Letting it go to voicemail

As my parents’ health was deteriorating and they needed more and more in-home care, I was getting a lot of phone calls from the VNA and other agencies to coordinate it, and of course from Mom and Dad themselves. Any one of those calls could have meant a crisis, or at the very least, a worry or a hassle. It got so that whenever my phone rang, my stomach would clench with anxiety. It was too much.

To avoid associating that feeling with every phone call I ever got, I assigned the iPhone’s “bulletin” ring tone to all contacts related to my parents in any way. My “normal” ring tone (James Bond theme music, natch) became nonthreatening again.

Though the volume of parent-related calls is way down now, I’ve maintained the “bulletin” ring tone for my mother, her doctors, and her assisted living facility. One of the healthiest changes that’s happened for me since Mom moved there is that I don’t feel I have to answer all her calls. I know she is fine. When I don’t want to talk, or listen, I just don’t. If I’m walking, sleeping, shopping, hanging out with friends or family, I don’t have to. If I just don’t feel like it, I don’t have to.

Such a simple thing, to have regained that modicum of control over my own life. Such a huge relief.

This morning, on a walk in the woods, I heard the bulletin tone and declined the call. This evening, with dinner on the stove, I heard the bulletin tone and declined the call. I listened to the voicemails later. They were not urgent. I’m going to see her tomorrow. She can wait.

I’m allowed to walk in nature undisturbed. I’m entitled to make dinner for my family without jumping at an interruption from my mother.

I was on a short leash for a long time, and I’m not anymore.

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The House

My parents’ house now needs to be gone through room by room, to sort out what we want to keep, donate, sell, recycle or discard. That’s what I’ve been up to for the last few months.

It was hard, at first, going to the empty house. It is so, so quiet. Unnervingly quiet. Then just as I’m used to the sound of my own breathing, Dad’s talking watch will shout out from whatever corner it’s stashed in: “The time. Is two. O’clock. P.M.” and I damn near jump out of my skin.

If the weather allows, I open all the windows to get the air moving around. My parents were not fresh air people, and some of the windows haven’t been opened since the first Clinton administration. Just today I noticed that the house is beginning to smell different, on first opening the door. This is a good thing.

I have been pretty businesslike about most of this, but once in a while something will take me by surprise and I’ll get a hit of some emotion or other. Discarding my father’s ostomy supplies, for instance, put me into a sudden rage. He suffered so, with that. The ostomy, while no fun, maybe wouldn’t have been so awful on its own, but being blind made it a relentless trial.  I would say his last couple of years were miserable on this basis alone.

I’m angry that he suffered. I’m angry that my mother was unwilling or unable to do more to help him with the day-to-day maintenance. I’m really, really angry that there was never any good way to handle middle-of-the-night ostomy leaks. It was very difficult to get anyone on call for that, and Dad spent many sleepless nights waiting for help. See again being angry that Mom didn’t do more, and there is plenty to rage about.

That’s all over now, and I can’t help but be glad for him that he’s on the other side of it.

I’ve let the talking watch ambush me for a few months, but last week, I finally threw it away. I know what time it is, and wherever Dad is or isn’t, he doesn’t need to.

Life in Memory Care

Assisted living is a whole new world, my friends.

Where Mom lives now, the residents are in different stages of their various dementias (“I think a lot of these people have Alzheimer’s,” she whispered to me one day, without irony). On one end of the spectrum are those who move around on their own, speak clearly and cogently, socialize well and participate in the activities. If they could remember things, they wouldn’t be here. On the other, there are a couple of people who never speak at all, or who need to be wheeled around from one part of their day to the next. Most residents fall somewhere in the middle.

I am there several times a week, and each visit brings something poignant, or hilarious, or lovely, or sad.

It makes me happy to see Mom making friends with some of her housemates, behaving less frostily toward others, and learning to ignore the one poisonously negative lady who lives to ruin everybody else’s day (that’d be Vilma, whose superpower is to leave you feeling bad for hours after a single interaction).

Mom hangs out with Ruthie and Barb, two lovely people whose short term memories are totally shot, but who are so nice and otherwise good company that it makes me sad they can’t remember the beginnings of our lunchtime conversations. On the up side, I don’t have to worry about repeating myself.

The other night Mom called me, quite upset. “Something really bad has happened here,” she said, “and we are all a bit shaken.” Prone to dark drama, I thought immediately that maybe someone had been injured, or had some kind of violent outburst. What could have shaken everybody? “Ruthie’s room was ransacked, and her purse was taken!” Oh dear. I suggested that maybe Ruth had been looking for something in her room, then come out for a meal and forgotten how she’d left things, returning to find them in upsetting disarray. We agreed that was a more likely explanation, and I urged Mom to ask one of the staff, if she felt at all frightened or uneasy about it. The next day, Ruthie was fine, not having been ransacked or robbed. All is well. But it made me realize how quickly fear can spread around in a group of people who feel vulnerable and talk a lot, but don’t reason very well.