I’ve tried to start this post countless times, and feel like a dog turning around trying to find the perfect position before settling down for a nap. Haven’t found it, so just need to wade in …
Since Michael’s last post, we’ve spent 5-ish weeks in the Chicago area working for several families while staying with my parents, 2 nights camping near the Indiana Dunes, a week at Gary and Peggy’s place in Holland Michigan (building a fountain/waterfall feature in one of their gardens), one night at a rest area, one brief but glorious night in our old stomping grounds in Lackawaxen PA with friends, 2 hours in a parking lot catching up with adored old friends we hadn’t seen in over 10 years, and the last 5 days settling into our 3-week digs at a campground in Clinton CT, while Michael works in New Haven doing a Sol LeWitt install. Whew. That’s the framework … now to try and fill in a few of the holes!
Chicago was my home for 23 years, and it’s more familiar to me than almost anywhere. Faces, streets, names, the exact speed at which you can turn left onto 2nd Avenue, where mom keeps her measuring cups, and the back of Helen Maurer’s head on Sunday morning … all pretty much unchanged. Some folks still steady as a rock, and some wearing at the edges, as you’d expect. We moved away 14 years ago, and despite the quick visits here and there, I didn’t feel much of the more subtle changes going on. Until this trip. Five weeks is long enough to be less guest, and more resident. Less hurry, more soaking up the minutes and feeling like they didn’t need to be squeezed quite as tightly.
Except the longer we were there, the more I felt like they did. The more I realized what needed to be done, and how big the changes were … both what had happened quietly over time, and what was cropping up on the horizon. The thing is, (so very sorry Dad but I’m about to ruin your ability to share this post with Mom), my mom has Alzheimers*. She’s had the visible signs for several years now, and things are progressing pretty much as expected. And what is now, and what’s expected, sucks in many many ways. She’s still independent and drives to familiar places, but that window will close before too terribly long, and her sense of time is irreconcilably twisted. She’s lost many of the abilities that have defined her character for most of her life … like being able to run an ever-changing house full of guests, feed crowds on a moment’s notice, finish the crossword puzzle for you when you get stuck, and remember to send dozens of birthday cards every month.
The tide is eating away the definition of who she’s always been, and her edges are getting soft. The guilt is gone, her worry (about everything except time) is gone, and her epic sense of responsibility is eroded down to a nubbin. It makes me bawl, and I want to build her back up. Now. Put her back together, find the pieces and stitch them into something familiar. Push up against the beautiful castle that’s always been my Mom, and I can’t. I have to take her hand, hold her heart, and listen for what she’s saying in between the lines. Which I can still (now at least) see in her eyes some of the time.
There is beauty there, achingly lovely beauty, in seeing her happy, mostly content, and depending entirely on Dad and God. Her pleasures are simple … Reminisce magazines, going to meeting, being with Dad, watching her loved ones interact and chiming in sometimes, food in general (and more specifically yogurt before bed), and feeling useful. She is still my Mom. But she’s fading. It’s a maddening thing to feel, and while Dad is accepting it completely, and slowly trading roles with her, it’s a heartbreaking dance to watch.
So I spent a lot of time cleaning cupboards, organizing the garage and shed, making lists and calls and suggestions for the future, and furthering the work that some others had already started. This was all woven into the things that Dad had asked to be done, but made it hard to be fully focused on the named projects, when the needs and soon-to-be-needs became so apparent. I did what was foremost in my mind and heart most of the time, and that sometimes left Michael and the boys waiting patiently because I decided that the rest of the garage just HAD to be sorted before we left for Home Depot.
Which brings me to a side note … we appear to be collecting loyalty cards at an almost alarming rate. Might as well sign up if we’re going to be in and out of the local grocery/drugstore/building supply place repeatedly, and the default choices change often. I’m also becoming rather opinionated as to who’s got the smartest layout, most knowledgeable staff, and best selection … I’ll take a True Value or Ace Hardware any day over the bigger places, if I have a problem to solve and don’t happen to need stone or lumber or pond forms. And the fact that we all equally love going in such places is a huge bonus … just look at all the possibilities! Power tools, new kinds of spack, funny odd little tubes and connectors, carts to ride, shelves to climb, aisles to run in, camper gadgets to check out, and Weapons of all sorts! This is becoming a rabbit hole more than a side note …
So we built some things in Chicago, fixed some things, organized stuff, and cut down a lot of trees, and hauled a lot of things. My folks had some landscaping to do … leftover dirt from a sewer pipe fix last year that needed moving, grass to plant, rampant groundcover to tame, mulch to spread, and an “oh there’s a pond next to the foundation!” moment after some heavy rain that resulted in some back-breaking work. After several days of rain, we took the first dryish day and went to a building site that was offering free clay fill, and slipped and slid our way around a massive mound of clay trying to “shovel” it into the back of the truck. Hah! Nothing like doing the dig and twist/heave/grunt that launches what’s on your shovel far enough to land it in the back of the truck (while attempting not to slide backwards down the mound), and have every last bit of the load stay firmly attached to the shovel. Pitchforks helped a bit, and Michael’s crazy determination basically finished the job.
Have I mentioned how much we’re enjoying working together? I was asked a few days ago what the best part about this trip was for me, and the first thing that popped into my head was working with Michael. There’s something utterly delightful about working shoulder to shoulder, taking turns doing the what-do-you-need-next dance, and tackling rafter angle problems with Google (me) and analog methods (Michael) and arriving simultaneously at the same answer. Building stuff is lovely. Problem solving is actually fun when it’s done together. It gets a little hairy when the boys join in, but honestly their ideas are very helpful in most cases, and sometimes downright brilliant. Their work habits are slowly improving too, and their abilities. Douglas has shot up in the last few months, and (shhh) appears to have just nudged past Michael in height. He’s all leg and angles and falling hair, but has enough oomph now to truly make a difference in the hard stuff … as long as I keep him fed. Which is more challenging that it looks, as his favorite foods are all carb based, but I’m learning to read both boys’ moods as if they have their blood sugar level tattooed on their foreheads, and so find myself buying snacks constantly.
After the bulk of the stuff at my folks was taken care of, we moved on to Jon and Kara’s place, though we kept the camper parked in my parents’ side yard. Jon had a summer to-do-list that included some fun stuff for me on it (outlet and fixture swaps and some rearranging of wires), a bit of yard work, and some caulking and vent work … nothing too major. The boys came along, and were more reluctant to assist than usual as their place is a kid/teen paradise when it comes to games, toys, and entertainment options. A lot of my work was in the basement rec room/bar area, and I had more trouble than usual keeping them at the ready. Douglas managed to be a big help in getting the wires rearranged though, drawing me a most lovely diagram to keep it all straight.
We stayed over one night after getting their work done, and had the most delightful and decadent Saturday morning I can remember in a very long time. Grilled breakfast (yes those piles of bacon arejust as big as they look!) and enough laughter and conversation to take my mind completely off the pain of things at my folks for a bit, and pour in some healing salve. Complete and utter delight, and hard to leave. Oh, and did I mention Jon is Tina’s sister, of the Ken and Tina chapter? Yup, we go just as far back with them too. Deep roots, a lot of water, and a lot of laughs. Thanks you two!
The last main project in the area was the biggest one … building a cupola, complete with bell and weather vane, on John and Olive Kaiser’s garage … but that will have to be its own post I think. It was hot, fun, a lovely learning curve, and interspersed with therapeutic bouts of chain sawing down a pile of junk trees and clearing out overgrown brush. Though I’ve known John and Olive almost my whole life, spending a week in and out of their home (and on their roof) I learned to appreciate them both a lot more. Several of their kids have spent countless hours in my home and heart over the last 20 years, but in all my interactions I’d never spent much time with their parents. It was a treat.
There’s something about being folded into other people’s households that’s starting to be a very interesting part of this trip. We’re working for folks, but we’re kind of guests too, but not entirely … there’s no defining it neatly. We’ve started to call the work we’re doing Busking, as in the play-your-guitar and open-the-case-at-your-feet scenario. We ask that supplies be covered (if possible) and beyond that, there are no expectations of payment. No fees, no hourly rates, no bills. We do it because we love to, and if we’re paid something more than the supplies cost, that’s lovely, and if we’re not, that’s equally lovely. Expectations seem to be a killer in many arenas, and this is one of them. What we do expect is to work hard, finish projects well, and enjoy most of the process. We expect to have some meals together, get to know you better, and find out what makes you tick. We expect to get filthy, learn a heck of a lot, and probably take a little longer than we originally estimated. (We both suck at estimating, period.) I’m learning to expect problems to crop up, boys to need breaks, and us all to need downtime between cities.
Speaking of breaks, we did have a few lovely ones while in Chicago. We took the boys to the Bristol Renaissance Faire for Fynn’s birthday, where he rather obsessively hunted for weapons to buy … he’s working on a post about it so I’ll leave the details to him! We also were invited to several delicious barbecues, loaned (and given!) stacks of books for Douglas to devour (thanks Sue!), taken to awesome fireworks, found kindred spirits for our boys to hang out with, haunted Starbucks, were treated to dinner by Mom and Dad many times, shipped the boys off with the lovely Su for a day, and to my brother’s family for couple other days (thanks Rene!). I also snuck away for a couple evenings with friends, catching up after way too long, but picking up right where we left off.
We ended up staying an extra day longer than our (already revised) plan, and took the boys to the Museum of Science and Industry, which delighted me just as much as it did 30 years ago when I first went. Michael spent a crazy long time in one of the stairwells, where a little exhibit of working gears (that likely was already there 30 years ago) gave him a bunch of ideas for his birdwing project.
Every evening we could stay home was spent curled up on the couch in my parent’s living room, reminiscing over popsicles and yogurt, and staying up past everyone’s bedtime to the point that one night Mom and I ended up in giggle fits over the retelling of some trip debacle that happened in Bolivia when I was a kid, involving well-filled airsick bags and crabby customs officials … the memories are golden, and the sharing of them at this point even sweeter. I’ll suck the marrow out of every evening that I can, and even when I’m not there physically, a part of my heart is still parked in that living room, waiting for the turn of a page, the delight of a comment or shared glance, and the chance to say “Goodnight Mom, I love you.”
* ps … please respect that if you know my Mom personally, at Dad’s request she’s never been told her diagnosis, and he wishes it to remain that way.