What to do about anger?

I can’t bear to go through all the details of yesterday’s phone call to Mom. Suffice to say that it contained all the usual elements:

  • She was still asleep when I called in late morning.
  • She’d just woken up when I called again at noon.
  • She said back pain kept her up all night.
  • She didn’t know what day it is, and didn’t remember when I told her. Not the first time, not the 8th.
  • She was confused by the number of pills in her box, reporting 4 when there ought to have been 6 1/2. She said today’s compartment was empty, then said it did have pills in it, but not enough. She asked why Wednesday has no pills at all and what will she do then, not remembering that I’ll be back to refill the box. This exchange was repeated at least four times.

In a new twist, she took my Dad’s pills instead of her own, even though her pill box is bright purple, chosen specifically to be very distinct from Dad’s. At least that explains there only being 4 pills. (Fortunately Dad’s were only supplements; he keeps the important stuff separate.) Then she realized her error and took her own, of which there were 6 1/2, as I’d been saying all along (this is now 45 minutes into the call). She said she had been confused and in a rush because I was coming. I was never coming, and had never said I was coming, and it wouldn’t have been a reason to rush, in any case.

This is what dementia sounds like. Nothing she says can be trusted to have any consistent or correlative relationship to reality. When a normal person gets “confused,” they can be set straight. Oh, right, they’ll say. I was just confused. When a dementia patient is confused, talking them through it is like screwing yourself deeper and deeper into the marsh mud at low tide. Then the tide comes in.

All this happened while Robin and I were on the way from shopping to my friend Jolene’s house. We had the Corolla, because Aaron has “my” minivan up in New Hampshire for the weekend. I hate this reliable little car with the intensity of a thousand suns. It’s ugly, uncomfortable, cramped, loud, dirty (Aaron cares much less about keeping it clean than I do), and lacks Bluetooth. The minivan is not a luxury vehicle by any means, but neither is it any of those things, and Bluetooth makes phone calls so much safer and easier.

Robin and I had had an unsuccessful time shopping and were dashing back to pick up Jolene’s son, who’d be spending the afternoon at our house while she worked. I was cranky about the shopping trip. I was cranky about the car. I was cranky about having agreed to have a friend over. I had a headache and the beginnings of cramps. And then I had this hour-long conversation which made no fucking sense, and which, if I could have typed out a transcript, you would not even believe.

When we signed off, I screamed — screamed! — in frustration. Poor Robin. I told her that if I ever begin to do this kind of thing to her, that she should kill me. That, well, ok, obviously she could not be expected to kill me, but she should put me in a home and then move as far away as fucking possible and never look back. I will not allow her life to be sucked up by this kind of thing. I will not allow it. I will NOT.

It was at about that point that I realized my phone had not, in fact, hung up. I had thrown it into the passenger foot well when I said good-bye, but hadn’t disconnected. It is possible that my Dad–it was he on the phone at the end of the conversation–heard my whole poisonous, insane, horrible rant.

I understand that dementia is not my mother’s fault. I understand that being angry about it is normal (and so does Robin. She is a tremendous comfort). I try to keep anger about her illness from becoming anger at her for not being able to think and anger at my Dad for not being more managerial about it (he is blind, yes, but he can think, and he knows what fucking day it is, and he could help with the medicine thing).

It can feel like a lot of anger, which has never been my strong suit.

We got to Jolene’s house, and she asked how I was, and for once, I didn’t turn back the attention and say “fine, you?” I just laid it out. Empty. I’m running on empty. My parents have sucked me dry today and I have nothing left except feeling angry all the time. She listened, and she helped, and it was so good to have a friend in that moment that the stupid aggravations evaporated and the serious issues receded.

Having Josh over was fun. He and the girls played Clue, had a soccer ball punting contest in the backyard, played Wii, and watched Sherlock. Meanwhile I called my parents again, prepared to face their reaction to what they might have overheard earlier. They never mentioned it, and nothing in their demeanor suggested they heard any of it. Jolene said they had probably just put their phone right down after saying good-bye. If they heard anything at all it would only have been car noise from where my phone had lain on the floor. I’m going to assume, with relief, that she’s right.

After Jolene finished work, we all went out to dinner and talked about other things. My friends are terrific, and my girls are terrific, and I’m feeling better.

I’m still wondering what people do with their anger, though. I’m open to suggestions.

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It turns out some friends aren’t “forever.” And it turns out that’s OK.

According to daysoftheyear.com, today is “Best Friends Day,” which makes it as good a day as any for this post, which has been brewing for a while.

I’ve been letting go of an old friendship – one I once described as a “best” friendship – that isn’t healthy anymore. ­­­I can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to this kind of thing. Sometimes things aren’t right for a long while before I realize that hey, this shit needs to stop (see also: husband, former). I think in my relatively dumb youth, I burned too many bridges out of carelessness or callousness – too lazy to do the heavy lifting that being a friend sometimes entails – so now in middle age, I’m reluctant to let fall even the ones that have had giant orange “CONDEMNED” signs on them for years.

My friendship with Jane has, if not a “condemned” sign, at least caution tape strung across it. It took years for me to see how out of balance things had become — to realize that I wasn’t just being used, I was being used up.

I had been reluctant to say, “hey, it hurts my feelings when you do [this thing she kept doing], would you please stop?” – and then one day I finally said it, just as clearly and specifically as I could… and it made no difference. So I said it again. And she did it again. Lather, rinse, repeat…  and finally, I thought oh, I see, now. There is no room here for my feelings. It is OK for me to let this go.

Still, I fretted. I told some other friends a story or two to get their take on it. They said, dude, that is not how a friend behaves. I’d gotten so used to thinking of Janie as the definition of “friend” that it took me by surprise to see that by objective criteria, she’d not been that to me for a very long time, and that when I need a friend, I don’t call her.

It still bothers me. Years ago, she’d been a dear and true friend, and I am not a “what have you done for me lately” kind of person. It’s been hard to give myself permission to let this friendship fade into friendly acquaintanceship, but I’m coming around to it. It’s liberating, in a way. What a relief to let those calls go straight to voicemail instead of answering with a kind of dread: what is going to be drained from me this time? How am I going to be dismissed in return?

It seems I’m not alone. Over the years, Jane’s other friends have dropped by the wayside, some backing away slowly, others cutting off contact as if with a machete. While validating, this does not make my best self feel better. I maybe should’ve been able to find a better balance. All these years, though her physical and mental illness, through her marriage and divorce, I’ve been her unconditional support – and it turns out that “unconditional” was a mistake. I should’ve had conditions, and the first one should’ve been to put my own oxygen mask on first, just like they say on airplanes. My allowing myself to be disproportionately used is just as much to blame as her doing the disproportionate using. It took two of us to get where we are.

Which is where, exactly? Well, I don’t intend to tear down this bridge. Time may make some repairs, the caution tape might come down, and Jane’s life and mine could reconnect on healthier terms. For a while, though, I’m going to heed the warnings, and quit crossing at my own risk.

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?)