Alzheimer’s Bull

Is it OK to ask? Is it Alzheimer’s?

How’s she doing?, you ask.

The answer depends on how you’re asking the question?

Are you asking about how her days are going?
Mostly OK. Although the answer sometimes sounds like a question: Mostly OK?

Maybe you want to know how she’s feeling?
She mostly feels good. You can hear the white-noise rumble of worry. But she’s happy. Now and then (not every day yet) she has a clap of confusion, fear even. But she mostly feels fine.

Or maybe you aren’t asking how she’s feeling. You mean: How’s her body holding up?
Great! She’s slowing down a bit but she can still run circles around me.

You know that, though, don’t you? She’s always been fit as a fiddle. You aren’t asking about that at all, are you? Maybe you feel a little confusion about what (and how) you’re asking, teetering along the edge of morbidly curious.

You ask, How’s she doing?, but you’re curious about where she is on the Alzheimer’s spectrum.

Is she still driving?
Does she still bake ginger snaps?
Will she know who I am?

You’re confused about what and how to ask, but yes, yes, and yes. Like I said, she’s mostly ok.

She misplaces more things than she used to. Sometimes she repeats her questions. The forgetfulness surfaces most when she’s anxious. Before a gathering at home or an event she needs to attend. Any disruption to her routine, really.

She’s pacing and repeating questions today because I took dad to the ER at 3 a.m. this morning. She’ll probably misplace something before I get home.

Placebo

And how are YOU doing? you might add.
I’m mostly OK.

But I’m not sure how you’re asking that question either.

Perhaps it’s: How are you feeling?
Helpless, to be honest.

Or maybe you mean: How are you helping?
Honestly, I don’t know how to help. I just show up for a while each month.

I’m a placebo. I don’t really do anything. I’m a beneficial effect even though I can’t attribute those benefits to anything I do. I help because mom believes I help. Like a patient who feels the effect of the placebo.

Alzheimer’s bull

Her Alzheimer’s doctor says we’re lucky. Unlike many of his patients, mom is not in denial. She’s facing this with her headlights on, staring deep into the bull’s eyes, fingers clenched around his horns. Aware. She’s a slight thing; the bull is not. She knows her chances, but she’ll make him work for every lucid drop he tramples.

We’re lucky because mom is engaged in her treatment. Mostly lucky. Sometimes the awareness makes her anxious. Anxious because she’s sure she’s about to forget something if she didn’t already forget something.

How’s she doing?
Sometimes, she’s anxious.

Anxiety is a trigger for misplaced purses, repeated questions, and stunted errands (What was I looking for?).

Anxious twirl

The cycle is vicious.

I’m holding Alzheimer’s  by the horns. I don’t want to forget anything. Did I forget something? I feel anxious. I can’t find my purse. Did I forget something? Sometimes I forget but I’m gripping Alzheimer’s by the horns. I don’t want to forget. Did I forget something? . . .

Anxiety is like the picador’s lance in the bull’s back. These picas may provide clues about which side the bull is favoring, but they don’t make the bull weaker. Just more anxious.

A good night’s sleep helps. A steady diet of brain puzzles and predictable tasks deflates the bubble of anxiety. Sometimes I can help. Sometimes more than just by placebo.

Party

Mom turned 80 this month. If you turn 80, you deserve a big party. It’s significant.

Mom deserved a party. But she also didn’t. Expecting a big party would spiral, the bull making hooved donuts, mom holding his horns with all her slight might, spinning through the air dizzily, helpless.

How are you doing? you might ask her.
Who are you? she might reply.

She didn’t deserve the anxiety of expecting a party. So we pretended there wouldn’t be one, until thirty minutes before the open-house (not technically a party) started.

Who’s coming? she asked.
Everyone. I said.

And they did. And the bull didn’t have time to swing her through the air and drop her dizzy in the middle of fifty plus family and friends. She only had time for wonder.

How did you do that?

An Alzheimer’s silver lining? She’s never been an easy person to surprise, but that day we did. The bull was napping as she navigated gracefully through the waves of family and friends who came to greet her on her significant day.

You should have been there.

Changes

Being here on a regular basis, the changes aren’t as shocking.

The change is not sudden, like the one you might feel if you’ve been away for six months or more. And it is sudden. The change isn’t gradual. Yet it is. It’s bull.

The bull takes long naps in the pasture. But events are inevitable and can’t always be a surprise. Events wake the bull. Sometimes suddenly, with a snort. Or it can be gradual, lazy stretches, then a slow spin. Sometimes only slow, but if he feels the pica, he’ll jerk anxiously into a faster spin. I dread the day when there is no spin and he just charges full force. Even a good night’s sleep and a full bottle of placebo won’t help then, but for now, we’re still napping and going for an occasional spin. The changes are sudden and gradual, but not as big as the bull yet.

Corn

Last week we harvested and put up corn. Putting up creamed corn involves several steps as well as some specific timing and methodology. That’s enough to make the bull pound his front-left hoof hard into the dirt, especially since mom’s picky about her creamed corn. This time, we also had the utility-room sink situation.

We need lots of ice.
I already bought the ice. It’s in the freezer.
Where are we going to put it all? I need my sink. You should have fixed the sink.

The bull is beginning to spin her.

I’ll get some big tubs or coolers.
They have to be big. You need to get ice.
The ice is in the freezer.
This is going to be hard. How are we going to do this without the sink?

Once she begins to brush the silk from the ears, the bull calms down. There’s an occasional snort (Those tubs won’t be big enough. What we needed was the sink.), but mostly the bull naps through the blanching, creaming, and bagging, waking occasionally to repeat three or four questions. It’s the planning that sends the bull into a twirl. Busy hands . . . something (I forget) mind. Busy hands are good.

Cutters

At the end of the first corn operation, we cleaned up.

Go on. I got this.

The bull seemed to have been lulled into a deep slumber by the predictable rhythms of blanching, cutting, creaming, and bagging. We would all sleep well that night and start the next day fresh.

It started much the same.

We need lots of ice.
I already bought the ice. It’s in the freezer.
This is going to be hard. How are we going to do this without the sink?

Then the calming rhythm settled over us as we picked, shucked, and de-silked. Inside, we set the blanching pots to boil.

Where are the cutters?
I don’t know. Where did you put them yesterday?
I don’t know.

Twirling bull

That bull wasn’t as deep in slumber as I had thought. We can’t find the cutters. It’s hard, after all, to keep things from flying out of control and out of sight when you’re gripping the horns for dear life. Dad dashed to the Tractor Supply to buy their last corn cutter. We would need at least one to replace the one we had borrowed.

While we searched high and low (literally), mom had turned my blanching pots off.

They’re not boiling yet, she pointed out.
No, you turned them off.
I can’t do anything right today.

My heart splattered on the floor. How do I step this one back?

The pots boiled soon enough. I blanched, and she cut. She decided to use her favorite knife instead of the new cutter.

You didn’t find the other ones yet?, you ask.
Nope. I even looked through the garbage and in the freezer.

Caretakers

Dad only picked half as many ears on that second day, probably a good thing. We were all tired, and dad wasn’t feeling right. That’s the other question you might ask.

How’s he doing?
Honestly, a little less than OK. This is hard on him.

We neglect the well-being of the caretakers. My grandfather (mom’s dad) took care of my grandmother as the bull twirled her in vicious circles. I saw the weariness climb like choking vines up his limbs, around his trunk, as he cared for my grandmother.

How’s she doing? everyone would ask.

I don’t think very many asked him, How are YOU doing?

Go on, I got this, mom said at the end of the second corn operation.

My heart was still on the floor. Why did I stick that extra pica in the bull’s back?

I’m going to finish some work, mom. Then I’ll shower and take you to Dirt Cheap.

Something to throw off the bull and let dad rest a bit.

Salvage stores and recoveryAlzheimer's

Mom loves salvage stores and she brightened when I suggested it.

I hate to shop, but a salvage store isn’t like shopping. It’s more like an adventure, and it’s perfect for anyone who’s been spun for two days by an anxious bull. You don’t have to remember the shopping list. You don’t need a shopping list at all because you can’t know what you’ll find there.

The inside is much like any scrambled mind.

  • Diapers stacked next to bags of pinto beans, next to bottles of Armor All. On purpose.
  • Plastic spatulas, hair clips, rat traps, and shoe laces intentionally hung on the same rack.
  • Furniture in-between racks of dresses and purses.

It’s not necessary to remember where things are because they’re not where you would remember.

We laughed and oooh, look!ed for a couple of hours, hours well spent away from corn cutters, far away from my computer. The bull was sound asleep.

We came home with beeswax foot products, chocolates, paintbrushes, boots, and more. We also brought dinner to dad.

How’s he doing?
He’s mostly OK, but he needs some attention.

What can I do?

They’re watching dad today because the electrical system in his ticker is off a bit. Atrial or one of those flutters. Mom has been pacing since 3am. After spending time with dad at the hospital, I bring her lunch.

You’re a blessing, she says.
No I’m not, I think. I’m a placebo.

I’ll stay here until they release dad tomorrow. He’s doing OK but it’s better to be here.

I’ll linger until he’s home with mom. I don’t want her to spend the night alone.

I’ll sit here, doing nothing really, until the bull dozes off again.

How are you doing?, you ask, maybe a little unsure, a little confused about what and how to ask. 

It’s OK. You can ask.

I’m OK. I’m just trying to be here for mom. For dad too. Trying to pay attention. 

I’m just a placebo, but even placebos can calm an anxious bull.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2018

Being Exes Without Exing Family Bonds

When people find out that my ex and I are still friends and we do things together as a family (that we’re exes without exing family relationships), I get a lot of:

Wow! That’s wonderful. I really admire you. How do you do that?

I typically shrug (it’s an honest shrug) and respond:

Why would we not do this?

I sometimes go on to explain how we found ourselves here. It goes something like this.

Rounding the Bend Begins with Forgiveness

I was sitting across the teak patio table from my mom when she started the rant again. A list of all the anger and disappointment points, all of the things for which she faulted (eternally it seemed) my now ex-husband.

I have long practiced tolerance for the difference in points of view (primarily political and religious) between my parents and myself. I respect their choices and typically skirt any embroiled discussion because that’s not what matters about my relationship to them, and, importantly, because their choices are authentic and deeply rooted in a belief system I have no intention of undoing.

This was different. Beyond a difference in belief and perspective, a future was at stake. The future of family relations.

Mom? Why are you still so angry? I’m not.

That was the first line of a new chapter in our family.

My mom and I had a long conversation that afternoon about anger, responsibility (I, after all, was not exempt from the problems in the marriage that ended), and forgiveness.

Father’s Days and Holidays

A few months later was Father’s Day weekend. Before the divorce, we had celebrated together at my parents’ place with the two fathers: mine and my children’s. For the two years since the divorce, our children had had to split special occasions and holidays between me and their dad. Mom asked about our plans for the upcoming Father’s Day.exes without exing

I’ll be here with you and dad but the kids will spend it with their Baba. 

Silence.

Later that week, my oldest asked about the plans too.

You and your brother and sister will spend the weekend with Baba. I’m going to the farm to spend the weekend with my dad. 

No silence.

Why can’t we all spend the day together?!

Indeed, I thought. Why not?

I made the phone call and suggestion to my mom. The affirmative answer came with restrictions, but it was a step. A step towards healing anger and mending relations.

I think we were all a little nervous, but we had a great, if sometimes awkward, reunited Father’s Day.

The next family holiday was Thanksgiving. This time my eldest was the first to bring up the plans. She asked: Please, let’s spend the day together. We did. Since then, our family, the broken nuclear family and the rebonded extended family, has come together for holidays, special events, and vacations.

High Roads and Easy Roads

I’ve been trying to write this post for over a year now. Not because it’s hard to write. The story of it spills out. The difficulty is that it might sound too proud or that others whose post divorce relationships were more challenging might feel judged. I don’t feel proud. I’m simply happy and blessed. The path we took as a family was the natural path for us. And I certainly don’t judge. Just as every marriage and family is unique, every divorce comes with its own hurdles and heartache.

I should emphasize too that I didn’t take the high road. Those I admire you’s often suggest that I did. Maybe we’re on the high road, but this was the easier road, the right relationship road. The beginnings of it were a little narrow and scary, but this road has proffered our family better holidays and special occasions, richer relationships, and a deeper understanding of where love and forgiveness lead.

Every time we have a family gathering, we hold hands in a circle before the meal and take turns saying what we’re grateful for. My mom’s gratitude, without exception, has always been or at least included:

I’m grateful for this family and for Ziad and Pennie, for how they keep this family together. 

Me too, mom. I’m especially grateful this was the easy road.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

The sounds of fabric

The sounds of fabric

I hang somewhere between my parents and my children,
Snapping in the winds, palms burning as I cling to a weathered line.

 

The generation before me unravels just a bit with each gust.
The generation after me whooshes,
Crisp taffeta, precariously tacked.

I never took time for the backstitch.
How was I to stitch the seams of their character?
I hang by a thread.

Yet off they spring, releasing the line.
The rustling fibers of their beauty stroke my soul,
Wash me with innominate emotion as they bravely billow up and away.

I still hang somewhere between.
Clinging. Damp. Sagging sadly before those who formed me.
I question my strength to ease their decline.
Will the determination of my whip and slip stitches be enough?

I loosen my grip, and allow the draughts to slide me up and down the line.
Rippling through memories and hopes.
Flapping flatly past regrets and dreads.

A gust and I snap back.
The upside down arms of cotton distend
upwards to embrace the energy of those rising,
forward to hold the strength of those unraveling.

I swell somewhere between.
Grace.
Family.
Gratitude.
The ethereal threads that bind us.
The lightness of love that lifts us.

9 February 2017

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

Rituals Without Rules

In 2005, we accidentally started a tradition: we set our Christmas tree on fire.2016-tree-burn-2

My mom and son had built a Handy Man fire pit. We were shy of firewood, we did, however, have a dry tree.

I honestly don’t recall if we stuffed the tree that first year, or if we started it the next, but at some point, we included invitations and dismissals in our accidental tradition. On slips of paper, we wrote down things we wanted to invite into our lives, and things we wanted to remove.

We stuffed the tree with the invites and get-outs, then watched our tree give us its most spectacular gift: the fire dance.

2016-tree-burn-1After the first burn, we were addicted. This is the eleventh year and the tenth time (we missed one year) that we delighted in the ritual of stuffing the tree with our invitations (hellos, welcomings) and dismissals  (goodbyes, good riddances) before placing it in the pit for its final fiery moments.

Our tree burning tradition satisfies my personal affection for fire, my love for candlelight, fireplaces, and campfires.

Tree burning also plays on ancient emotions within us, inspired by rituals and events of past and present. Cleansing and killing, devil and god. Fire warms a home and cooks a meal. Fire ravages forests and buildings. Fire is the send-off ceremony of the dead. Fire is the light that leads the way. Fire inspires and terrifies in equal measure.

For my family, fire delights. Our fire-pit tree burn has become an annual inter-generational party and a post-holiday kick-off for a new year. After a couple of years, we began collecting one or two additional trees for the ritual. That’s when the questions about rules escalated.

  • Is this the welcoming tree or the dismissal tree?
  • Do I have to fold the paper?
  • Do I put the invitation on one side and the dismissal on the other?
  • Does it matter where I put it in the tree?
  • Can I write more than one?

Every year I explain: there are no rules. This idea makes some people suspicious. What kind of ritual is this, after all, if there are no rules?

I understand why they ask. They’re afraid they’re going to mess up the magic. 

Here’s the life lesson, regardless of your religion, creed, or culture:2016-tree-burn-3

The magic isn’t in the rules of ritual.

The magic is in our gratitude.

The magic is in our affirmations, in our prayers.

The magic is in us, always within us.

This year after the third tree completed its fire dance, I realized I had not attached any dismissals to the trees. I had only inserted welcomings. Did I break the rules? Absolutely not. Maybe I was influenced by new year resolution diet talk: the more good things you put in, the less room there is for bad to get in.

This year’s tree burn was fabulous. I’m grateful for the friends and family who participated, for the food and fun.

My takeaway: I stuffed my 2016 tree trunk with welcomings and welcome-backs; there was no room for my bad baggage on that trunk.

May 2016 light up your hopes and dreams and bring you the warmth of joy and bright blessings.

Copyright © 2016 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Part 1: A circle of thanksgiving

We stand in a circle holding hands, a tradition that evolved in my parents’ home from a combination two traditions, leftovers, if you will: grace before a meal and gratefuls during meals.

Boil these down for gumbo tomorrow.

Every link in our circle has suffered at least one wrench or break from another link in this circle. Yet, here we are. “First, we’ll take turns expressing what we’re grateful for . . . It can be anything,” to ease the younger links into the tradition.

“I’m thankful for this family . . . “

Gratitude has become a bandwagon for those anxious to reap the emotional, spiritual, as well as fiduciary benefits of thankfulness. Rewire your brain! Relieve stress. Improve sleep. Improve relationships. I ride that bandwagon. Gratitude helps me deal with leftovers of relationships, disasters, even meals.

What are we going to do with all of these potatoes?

In gratitude we push away shortcomings to focus on our strengths, we see beyond our losses to be joyful for our blessings, we displace grudges with forgiveness.

“I’m grateful for this time together . . .”

We acknowledge that, like all families, there have been unfortunate turns in our family. Ours comes back to this circle of thanksgiving, woven with the strength of our love for each other, the joy of the blessings we share, and the magic of forgiveness. And food.

Can we freeze the rest of the cranberry relish?

Thankfulness in many ways is magical. When divides —whether political, religious, social, or emotional— feel irreparably deep, gratitude for the leftover goodness mends, a circle of thankfulness bridges gaps between us.

“I’m grateful to be included in this family.”

We all have at least one thing in common, at least one thing we can be grateful for together.

How many pies?

I’m thankful for common ground.

“. . . and for the children, who are present and engaged.”

My dad closes the circle of gratitude with a prayer.

” . . . and for these blessings, we give thanks.”

We squeeze hands and chime in “Amen” before we dig in and begin creating . . . the leftovers.

Part 2: Leftovers

Stacks of dishes, naps on recliners, impossible puzzles, long walks through the fields, disappointing football games, and then the question.

What should I do with this?

For those of you who tuned in for leftover recipes, here are a few ideas.

Turkey Gumbo

In Louisiana, we often pull the okra and sausage out of the freezer and cook up a pot of turkey gumbo on Black Friday. Online recipes for exact ingredients and measurements are plentiful. This is the basic process.

  • Start with a stock.
    • Boil the bones alone or with some herbs (bay leaf, oregano, for example) and vegetable scraps (onion ends and skin, a head of garlic cut down the middle).
  • Make a roux.
    • About 1 cup each of flour and vegetable oil for a big pot of gumbo.
    • Slowly heat the flour in the pot until it becomes golden.
    • Add oil and whisk until it blends smoothly with the flour.
    • Continue to heat slowly until the roux is dark.
  • Add vegetables.
    • Add chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery (1-2 cups of each).
    • Once these are soft, follow with minced garlic (4-5 cloves).
  • Add the stock, leftover (and chopped) turkey, Andouille sausage medallions (Italian sausage will do), sliced okra (1-2 cups), and 2-4 tbsp of Worcester sauce (to taste).
  • Season (salt, cayenne, Tabasco, black pepper) to taste.
  • Bring the gumbo to a boil, then simmer for 20-30 minutes.
  • Serve with rice.

Dressing BallsThanksgiving-2

If you end up with extra dressing or stuffing, make dressing croquettes.

  • Work a beaten egg into a bowl of about 3 cups of dressing.
  • Form balls (slightly bigger than a golf ball).
  • Optional: Fill the balls with cranberry relish or any compatible leftover.
    • Poke a hole.
    • Fill.
    • Reclose.
  • Cook for about 5 minutes:
    • To fry, roll in a little flour then deep fry.
    • To bake, place on cooking sheets and bake at 400º.
    • To air fry, place balls in Airfryer and cook at 330º.

Sweet Potato Chips

Leftover baked sweet potatoes?

  • Slice the cooked sweet potatoes about ¼ inch thin.
  • Season to taste (salt and cayenne or cinnamon and brown sugar).
  • Cook.
    • 300º for 10 minutes in Airfryer.
    • Deep fry for 2-3 minutes.
    • 400º for 10-15 minutes in the oven.

I was the last to leave my parents’, which means my mom filled my car with the leftovers she didn’t want. As I repurposed the turkey, dressing, potatoes, and relish, I reminisced about the week our family spent together. I’m grateful for that leftover lagniappe.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.