Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ghost of the Future

I try to watch A Christmas Carol every year.  It intrigues me to see the possibilities of transformation that exist within Scrooge just as a result of getting to see the past (through present perpection), present (through extra pereception) and future (through present perception).  Now that Mother has been here over a week, I feel like Scrooge.  I look at her and see the future.  For me.

My prism is not Ghost of the Future, of course.  My prism is what is hereditary versus environmental, using my mantra, Serenity Prayer, as a regulator.  Ed once joked to me that he had read once upon a time a warning to prospective grooms that before you agree to marry a girl, look at her mother, because that is what she will become.  There are even current jokes in the catalogues:  "Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all!"  My sister and I have both had a few occasions where we discover some new little eccentricity or physical aberration of ours and say, "Oh, no!  That's just like Mother!"

I know what I want to inherit from my mom.  I want to inherit her sense that there is good in everyone at some level, her generosity, and her sense of humor.  I don't want to inherit tremors, arthritis, hypertension, macular degeneration, blepharospasm, dental problems, and having to use a walker.  The question I consistently have asked myself this week, using the Serenity Prayer, is how much of this is under my control?  Therein lies the necessity of dealing with the thing realistically and honestly, leaving fear at the door.

Everyone probably has ideas of what they want old age to be for them.  Our generation is certainly more mobile and fit and active than prior generations were in later life.  As Ed says, "My dad would not been able to saw and split wood at 64."  True.  And yet, I see myself in Mother and wonder what the next 30 or so years will do to me.  Will my fingers become misshapen enough that I can't transcribe  or play piano or harp anymore?  Will I too have to give up driving and reading and all the other things that make life convenient and fulfilling?  Will my hand start to tremble when I write my name or lift my fork to my mouth?  How long do I have to live fully and completely without having to park in a handicap spot or use a cane or walker, or, God forbid, wheelchair for mobility?  And more importantly, what changes can I make in my life today that would ameliorate or even eradicate these concerns?

We are all living longer lives, which, as Ed always says, is both a gift and a curse.  At a point, I guess, most of us just give up on the anti-aging creams and potions, dismiss physical appearance in a way, and just concentrate on good health, which is the main thing that will see us through our "golden years."  Mother told me ever since I was born, "If you have your health, you have everything."  I think she is seeing now the truth of her philosophy, and playing the cards life has dealt her in the best way she can (much of the time with humor).

Sometimes it is good to see the future.  Sometimes it is scary to see the future.  Of course, I'm not seeing the future at all; I'm just imaging the possibilities.  I've heard that 99% of what we worry about won't come true.  Yet, I have evidence every day now of many more things to worry about, and it's that 1% that troubles me.

Meanwhile, I have Mama here and I am truly enjoying her presence and laughing with her about old age.  We can both only strive to do the best we can.  I think attitude is the most precious tool we have to get us through.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Trip lessons

As I have mentioned earlier, Ed and I drove to Tennessee to pick up my 88-year-old mother and her dog, Jenny, and drove them and their belongings to Maine to live with us.  It was quite an adventure!  Our requirement of motels with handicap accessibility as well as willingness to let Jenny spend the night with us severely limited our options, but thanks to kindness of strangers and my sister's frantic Internet searches from Memphis, we had excellent accommodations for all three nights on the road.

This was my first experience, however, traveling with a handicapped person and seeing the world from their point of view.  Mom's handicap is due to the cumulative effects of her age, her macular degeneration and eyelid spasms inhibiting vision and making her extremely sensitive to light, her arthritis, the effects of her broken ankle and hip injuries and repairs from her car accident a few years ago, her dependence on a walker to stand and ambulate, and her recent apparent allergic reactions to two antibiotics.  In other words, it was slow going.

I've never had a broken bone or other injury which forced me to use crutches or to have inability to move around normally, and I rarely gave a thought to those who did.  Apparently, neither did a lot of businesses and states when they planned their facilities.  There was a gorgeous rest stop in Tennessee, for instance, full of trees and picnic tables and a nice cabin-like structure.  Oh yes, it had handicap access.  However, there was a long walk required from the handicap parking spaces to reach the building, all uphill, with cracks which tended to catch walker parts, and let me tell you, in near 100-degree weather under a blazing sun, it was unbearable.  I tried to maneuver Mom and her walker and at the same time, held an umbrella over her to protect her from the sun's intolerable heat, but then when we arrived at the door, which required manual opening, I had to leave her standing there, manually open the door, throw the umbrella down inside the building, keep the door open, and guide her through the door.   Fortunately, one of the state workers was kind enough to pick up the open umbrella, close it up, snap it shut, and hand it back to me.

The handicap stall, of course, was the one which required Mom to walk the farthest.  It was not big enough for 2 people, so I had to stand with the door open in order to help her.  Then, after having a little trouble getting her and the walker close enough to the soap dispenser and sink to wash up, we started the long walk back to the car in the sun.

There were variations of this along the trip.  At one McDonald's, the closest door meant Mom walking directly into a drive-thru lane.  The attached gift shop had a handicap ramp that was much too steep and seemed to be built as an afterthought, which required Mom to walk the length of the porch to enter the McDonald's.

On the other hand, there were wonderfully planned motel rooms with rails and shower seats - however, two rooms had beds too high for her to even sit on, much less climb in.  She spent one night in a recliner.

I'll bet if it were required for planners and architects and CEOs to maneuver around just one day in a wheelchair or walker, things would be different.  I tried to do that in our house here, before Mother's arrival.  I took a stool and pretended it was a walker, and "walked" around our house, sitting here, turning there, reaching here, passing there, trying to figure out what we could do to improve things.  Would this rug need to be moved?  Could she reach this shelf?  Would she be able to get out of that chair?  It was an eye-opening experience.  The trip certainly made me reconsider everything I've ever thought about building and access planning.  It's hard enough to be dependent on a walker or wheelchair and feel embarrassed about your shuffling gait or your halting movement; it just makes it worse to have facilities poorly prepared to handle your disability.

And yes, there were also restrictions traveling with a dog, of course.  Jenny, a border collie mix, was the perfect traveler, never whined, never barked, never made a mistake.  But you can't take a dog in a restaurant.  And you can't leave a dog in 98-degree heat parked in the sun.  And many motels will not accept dogs at all.  We had to continually make alternative plans.  Once, Mom and I went in a fast food place and sat in the air condition and ate, while Ed, after having taken Jenny for a short walk, stayed in the car with her and ate his hamburger after we returned to the car.  Another time, we all ate sitting in the car.  At one point, unable to find a motel to accept dogs, Ed was willing to spend the night in the car with her if it was the only way.

I just don't understand it.  More and more people are traveling with pets.  Sometimes it's because the pet is a family member and they don't want to leave it at home.  Other times it is pure necessity, such as, in our case, a move across several states in the summer.  I can understand why restaurants do not allow pets (except service dogs), but why can't there be an area of shade and maybe a water source for dogs somewhere outside the restaurant?  How much would it cost to build some roofs for parking in the shade for cars containing animals?  How about a few shade trees?  What are travelers supposed to do in the heat of summer when it's time to eat and no accommodation for their pet?

It was nice to see rest stops and motels with pet walk areas.  It was good to see handicap parking and ramps and handicap stalls in the bathrooms (even though some were not big enough).  But I can attest that what has been done by government and private industry is not enough to accommodate the disabled traveler and/or their pets.  Any reasonable person, if he/she put himself/herself in the place of someone using a wheelchair or walker or cane, or in the place of someone blind or deaf or missing a limb, or in the place of someone with crippling arthritis who can't turn knobs or switches, could identify areas of improvement.

Listen up, you people who are in charge of these things.  Don't assume that you yourselves will always have the capability to move at the speed to which you are accustomed.  Don't assume you will always be in good health, have good heart and lungs, and two capable legs and two capable arms and fingers and joints that still work.  Don't assume you will always be able to handle the noonday sun,  read a menu,  open a heavy door, or even be able to travel with a bladder that functions appropriately.  As for right now, the Baby Boomers are retiring, we are traveling, many with pets, and we are, yes, getting OLD.   Plan accordingly.  Next time, it may not be your parent or grandparent.  It may be you.

PS - It goes without saying, if you are not handicapped, please do not park in a handicap space...Thank you.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Voices from the Past

I have been immersed in the past.  The cassette tapes you see above are only a fraction of those from years past that I been recently trying to record into the computer for posterity.

I wonder sometimes how archeologists and historians stay focused in the present when so much of their life is dedicated to uncovering the past.  I'm having just as hard a time remembering that it's 2011, I'm 56 years old, with a 64-year-old husband, 2 kids, 3 grandchildren, working as a medical transcriptionist, living on a dirt road in the state of Maine.  It can't be!  Why, I'm really an adolescent talking about our vacation trip to, wait, I'm 15 months old being coached in words by my, sorry, I'm at a family Thanksgiving meal in 1973....  You see my predicament?

My dad, as well as being an ardent creator of home movies, was a fan of the reel-to-reel tapes, and later, cassettes.  He would record everything and anything.  He consistently recorded his beloved choir that he directed, and we have many, many recordings of church services at Easter and Christmas and everything in between.  In addition, after every family vacation trip, sister Joy and I would sit down with Dad in the den, recorder running, and reminisce about the trip from the minute we left Memphis to the minute we got home.  (Mom was usually cooking or washing dishes, but occasionally would stick her head in and contribute to the conversation).  Dad kept detailed records, noting the time we left home as 6:21 a.m., for instance.  Here's a sample conversation from a trip to Florida:

Dad:  "Friday morning we left Perry about 7:00 in the morning, had breakfast down at a truck stop on the way to Tallahassee, and we saw this grove of whatever it was, avocados (looked like green lemons), and...."
Joy:  "And Mama said 'avocados!'"
Dad:  "...It was the color of avocados."
Joy: "And we stopped and we picked up a couple and waved them in the air while we got our pictures taken.   Daddy was going to buy sone pecans, but the man said they weren't good..."
Dad: "...Yes, the man was honest and said if they were any good, he wouldn't be selling them!"
[at this point, extended period of hearty laughter from all present.]
Joy: "Well we tried to find the oranges, and Carol asked the man, 'What is that?' and he said, 'That's tung oil!  Better not get it in your mouth, it's poison!' so we threw it down and Mama said, 'Look!  Pecan trees and peach trees!'"
[again, laughter at the thought of Mama thinking tung oil nut was a pecan or peach]
Dad: "...OK, so Mama doesn't know much about growing things except flowers and grass, maybe..."

Ah, those were good times.  We always have the home movies from the trip, but there's nothing like hearing our young excited voices remembering how much fun we had, Dad with his details (he demanded we do this chronologically!) and, especially the sound of uncontrolled laughter at our antics.

The next tape is of me when I was a toddler.  Dad thought he'd record my vocabulary progress, and I apparently dutifully consented, in between playing with a doll and getting up and down from a chair.
Dad: "It's Thursday, January 19, 1956, Carol is almost 16 months old, and we'll see if she can go through a little of her repertoire for us.  [to me:] "Talk to us.  Can you say Mama? Let's hear you say Mama. "
[I sneeze twice, then say Mama.]
"That's good!  What else?  Can you say Daddy?"
I say Daddy.
"That good!  Can you say bird?"
How about...can you say apple?
We went through chair, ball, Paw-Paw, diaper, tea, water, bread.  Then:
"Is your name Carol Jeanette Tiffin and do you live at 435 Josephine?"
I replied, "Yes," and he said, "Yes! That's right!"
Dad always used his quiet, encouraging little voice. He didn't believe in baby talk.  He always talked to us as if we were older and as if we could understand everything he said.

Joy would later graciously transfer several of these reel-to-reel tapes onto cassette tapes, and now I am transferring them to digital recordings, just as we had taken the reel home movies and transferred them to VHS and then DVD.

Fast forward to 1973.  Reel-to-reel was archaic, and technology had changed to cassette tapes, so we would frequently just turn on the tape player while we were having a holiday meal.  The first thing you hear is Joy's voice, "Anybody else need anything?" - always the hostess.  Then various sounds of silverware on dishes, clanking, general noises of a meal, and then all of a sudden, you hear a xylophone.  Well, it sounds like a xylophone, but I'll let you in on a secret - It's Paw-Paw, my grandfather, hitting glasses with a spoon to play a tune.  He loved trying out his talent on glasses which were partially filled with liquid to varying levels.  Then my mom says to me, "I want you to play something for Paw-Paw.  He hasn't heard you play in so long, it's pitiful."  Paw-Paw says, "Sure!" so I know right after the meal I would head to the piano to perform for my Paw-Paw, who had mastered piano playing by ear and who was always so proud of Joy and me as we followed in his musical footsteps.

These are just a sample of what I am reliving this week.  It's a very cathartic experience, and a deeply satisfying one.  I sigh a lot.  I had such a wonderful childhood.  In a way, it disturbs Ed, though.  He thinks I may be trying to escape into the past because I prefer that life to my present one with him.  Of course, that's not the case, as I love my present life, but it made me think.  What is it about the past that I find so comforting?  When we're kids, those days are called "carefree" because they were - CARE-FREE.  We didn't worry about bills or income or taxes, we didn't worry about food prices or gas prices or if we had the capability of taking care of the older ones in the family.  We didn't worry about our kids or grandkids or how we could afford a new washing machine or any of that stuff.  We were young, naive, innocent, in a home filled with love where other people did all the worrying and fretting.  It was not a life preferable to my present one - but it was in its own way a time and place that deserves honor and remembering.

We once had a 104-year-old parishioner who couldn't remember what she had for breakfast that day but could recite with clarity and accuracy songs she learned when she was 5.  Sometimes it seems that the older we get, the more we tend to live in the past.  Well, if our lives were a pie chart, the past would represent most of it at this point, wouldn't it?  I listen and try to remember that little toddler learning her words, the adolescent on vacation, the 19-year-old at Thanksgiving (in less than a year I would be married).  I close my eyes and try to remember.

As we are getting ready next week to drive to Memphis and bring Mother and her dog up here to Maine to live with us, I am also reminded that these recordings are poignant not only because of who I was back then, but who everyone else was.  Dad died in 1980, Paw-Paw died in 1983, and Mother, who used to cook and clean, bustling around the kitchen to make sure everyone ate well, is now dependent on a walker and someone else cooks for her and makes sure she eats well.  Life is change, and change eventually comes full circle.

But still I remember.