have been worse. We got through Mass and even received some applause. After Mass, for the first time since I woke up and saw what time it was, I could finally breathe. I thought my voice had sounded a little raspy, plus this was the psalm with all the place names, like Tarshish and Sheba, but a couple I met during coffee and donuts after Mass gushed over my beautiful voice. “What a gift,” the woman said.

Naturally I decided to ditch everything to become a world-famous singer. Again. But at this point in life, I’ll settle for famous in Newport. That and a maple bar washed down with Ruby Mist tea.

Rain? What rain? Ah, the artist’s ego.