Hey, I was going to eat that (in 2001).

Today, I decided to use a few extra moments at my parents’ house to check out their refrigerator. I do that from time to time to keep them from eating food that might kill them. I never know what I’m going to find, or whether it’s going to ooze out onto the kitchen floor under its own power. It worries me that Dad, who can’t see, won’t know the difference between a new tub of macaroni salad and one from, say, last August, until it is too late.

We could chalk it up to my mother’s dementia, but Rick and I can both remember looking in the fridge as kids and seeing cases of Tab and Fresca (remember Tab and Fresca?), but no milk. Tubes of slice-and-bake cookie dough, but crispers full of rotting vegetables. Deli drawers from which the safest bet was individually wrapped slices of “American cheese product,” because in my mother’s kitchen, preservatives are your allies and pasteurization is your friend.

After scanning for invasive species growing on the items on the main shelves, I turned my attention to the bottom shelf of the fridge door. (It’s a side-by-side model, and it’s been years since any effort was made to access things below hip level.)

Nothing I found was younger than 2007. The median expiration date was probably 2003. For those playing along at home, here’s what I threw out: a big bottle of Bloody Mary mix, two open jars of shrimp cocktail sauce, two open bottles of hot sauce, one jar of withered capers and another of rancid pine nuts, two open bottles of lemon juice and two of lime juice, and a near-empty bottle of balsamic vinegar. Dumping all that stuff down their garbage disposal was really, really satisfying. So satisfying that I don’t mind filling up my own recycling bins with the huge bag of jars and bottles I brought home.

It’s no mystery why, in my own home, I am pretty vigilant about what’s in the fridge and when it needs replacing. There are never two of the same thing open at the same time, and all the condiments are from the current decade. When we use something up, its replacement gets brought up from the pantry and it goes on the shopping list so the pantry item will be replaced. As long as people put things on the list, the system runs like clockwork. Sometimes they put olives on the list right after I’ve bought olives, just to plague me, because I hate olives. But other than that, clockwork.

Now please excuse me while I go check my pine nuts.

In which Dad has a mini-stroke, and we go to the hospital.

We had a bit of Emergency Room excitement in the family last Saturday.

My brother Rick was up for a visit, and we were with friends at a comedy night to benefit the terrific After Prom event that the high school PTA puts on here in Sandwich. The comedian had just wrapped up his set of relatable, parent-friendly jokes and I was just about to enjoy a rare second drink when my phone buzzed: Mom and Dad. I missed the call but hustled out to catch the voicemail, by which time Robin, my 12 year-old, was rapid-fire texting from home:

u need 2 call grandma

she thinks grandad had stroke

he can’t talk and can’t get up

i don’t know what to do

i told her call ambulance

I called Mom and we got the ambulance on its way. Headed back into the building and signaled Rick we had to leave immediately – some quick words to friends, and we were off. Called Robin to say we’d be home late, and that she was so, so right and smart for telling Grandma to call 911. (My god, I’m proud of that kid. She took a frightening call, but she’s as level-headed as any grownup and significantly more so than her poor Grandma.)

When we caught up with Dad at the hospital, his symptoms had somewhat abated. He had tests, and we waited around, unable to keep our eyes open, unable to sleep. Saturday night in the emergency room is eventful. I couldn’t help wondering what was up with the terrified young couple clinging to each other in the space next to Dad’s. Then there was an urgent call for Narcan.

At some point, my mother, fed up of waiting for news and getting ready to start snapping at nurses and aides, turned to Rick and said “this is the worst part.” “No, Mom,” he said. “The worst part is that Dad is suffering.” I wish I could say it is dementia that makes her lose perspective, but her own status has always been front and center for her.

Eventually Dad was admitted for observation and further testing. We returned Mom home and got to bed about 4:00 Sunday morning.

Dad spent a couple days being examined. It is especially frustrating for him to be in hospital, because he is almost totally blind, and his hearing isn’t great. I’ve observed over the years that there are some people who intuitively do well interacting with a blind person, and many more that don’t seem to have a sense of how to be helpful (or an inclination to be). The proportion appears to be about the same among nurses as in the general population. I’m always very grateful when someone is assigned to him who really understands that activities need to be narrated, and clearly, because it’s so frustrating for him to know something’s happening around him and not be told what it is. That said, everyone was pretty great this time around.

Discharge day was sort of a comedy of errors. The hospital had lost his pants, which had somehow never made it up from the ER. I called Mom, who by noon had bothered neither to dress nor have breakfast, so couldn’t leave to come get him for at least an hour later than we’d hoped. His pants turned up and we waited for her. Then she drained her car battery to zero by sitting at the wrong hospital entrance for another hour with everything running but the engine (where was her cell phone? at home, on the counter).

Anyway, he’s home again. It turns out that neither the CT scan nor the MRI showed evidence of stroke; yet, classic stroke symptoms did occur. Doctors conclude that he likely had a “mini-stroke,” but that even so, there’s nothing different that would be recommended medically to address it. I wish I could say he’s himself again, but whatever this episode was has taken a toll. He seems disoriented and foggy and confused.

On the other hand, he has resumed his obsession with light bulbs, so maybe all is not lost.

Vanity, Self-pity, and Wallowing, oh my!

(So, this was written in a particularly down moment, in a mindset I don’t occupy for long — but the fact remains, I’m having a tough time with the aging thing.)

Lately when I look in the mirror all I see is “age spots” and lines, dark circles and sags, pastiness and doughy bulges… all capped by flat, mousey hair in one hell of a stupid cut (thanks to the most frequently recommended salon in town, an experience I won’t repeat).

I’ve become plain. I know this because I wasn’t, always, and the difference is something I can feel.

Recently I had lunch with a friend who confessed she’s having a hard time with turning 50. I didn’t realize she was hitting that milestone… at 47, I look easily ten years older than she. Not intending to hurt my feelings, she asked if my LinkedIn picture was taken many years ago, and, haha, if I thought my term on the school board accounted for the difference in my appearance between then and now. “Because I think of that picture, and then I saw you one day and how tired you looked, and I was wondering if it was really beating you up… but I guess we’re all just aging.” This is not a catty person. She was just talking without thinking – and I think I don’t seem like someone likely to be hurt, so maybe sometimes people don’t take the care they might otherwise.

It did hurt, though.

“I shouldn’t leave the house without makeup.” I always thought that was a ridiculous thing for a person to say about herself! But what an easy conviction to ridicule, when you’re young and pretty. Young and pretty people, take note. Those conditions are temporary. You too will grieve when they pass you by.

I know how my friend felt, looking at me, because I’d just had a similar experience with  another friendly acquaintance the previous weekend. It had been a few months since we’d seen each other, and we were chatting away. As the afternoon sun crossed her face, I suddenly thought, wow. I can see just what she’s going to look like as a nice old lady. You know how sometimes you look at a child and get a glimpse, through some little mannerism or expression, of what they’ll be like as a young adult? It was like that. I saw the thinning, speckled skin, the graying hair in a perpetually unflattering style (why do we have bangs? In my case it’s because my hair just breaks off, now), the thin lines not just around her eyes and mouth but beginning to appear, crepe-like, across her cheeks.

It was an unsettling moment… one I relive in the mirror, daily. Oh, vanity. (Did I say anything to her about it though? NO I DID NOT.)

So I guess I am vain, but I also have a hang-up about spending money on trying to look nicer when there are college tuitions and retirement to be saving for. I think of my friend Jane, a near-constant smoker who, though unemployed and without prospects, willingly forked over hundreds of dollars last week to have some kind of filler injected into her face to push out deep lines caused by three decades of sucking on Marlboro Reds. (No sense in just quitting fucking smoking, I guess.) She looks just the same as before, as far as I can tell. I think of many friends who spend regularly to maintain flattering and gorgeous (if somewhat improbable) hair colors. Looking good is worthwhile to them, and it shows. They are lovely.

I admit to feeling a little judgmental toward Janie, mostly because I don’t want to lose her to lung cancer. But I truly don’t begrudge anyone their salon expenses. So what holds me back? There’s a kind of Puritan superiority buried in this frugality, and it’s just as unbecoming as my mouse-brown hair. Are highlights in order, expense be damned? Because surgery is out of the question, as are injected fillers or neurotoxins.

Do makeovers really help a tedious midlife crisis, or am I better off just trying to come to terms with how I look now?

The most appropriate response to all this is “SHUT UP AND GET OVER YOURSELF BEFORE I SHOW YOU WHAT A REAL PROBLEM LOOKS LIKE.” I know that. I have friends who’ve lost their beautifully colored hair to chemotherapy and would trade that for mine any day.

It’s just that having someone say to (and about!) your face, essentially “you look really noticeably worse than you did five years ago”… well. It stings, maybe worse than those injections. Here’s hoping the effects are just as temporary.

Book Club

My parents had already retired to Cape Cod when I moved here. It’s a coincidence that we ended up living so near each other — I had never imagined it, frankly — but it has worked out very well. One item in the “plus” column: my mother invited me to join her reading group. Fifteen years later, I am happy to say we are still going strong. Many of the group are in their 80s now, and going strong is not something they take for granted anymore.

We are about a dozen well-educated and/or well-read ladies, and one such gentleman. Two of us are writers. The rest are retired from various things: teaching, nursing, geology, law, journalism, public relations, frame-making, home-making.

Through the years, we’ve lost two husbands to Parkinson’s and two to heart disease. Two of us have died of ovarian cancer, and one of complications after a fall. Diagnoses keep coming – Mom has Lewy Body Dementia. Jack has colon cancer. Hips and knees have been replaced. Reaction times have slowed, and balance has become precarious. Hardly anybody can hear very well anymore, which makes for a lot of entertaining hollering, misunderstanding, and repeating of things at our monthly meetings. But with the possible exception of Doris, a onetime lawyer who’s in assisted living now and won’t use her iPad (much to the exasperation of Norma, who’s visited her several times specifically to teach her how to respond to emails), everyone’s still pretty sharp.

We met yesterday to discuss two books: Linda Greenlaw’s Lifesaving Lessons and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. Two books, because we’d had to skip February’s meeting on account of being buried by snow. You’ve probably heard about all the snow. I am not going to talk about it.

It was a small meeting. Several of our members depart for warmer climes in winter months and email thoughts to be read aloud in their absence. Some of these run along the lines of “I can’t tell you how glad I am not to be there this winter, what with all the snow.” I am not going to talk about the snow. Mom had first said she wasn’t going to come either. She didn’t read either book (“they were boring!”) and invented some way in which she didn’t feel up to it. Norma wasn’t having any of Mom’s malady du jour, and talked her around.

We gathered in a local church parish hall, because everybody’s home driveways and walks are still too snow-covered for safe passage. You’ve probably heard about all the snow. I am not going to talk about it.

Meetings begin with Norma’s account of where everyone is and who hasn’t responded to her emails. Doris still hasn’t used her iPad. Jackie is still missing, though her leaf-covered car (isn’t it white? yes, but it was covered in leaves) was seen as recently as November. She is generally thought to be in Florida, possibly tending to a sister who is ill (didn’t her sister die? yes, but this is another sister). Sharon and Jack are still in California (and if everyone would get on Facebook, everyone would know that, but nobody wants to get on Facebook except Sharon. What’s the point? Can’t you do all that by email? Why do people feel they have to tell everyone everything? How can one have 407 friends?) Marilyn is in Florida and sent news of having dined with acquaintances of the Greenlaws. Nancy had a doctor’s appointment. (Who is her doctor? Who is your doctor? Which doctors are taking new patients? Doctors keep quitting because they’re treated like migrant workers picking peaches, and they didn’t go to medical school to pick peaches.)

We are six, then: Norma, Peggy, Betty, Helen, Mom, and me. We are waiting for Lillian, who is reportedly in the building. Norma calls her. A phone rings. Lillian arrives but she’s not joining us right away because she has to answer her phone. She answers it. It’s Norma, calling to find out where she is. She says she’s right here. They hang up. Lillian sits down.

Norma requests that we acknowledge having received her emails, even if we don’t have anything substantive to say in response. Everyone says we do that already. Norma says no you don’t.

Then, we begin to discuss the books. Which did you like best, asks Lillian. You’re supposed to say “better” if it’s only two choices, says Betty, then looks around the table, leaving the “am I right?” unspoken. Fine, then, which did you prefer? We are divided over Lifesaving Lessons. I wasn’t alone in thinking it read like an out-of-tune piano, but others loved every word. Appreciation for The Boys In The Boat was more universal. It’s nonfiction that reads like a novel. I compared it to Unbroken and was told The New York Times had said that already.

Next month’s meeting will be at Doris’s assisted living place, at 5 PM. (Isn’t that dinnertime? Will they let her miss dinner? Well, we will just wheel her out and wheel her back afterward, won’t we! Does she want us to do that? Nobody knows, but we assume so. How are we supposed to know, if she never responds to emails?)

Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

(I’m not going to do a “hello, world” post. Best to just jump in. I am picking up a few years after my first blog left off. Check that out if you like.)

Sunday night at 8:30, I got a call from my mother. “Would you bring me some orange juice when you come tomorrow?” “Sure,” I said, “see you then.”

I did the usual evening things, and went to bed about 10:30. At 11:05, my phone buzzed on my nightstand: call from Mom and Dad. It’s not like them to phone so late, so I was instantly apprehensive. “Hello?” “Leslie, it’s Mum. I’m calling to see if you would bring some orange juice when you come tomorrow?” “Sure,” I said, “see you then.”

Mom has Lewy Body Dementia (LBD). It’s the second most prevalent type of dementia, after Alzheimer’s, and before Parkinson’s (with which it is often confused, because the symptoms overlap quite a bit). She was diagnosed last summer, and is in very early stages, with medicine holding off most symptoms for the time being. But things are going to get a lot worse, and we’re just starting to get used to the idea.

I’ll take a late, repeat call for orange juice cheerfully, any night of the week… because I’ve come to realize that the “new normal” includes a constant low-level dread of what a late night call will someday entail.