A Garden Hose, For Gosh Sake

I love my local Ace Hardware store. Almost everyone who works there is so friendly, and helpful, and just a delight to interact with. One of the cashiers is a master of puns. I always try to get her line so we can banter back and forth as I’m checking out.

I needed a garden hose. I walked to the appropriate aisle, overwhelmed by the number of garden hoses available. I pulled out my phone, started scrolling through numbers, and then stopped.

Dad wouldn’t answer my call.

Almost every trip to Ace Hardware had also involved a call to Dad, my personal advisor on all things home fix-it. “If I’m cutting a decorative steel plank to cover the gap between the stove and the wall, what’s the best hacksaw to buy?” “There’s a mouse in the house – what extermination methods would you recommend?” “I’m painting my office – is it really necessary to prime the walls first?”

And he patiently walked me through each option, then gave me a recommendation. “Thanks, Dad! Your check’s in the mail!” I’d joke as we hung up.

I was staring at garden hoses. I had no idea which one to buy. I’ve never bought a garden hose before. Why were there so many options?

An Ace Hardware employee walked down the aisle. “Do you need help with anything?”

I took this as a sign my Dad had sent help. He couldn’t be there, but he could send a proxy. “I’m looking for a garden hose.” He didn’t even slow down. “They’re right there,” he said as he continued walking.

I stared at him in disbelief. Like I said, almost *all* employees are so friendly and so helpful, and go out of their way to walk you through options. Dad had not sent help. Or, if he had, he needed more practice.

An hour later, I had bought a garden hose, a nozzle, and a stand to wind the garden hose on for “convenient, easy storage.” Lies. I hooked the garden hose to the storage unit and started turning the handle, which was meant to easily wind the hose into a perfect coil. It simply knotted it up. After a half hour of struggling with the hose, I attached the nozzle and began watering the plants. Or, attempted to. Several of the connections were not tight enough and water sprayed everywhere – in my shoes, in my face, on my pants. I attempted to fix it without turning off the water. Turning the threads the wrong way, more water sprayed me. It was too much. What I once would have thought of as comical, laughing hysterically, I simply couldn’t take. I sat down on the edge of the raised garden bed that has housed nothing but weeds this year and just cried, as I became wetter and wetter.

Later, cried out and dried off, I attempted to read a few more pages in “How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies.” I came to a section on “The Work of Grief.”

However, grief is not commonly perceived as work. …Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable. page 16

I can’t even figure out how to use a garden hose. This is what grief looks like.

So Many Tears

I don’t know why this weekend was the weekend of tears, but it was. It’s not an anniversary. Or a birthday. Or a special date of any sort.

Friday Evening
“Can you come over? I need to talk to you about something important,” Mom said. Talking on the phone can be confusing for her, so I got in the car and headed over.

“I just don’t like it here. I don’t belong here. I can’t sit in my room all day. Can I get a job?”

I put my arms around her and said, “That sounds hard. Tell me more.”

“All they do is complain. At dinner tonight the little old ladies were complaining about the food. The food is fine here. Why are they always complaining?”

I found this ironic, given that growing up my most vivid memories of my mom involved her complaining. About everything.

“What would you like to do?” I asked. “I don’t know; I just, I just can’t sit here.” The tears streamed down her face. I held her and tried to hide my tears. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.

I pulled out my computer and started looking for volunteer opportunities. Mom peeked over my shoulder. As I read each one out loud, she said, “no,” “no,” “no,” “no.”

Was this one of the things that she would forget about? How seriously did I need to take her inquiry? Would she remember tomorrow?

“Mom, the arboretum is open for another couple of hours. Let’s go for a walk.”

We walked through the empty grounds; no one else was there on a Friday night at 8:00 pm. We sat on benches and listened to fountains. We walked down mulched paths and watched fireflies light up. We read signs about NC native flora and fauna. We watched a hummingbird go from plant to plant to plant.

On the way home, I asked if she’d like to get ice cream. “Sure!” which has become her default answer to almost all questions. We sat outside in the heat, which was slowly becoming cool, eating the rapidly melting sweet cream.

Saturday
I tried to meditate Saturday morning. I sat for about three minutes before the tears came. I tried to focus on my breath, and all I could do was sob. That would be my practice for the day. Tears.

Later in the day, after running errands, I decided to get my car washed. As I sat on the bench, waiting for them to finish vacuuming, I stared into the distance. Across the street was Range Urgent Care. Where we took Dad at Christmas 2017 when his legs were swollen and he was having trouble breathing. Where they told us to go to the ER right away and I had to ask, “Where is the ER?” being so new to town. I sat there, dark sunglasses on, hot tears streaming down my face in the warm afternoon.

Sunday
I weeded the yard, much too late in the morning. Fearing heatstroke, I came inside, poured myself a tall glass of iced tea, and started reading. “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies” had been recommended to me. Two pages in, and I started crying. I put the book down. I sobbed for what could have been minutes, but was actually hours.

I called Mom. “Would you like to go downtown with me?” “Sure!” “Okay. I’ll be there in about 30 minutes. Don’t go anywhere.” This last sentence was necessary because when I went to get her last week, I wasn’t in the lobby when she thought I should have been, and she just started walking. Fortunately, the concierge noticed, and called me. When I found her, I laughed it off, saying, “Oh, did you decide to go to lunch without me?” but inside I was terrified that this was a new stage – wandering.

I couldn’t put on makeup because my face and eyes were too swollen. I hoped that sunglasses would hide the redness and puffiness. She was in her apartment when I arrived. We walked around downtown, disappointed that so many stores were closed on Sunday. We stopped by Harris Teeter to buy ice cream. I put one half gallon in the buggy and she said, “More.” I put another half gallon in the buggy and she said, “More.” “Mom,” I said. “More,” she countered. I put another half gallon in the buggy and started walking away.

We got back to her apartment and put the groceries away. “Where are those books that talked about when Daddy and I travelled?” I looked in her bedroom and found the photo album labeled “Volume 2 – Thailand, Turkey, Italy, and France.” We turned through each page, looking at faded photographs and receipts and postcards and souvenirs Dad had pasted in the photo album. As we neared the end, I said, “That really was a great trip you took.” And the tears rolled down her face. “I miss him so much. I love him so much. It’s not supposed to be like this.”

I hugged her. “I know. I know. I know.”

Unexpected Joy

And then there are moments which I could have never planned, which made them all the more incredible.

One of my dear friends from high school, who was also my roommate freshman year at UNC, who I lost touch with probably 25 years ago, messaged me through Facebook shortly before 5 pm. She was in Asheville visiting her mom, and would I like to join them? Without hesitation, I asked where they were and said I could be there in 20 minutes.

As I drove there, I wondered, “Would this be awkward?” “Would we have things to talk about?” “Why had we lost contact 25 years ago?”

And as soon as I saw her, and hugged her, and her family, it was if we were all back in time. So many laughs and memories, and stories to catch up on. What she had done. What I had done. How she ended up where she was. How I had. Changes. After a bit, I left to visit Mom, as I had promised her I would. I left feeling lighter, feeling joy, feeling loved, and feeling seen. What an incredible gift.

(Note: I took a selfie of us, which was so incredibly blurred it’s embarrassing, so I’m including a picture of some glittery Bulgarian artwork instead, which also brings unexpected joy.)

Father’s Day

In hindsight, it really was a bad decision. And honestly, had I given it any thought at all, I probably could have figured out it would be a bad decision in advance. These days, though, I’m more or less on auto-pilot, simply trying to get through each day with a semblance of normalcy.

There were a few things Mom wanted from her condo in Winston-Salem. I knew I would be passing through there this weekend, on my way to/from Raleigh en route to a bat mitzvah. Traffic on Friday was heavy, and I was concerned that if I stopped, I wouldn’t make it to Raleigh in time for the Shabbat service.

So this morning I planned to stop there on the way home to Asheville. It would break up the trip, I could get the things Mom wanted, and I could start packing up Dad’s study, which we hadn’t had time to do before we moved Mom.

You probably already see why this might be a bad idea to do on the first Father’s Day after Dad’s death. Unfortunately, I was focusing on how practical it would be for me to pick up the things while already on another trip, instead of making a special trip there.

When I pulled up to the condo garage, the tears started flowing. Ever the practical one, I thought, “I’ll spend a hour here, say hello to the neighbors, and get back on the road.”

I wasn’t prepared for the punch-in-the-gut feeling when I opened the condo door, and walked into an almost empty unit. I wasn’t prepared for all the memories of the last few months to come flooding back all at once. I closed the door, leaned up against the wall, and allowed myself to cry, to sob, to remember, to grieve. I slunk down the wall and sat curled up on the floor, simply crying, missing Dad, missing our life within these four walls. Missing experimenting with cooking low-sodium, low-potassium meals for Dad. Missing scrubbing up and preparing a sterile environment to change his bandages. Missing turning on the gas fireplace, even when it was warm outside, because Dad was always cold. Missing the one spot in the kitchen where we hugged goodnight every night and said “I love yous.”

After I thought the tears were done (note, the tears are never done), thinking I was okay to do what I had come to do, I rose up, and walked into Mom and Dad’s bedroom to get something from their closet. Again, that feeling. Of not being prepared for the wave of grief. Instead of an empty room, I saw Dad, curled up in the bed in excruciating pain, that Thursday morning that I called 911 and requested an ambulance. I remember the utter helplessness, of seeing him in pain and not being able to help. Of watching the paramedics lift him onto the stretcher and pleading with them to be careful.

I sat in the one chair that was left there, and just allowed myself to cry. And cry. And cry. I felt my Dad’s spirit in the house. Or maybe I imagined it. Or maybe I wanted it so badly I believed it. And I realized that grief is not going to allow me to be practical. I’m on its schedule now.

And there was a cupcake

June 11, 2019

Before he passed, my Dad put our family cabin on the market. It closed last week and I received the check on Monday. Since it was a rather large amount, I went into the bank to deposit it into my Mom’s account on Tuesday.

The teller was quite chatty, and the transaction took a long time, and she had to have someone else approve the deposit, and at some point I started crying quietly. I haven’t been able to enter a bank without crying since Dad’s death. I’m not sure what the trigger is, and I thought perhaps this day would be different, but it wasn’t. I mumbled, “I’m so sorry. My father recently passed away and dealing with paperwork is difficult.”

She excitingly said, “Oh, tomorrow is your birthday! Happy birthday!” I smiled wanly and thanked her. “Are you doing anything extraordinary and special?” And what went through my mind was, “I’ll be celebrating without my biggest supporter, my Dad.” Last year’s birthday was extraordinary and special – so many of my friends came to Asheville to celebrate 50 turns around the sun. And Dad loved it. He always loved interacting with my friends and was always so charming. He reminded me of how lucky I was to have such strong friendships.

Instead, what I said was, “No, not really” and tried not to sob loudly, the tears running more quickly down my cheeks, annoyingly hot in the air-conditioned bank.

“Would you go out and get a cupcake? And maybe put a candle on it?” she asked.

“Maybe,” was all I could muster as I received the deposit slip and walked out of the bank into the hot, hot summer day.

**************

June 12, 2019

Mom and I went to a friend’s house for dinner. It was the happiest I’ve seen her since she moved to Asheville. She had a glass of wine, she ate a full meal, and she accepted a piece of cake to take home. It was the most perfect birthday present I could ask for.

I took her home, we sat on her balcony, we watched the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then I returned home.

As I walked onto my porch, I noticed a cupcake, right there on one of the chairs, next to the mailbox. It was beautiful. A chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting, so perfectly swirled, with two blueberries and one raspberry on top, with decorative papers, and enclosed in a plastic clam shell.

“A cupcake!” I thought, and brought it inside.

************

June 13, 2019

I had back to back meetings all day and didn’t stop for meals. Around 1:30 pm, I was hungry. I saw the cupcake on the counter and took a bite. The icing, so smooth, so just a hint of raspberry deliciousness, perfectly complemented the moist chocolate cake.

I ate the whole thing.

During the last bite, I had a thought. “I just ate a cupcake and I have no idea where it came from or who left it on my porch. I’ve become that person who just trusts people leaving food on her porch.”

And I think I’m okay with that.

And if whoever left the cupcake is reading this, thank you for the second most perfect birthday gift you could have given me.

Note: image is not the actual cupcake. I ate the whole darn thing before I even considered taking a photo.

Changes

And just like that, everything changed.

“Who picked this place?”
“I did, Mom.”
“Did you look at other places?”
“I did.” (honestly not prepared for what might come next)

“You couldn’t have picked a better place for me. I’m so happy here.”

I stared at her, not sure quite how to react.

I finally said, “I’m so glad that you’re happy here.”

And we sat in silence, looking at the mountains.

Food and Memories

Certain foods remind me of people and places.

Laughing Cow cheese – Marie in Kuwait
Mangoes – Christie in Egypt
Bulgogi – Chanta in South Korea
Little Star pizza – Brad in San Francisco
Amaretto – Bryan in San Francisco

And pork chops – Dad

When he started dialysis, they told him he needed to eat a lot more protein. A LOT more. I made him protein smoothies with frozen fruit a couple of times a day. Breakfast included two fried or scrambled eggs each day. Meat protein, which they encouraged him to eat, was more difficult. He had such a hard time swallowing. Chicken was nearly impossible to eat. Fish was better. Salmon and cod became go-tos. Scallops were fairly easy to get down, and pure dollops of protein. We tried pork chops one evening, and they were a hit. They weren’t too difficult to swallow, I made them with multiple different sauces, they were a high source of protein, and he found them tasty. And now whenever I see a pork chop, I think of Dad.

I made them tonight. Just one, just for me. In my kitchen in Asheville, not in his in Winston-Salem. And it just wasn’t as good.

Me, too.

“Mom”

That’s what caller ID shows when Mom calls me. Our conversations are as short as the caller ID.

“Hi, Lori. It’s Mom. I don’t remember why I called. Bye.”
“Hi, Lori. It’s Mom. I don’t want people cleaning my apartment. Make them stop.”
“Hi, Lori. It’s Mom. Where is the blue material? I want to make cushions.”

I usually don’t have time to respond before she hangs up on me, my “I love you” disappearing into a dial tone. It’s like she simply has to get the idea out into the universe. I jot notes on scrap pieces of paper and follow up when I’m there in person.

Today I received this call.
“Hi, Lori. It’s Mom. There’s a birthday list here and we need to write cards. Please come over.”

Before she hung up, I told her I’d come after dinner.

Mom likes to send birthday cards. She always has. I arrived, reminded her she wanted to send birthday cards, and got the Ziploc bag labeled “birthday cards” from her closet, a pen, and a pad to practice on. She said, “Now whose birthday is it?” I walked her to the bulletin board where earlier in the year Dad had made her a cheat sheet of family and friend birthdays by month. I read the June birthdays: a grandson, me, a family friend, and a granddaughter-in-law.

There were no July birthdays listed.

We both saw it at the same time. Dad’s birthday. August 15. She started crying and I followed a mere milli-second later, hugging her tightly. “I miss him so much,” we said in unison, crying, then crying some more, which then turned into sobbing, a mother and a daughter missing the same man, more than either ever thought possible.

After a few minutes and several Kleenex later, we sat on the balcony, watching the sun set. I love the Blue Ridge mountains, shadowing each other, deeper and darker versions of blue layered upon each other. As the sun set farther, the outline of the mountains became darker, more pronounced. We sat in our rocking chairs, holding hands, rocking in unison, side by side.

“This is my favorite time of day.”

I nodded. “Mine, too.”

“I really like it here.”

I didn’t want to break the spell by asking her to repeat herself, in case I had mis-heard.

I nodded. “Me, too.”

The New Normal

Everyone keeps saying self-care is so important when you’re a caregiver. And for me, at least, it’s one of the first things that gets dropped from my busy to-do list. Now that I’m back in Asheville, I decided to make attending morning water aerobics a priority. It was something that brought me so much joy when I first moved to Asheville. Being in the water, the camaraderie of the other “mermaids” (as we call ourselves), getting exercise – there was nothing not to love. No matter how tired, or stressed, or bleh I felt before class, I always felt better afterwards.

And as I drove to class this morning, I found myself crying. I couldn’t understand why I was crying when I was going to something that I love to do. Something that brings me joy.

I realized I was admitting this is the new normal. I’m not in Winston-Salem. I’m not caring for Dad. I’m back in Asheville, to my “normal” life, one in which he is no longer alive. And it was so painful I almost couldn’t stand it.

Trying Times

This has been the most difficult twelve days I’ve ever experienced. My Mom has Alzheimer’s. My Dad was her caretaker and they lived at home together and basically didn’t share anything about her condition with others outside the family. Before he passed, Dad and I talked about care options for Mom and decided the best option would be to move her to a community in Asheville where as her Alzheimer’s progressed, they could provide more and more care.

On a Monday, Mom’s pastor and I told her that we found her a new home in Asheville and we’d be moving her.

A full twelve hours, non-stop, of her crying, me holding her, and saying, “I know. I know.” “But Jerry promised me I could live here until I diiiiiieeeeeeddddd.” (he didn’t) “But this is my hoooommmmmmmeeeee.” “What about all my pretty things?” “Why can’t I live by myself here?” These weren’t soft tears. These were heart-wrenching, full of pain, break-your-heart-in-a-million-pieces tears. I couldn’t argue or reason with her; I simply listened and held her and gave her Kleenex.

Then the anger. I had mentioned that Dad had left money in his estate for her to make this move, so that she would always have a home for the rest of her life. She then cried angry tears, screamed and cursed my Dad and said she hoped he was rotting in hell, and threw her wedding ring across the room. I listened, held her (when she would allow me to touch her), gave her Kleenex, and picked up her wedding ring for safe keeping.

Days later: “I can’t find my wedding ring.” I mentioned she took it off and she asked why. I said she was mad at Dad and she didn’t want to wear it. She asked why. I simply said, “You’re angry he died.” She nodded in agreement and I gave her back her ring.

She wanted to visit the new unit before we moved in. My sister met us there six days before the move-in. We pulled into the parking lot. “This place is so ugly!” We entered the lobby. “Why would anyone paint the walls such an ugly color?” We entered the unit. “This? This is where I’m moving? It’s so small!” (it’s larger than any of the places I lived in San Francisco). She collapsed in the middle of the empty living room floor, crying, “It’s so smaaaaalllllll. I’m embarrassed to live here.” I sat down next to her, held her and asked her to tell me more. Why would it embarrass her to live here? After much holding, and comforting, and tissues given, she told me people would think she was poor. My heart broke again. Both she and Dad came from modest backgrounds. They both worked so hard to both live comfortably and provide for us, their three children. I remember Mom clipping coupons and rationing food as we grew up – money was always a source of concern.

As we started packing up her condo in Winston-Salem, she insisted she would take everything. I encouraged her to pick out her favorites and we would pack those first. After she had gone to bed at midnight each night I packed up everything else. When she was out of the house, we would take boxes to Goodwill to donate. We packed her favorites during the day. She labeled boxes and my heart broke again. Once a voracious reader and writer, she had trouble spelling words, and sounded them out like a first grader. “Br..” I heard her saying. I returned to the living room and saw the word “bricle” (breakable) all over a box, written a dozen times in combinations of capital and lowercase letters. She put pieces of blue masking tape on the furniture she wanted to go to the new unit. Each day, more pieces had tape on them. I’d take tape off. She’d put tape on.

She continued to worry that the new place was too small. One night, after she had gone to bed, I marked off our living room with masking tape of the dimensions of the new living room. I rearranged the furniture, based on where windows and doors were. When she woke up, I asked her how she liked the new arrangement. “It’s great.” I explained that was the size of the new living room. She nodded.

“But it’s such a drab color. I want it the color we have here (a super pale yellow).” I confirmed with the new place that it was okay to paint walls. They said they’d call an outside vendor to get it done before Mom moved in. My sister, in Atlanta, bought the paint and dropped it off in Asheville, on the way to Winston-Salem, the next day. Move day was four days away.

By Tuesday night we had everything packed up. “Why are we still here?” I explained the movers were coming on Thursday; that we couldn’t move everything ourselves. “It’s a wasted day. When we leave here, I never want to return. Too many bad things have happened here.”

She saw neighbors in the hall, who said they were sad she was leaving and they would come and visit her in Asheville. She told them that she and Jerry had always planned to retire to Asheville, and sadly he died before he could get there. I didn’t correct her.

The morning of the move, she said she couldn’t find her purse (a normal occurrence). We walked through the condo. It wasn’t in any of the usual places. She started crying hysterically. I feared she packed it in one of the boxes when we weren’t looking. “Why did you pack my purse?” she hurled at me, accusingly. I shrugged and said, “I thought it’d be safe.” “I’m not leaving here until we find it!” She cried for hours and I asked her caregiver to take her to her favorite bakery. She returned and wasn’t crying anymore.

The movers loaded the truck. When they arrived at the new place and did a walk through, the head mover looked at me and said, “There’s no way everything on the truck will fit in here.” I told him I understood and would they be willing to take a few pieces ten minutes down the road for an extra generous tip. They said they’d be happy to. I thanked whatever being is looking over us a million times for small acts of kindness.

I had carried all of Mom’s plants in my car. We set up her balcony, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, first. Her rockers, a small table, and dozens of potted plants with brightly colored flowers. She sat and rocked as the movers worked.

That day, the facility let us know the painters had a three week delay and couldn’t paint her unit before move-in. My sister and I asked the movers to put furniture in place, but not up against the walls. We would paint that night. I went to the hardware store and bought tarps, paint rollers, and masking tape. I returned and Mom came into the unit to see how far along the movers were. She mentioned that they did a good job on the paint job. My sister and I exchanged looks. “You’re happy with this color?” my niece asked. “Yes, it’ll do.” We started moving the furniture against the walls and hid the painting materials. I felt pangs of guilt in my stomach. I didn’t do what I said I would do. I hated accepting that Mom couldn’t process events any more.

We started opening boxes. About 20 boxes in, we found her purse. My sister and I did a happy dance, and brought it to her. “Look what we found!” She cooly looked at us and said, “I knew where it was.”

We entered the dining room. All the tables were full, so we sat at a four top by ourselves. Other folks came in after, but no one joined us. I felt madly protective of mom. Would the other residents be nice to her? Would someone join her when she was at a table by herself? Would they overlook her lapses in memory? Or shun her?

We needed to buy a bookshelf. All of her bookshelves in Winston-Salem were built-ins. She has so many books. She reads the same one over and over, but it’s a comfort to have hundreds of paperback novels. As we walked through the antique store emporium, I asked “What about this one?” and she would say it was too narrow, or not the right type of wood, or didn’t have a back. We found a couple that were okay, not great, and I said, “Okay, well let’s remember this, and we’ll keep looking.” She laughed and said, “You can remember it, but I won’t.”

We were getting off the elevator as other residents on the hall were waiting to get on. We stopped to exchange pleasantries. They asked Mom if she was new. She said yes, she had just moved in. They asked when; she looked at me. I explained that we moved in on Thursday. They asked where she was moving from, and she said Winston-Salem. She mentioned that her husband had recently passed away from cancer. They said, “Cancer is a horrible disease, but you know what’s worse? Alzheimer’s. I hope I never get that.” Mom’s response? “I agree. I hope that I never experience that.”

I returned to her new home in the morning and found her sitting on the balcony, rocking and reading the newspaper. “Isn’t this just beautiful?” she said, as she motioned to the mountains. I nodded, and said it was.

I’m hesitant to believe that she’s happy, permanently happy, in her new home. Just as she forgets bad things, she also forgets happy things. I want her to be as independent as possible. I worry I’ve made the wrong choices. I miss my Dad so much and wonder what he would have done in this situation, what he would have said, what decisions he would have made.