Tater Tots on Tuesday

Anyone who’s lived in the Midwest knows how brutal the winters can be. Dad’s doctor started recommending he spend the cold months in Tucson with my sister. This is the second winter he’s gone and the trip was hard on him.

There are other things to consider besides cold weather and I was relieved when I heard he’d be coming home a week early. Two weeks ago, when I found out that he was in the hospital after his legs had given way and he’d fallen, I was afraid he wouldn’t make it home. I picked him up at Mitchell Field last Friday and the first thing he told me was how pleased he was with the airport wheelchair service. He thought he’d be able to travel anywhere in the world.

It’s good to have him back in his condo—just three blocks from my office and three miles from where my husband and I live. And it was special to be together again this past Sunday with Dad.

Today, when I was making his lunch, he was crushing his pills and said, “There will be no pills in heaven!”

“Or grief or anger,” I added as I put extra butter on the bread for his sandwich. He’s down to 130 pounds.

“I really don’t have any anger,” he said after a  moment’s thought. “When the Lord is ready to take me, I am ready to go.”

“What about patience?” I asked and he smiled. “You might want to focus on that or you’ll have to stick around until you get it right.” I smiled.

“You know, I’ve lost twenty pounds since my surgery in 2007.”

“You’ve also lost four inches of height, Dad.  You don’t need the weight.”

“Oh, right. I forgot about that. You always make me feel better.”

(No, Dad, you always make me feel better.)

I had called him on my way to work after a meeting this morning. He told me his congestion was back and had let his doctor know but they hadn’t yet called him back. “Are you taking your Mucinex?” I asked him.

“No, I stopped that.”

“Why?”

“Because I had put myself on it and then I took myself off it.”

“Well, put yourself back on it.”

“Can I talk to my doctor first?”

“Sure, if they call you back. If they don’t, take it.” He chuckled.

“Well…I left it in Tucson.

“I’ll pick some up.” Walgreen’s didn’t have any on the shelf so I went to CVS and picked up two bottles. I was leaving the store when I saw his text asking me if I could pick up his Warfarin prescription and turned around to head back to the pharmacy.

I get immense joy out of solving the little challenges my Dad faces these days. There is always an answer if you take the time to look—even if it might be that you’ve only found some distraction from the fact that you are facing your parent’s mortality. As with my mom, I try not to think about losing him.  He is full of life, in spite of the fact that he weighs 130 pounds, has no appetite, hobbles and coughs. He’s a fighter, a soldier, and carries around a copy of “Onward Christian Soldier” with him in his briefcase.

I love him.

Tonight after work I went by and made a Tater Tot casserole like my mom used to make for our family because he likes it. I made enough for our family because that’s the way Mom made it though it was just the two of us. I lit candles and he said the prayer. When we had finished and the dishes were done, the leftovers put away, he worked his way over to his chir with his new walking stick, slowly lowered himself into it and told me to sit down. “I have something serious to say to you.” I took a seat on the couch beside him. “I know I am getting weaker and won’t be able to stay here in the condo much longer.”

“Oh, I’ve thought about that, Dad. I think we can find someone to come in and help out a little more. They could prepare all your meals and just watch over things.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“One day at a time, Dad.”

“Okay. You always make me feel better.”

No, Dad, you always make me feel better.

Lunch at the Counter

My family is big on rituals. Growing up, it was the Meadow Inn on Friday nights, Solly’s Coffee Shop on Saturdays and Marc’s Big Boy on Sundays after church. We didn’t always go out to eat but when we did, that’s where we’d go. When Mom and Dad went on a Saturday night date, it would be to Jake’s for steaks.

Friday nights during high school, then in college and afterwards, we’d meet up at Kalt’s on Oakland Avenue. (My brother had his wedding rehearsal dinner there and I had my first one there too.) We would sit in the dark wooded and mirrored lobby with the aromas of fried fish wafting through the air, accompanied to the sounds of conversations and laughter coming from the long bar around the corner, as we waited for our name to be called.

We were always greeted by Henry—Mr. Kalt’s son—with menus we didn’t need because we all had fish fries. Henry would escort us back through the restaurant of tables with the red and white checkered tablecloths, to the back room where he’d slide three of four tables together in order to seat us all. Before long we’d have our drinks and a couple orders of onion rings, yelling down the table in cross conversations, as we waited for the fish to arrive.

Kalt’s Restaurant was next door to the J. Pellman Theatre. It was kind of a Milwaukee version of Sardi’s—a spot where all the performers gathered after shows and caricatures of famous people hung on the walls. No matter what, that’s where we’d all meet up at the end of the week. And I always looked forward to it.

Poor Todd. He married into it like it or not. We have developed our own personal rituals like Beans and Barley and Colectivo—a little healthier. But yesterday, we went to Solly’s.

It’s nostalgia. As you wait for a seat at the counter, you can see the guy in the back, grilling, throwing huge slabs of butter on the burgers and salting them with a large metal shaker. To some, it’s an acquired taste. I usually order a salad but the shakes and fries are awesome.

Solly’s opened up in 1936 as a family run restaurant by Kenneth Salmon, a.k.a. Solly. It’s still owned and run by his family. Ladies in their seventies wait on you and you feel bad that their legs must hurt.

I guess for me, walking into the room with counter seating is more about the memories than the food. Long ago, after I finished my Saturday morning piano lessons at the Wisconsin College of Music, I’d wait, sometimes an hour or more, for my dad to pick me up after whatever meeting he had that morning. I’d entertain myself on the front steps of the grand old building, by running up and down them, heading back inside to bother the receptionist for a while, then out again to look down Prospect Avenue for Dad’s orange convertible Carmen Gia. When he finally did show up with his briefcase on the passenger seat, he’d apologize, tossing it in the back, saying the meeting ran longer than he had planned and then we’d head to Solly’s.

Years later, when the doctor told Mom there would be no more Chemo because it wasn’t working any longer, she sat quietly for a moment before picking up her purse and coat and heading out the door with my dad and sister. When Dad asked her what she’d like to do, she stopped, turned to him, and said……..…“Well, let’s go to Solly’s.” She was too weak by then to sit on one of the counter chairs that have replaced the old rotating pedestals that were great for doing three-sixties, so they sat and had their burgers and fries and malts together in the car.

Dad’s been going there since 1946 and still eats there several times a month. People know him by name and if he happens to forget one of theirs it’s okay because the name of each of the waitresses is stitched  into their shirts. He says it’s his home away from home.

Solly's burger

Be advised if you go there, you’ll probably over-tip.

 

 

 

Afraid of Balloons

Some people wait for years to replace a beloved pet. Not us.

When we had to put down Pisgah—my fifteen year old Cocker Spaniel—I couldn’t go back  home without her there to greet us. She had been through my first marriage with me. After my divorce, she was with my son Charlie when I couldn’t be.

20131216_211037_resizedShe was my jogging buddy—always beside me, leash-less. When her years began to add up and she started to lag behind, her long silky ears flopped all the more from the extra effort. She began to surrender on her squirrel chases. She became deaf and found her way by scent.

In spite of it all, as she aged, people would still ask if she was a puppy.

20131216_211355_resizedAfter a bath one night, she shivered and was short of breath. I thought it was from the cold but it didn’t stop. We soon discovered that her heart was enlarged. It couldn’t contain all her love.

20131216_211054_resizedTodd stood by my side as I held her in my arms and she looked up at me. The vet gave her the shot that put her into a sweet, deep sleep.

It was too hard to walk back into our house after that so we went for lattes. We came up with the idea to take a drive to the pet store where my brother had found a puppy.

We walked in and I immediately noticed a teddy bear. He sat up with a stick-straight dancer spine and looked me square in the eyes. Hopeful anticipation…..Please love me ma’am (get me out of here!). I asked to hold him and the salesperson took him from his cage and set him down in an observation pen.

20131216_211644_resizedI watched him play, rubbed his belly, let him lick the tears that were still fresh in my eyes, and tried to stop him from gnawing on my fingers with his sharp teeth.

20131216_211454_resizedBy the time Todd found out we couldn’t afford him, it was too late. Without any research, we made an impulse buy and busted our budget. We were so sad and Sam was such fun. We returned home with a big pen and all the dog accouterments—poorer but puppy rich.

20131216_210942_resizedI sobbed through that evening, playing Puccini in Pisgah’s honor while Sam scooted around.

20131216_210735_resizedHe chewed the legs of all our furniture but was particular about the shoes he ate. They had to be new and bone colored. He destroyed our rugs and carpeting and ate anything—including a lighter. He was a butane hose for days and had to spend them all in his pen.

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Frozen in snow after playing with his best friend Cookie Dermond

Garbage cans scare him. He is a sniffer not a jogger and can easily spend thirty minutes on one block. He was hard to train and still jumps up on guests. He snarls at some dogs but only after I have assured the owner he is friendly.

He got his certificate from obedience school because the trainer was relieved to be done with him. “This is how you walk a dog,” he would say taking Sam by the leash and proceed across the room. “Heal! Heal!! HEAL SAM!!”  Sam does not heal.

20131216_211813_resizedHe is strong-willed but sweet and confused about being a dog. He sits on the stairs like a person—upright on the step. He has made our furniture his own and when Todd gets up in the morning, Sam immediately jumps up beside me and lays his head on Todd’s pillow.

20131216_211743_resizedWe work all day so we got a kitten to keep him company and named her Rose.

20131216_211621_resizedHer alley cat mom weaned her too early so the former owner’s dog had become her surrogate mother. When Rose met Sam she attached her mouth to a nipple. He stared at us, What the heck? but they became best pals.

20131216_211539_resizedI eventually got Sam to walk to the lakefront and home again without a leash. I would carry Rose along in a papoose. The three of us would do the full two and a half mile circle together…until the day Sam saw a parachute.

He stopped, turned and took off across the beach, running past honking, screeching cars. He was covered with the lake’s algae and tends to look rabid when wet. No one could catch him. He disappeared into the ravines. I called for hours. I was almost home when I noticed him sauntering along a couple blocks ahead of me.

I keep Sam on a leash now most of the time and have never been successful with getting him to walk leisurely on the lakefront. He’s always looking for that parachute.

So, when we brought balloons home from an event last night, Sam escaped up the stairs and hid in the bedroom.

He just has a thing about floating aberrations.

BalloonsI sometimes wonder what would have happened to Sam if we hadn’t been so impulsive that day at the pet store. It doesn’t matter….Sam has Pisgah to thank for that….and I’m sure he will one day.

20131216_210826_resizedHe’s just not ready yet to join her.

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Losing Mom

“It’s like a resort! They even have a coffee shop where you can go and sit in the afternoon and have a latte. They’ll make your meals and your dad will love that!” Mom was elated as she shared the day’s events with me that evening. “You wouldn’t believe it, Debs, we spent the entire day looking at assisted living facilities. I think this is the way for us to go. And you just wouldn’t believe how much I walked today!”

“That’s great Mom—you’ll be so close! You guys can walk over to the house and take Sam and Rose for walks, shop at Sendik’s, get your prescriptions at CVS. We can meet on Downer for dinner after work!” This sounded great to me. How does she do it I wondered. Every day brings the possibility of renewed hope for her. That’s what her mother taught her. That’s what her faith gives her. I reassured myself that everything was going to be alright as I walked down the Boulevard, crunching through the leaves, listening to Mom’s voice with Sam and Rose following after me. Cars were stopping to ask if it was my cat that was walking along with me and my dog. “Yes,” I’d whisper and nod. I listened to Mom describe Bradford Terrace, the assisted living facility Dad had designed over 40 years earlier. It had won an award for being the first elderly housing in the state with balconies in each unit. It’s funny how life circles back around—now they were considering moving into it.

It was a part of my daily ritual to convince myself that everybody and everything were all fine. How many times had I left Mom over the past several months and years in tears certain it was goodbye, only to hear her voice the next day full of new energy and inspiration? Just several days previously I had stopped by the condo expecting to find Mom in bed. Instead, she and Dad were pulling out of the driveway, top down in their little convertible with big smiles on their faces, Mom holding a bottle of wine, on their way to dinner with friends. Astonishing, was all I could think. Nothing made my heart leap more than these moments of unexpected normal. When life delivers a plan in place of the one you had hoped for—when you lose the people who mean everything to you—you can either lose yourself as well or look for a new way of living life—a new way of living within yourself. I was trying to find a new normal.

The next week I dropped Mom off at the hospital entrance in the parking structure marked with the crickets—the chirps and pictures were there to calm you and help you know your bearings. I told Mom I’d be right there and parked the car. By the time I got back to the elevator entrance she was gone. I had her purse with her phone in it and no idea which appointment she was going to or where she might be headed. I got on the elevator, pushed the 1st floor button and expected to get off at the lobby with the nice lady and the hand sanitizer. I couldn’t find her though—the lobby had disappeared. I went up and down in two different elevators, checking all seven floors but no lobby—only long halls. I started to panic and someone asked if they could help me. I must have been talking to myself as I pounded the elevator buttons and waited for the doors to open and close as people got on and off. “My Mom—I can’t find her! I dropped her off when I parked and I have her purse and phone. She needs her purse! I don’t know where she is!”

“I’ll help you,” the kind, calm, irritating woman replied. “Tell me where you came in.”

“Right here—where the lobby is supposed to be. They took away the lobby! I’m sure that’s where my mom is!”

“Follow me,” she said and started leading me down a long maze of halls which I knew couldn’t be right. By now people were stopping and staring. My voice got louder and louder, “This isn’t right—where are you taking me?!”

When we reached the window—which for the moment meant I was still in the world I knew—she pointed and said, “There’s the entrance. Is that where you came in?”

“Yes!! That’s where we came in and then parked the car on the other side, back over there by the crickets! That’s where my Mom is! Why did you bring me here? I’ve got to get back! I have to find her!” I started to run down the hall, retracing our steps. I heard her say, “Slow down, I have a bad hip,” as others were joining in to see what was wrong. I got to the elevator and held the door open for her, trying to stay calm as I waited. We returned to our search and by now I was close to hyperventilating. Down we went 7, 6, 5, Stop. Ding. Three people got on with a stretcher.

“Someone close the door for crying out loud! Heavens these doors are slow!” (I can’t breathe. Mom where are you?) The doors slammed shut and down we went. Ding. 2. The doors banged opened and would you believe it, there was my mom walking down the hall.

“Mom!” I yelled and squeezed my way passed the people and the stretcher to get out the door. She turned and smiled.

“I couldn’t find you—where did you go,” she asked. (Where did I go?!)

“I thought you knew I was coming up to meet with my dietitian,” she continued calmly. “I thought you were going to meet me in the lobby.” (What lobby?!)

“I lost you Mom. I couldn’t find you. I’ve been all over this hospital. I was so afraid I lost you.” Then the dam broke. I had been struggling to stay strong for months, doing whatever I could to help keep life normal for my parents; whatever I could to make them laugh and feel good but now I wept. “I’m scared Mom—I’m so scared of losing you.” We walked over to some chairs and I didn’t let her go. We sat down.

“I’m scared too Debbie.”

We sat there for a while as my pulse returned to normal.

Samsung 102713 084Then out of the blue Mom said, “I haven’t done anything important with my life.” A wave of emotion poured over me so strongly that I couldn’t speak. I sat stunned by Mom’s words, by the sound of her voice. The voice that read our favorite stories to us, soothed us, sang to us. Was there a better sound in the world? Mom the adventurer, always thinking ahead, leading the way to the next step in life—for our family and for so many others. I couldn’t imagine what would make her say such a thing except I knew this disease was cruelly chipping away at her sense of worth. I couldn’t think of anyone who knew Mom and wasn’t impacted by her. She had a special way of showing each person she met how incredibly valuable they were. She always asked how they were doing and listened carefully to whatever they had to say. People remember that. They remember her beautiful smile. It came from her heart. She met with so many one on one–supporting, guiding. Mom led the way for me.

Mom modeled and I then modeled. Though neither of us liked it much it gave me the opportunity to learn how to do the books for Rosemary Bischoff Agency which always provided me with a job throughout my life.

On the Skylight Rooftop

Mom and Dad on the Skylight garden rooftop

She took ballet then I took ballet which eventually led me to my job today. She performed at the Skylight Theatre and then I performed there and went on to years of travel and adventures. She confided in me and I confided in her, we talked and drank wine together, laughed, shopped together, cried and drank tea, yelled sometimes, drank more wine and went out to lunch. She loved so deeply. How much she loved her family, her church is beyond words. She showed us all how to love. How could she sit here now and question her value?

 La Traviata

Mom playing Annina in La Traviata

“How can you say that Mom after all you’ve done? You supported Dad through his career and then you made one for yourself, returning to school, earning three degrees, went into music therapy so you could help people, then chose church ministries because that’s what you felt called to do though you had many other choices. You helped build a church and used all of your gifts to support others. You bore and raised four children. You have seven grandchildren—the perfect number—and one great grandchild. Ask anyone who knows you, ask your doctors and the nurses here, ask anyone their opinion. They’ll say you light up a room when you walk into it. You have the most beautiful heart and smile.” (How could she be feeling this way?)

“…I’m afraid of dying Debbie….”

…I knew it wasn’t that she was doubting her faith…

“…I’m afraid of losing you Mom….”

I didn’t understand that day but I came to realize, Mom’s life was running through her mind like a film playing—hurts, misunderstandings, unresolved situations were the loudest scenes. She wanted to live long enough to be free of all of them. She didn’t want to take any of them along with her to heaven. Mom didn’t want to let Jesus, who had done so much for her, down…

“Evening and morning and at noon I will pray, and cry aloud, and He shall hear my voice. He has redeemed my soul in peace from the battle that was against me…”Psalm 55:17-18

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