Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Papa "J"

     When my sister-in-law called to share Papa "J" wanted us to visit him, we knew it was time. It was time for my husband and I to take our kids to spend some precious moments with him, moments he may never recall. You see, Papa "J" is in the grips of a mentally, emotionally and physically debilitating disease that overcomes even the fiercest men and women, notably including one of our nation's former Presidents, Ronald Reagan. Alzheimer's disease is heartbreaking for it's victims and the families they often don't even recognize as time goes by. 
     We knew for a while that Papa "J" was becoming more and more forgetful and seemingly lost. His wife, my childrens' grandma who past away over a year ago, helped by often reminding him of his fleeting thoughts. While his long term memory remains in tact, his short-term memory fails him. Before our visit, we hadn't experienced first-hand the impact this has on his daily routine and in the scheme of his entire livelihood.
      We were ill-prepared and unsure what to expect upon arrival. Great start when we were greeted by Papa "J" waiting for us outside his home. There he was sitting with his cane in hand--he wears braces on both legs as a result of having a dual operation for prostate cancer and several herniated discs. He became immobilized and lost feeling in parts of both legs so the braces were added for stabilization.
     "HEY, you guys are finally here; Let's go to the local seafood restaurant for dinner," chanted Papa "J."  He was the picture of health--for an 81 year old that is. And our dog, who we brought on her first long distance trip, fell instantly in love with this man with the cane. He reciprocated barking back and teasing her with his "walking stick."
     Once we got settled in, we happily drove to the restaurant, and I recall thinking, "maybe some of our fears resulting from incidents involving Papa "J"s  memory loss could be allayed for awhile given his seemingly confident, cogent and relaxed demeanor." He didn't seem like the man who paid disreputable landscape contractors thousands of dollars for work they never did because they lied to him-knowing he is easy prey for a good con. Nor did he seem like the man who, a few months earlier, drove to Georgia to visit my sister-in-law, arrived at her home, then immediately left and drove the entire way back home because he forgot why, what, and where he was supposed to be? These incidents had prompted us to contact the police and served as a wake-up call to how lost Papa "J" often is.
      Now, he didn't seem lost at all. I listened as he explained to my husband where the restaurant was and about all the different activities in the area. He shared lots about his past with my kids and was able to recall so much of his history.
     Once inside the restaurant, the situation changed. Papa "J" asked us several times where we were. At first, my children giggled because they thought he was kidding. Once we told him where we were, he responded the same way he would the next week we spent with him--each time he didn't know what was going on, "Oh, yeah, that's what I thought."
     And so began the realization and understanding that although it appears that Papa "Js" long-term memory is in tact, his short-term memory is not, and at times is worse than others. Worst of all, I can see his fear and sadness, and occasionally, the anger, each time he's unable to recollect who, what or where we are.
     Each day he'd awake spirited like a little kid, asking what we were going to do, followed by what we wanted to eat for dinner. These same questions were repeatedly asked throughout the day--as were many other inquiries he continued to echo. At times, he even forgot my children's names.
     We had to throw out much of the expired food in the refrigerator and buy many daily items he didn't have, including laundry detergent. Surprisingly, his extra refrigerator in the garage housed about 200 frozen prepared meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which he eats on a daily basis--when he remembers to eat.   
     Yet, this once World War II Vet, fondly remembers times with his wife--and even guided us to her gravesite to visit, two hours away. We spent several joyous moments laughing at silly things in life including mimicking our dog. We shopped and went out to dinner often and watched a few movies with him. Although he shared he loves to go on walks, when we went with him, he could only walk down one block before having to sit down. I could see how disappointed he was--this former long-distance track star! As always, I joked with him about eating more fiber to get his legs moving next time, and we giggled : )
     When it was time to leave, it was difficult. He asked if we could stay, maybe come back in a week or so. We all knew that our next visit would be to move him out of this home he loves to an assisited living facility, closer to family. Watching our parents, grow old, is so very "hard to do."

Monday, March 7, 2011

From Disney to Dying: Saying Goodbye

When I was in High School, our family took a vacation to Florida, which was my first encounter with Disney World. It was unforgettable. So much so that once I was old enough to travel on my own, I continued to visit with friends and even my college boyfriend during Spring Break. What I loved most was the feeling of childlike wonder and awe that everyone there seems to experience regardless of their age.
     I vividly recall going to Florida with my BFF, sitting in the parking lot trolley when the tour guide announced, “Hello all, you are now in the Goofy Parking lot. Get ready for your magical adventure to begin.”  Well, us 22-year-old girls couldn’t stop giggling anticipating the blast we were going to have. And, girl, was it fun!
     Several years later, while my husband and I were dating, he suggested we go on our own magical trip to Disney to visit some sites that neither one of us had traveled to, including Universal and Epcot. Our trip there was wonderful, with the highlight being going to Universal where I was chosen from the audience to participate in a live show. Combine that with all the amazing shops, behind the scene tours and rides such as “Back to the Future” and “Earthquake,” I was enthralled.
     So with all these amazing moments spent in Florida, why have I incongruously titled this blog post, “From Disney to Dying?  Well, after our family’s recent trip to the Sunny State, I was forced to acknowledge the backdrop of sadness for me in Florida—sadness I have always been able to keep at the backburner of my mind. Yet now, the light is burning bright—keeping me up at night, causing many moments of reflection and contemplation about my past trips there and crossroads we have faced and still have to address.  
     My husband’s parents moved to Florida 10 years ago due to my mother-in-laws failing health. She suffered from emphysema and needed to move to a warmer climate. Before going to Orlando for our trip many years ago, we visited my husband’s parents at the retirement community where they now lived, only an hour away from Orlando. The community was filled with activities from golf to dancing classes to archery, fun from dawn to dusk. Although my in-laws lived quiet lives, the social calendar of many of the people we met there was full, almost as if the members were children again: spending time with friends and relaxing at the pool all day—and they deserved it after working so hard for much of their lives.
     Still, the sadness I experienced came from seeing so many senior citizens with physical ailments and emotional struggles. Some of them shared that they had waited too long to enjoy their lives—and they didn’t have much time to make-up for it. In just the few days that we were there, the ambulances sounded often. We listened to many stories about elders in community who recently died or had illnesses and hardships: worst of all, as I chatted with the seniors, I looked into many sad and lonely eyes.
     It reminded me of the time when I was in high school and my own family came to Florida for Disney, and we visited my Nana & Papa who retired in Fort Lauderdale. I recall my dad sharing with us that it was painful to watch his parents slowly hobble getting on the plane, their age taking its toll on their bodies. My Nana, known for her delicious culinary dishes no longer had the stamina to cook.
     Each time I would visit Florida, while my grandparents were alive, I would spend a few days with them. I have some poignant memories and much thanks for all those special moments. One in particular that always makes me smile is recalling visiting them with my BFF. Upon our arrival, my Papa gave us our very own radio, an old-fashioned one which he programmed to all the Big Band stations. He was so excited when he turned on the music that we pretended to be just as elated. The truth is we didn’t know any of the songs!
     When my Papa died, my Nana had to sell the house and come live closer to family. She was devastated.
       Two years ago, my mother-in-law died in Florida. One day she was coming home from the hospital and the next day we received a call that she died. The saddest part was, besides her husband, no other family was at her bedside. We were too far away to get there with such short notice. The one consolation we had was that my husband told her how much he loved her and appreciated all she had done for him when he spoke with her on the phone the evening before. Since she couldn’t talk, she hit the phone with her breathing mask to let him know she heard him.
   Her untimely death made us much more appreciative that we had taken the kids to see her a few years prior and she treated us to a day at Disney—while she stayed at home, barely 90 pounds in weight, suffering terribly, shadowed by the rolling oxygen tank that had become her salvation. At that time, my husband and I had vacillated on whether it would be appropriate for our kids to see her in such a weakened state and opted that it would be better to spend some time with her especially since she expressed a desire to see her grandkids. We ended the visit with the gift she gave us spending a day at Disney.
     Going to the Magical Kingdom as a parent is special in a totally new dimension as our children were wowed by all the characters, rides and performances—not to mention the amazing night-time fireworks display that illuminates the entire park in a new way! It helped ease the sadness of seeing their grandma in such a sickly state.
     I know death is a reality in life. It’s just so hard to deal with when its forceful hand comes knocking at your door at an ungodly hour. It’s awful when someone you love and see in one way transforms and deteriorates into an unrecognizable person.
     . In good health, I love the fun Florida represents; the childlike wonder and adventure for those of us who are able to enjoy it. For those who I’ve known and have died there, it has become a dark and frightening ride that I want to get off of, but I’m locked in.