Saturday, March 27, 2010

If Everyone had a Nikki

For a long time I've said "If everyone had a Nikki, anyone could be a working mom."
Nikki is the very first person that came to help care for My Mom. She's remarkable. Two summers ago, I came home from a long day of work to find all the laundry clean and folded, the house vacuumed, My Mom was showered, her hair styled and, are you ready? -- dinner on the stove! A working woman's dream! And it saved me from a horrible nightmare. A big summer storm hit an hour later, knocking power out for 5 days. No one had electricity, not even businesses. So while the unprepared couldn't even order a pizza, we ate a lovely candle lit dinner. As the power outage stretched for days, I kept thanking God for Nikki -- we had a clean house and a pile of clean clothes to carry us through.
This week while at our house, Nikki remembered my sister's birthday and had My Mom call and leave a message. My sister called me crying. "Nikki had Mom call. She sang in tune and sounded so happy!" she gushed. "I'm keeping the message." What a gift. They all spoke later that night which only heightened the joy.

Honestly, I've had great luck with virtually every person that's walked through the front door. While so many people insist on carrying out the burden of caregiving alone, I don't have any trouble hiring help. Maybe that's due to to My Mom.
I remember distinctly when my sister and I were little My Mom explaining her theory on babysitters to friends and family: "You need a break," she'd say. "It's healthy for us to have a little couple time (referring to her and my dad) and it's good for the girls to have a little independence and spend time with other people." She'd always say she'd come back from a night out or weekend off refreshed and a better, more patient parent. Part sales pitch for taking off for a fun golf weekend, part true belief I'm guessing.

Now that I'm in her position, I'm heralding the same message. Dementia patients become very dependent on their caregiver, to the point of being dangerously obsessive. By bringing in a variety of people, I keep her less focused on needing just me and I'm preparing her for the ultimate transition to a facility when the time comes. Odds are she'll have to go to full time care some day. Imagine how jarring that move would be if she'd relied soley on me for the past two years?
Now who sounds like she's making a bit of a sales pitch? I use the help when I want to ride my horses regularly or travel. I just returned from almost three weeks straight on the road. The duties were divided between Nikki and my friend Tasha. I'm happy to say I was completely confident the entire time I was gone. Part of the trip, as you know was to New York. It was one of the best weekends of my life -- I have to credit these two fabulous women for instilling me with the peace of mind to fully enjoy myself without worrying whether everything was okay back at home.
A lot of people ask how I find good people. I wish I had a more scientific answer. The truth is I pray for the right solutions and the ability to recognize the right person for the job. I started out using agencies, but was sorely disappointed. I started with a big name firm. The local branch and the woman who ran it came highly recommended. It was summer, I had the front window open and I literally heard her greet a candidate on the sidewalk and tell her to act like she had worked for the agency for a while. I was appalled. Another agency left me hanging on a morning I had a huge presentation to give. When I called at 7am, (after waiting since 6) the manager said "just leave your mom, we'll have someone there by 10 or 10:30." Was she kidding? How can you trust care to someone willing to abandon you for more than 3 hours?!
With that record from supposedly proven sources, I decided I could do just as well on my own. I ran an ad in the paper, prayed and ran background checks (not too high tech, but better than meeting on a sidewalk...) Just the mention of a check weeded most bad applicants out. Upon hearing I'd run a profile, one woman was forced to admit she was calling me from a drug treatment center and she then confessed, her boyfriend, who drove a cab, might not be all that reliable at getting her to my place on time. She bowed out on her own.
Most of my luck these days is through word of mouth. We've had a friend's mom, a friend from the barn, and a couple of nursing students. Nikki took a full time job, but she's still in the mix too. She's been part of our family for the full two years. Even though she looks nothing like me (we'll have to post a photo), My Mom doesn't seem to notice when she and I change places. It's become seamless. And the two of them have a great time together. We have Nikki's mom, Doris, in the mix now too. Extended family!

I'm not going to lie, I'm a prima donna and I love having the help, but more importantly, I love each of the people who have entered our life through this journey. While it's awesome to come home and find the bed made, a little laundry neatly folded and, of course, My Mom looking bright and chipper -- the added joy these women bring to our home overpowers everything else.
My Mom has a ton of fun experiences along the way too. She becomes part of the other women's lives -- going shopping, to dance class, family parties and even for rides in a convertible. She loves the action.
The truth is, My Mom was right all those years ago -- the break does us both good. It does My Mom good to mingle with fresh faces and I come home refreshed. I don't have the burden of catching up on chores and I can give full attention to the one who deserves it most -- My Mom.

Thank you to all the wonderful people who make our life complete!! And completely wonderful!!

Monday, March 15, 2010

While I'm on the Subject of My Dad...

Last night I blubbered and babbled, today I've accepted that it feels good to finally miss My Dad.
He truly was one of my best friends. We went to sporting events, played golf and loved to find dive bars to drink beer. He confided in me, even way back in 8th grade when he thought My Mom was having an affair. She so wasn't, but our bond grew ever stronger over Arby's beef and cheese sandwiches that night. For the last 20 years we lived in different states, but still talked almost daily. We even watched a World War II documentary by phone together. He'd show me his ship and recall side stories as we watched. It was always safe to call past midnight, especially if it was to watch a replay of a great move during a good game or to chuckle over a guest on a late night talk show. I drew the line at boxing. He watched it nightly. I watch it never.
It might sound a little weird that we were that close, but honestly, he was that fun. For a respectful grown man that was active in the church and a number of civic organizations, when he let loose with his daughters, he became a silly, wise cracking, make-you-cry-from-laughing, practical joking big brother.
In fact, My Mom used to always say she had three kids. Myself, my sister and My Dad. I'll be honest with you -- she did. He instigated far more in terms of trouble making than we ever did.

So imagine the mystery of My Mother suddenly becoming the fun loving, singing, dancing, actress, jokester person that's come to live with me. There are days I feel like I have to check my sanity. Moments I'm convinced My Dad is somehow reincarnated in her. If I think about it too much, it's down right freaky.
People always ask if My Mom was always so good natured and outgoing and honestly, the answer is no. During the recession of the 70's she went back to work at Chrysler and became the bread winning, meal making, clean the house, overworked lady that would eventually watch tv on the couch with us when she could finally unwind at the end of her very long day. I don't want to make it sound like My Dad didn't help out -- he did more than his share too, he just liked to play in between. While he goofed around and wrestled on the floor with us when we were little, My Mother always played the part of steadfastly sophisticated. She more or less remained that way until just a few years ago.

This weekend I saw a news story that likely explains the behavior shift. After a brain aneurysm, an average man became a talented artist, literally overnight. Brain damage affected his frontal lobe, the area of the brain that causes inhibition -- or in his case, the lack there of.
The definition of inhibition in his case meant expressing himself freely without a care over what people thought of his work. The results aren't always as positive. For the general population, losing inhibition can manifest itself from something as simple as setting a table twice because you don't understand it's already set -- to displaying shocking x-rated inappropriate sexual behavior. When I heard that, I thought, hey, that's the same types of behaviors exhibited in many Alzheimer's patients. Tonight I did a little on line research and confirmed that indeed, many dementia patients suffer from damage to the frontal lobe area. My Mom surely must. She's almost as lucky as the artist. The damage in her brain apparently allows her to live freely and have fun. (Actually, I'm the lucky one -- super thankful she doesn't participate in some of the wildly inappropriate behavior I've heard about!) So far, it's all G-rated. I think she's always wanted to be more expressive, but with the stress of a late in life family, a staunch upbringing and living in the shadow of My Dad, she just never found a way to let her more outgoing personality break through. Until now.
These days you can't stop her. In front of anyone she'll sing, dance, act, tease and laugh. She loves to laugh.

You can't help but wonder if she's reverting back to behavior from her childhood or truly breaking out of her shell for the first time at 88. The reality is it doesn't matter because I'll never know. Luckily having fun is a big part of my genetic makeup, so I'm on board with the childlike behavior and, if it's okay to admit, My Mom's new found silly antics sure soften the blow of missing My Dad.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Two Year Mark...

Today marks the second anniversary of My Dad's death and the first time I'm really grieving his passing. This delayed mourning started just before the holidays and seems to have hit a crescendo this weekend. I can't believe he's gone. I can't believe it's been two years. I can't believe the sadness over losing one of my best friends is just now hitting me. But I do understand why. After waiting for me to arrive on a Friday night, My Dad died in his sleep, at home, a smile on his face. He knew he had passed off care of My Mom to me and he knew everything would be okay. It was time for him to rest. At 92 My Dad had been the sole caregiver to My Mom -- his dedication and love so amazing we had the priest read a wedding verse at his funeral. The shock and in many ways delight over taking on care of My Mom so consumed me, I didn't have time to process the loss of My Dad.
That doesn't mean I don't think of him. He's in my thoughts daily. He left me with a pretty big task -- to be more specific, he left me an invaluable gift -- and its not just spending quality time with My Mom. By taking on this caregiving experience my parents have enabled me to pursue a lifelong dream. The kind that makes you think about them and thank them daily.

For as long as I can remember My Dad taught his daughters how to bet -- and how to split the profits if we won. If one of us scored big bucks in a Super Bowl square during my aunt and uncle's annual party, we'd have a family meeting that week and talk about what to do with the winnings. We'd usually agree to put it toward a family vacation.
Later in life he self proclaimed himself "The Sleaze" and became weekend bookie for college football and basketball games. In the fall the phone call would always go the same, "Out of the goodness of my heart I'll give you 7 in the Notre Dame game." The point spread would change, but whatever number he tossed out would always be in his favor -- usually by at least two touchdowns. That was until we got wise and learned to find the spreads on our own ahead of time, then the pre-game negotiating would get heated. After a defeat he'd feign having health problems to avoid payoff. The big time bets by the way -- chili dogs. He missed Detroit coney islands down in Florida. My Mom, a money gal, would go crazy over how serious we were and how many calls would go back and forth right up until the end of every game. "You never even pay up," she'd say frustrated. "It's about the pride, not the payoff," I'd constantly remind her. At the end of any given season we all knew exactly who was up and who was down and by exactly how many hot dogs. Sometimes there'd be carry over into the next season.

My Dad also bet on his daughters. He believed in us, and at the end of his life, he attempted to take a gigantic gamble on me.
I'll never forget it. Seeing that he was literally wearing himself thin caring for My Mom, I visited often the last year of his life. During one of the trips he wanted to have a serious talk. I thought Mr. Independent might finally be ready for assisted living, but was shocked instead at an offer he made me.
"You've always wanted to write," he started, my eyes immediately welled with tears. I never thought he took my writing endeavors seriously. He loved watching me as a television news reporter, he even took pictures of the tv when I was on CNN, but I never thought he saw me making it as a novelist. At least you wouldn't have guessed it from his critiques of my early work, or his pleas for me to go back into television, in particular begging me to do weekend sports. But he had a plan -- as unrealistic as it seemed. Bottom line, he thought he could pay off my condo and have me move down to Florida to help take care of he and My Mom. In exchange, he'd convert the guest room to an office to write the novel I always talked about. "I already called the cable company. They can install that computer hook up you need," he concluded, internet being the grand finale to his very generous offer, minus a couple of key points. First, he was still in pretty good health and I wasn't going to uplift myself to live indefinitely in the middle of no-where Florida (have you heard of Homosassa??) and he, being a World War II vet and super middle income, had no clue what it would take to pay off my condo. He'd for sure have to add a zero to his best guess. So, there was no way I could afford to leave everything and head down there even if I wanted to.
We ignored the big road blocks and continued to negotiate terms during each visit. "What if I wintered in Florida and you summered in Michigan?" I countered. "That would kill me," he'd say, trying to hold as much ground as he could, all in Florida.
He sounded so serious the week before he died, I half heartedly agreed to his terms, then tried to lighten the dire mood by asking what my pen name should be.
"James?" he asked immediately, his own name. "I'm not thinking that's for girls." "You're modern enough, but okay, how about Jamie then?" "No, it's not me."
"J.J.," he said, this time not a question. Those were his initials. He was called J.J. periodically throughout life, he used the initials and our last name on all documents. "I love it!" I exclaimed. I immediately had an image of this really collected gal named J.J. writing best selling novels. The name alone might give me the necessary persona to tackle this very difficult craft. And then the whole name came to me in a flash -- J.J. O'Neill. O'Neill is My Mom's middle name. I loved it. My Dad loved it and even My Mom seemed to love it.

That was our last big heart to heart talk. I drove back down to Tampa that Tuesday night for a training class and when I returned Friday he was too weak from heart trouble to talk about much of anything. He promised to go to the hospital the next morning if I let him spend that night in his own bed. Evidently the plan to help me achieve my writing dreams wasn't the only one on his mind.
He snuck out that night, but I still followed his wishes, with the minor exception of staying in Florida. For the past two years My Mom has lived with me in Michigan. Her account pays the bulk of our bills while I stay home and write. I work part-time, mostly for horse and spending money. And although I've had a lot of detours and difficulties trying to find a schedule that works, I've managed to somehow finish that novel. It's just a silly horse murder mystery -- a two-day beach read, but getting the 80-thousand words on paper in a somewhat meaningful order was still incredibly difficult. Procrastination, of course, being the biggest enemy. Now, not only is the novel finished, I'm attending a conference to pitch it to publishers in New York City this week.
When I booked the conference I had no idea it coincided with the anniversary of My Dad's death. I wish he was here to see the giant manuscript or to even help me word smith a few last details on the pitch. He was great at that.
My Dad came from the south side of Chicago. He supposedly emptied beer kegs for Al Capone to earn a nickel. He played sandlot ball for the mob. His whole life he tried to overcome a bad start. On my 40th birthday he gave me a small ruby necklace and said he wished he had been a Rockefeller to give me a piece of jewelry worth handing down to future generations. Instead he left behind a legacy far more valuable -- first as a kind and loving role model and next for believing in me. The intent, his attempt at helping to create a way for me to achieve a seemingly impossible dream will never be forgotten.
I still can't believe I finished this project. And I still can't believe he's gone because whether it sells or not, there's no one I want to share this moment of satisfaction with more than My Dad.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What a Kick

We've always said having kids late in life kept both My Mom and Dad healthy and in-shape. My Dad played golf right up until he died at 92. When we were little they were already in their 50's. My Mom swam with us, played tennis, golf and even took up figure skating. I remember the day she didn't pick us up from school and we walked home to find her laying on the couch with her arm in a sling. She sprained her wrist attempting a spiral -- gliding along with her back leg stretched way up in the air -- at 52ish.
Well, she's going to land up in a similar state or worse if she keeps up her latest antics. First, in an attempt to prove she didn't need a visiting physical therapist last year, she threw her leg up in a full blown Rockette kick complete with touching her knee to her nose. Before you panic, she was sitting safely on the couch for the manuever, but it was still very impressive. In fact, I often have her show off the move when company comes over. (I pray both God and My Dad forgive me for the minor dog and pony show. She gets a kick -- pardon the pun -- over shocking people with her agility.)
Now at 88 she thinks she's become a yoga aficionado. We do "tv yoga" -- you know the free workouts available through the cable company, but honestly, they're a workout. I've convinced her that due to a bad knee, she has to do seated yoga, but assure her that she'll still reap full benefits from the workouts. Most days she takes the practice very seriously, breathing in and out like a master, looking very solemn as she brings "hands to heart center" for rest. She's so hip when she utters "namaste" at the end. Although, as proud as I am, I must confess it rarely comes out "nam-a-stay", it's usually ama-something. One time she respectfully bowed her head and told a store clerk "amastad" as we left the check out lane. The greeting was lost on the clerk, but the lady behind us in line burst out laughing.
My favorite definition of the yoga salutation is "the spirit in me, meets the spirit in you." I'm just hoping our spirits don't collide in a tangled mess on the living room floor. No matter how many times I ask her to stay seated, she pops up with anticipation every time the instructor introduces a new move, determined to follow along -- even with the most difficult upside down poses. I've found her one too many times precariously leaning bottoms up off the couch with one thin wrinkled arm pointing skyward and her head hanging low, twisted to catch a glimpse of the tv to see if she's doing the move correctly. I won't give in and do the seated version myself, so I now workout behind her recliner chair and add an element of balancing difficulty to my own practice, keeping one eye on the tv and one eye on my crafty, energetic Mom making sure that when we're all doing an up dog, her fanny stays firmly planted down in the seat.
It's working. I've been able to successfully police her pretty well lately. And, as an added bonus, because I'm behind her I no longer get her critiques. When I said aficionado earlier, I wasn't joking. She studies my posture versus the tv instructor and tells me exactly what I'm doing right and wrong with no mercy. When she gives me a "that's pretty good" I sincerely know I've mastered that move.