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.

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.

Mardi Gras in Newport

“Lots of booze and boobs,” said my friend Tim, describing his Saturday working the Knights of Columbus booth at the annual Newport Seafood and Wine festival. Church choir rehearsal stopped dead. Boobs?

It seems some well-built tourist took the Mardi Gras Theme to heart. Apparently in New Orleans, everyone wears beads and if a woman shows her charms, she earns a chain. She asked one of the beaded Catholic gentlemen if she could buy a chain off his neck. No, he said. Well, what if I do this? And before they knew it, she’d lifted her shirt. He gave her his beads.

Tim said that by the time she left, she had a huge collection of beads around her neck.

Ah, Mardi Gras, the days of celebration before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. This isn’t New Orleans, but we do know how to have fun.

Yesterday, I attended a concert by the Central Coast Chorale and the Calamity Jazz Quintet. The chorale, of which I was a charter member long ago, sang good old gospel songs like “In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ and “Steal Away.” Packed onto the altar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, they sounded glorious. And the Calamitys rattled the stained glass windows. The music just poured out of them, especially Vicki Cox, leading them on trumpet. It was impossible to sit still. A little girl in the pew in front of me was on her feet in the aisle shaking her ponytail, waving her arms and having a great time. Occasionally her mother pulled her back onto the pew, but in a minute she was back on her feet doing what we all wanted to do.

As I sat there clapping and bobbing in my seat, I thought this couldn’t happen in a big city or a big church. The music might be just as good or even better, but the feeling wouldn’t be the same. I knew many of the people on the altar and in the audience, but we were all friends by the time the concert ended.

My friend Georgia had this blissed-out look on her face the whole time and she dragged me up to meet the quintet after the concert. As they played, we never did see the piano player, just the top of a gray-haired head rocking like crazy. I was amazed to discover the owner of that head was a woman in a wheelchair and then to realize this was Meg Graf, who had played flute beside me in our church 12 years ago when we first moved to Oregon. She moved to Eugene shortly after we met, so I hadn’t seen her in over a decade.The joy of music on her face lit up the whole church, and she was still playing as I walked across the parking lot toward my car late on that rain-darkened afternoon. Rock on, Meg.

Checking out the Calamity Jazz website, we learn that Meg and Vicki are sisters, and that there are other Calamity Jazz players who gather from all over the state. Plus, they have CDs to buy, so you can have Mardi Gras all year long.

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?

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.