Diary of a Caregiver
When his wife's ailing parents moved in, everything changed.
Third of four parts.
by John Catsis
Editor's note: When Silver City author John Catsis' in-laws, Harry and Vera, moved from San Antonio, Texas, so Catsis and his wife could care for them, he began keeping a diary. Begun in our August issue, the story continues here.
August 6, 2012
I was cleaning around my desk this morning when I spotted two plastic lilies I had purchased in Tucson. I'd forgotten to give the flowers to Vera.
She and Connie were lying on her bed, talking, when I walked in. "Here, these are for you," I said.
"Well, at least one person remembered my wedding anniversary," she replied.
"You bet," I replied, lying. "Nothing but the best for my favorite mother-in-law. And this flower is from Connie." I displayed a third stem holding little red buds of some sort. Connie was now off the hook.
Returning to my desk, I checked a special calendar containing all important dates of our extended family. Sure enough, August 6, 1944, was Harry and Vera's wedding date.
I found Harry on our deck, enjoying his morning wine in the mild weather. "Harry, do you know what day this is?" I asked.
"September, I think."
"Actually it's August. August 6. Anything significant about this day?"
Harry thought for a moment, staring at the hummingbird getting its fill at our feeder. "I think I got married on this day."
"Yep, you sure did," I replied. Frankly, I was surprised he'd remembered. "Happy anniversary."
August 8, 2012
Harry is beginning to get out of bed more frequently. This morning, he made the walk from his room to the dining room without his walker. I was having a bowl of cereal.
"I was dreaming about flying again," Harry said, settling into a dining room chair. "Except I was confused by some of the controls."
"Avionics has changed a lot over the years," I said.
"You'd have to take a flight physical again," I said. "Do you think you could pass?"
"I don't see why not."
That's Harry. Always the optimist.
Later that morning, it was time to escort Harry to the doctor. Instead of requiring a wheelchair to reach our car, Harry used his walker. And upon arriving at the doctor's office, he left the walker in the car, and walked instead with Connie on one arm and a cane in the other. The doctor determined that Harry had shown such improvement that he discontinued further physical and occupational therapy treatments. Back home Vera brightened when she learned the news.
Vera was still in a good mood as she accompanied Connie to town on a shopping trip. This was the first time she had left the compound in three months.
August 14, 2012
Connie was preparing dinner when she heard a squeal from her parents' suite. It was Vera. "There's a mouse on my bed," she exclaimed. "It's dead."
I got a plastic grocery sack and followed Connie to Vera's bedroom. "Where on the bed?" I asked.
"Not on the bed," Vera corrected. "It's in the corner."
Hands encased in latex gloves, Connie got on her knees to examine the corner where Vera had pointed. "It's a leaf," Connie announced, posing much as a hunter would with a trophy deer. "A dead leaf."
Despite this evidence, Vera was not convinced. In fact, she continued to shudder at the idea of a mouse in her room. She complained about something being knocked off her desk the night before. I believed it was simply an item placed too close to the edge of the desktop, and the air movement from the nearby window air conditioner had caused the fall.
But to placate Vera we baited several mouse traps and placed them in strategic areas of the bedroom. They never attracted any unwanted visitors.
August 22, 2012
It had been quiet during the past week. Harry had discontinued his morning walks to strengthen his legs. It was probably because he learned he and Vera would not be returning to San Antonio before October. I guess he subconsciously thought, "why bother?"
August 30, 2012
For the first time in perhaps six months, both my in-laws left the house and traveled into town together. They did so to meet with the attorney, where they signed updated wills, living wills and power-of-attorney documents. The lawyer spent nearly two hours with Harry and Vera, carefully explaining in simple language what each section of each document covered.
That evening, Vera complained about the fuzziness of her television set. Her eyes were acting up again. Shortly after moving to Silver City she began to complain about double vision. We convinced her to see an ophthalmologist. The doctor determined she needed two different operations. If they were to be conducted here, the mid-October San Antonio trip would have to be delayed.
Sept. 2, 2012
Minutes after handing Vera the day's mail I heard a loud shout from her room. It sounded more like a cry of anguish. When I checked on her, she was clutching a letter tightly in her left fist. "This is wrong. This is wrong," she cried out. She was holding the monthly water bill for their vacant San Antonio home. It was for $943. After Connie managed to calm her down, she called her sister and asked her to check for any leaks. She found none. Later, Vera's nephew also inspected the home and the water meter, which showed no movement. While there were several suspicions, Vera figured there was only one logical explanation — thievery.
Sept. 18, 2012
Connie and I were having a conversation in my office this evening. It's possible we may have been a bit loud. When Harry hears people talking, he often comes to our side of the house to learn, as he puts it, "what the excitement is all about." He was without a cane or walker. I invited him to watch the evening news with me. He accepted, sitting on my computer chair. When the news program ended, Harry started to get up to return to his room. "Do you need any help?" I asked.
"No, no," he replied. "I can do it." As he rose, the chair started rolling backwards on its five casters. A TV tray table was between me and Harry, and I was unable to get around in time to stop what I knew was not going to be a pleasant conclusion. It wasn't.
Harry slid off the chair backwards and struck the wooden floor. I was sure he had bumped his head, but he hadn't. He appeared stunned, although he did not complain about injuring his head. Instead, he said his back hurt.
I immediately called for Connie's help. Using a kitchen step stool for support, we were able to get him up on his knees, and then standing. That's when he looked into my eyes and implored, "Don't let me play golf." I stifled a smile and promised I would not. He returned slowly to bed, this time using his walker.
I apologized to Vera, saying it was my fault I did not catch Harry in time to prevent the fall. I offered her a box of donuts I had purchased that afternoon. Vera grabbed two donuts and retired to her room. In some ways I know my mother-in-law better than Connie does, but I promised not to purchase any more non-nutritious desserts.
Sept. 28, 2012
Harry was starting to wet his bed. Even though he wore adult diapers, they were not being changed frequently enough. So now Connie had to clean him and empty the bedside toilet more often than usual. Vera would grab the wet bedding and put it in the laundry. Fortunately, the mattress had a waterproof cover.
On this day Connie and Vera also had to give Harry a bath. I can't imagine a daughter doing this, but she did. Fortunately, we had built a large three-by-six-foot walk-in shower that accommodated a stool. The floor was even with the rest of the bathroom, making wheelchair use easy. Two sturdy grab bars also helped. We'd designed this bathroom for us someday, not thinking it would be used sooner rather than later.
Oct. 9, 2012
Connie took her mom to the ophthalmologist to smooth out scar tissue on her right lens. The procedure improved sharpness, but the double vision problem was still there. The doctor said that calls for a second procedure later.
Meanwhile, Vera now insists she needs to be in San Antonio in November, so she can have Thanksgiving dinner at her home. If that happens I'm sure there won't be too many family members attending. Connie and I might be the only guests.
Oct. 11, 2012
Today is Harry's birthday. He has made it to 89. We celebrated with a party on our deck where Connie served a fancy chocolate cake. The plan was for me to take him into town for a haircut, which he had been asking about. Then, Connie planned to take him to the golf course. He probably wouldn't get out of the car once there, but we agreed our hearts were in the right place. He could at least see a golf course.
Neither happened. The "party" tired him out so much he had to go to bed the rest of the day. He'd also forgotten about his request for a haircut.
Oct. 13, 2012
Another strange night for Harry. Early this evening Vera reported that Harry had once again dreamed of a crowd of people in his room. He thought it was reality. As a result, Harry escaped from his bed and joined Vera in hers.
Later, Harry told Connie about an incident from his military past and of all the people he thought he had killed. "When I was in Korea," he told her," I scouted targets, reported them to our bombers, and then got out of the way." Connie told her dad it was war time, and that he did what he was told to do, but it still bothered him.
Oct. 15, 2010
I was having lunch on our deck when I noticed Vera and Harry moving down their ramp. Harry was using his walker. Vera was right behind him.
"Where are they going?" I thought. As it turned out, nowhere. They turned around and moved back up the ramp.
"Now, we're going to do that every day," I heard Vera tell Harry.
I guess they're getting into shape for their return to San Antonio. It's only a month away.
Oct. 20, 2012
It's been relatively quiet this week. Harry and Vera have not repeated their exercise program down and up the ramp. In fact, Harry seems to have spent virtually every waking hour in bed. It's sad to see how this once energetic and vital man has become what he is today. Even his conversations are limited to repetitive comments such as "Don't get lost," or "I stink" (because he believes he has not bathed, which is not true).
But the one comment he utters most frequently refers to his sex life: "I haven't had any sex in 20 years." Now that he remembers… except for the other day. We were all in his room when he made that comment for the umpteenth time. "But dear," Vera replied, "we just had sex this morning."
Vera rarely cracks a joke, and she never, ever says anything as clever as what she just uttered. Which made the expression on Harry's face so adorable. He looked at her, as if trying to recall, and perhaps appreciate, the fictitious event of that morning. No one let on that this was only a creative fabrication. I've got to give Vera credit. It was a priceless moment.
Later, I learned Connie prompted her mom to make the comment. So, I'm still correct about Vera. She has no sense of humor.
Since it's Saturday, I'll be watching college football much of the day. Connie knows how much I enjoy this. She gives me space during these seasonal Saturdays.
That afternoon, while I was engrossed in a game, Harry came into my room to visit. "I'm watching Northwestern," I said.
Harry sat silently on his walker seat for a moment. "Where is Northwestern?"
That seemed strange, as I know he has visited the school. "Your daughter went there," I replied.
He stared blankly, as if trying to remember. "Monica," I said. "Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago."
I muted the TV and changed the subject to his flying days. One thing he could remember was that he had 18,000 hours of flying time. He constantly reminds everyone of this. He can also recall details about the planes he flew most frequently. "When I got out of the military," he offered, "I flew a C-146 in China for an airline that was started after the war. But most of the smaller Chinese pilots couldn't handle the plane. It wasn't until they got the C-147."
"What? Did they make the pedals longer?"
"I don't remember. But I do remember having to wear an oxygen mask. It wasn't until we got the Convair 580 that it was pressurized, and we didn't need it. We could fly up to 30,000 feet."
After the game ended, I found Connie working outside the back door. As I stood on the steps I suddenly lost all feeling in my right leg. I reached for the grab bar only to realize my right hand also had gone numb. Unable to support myself, I slumped on to the upper step. Using my left hand I was able to pull myself inside the door, where Connie was waiting with her dad's wheelchair. "Now you'll be a caregiver to everyone here," I said, trying to be nonchalant. While I wasn't particularly scared, I was irritated at the inability of my body to perform standard functions. Connie tried to present a calm persona, and she did a good job, but I knew better. Later, she admitted the incident had frightened her.
Connie wheeled me back to my office recliner, where the sensations began to subside. Half an hour later, I was back to normal. When I could move on my own I retreated to my computer where I Googled "numbness on right side of body." I learned it could be many things. The most likely was a mini-stroke.
Oct. 22, 2012
Every Monday my friend, Brooks Garner, and I would visit on the phone and usually talk about football. This time I led off with a description of my Saturday episode. He sounded concerned, and pumped me for more details. That's when he told me about his mother.
"She had the same kind of incident the day before Thanksgiving in 1987," Brooks related. "She said she would see a doctor the following Monday. She never made it to that day."
Well, wasn't that a pleasant thing to say to your former Oklahoma State University journalism colleague? I saw a doc on Monday and he told me to start taking full-strength aspirin.
John Catsis moved to Silver City in 2007 after a long career in broadcast journalism. He recently published his first novel, Fulltimers — The Adventures of Lou and Martha, available at the Silver City Museum gift shop and at KOA.
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