Thursday, May 26, 2016

My Heart Weeps for My Sister

        Six years ago, the summer I moved into my new house, my sisters, Linda, Sharon and Laura, and my brother, Lee, came here for our annual siblings’ reunion. 
2010, at Lithia Park. Front row, l to r: Linda, Laura, Sharon. Back row, l ro r: Lee, me
We saw a play in Ashland and walked through Lithia Park. At my house, we played Rail Baron, a Monopoly-type board game. Linda was the banker. To our puzzlement, she kept making mistakes but denying them fiercely when we pointed them out to her. We exchanged worried looks. Something seemed not right with our oldest sister (a year and a half older than I).
            Her back had been hurting for months. Though none of us then connected the physical pain with the mental slippage, both were the first indications of what would eventually be diagnosed as Lewy Body disease, something of a cross between Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Her degeneration into the ravages of the disease was rapid. Even four years ago, at our siblings' reunion my brother hosted, she was still walking and able to carry on a normal conversation. 
2012, at a restaurant in Virginia: Left to right: me, Lee, Linda, Laura, Sharon
 As she tumbled down the slope of the disease, her body became more decrepit, and her mind chewed up words that might have communicated a thought. When her husband could no longer take care of her, she went into the memory ward of an assisted living facility. The big screened-in porch had nice furniture, lots of sunshine, a big bird cage along one wall, and plenty of plants. Linda could still introduce us to the staff when we came to visit. We could take her out to eat. She went on excursions from time to time with other residents.
2014. The four sisters at Arbor Terrace Assisted Living and Memory Care for Seniors
 As both her body and her mind lost more and more substance, she was finally moved to a full-care nursing home, called the Golden Living Center. I'm sure no mockery is intended, but the name is far from the reality. The quality of Linda's life diminished. Friendships are not possible among people with such extensive dementia. There are no activities that can occupy the time. Life is existence. Only the basic needs are taken care of – general cleanliness and adequate meals. Visitors are the only real pleasures: her husband twice a week; Laura, Sharon, and Lee when they can get there; a co-worker from her days as an occupational therapist. Others? Church friends? I don't know.
            For the most part her mind is empty. She becomes obsessed with shiny things. She hallucinates. When Laura, Sharon, Lee, and I walked into her room last week, she was lying in bed, her arm outstretched, pointing out the window.
            I sat on the bed, and the others arranged themselves around the bed. I was anxious whether she would know who I was, since it had been a year since I had seen her. When I touched her haggard, thin arm, she turned to look at me. There was a moment of blankness. Then she broke into a big smile – well, not to exaggerate. It was really only a small smile, but it was as big a smile as she could make, and to me it was enormous. She knew who I was. She was glad to see me. Whatever it had taken for me to get there – the cost of the airline ticket, the all-night trip from Medford to Atlanta, the squeeze of the trip in the middle of term – was made worthwhile at that moment.
            We called an attendant to help Linda into a wheelchair. Then the four of us wheeled her outside into the warm Georgia sunshine, past some late-blooming azaleas, to a private spot behind the building where her occupational therapy friend had planted an herb bed. We sat out there with each other. We took photographs with our phones. The four of us talked, trying to include Linda as well as we could. She has very little language left and, one would think, very little coherent thought. But as we were all clustered around her, I leaned close to her and said, “We all love you.” And she said, in her very faint, dying-out voice, clearly and coherently, “I love all of you.”
            She didn’t say another coherent sentence on either of the two visits I had with her, but that one put a smile on all our faces.
2016, in the back of the Golden Living Center,  L to r: Sharon Lee, Linda, Laura, me

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Traffic Snarl

            I was in Atlanta, Georgia, the last few days, visiting family. The traffic, noticeably worse than it was a year ago, is absolutely insane, as observed in: (1) an unceasing stream of traffic on the five-mile trip from my sister Laura’s to my sister Linda’s; (2) a Monday-morning drive to Laura’s lake house an hour north of Atlanta, when traffic on all four lanes of the south-bound freeway stretched unmoving as far as I could see; (3) an attempted drive to the airport Monday afternoon, when traffic was supposedly light, but the line of cars stopped even on the arterial street waiting to get onto the freeway caused an abrupt change of plans – Laura would take me to the MARTA station, instead.
            The train, which is safe, clean, fast, and easy, should be a good alternative to driving, but it doesn’t seem to be lessening traffic. Laura’s husband, for instance, still drives through heavy traffic every morning to his office in north Atlanta, even though he lives a mile from a MARTA station. MARTA isn’t convenient for getting to my sister Linda’s, a distance also too far to walk and a route suicidal on a bicycle. In many cases, no good alternatives to driving are apparent. In other cases, habit or a false idea of convenience deters their use.
            Still, Atlanta continues to build more townhouses and more apartments, bringing more cars to the road. This is madness! The only solution I can see is congestion pricing: having to pay to use the most congested roads during peak traffic hours. It works in London and in Stockholm, but the idea died in Congress in New York, and I don’t know if it’s ever even been broached in Atlanta.
            It can’t continue like this. If we can’t find solutions, the problem will be its own solution because if the traffic is as much worse next year as it was this year, nobody will be able to go anywhere.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

House series #12: The Bathroom

      In my old house, to take a shower I walked out the back door to the deck, then down the stairs to my outdoor, weather-exposed shower. There, in view of Humpy Mountain, in snow, ice, sun, morning mist, fog, and wind, under apple blossoms in the spring and in candlelight on dark winter mornings, I took my shower. Wind was the only weather that bothered me. 
            When it came time to design the bathroom for my new house, I told Ela, “I’ve been showering outside for forty years. Don’t put me in a little enclosed space for my bathroom.”
            He didn't. The bathroom he designed is one of the most beautiful rooms in the house. The shower head is on the wall, European style, instead of over a tub or in a stall, and it is plumbed to the outside wall where another shower head gives me an outdoor shower. 

I have showered indoors only three times in the six years I’ve been in the house: once to try it out, twice because of the wind.
            But bathing indoors is as much a treat as showering outdoors. The bathtub sits under two large windows. I can see, from my bath or from the toilet, foxes crossing through the woods and deer tiptoeing into my zen garden. If I am going to have visitors, as, for instance, on my seventieth birthday party, I put up curtains. Otherwise, there is no immodesty in bathing in the woods.
            Decorating the bathroom was the second of my artistic contributions to the house. (The first was the wood-burned quotations on the risers). Once I had decided to use a water motif, I started collecting things: two tiny handmade glass fish from a crafts fair, tiles the colors of water, handmade ceramic tiles from the Habitat for Humanities Re-store with sea shells and starfish and trout. One friend gave me four tiles that fit together to make a picture of water irises. Another friend gave me two dozen little glass fish left over from constructing her own creative bathroom. I went to the Goodwill looking for something with fish on it and was ecstatic to find, instead, stained-glass swimmers. I wasn’t sure how I would use all this, but I had a theme, so I bought a water saw for cutting the tiles and went to work.
            My original idea was to make an elaborate mosaic of a pond with water grasses and fish and maybe an otter, but after I made, tore apart, and remade a water lily for the counter by the sink, I simplified by about a hundred degrees. The shell tiles would go at the bottom of all the walls. From there, I would set tiles cut in wavy shapes, dark blue to lighter colors. The subtly decorated white tiles would go above the windows, like clouds. The little glass fish would swim in two schools deep in the “sea.” The swimmers would swim at the top of the water all in a row all along the tub and the wall.

            I was learning as I worked, so I had to tear out some parts and redo them. My two-year-old granddaughter glued some glass fish on the wall. To add to the decorative arts in the bathroom, my son made me a towel rack and a toilet paper holder. A pair of shutters from my childhood home enhances the mirror and medicine cabinet.
            I love my bathroom. Showering outdoors is pure pleasure as is, equally, bathing indoors.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

House Series # 11, The Bedroom: A Place to Lay My Head

            When I was a child, my bed was in a corner, head to head with my sister’s bed along the other wall. I struggled to make it up every morning, and I vowed that when I grew up, I would have a bed that was easy to make up.
            For forty years I had a bedroom loft, with a short strip of floor to kneel on before getting onto the foam mattress on the loft floor that served as a bed. It was ridiculously difficult to make up. I had to kneel or lie on the mattress to pull the sheets off. When I half-stood, my head might hit the roof beam; I had to lie on the bed to tuck under the sheets; I couldn’t shake out blankets but could only pull them into place.

            Now at last, in my new house, I have an easy-to make bed, one of my own design: a platform on top of four two-drawer chests from my old house (see couch behind the ladder in picture above). The bed sits under the west window so that I’m looking east. There is a large window to the south and another window on the east wall.

The morning sun tops the mountain, then slides westward without ever waking me with the blare of sunlighrt. The full moon shines brightly but not too long before it dips behind the trees to the west. The stars glitter when the moon is new. I watch the three bright stars of Orion’s belt rise over Humpy in a slightly different place, each night. Last week a young moon hung just over the top of Humpy.
 The closet has louvered doors with accordion hinges and a manzanita-branch pull. When I told Richard I wanted something made from manzanita, he said he would make it if I would find the manzanita limb: straight, no knots or limbs, consistent circumference. In a manzanita! I hunted through the woods with my bow saw for a long time but finally cut some dark red limbs that suited Richard’s specs. When the closet doors are closed, the pieces of manzanita look like one branch.     
            Besides the bed, the only other pieces of furniture are a chest of drawers that came from my parents’ bedroom in the house I grew up in and a chair from that same house. The photographs on the wall were done by my Ph.D. advisor, who gave them to me at graduation. I used some graduation gift money to have them framed.
            When the house was finished and I had moved in, I was displeased with only one thing. The light switch in the bedroom was on the wall at the top of the stairs, not where I could reach it from the bed. That meant I had to walk around the bed to turn on the reading lamp and walk around again to turn off the ceiling light before getting into bed. Then one night, I thought, “What’s wrong with getting into bed in the dark?” Ever since then, I have enjoyed a few moments every night to look at the dark mountain silhouetted against a moonlit, starlit, or cloud-darkened sky.
          And in the morning, when I get up, I can easily access all sides of the bed for making it up.