Monday, December 20, 2010

National Boundaries

They both demand attention at the same time.  My son needs his Pikmin repaired forthwith and Nonna required her spectacles superglued, posthaste.  She has no qualms jumping the queue.

"You ave to wait your turn," she says shooing him aside,  "I need mummy more."

His mouth drops open, aghast, "But...you said...mummy."

"So wot?  Wot it got to do wiv you den?"

I interject, dispute resolution and interpreter to the fore--put the fire out before it starts, "It's alright dear.  Nonna just forgot for a moment.  Maddy and mummy sound pretty much alike," I whisper as the hearing aides are still in the mail.

But he's not mollified for a moment,  "no ...  she is saying the English but Nonna is Italian."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Melting moments



If you continuously search the same six inches of your very large suitcase at intermittent intervals, such behavior can become seriously distressing very quickly.   

Emotions run on high octane and it can be difficult to break the cycle.  Intervention requires sensitivity, a quality which seems to dissipate under stress.  In addition, if English is your second language there is a tendency to revert to the mother tongue and small words become irretrievable.  It’s a process of adjustment, a bit like laundry, spray the stains,  soak and steep overnight in bleach for a brighter future.   
Most of the time we cope well and remain on track, but every once in a while something hits home.  The words may be off but the sentiment is sound.   

It is indescribably sad.

“You know Maddy?”
“Hmm?”
“I used to be so proud of my head.”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pearls in unexpected places

It’s the pursuit of the day, looking for keys that aren’t there and are not needed.

It begins as a small speck of dust, a mild irritant that scratches away through the minutes that stretch into hours. It’s a familiar tale, which flickers between OCD, perseverance and Alzheimer’s. It does not respond to the usual remedies. Distraction is only a temporary lull in proceedings before she picks up where she left off, back on the hunt for the ever elusive keys.

We have many other keys available, which might work as a fob, but it’s a trick that’s unlikely to work, more likely to ignite anger, because she’s nobody’s fool. The keys belong to her home in England where she’s lived most of her adult life, the same keys to the same house, keys that are definitely stored in secure long term memory, not whispering in and out of the short term.

There is no respite or relief in sight as distress levels rise, and it’s not just me. I see her pause in the middle of her room deep in thought, furrowed brow and bitten nails. Her frustration is palpable. Power ‘off’ on the television – she means business. I try not to pry to closely, but it all jumps out at me: cat litter, pop-corn, shredded tissues, discarded clothes. It’s just like teenagers, I have to allow some slack, a trade off between independence and privacy, but I’m still tinkering with the balance.

It turns the day of rest into a race but the children chortle as they play, loudly. I complete another pointless circuit of ‘helping to find,’ before I step outside for a breather as I’m out of platitudes and placaters.

As I flop into a garden chair the air is filled with the noise of leaf blowers, the rhythmical rapping of the green woodpecker, the cawing of pet parrots from up the road and the pneumatic stapler of the house builder three doors down, when I hear the door behind me and the shuffled steps as Nonna arrives by my shoulder to hover. I try to relax my neck and arrange my face before she says it, because I know she surely will.

“So Maddy… you’re dah lucky one aren’t you!”
I exhale and turn because I really can do think when my head is on straight, “indeed I am.”
“Doh!” she puffs with annoyance as she cuffs my arm, “you’re no fun today.”
And there she is, right back where she should be, faculties in place, the right place.
“How do you mean?”
“You know I just do it to annoy you, don’t you?”
“Indeed… I certainly do.”

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Who's Next?

People don’t talk about Alzheimer’s as a spectrum disorder.

I think we should.

Like a lot of disorders, there are good days and not so good days, we’re in the middle of one of the latter. Fortunately the children are at school and all other adults are otherwise occupied away from home, so it’s just me and Nonna.

She’s having a tough time so I scale down my ‘to do’ list to one single item – produce supper for 8 people. It proves to be a tall order as Nonna is restless, a condition exacerbated by several liters of espresso. It can be difficult to take charge in such situations but I decided to be ruthless at ten in the morning – when the last coffee bean was crushed and consumed, I lied boldly – ‘we’ve run out – no more until I’ve been to the shops.’ After that I’m in the dog-house, although I’m really in the kitchen.

I chop in the kitchen, onions, four pounds, in preparation for something or other, as I’ve not had a moment to formulate anything vaguely resembling a recipe.

We’re run through the usual list of repeats several times – the inventory of household members, the date, the whereabouts of pets, their names and ages, what I am doing currently, why I am doing it and how I am doing it. We’ve searched for all the usual suspects, glasses, sunglasses, reading glasses, handkerchief, book, remote control, pills – many and various, as well as a whole miscellany of other items too numerous to list. As I dump onion skins in the compost bin on the window sill, I feel a presence close by – you know who. I speed up and brace myself because if my productivity gives out today we’ll all starve. I chop faster as my shoulders rise to my ear lobes. Damn her rheumy eyes – go away and come back in five minutes – but bless her cotton socks. I don’t know how to play this game, a newbie, drowning, but I have to stay afloat, play it by ear, for both of us.

I wait for the question and wonder which one it will be? I can more or less guarantee it will be ‘wot about dis den?’ without any other clues. I try to swallow my ire and breathe deeply to find a tiny kernel of energy reserves, otherwise known as patience, but the silence endures.

I’m ready.

I turn to see her behind me and suddenly I see her – she’s at a distance of about six feet, a polite distance. I recognize that woman. It’s the woman on her best behavior, I’ve seen her many times before, mostly when we have guests or visitors. It’s her, ‘I’m a dear, sweet, innocent, old lady,’ act, the one she uses for strangers. I feel my face tighten and eyes prick. We all do it sometimes, pretend to be something we’re not – she’s had more practice than most, a magnificent master class graduate. She hovers with uncertainty, wearing a courteous half smile, standing demurely with one hand holding the other. It’s an affectation I’m all too familiar with. I try to think of something to say to the woman, something in code that won’t startle her. I smile at her cautiously and she flutters back, “ello.” I put down the knife gently on the board, as we have already said “good morning” approximately 50 times. I try and think of something neutral, “would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Ooo thank you. Dat would be nice.” She doesn’t advance or retreat, holds her ground, rallying, as she asks, “do you like coffee?”
“I do. I’ll make one for us both shall I?”
“Ooo lovely.”
Her diction is sharp as she fakes an English accent, copy cat to blend in.
As I move ten feet to the right she takes a tentative step forward to ask, “you like it ‘ere?”
“Oh yes. I do. Very much. Always sunny in California,” I add with a wave out the window. Her eyes follow as she mutters under her breath, ‘California.’
The espresso machine is noisy but I watch her floundering as I drown and I wrack my brain to ease the pain and hunt for the trip switch to get her back on track. Her finger tips dance on the edge of the kitchen counter, “so…I like it ‘ere,…I tink I ‘ave been ‘ere before?” she asks nervously and I see her eyes flick over my face to check, coz she’s sharp and if I give her a minute she’ll click into place.
“Yes, it’s a home from home really. After all, you’ve been coming here for twelve years,” I bellow. I see a little shudder rattle through her, nothing to do with the sound level as her eyes widen in disbelief. I need to give her a toe-hold, something not too obvious. While I back pedal, thinking, she’s pro-active, “it’s a lovely ‘ouse dis.”
“Yes, it is.”
“And big!”
“Very big, just right for all eight of us.”
If her eyes get any bigger they might just pop out. I skip the toe-hold and opt for the leg-up, “Mike will be home soon,” I lie.
“Mike…”
“Michael, your son, my husband.”
“So…you’re happily…married now…for ‘ow long?”
“Fifteen years.”
“As long as dat…”
“Long enough to have three children, your grandchildren.”
“Children…”
I point to the photo of her favorite grand-daughter, the one she hates because it makes her look older, a pre-teen instead of sweet innocent. The fa├žade falls away as her face formulates a frown. Bingo!
“Ooo I ‘ate’ dat one, it’s an ‘orrible picture.”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A little of what you fancy does you good

With the children at school and Nonna on nap, I take a calculated risk. It’s probably the ideal, if not only time, to make dash to the post office. With a bit of luck I’ll get there and back, before she has the chance to wander very far, if at all.

I leg it.

Round trip in 20 minutes, I return to find Nonna sitting on the bottom stair by the front door.

“You ave?” she asks.
I look around, mining for clues or cats or kittens – give up. There is a worrisome smell of burning plastic.
“Have what?” I bellow as her hands hold her hearing aid.
“A man?”
“Yes. I do. Your son. Mike.”
“Not im.”
“Then who?”
“Another man?”
“I don’t have another man, just the one.”
“Yes you do.”
“Well there’s the boys.”
“The boys?”
“Your grandsons. Owen and Leo. They’re at school. Until three.”
I point at the clock, praying for relief.
“Not dem. Di udder one.”
“Which other one? Mr. B? My son in law?”
“Who?”
“Mr. B. He married Tamsin in the summer.”
“Who?”
“Tamsin. My daughter, your step grand-daughter.”
“Never eard of im.”

I start to edge backwards, slowly, towards the smell as she follows, still talking,

“Dat’s right, he’s in dah kitchen.”
“Who’s in the kitchen?”
“Dah udder man.”

I turn at the entry way to be greeted by a large unfamiliar male, “Hi I’m Paul, I’ve come to measure for the shelves,” he beams. I turn to glare at Nonna, who shrugs ineffectually, “wot I tell you!” I decide to deal with her later, or possibly delegate to her son. She returns to her room, shuffling and making the very annoying cat calling sound.

I surrender to the Shelf Guy, adjust my brain and make ready for some earth shattering decisions that will transform my minute galley kitchen into an efficient working space.

Paul steps towards the cupboard the size of a walk-in closet, large enough for at least two, adult bodies, because in America everything is bigger, much bigger. Behind him, the washer washes but the drier has stopped. He opens the cupboard door to see piles of miscellaneous stuff, because there are no shelves. It is the most useless cupboard in the whole house.


Paul notes down measurements and leafs through glossy, magazine choices. I make my vision blur so I have a pleasant, fuzzy, future without the fear of price.

I take a peek at the drier – just my luck - the darned thing has fused, seized and ceased, containing one load of plasticized laundry – I can hear the washing machine laughing at me, and his pal, the spare/second/emergency washing machine, bought by accident, out in the garage, tittering.


Nonna appears as Paul and I turn our attention back to the matter in hand,

"So...wot you do den?"
"Just measuring," I bellow.
"Oh you don't need to measure, I'm sure you'll fit."
"How do you mean?"
"It's just dah right size."
"The right size for what?"
"For hiding."
"Hiding what?"
"You and your fancy man," she beams.

I look over to Paul to see if this is a common American term, even though I'm fairly sure it's not. Nonna looks at him, waiting for a reaction as his skin turns a deep crimson, "wot dah matter wiv im den?" she giggles to me, "no sense of humor!"

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Crisis management - help!

The Crisis Support Team arrive because it is Thursday, but I had forgotten.

I show another two people into my home – they’re an investment in the future, for the boys – if and when, we ever experience a crisis, Ben and William will be on hand, or rather, at the end of a designated telephone line, ready to come and help me, wherever I am, with whatever is going wrong.

That’s the theory.

However, before the theory can be put into practice, they have to form a relationship with the boys, so when the crisis hits, everybody knows everybody else; not just a couple of strangers butting in.

Building relationships takes time. One hour, once a week, on a Thursday. Building a relationship with people, some people, some autistic people, can take a lot longer.

Reality means I now do what I have to do, while being observed by Ben and William. I suffer performance anxiety. It’s difficult enough doing what I have to do, but in the heat of the spotlight, it’s even worse. What’s worse, is how it highlights my ineptitude.

I have a short-hand version for Nonna because I do not want to explain their purpose in front of the boys at 50 decibels – 'Ben and William are from Social Services,' I say, because it’s the nearest translation I can manage.

Nonna is always perplexed by their appearance, every week, several times each visit, whilst they’re physically present, as well as volubly critical – “but dey don’t do anyting. Why dey are ere den?”

It gets worse later, after Ben and William have left, at dinner, discussion time, around the table.

Nobody listens to anybody else, as usual. It’s a cacophony of independent conversations and monologues, now that the boys can talk, because speech therapy was a success, up to a point. Until Nonna voices the subject she always voices on a Thursday night, to her son, who’s tired at the end of the working day:

“Dey came today.”
“Who came today?”
“Wot dey call again, Maddy?”
“Social Services,” I mutter, because I can see it coming but can’t avert the derailment without appearing like a rude bully of elders - a bad role model to the children. I need to think of something!

“Dat’s right. Social Services came to see dah children. But dey didn’t do anyting.”
“Ah.”
“So wot appen next den?”
“Nothing.”
“Are dey going to take dah children away?”

That’s the bit they always hear as they stampede from the room, with shrieks of terror to rival Banshees.

Next week I'll interrupt, change the subject, or start singing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fiendishly cunning




I decide that I can cope no longer – the woman is driving me completely barmy – me and my shadow, Nonna. There is nothing else for it but to find something constructive for her to do with her time – but what? I’m generally against manual labor for elders and in any case the potato peeling debacle was less than successful – potatoes the size of peas – novel but ultimately mush rather than mash.

It is as I’m listening to the BBC radio 4 on my ipod as I fold laundry that I hit upon a cunning plan. I hear about Margaret Drabble and her fondness of jigsaw puzzles, just like my own mum. I’ve always been dead against jigsaw puzzles, on principal, could there be anything more wasteful in the time department. Fortunately I’m a woman without principals or convictions - easily swayed by any half persuasive argument – a turn coat. After listening a little further I believe all the handicrafts that one might do of an evening, the knitting, the sewing, the embroidery and so forth, all result in a physical item being created. All too often the crafter gives their work away – whether kindly or otherwise – so it’s still just as much of a waste of time. Why waste physical resources when you can just waste time instead? I’m sure Mother Nature would prefer the latter and jigsaws can be done over and over again by different people.

I dash upstairs and dig around the cupboards until I find it – an Escher jigsaw puzzle printed upon card rather than wood, cellophane still in tact so I know that every piece, all 1000 of them, will be there – it is a stunning study in light grey, mid grey and slightly darker grey – fiendish. I’m pretty confident that Nonna will be unable to resist. Margaret Drabble explained the psychologically - we need to complete things, to make order out of chaos – but I have my doubts.

My doubts stem from a little known fact, but I’m not sure how good you are at keeping secrets? Nonna is older now, so she chooses not to tidy nor clean, which suits her just fine. However, even when Nonna was younger than she is now, she also choose not to tidy nor clean, because it suited her. Now me, I come from a formidable lineage of compulsive cleaners and tidiers, my mother did it, as did hers, and hers; it’s genetic, something I can’t fight. That said, Nonna’s attitude – ‘it’s too boring and there are lots of other things that I’d rather be doing with my time and since we’re on the subject who decided that it was my job anyway, do I have to do all that in addition to the mothering thing?’ It’s a compelling argument.

So that’s why I’m a little doubtful. If you don’t have the neat and tidy gene do you also skip the ‘must complete compulsion?’ Are the two related? They seem as if they might be.

I find the biggest board available in the garage, remove cobwebs, dry and place in the middle of the dining room table while the children are at school. I lie in wait to capture my prey. Nonna appears on cue to hover at my shoulder as I pretend to be deeply absorbed with puzzle pieces.
“Wot you got dere den?”
“It’s a jigsaw puzzle.”
“I can see dat. Wot you do?”
“I’m matching the pieces.”
“I can see dat. You are always too busy to be sitting down in dah middle of the day.”
“Indeed I am, I’ll just go and rinse the rice.” I skip into the kitchen secure in the knowledge that before too long Nonna will be entrapped. “Dis is an orrible ting you ave ere!” she calls as she edges herself into a more comfortable puzzle matching position.
“Don’t finish it all at once!” I reply as I whiz to the compost heap, alone. I continue to complete all my many boring household chores for some considerable period of time without any physical interruptions. Communication regarding puzzle progress is easy as I frolic and flit about whilst Nonna remains static, glued to her dining room chair.
“I tink maybe some pieces are missing?”
“No, no, no, rest assured every single piece is there, definitely.”
“You didn’t take one den?”
“No, of course not. Why would I take one piece?”
“To hide it of course.”
“Hide it? Why would I want to hide one piece?”
“The last piece.”
“No. That would be too cruel.”
“Oh good. I just hope I can remember den.”
“Remember what?”
“Where I hid it.”
“!”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

And Always Keep Ahold of Nurse, For Fear of Finding Something Worse

It’s cookie and pastry day before the holidays - an attempt to get ahead of the permanent food shortage. Not only must we produce enough items for our own consumption but also sufficient for neighborly gifts. In addition, each child must have a turn in the kitchen, one on one with mum.

Although we’ve been in the States 15 years, I still have a hard time rolling ‘a rebel without a cause’ in dough – it’s a tall order - but Jimmy Dean is the number one brand of sausagemeat out here, and sausage rolls are a must on the menu. Nonna observes our doings from the safety of the dining room table as she paws over a library book.
“Ooo look at dat,” she says turning the page of ‘Snakes and Reptiles, the scariest cold-blooded creatures on earth.’ “I’ve seen that somewhere today.”
“Really!”
“Yes, now where was it?”
“It must have been something else. It can’t have been a Fer-de-Lance, not here, not in California.”
“No, no, I’m sure I saw it.”
“Maybe you remember seeing it in the book, perhaps earlier today?”
“No, no, no. It’s the first time I see dis book ere.”

My youngest son recently decided that he has Ophidiophobia, although whether he has a real fear of snakes or merely warms to all those syllables is still unclear – an affectation or an affection for all things Indiana Jones? Who knows?
I step over for a closer look, hands air born and flour covered, “no, look at the map, in the corner, they’re in Central America and Brazil…..Mexico……they don’t live this far north, none in California.” I make sure the last phrase goes over my shoulder, back to the kitchen so my youngest son gets the message, the fact, indisputable, from a text book. He, the chef, is busy squeezing dough through his fists – it squirts through the gaps in his fingers just like a fidget ball but less calming. I nip back to salvage warm pastry, oily from over handling, on the turn, grey and lifeless, a sticky mass.
“Now where did I see dat ting?” she continues.
“Can’t have seen a snake as it was too cold to go out today – remember?”
“No, I tink I saw it somewhere around ere…….in dah house.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Hmm ere somewhere,” she repeats as her hand circles the air, close by and about to materialize, charmed out of the ether. I am ready for this conversation to cease, but only the cookery is terminal as her grandson keeps a beady eye upon her, just in case. She stands gingerly, fingertips braced against the table for balance as they begin to tap, semaphore over the surface, searching like heat seeking missiles until the inevitable collision.




“See!” she beams. “Ha ha!” she chortles as she lifts the volume in my direction, the evidence in black and white, so I am red all over, “it’s yours isn’t it? Dis is what you are reading!” She doesn’t say ‘stupid girl!’ out loud; she doesn’t need to.