An extended family, a photographer’s studio and a camera

June 4, 2010

We gathered for what we knew would be our last formal family portraits. It was Thanksgiving 2008, just after Dad had officially moved into a memory care facility. His wife, two children and six grandchildren donned clothing in matching shades of navy and khaki and directed him into a photographer’s studio.

Dad was in decent spirits that day. He would generally sit where he was asked and smile when he was told. In the midst of the sitting, my then 11-year-old son held my point-and-shoot camera–and snapped this photo of his Grandpa.

It became my favorite after my son explained why he took it: because Grandpa looked as if he was looking for something and didn’t know what.


What’s in a name?

June 3, 2010

Both my first-born and my brother’s first-born children have the same middle name as their grandfather: Cleveland.

It’s an old family name.

A paternal uncle with a few “greats” before his name was Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. He died just over 100 years ago, in 1908. He spent part of his boyhood growing up in Fayetteville, NY, and I drive by Academy Street where his former home still stands almost every day.

Look at the pictures of Cleveland, the president, and compare the stately way with which he holds his head with the looks of Cleveland, my Dad in this picture taken at Silverado Senior Living where he has lived since October 2008.

President Cleveland was a lawyer and a long-time bachelor. He served as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York before becoming president, and so far he is the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. Historians say he was known for his laser-sharp focus, and they say he was at first ill at ease with the niceties of life in the White House. He’s described as “honest,

fearless and hard working,” in the 2006 Scholastic children’s book, “Grover Cleveland.”

One of the many Grover Cleveland biographies says much about the man with its title, “Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character,” by Alyn Brodsky. The book quotes another biographer who calls Cleveland a paradigm of honesty, integrity and resolution who acheived greatness through strength of character; a man who, though flawed, exemplified “courage that never yields an inch in the cause of truth, and that never surrenders an iota of principle to expediency.”

Of course, strength of character isn’t necessarily handed down through generations, though I’d like to think it is. And I realize that many people hold their bodies square and firm for portraits, making them no more or less “stately” than either Cleveland. Still, I like to think we can trace some traits through our lineage.

Is/was my Dad honest and hard working and principled because his namesake was? Have my son and nephew inherited those traits, too? Sometimes I fret about what their genes hold: the same frontotemporal dementia that afflicts my Dad? Or something benign, like fearlessness or laser-sharp focus, even an aptitude for the law?


Forget-Me-Not Days are May 14 and 15

May 12, 2010


Donate money to the Alzheimer’s Association during “Forget-Me-Not Days” and receive seeds to plant in your own garden. The fund-raiser brought in more than $229,000 in 2009.

This will be the eighth consecutive year that Bankers Life and Casualty Company, a national life and health insurer, has undertaken the fundraiser which puts volunteers in distinctive green aprons, handing out seed packets to raise awareness of the disease.

What a great idea.

These beautiful blueish-purple flowers will come back year after year. They’re a pretty way to “carpet” an area of your garden. Plant them after the last frost, spacing them 4 to 5 inches apart and covering them with 1/8-inch of garden soil. They like the shade the best, must be kept moist, and in northern climates will require mulching over winter.

These are the flowers of remembrance, and of true love.

How to grow forget-me-nots from seed.


Certain about our times in Uncertain

May 12, 2010

They say it’s the stomping grounds of the legendary Bigfoot, but our times at Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border never included a sighting. Our family camped in a rustic cabin in Uncertain, Texas on the banks of the swampy forest that is Caddo Lake. We did this during football season, for I remember listening to Cowboys games via radio. I remember hooking catfish. And traveling by boat to nearby restaurants. And how my Dad–who apparently explored the area extensively as a boy–could navigate without a map.

To understand what a big deal that is, you have to know Caddo Lake.

It’s Texas’ only natural lake. (Yes, all the rest are man-made.) It’s the largest natural freshwater lake in the south, containing the largest cyprus forest in the world. Its trees are 400 years old. And they have a creepy beauty about them. It’s a cinch to get lost within them, to look down one channel and convince yourself that’s the way back to the cabin, only to discover you are deeper in trouble. That’s probably what feeds the legend of Bigfoot. A person could easily disappear within, and survive upon, Caddo Lake.

We never got lost with Dad, though. Either he knew his way around, or he faked it well enough to get us where we were going.

I have good memories of our long weekends in Uncertain. And I was happy to see it made Texas Monthly’s “bucket list” of 63 things all Texans should do before they die. I do not know if my Dad had his own personal bucket list, (though he did many bucket list-able things–Machu Picchu, scuba, Alaska) but I have no doubt if he did, Caddo Lake was on it.

The New York Times’ “A passage into primeval on a bayou lake in East Texas”

Amusement parks as a metaphor for life

April 24, 2010

Whenever we visited amusement parks together–whether at a park he ran, or one at which he was a visitor like everyone else–my Dad always picked up trash. He could not help himself.

If someone had discarded a cigarette butt, a drinking cup, a candy wrapper onto the ground, my Dad would pick it up and carry the trash in his hands until he found a proper receptacle.

Having a father in the amusement industry meant my brother and I got to spend lots and lots of time at amusement parks. We would go to Six Flags over Texas after school each day. One summer, when Dad ran Old Chicago, we spent the summer riding rides and playing carnival games. Another summer we stayed in Knoxville, Tennessee for the World’s Fair, since Dad ran the midway there. My brother has followed Dad’s footsteps into the amusement industry. I’ve watched from the sidelines.

I’ve watched, over the years, how Dad pays attention to keeping the lines moving. There’s a whole science to those queues we stand in to ride roller coasters. Park managers don’t want us standing in line all day; if we’re standing in line, we’re not buying lemonades and souvenir T-shirts and balloons. I’ve watched how Dad pays the same respect to the parking lot attendant as to the visiting dignitary. And, of course, how he picks up trash without qualm, in order to keep the park–his or someone else’s–looking nice.

I suspect he loved his industry from the very first job he had as a ride operator. I know he loved roller coasters and thrill rides; I inherited that gene from him. He told me he wants to be cremated rather than buried because he would rather have cemetery land available for an amusement park.

When I was a baby, above, he would carry me through the park on his shoulders or in his arms. Two years ago, on our last trip to an amusement park together, I tried to hold hands so he would not wander. Eventually, we came to The Scream, below.

And of course my Dad could not help himself. He rode that ride with gusto, like the grandchild sitting next to him, not dwelling on the ups and downs or what lays ahead, but just enjoying the moment.

*** UPDATE ***
The morning after I posted this article, I was brushing my teeth. That picture you see at the very top of this post sits in that porcelain frame atop a high shelf in my bathroom. Very securely, I might add.

Well, it leapt from its perch, landing on my arm. It did not break. And, though heavy, did not hurt me.

Of course I risk sounding loony, but…I suspect the frame was my dad, somehow, reaching out to me.


Orange prompts pondering on life with dementia

April 24, 2010

He’s always in my heart, of course, but once my Dad is in heaven, I’m sure that he’ll pop into my mind often–like when my daughter grabs an orange at breakfastime.

I was reading the newspaper. She was digging her fingernails into the skin of an orange and removing small chunk after small chunk of rind. Eventually she got to pulling away the stringy pith. Juice ran down her hands. I told her I would have sliced the orange for her, if she had asked.

“One of my friends puts the orange in his mouth and bites the skin off,” she told me.

“You know who else does that?” I asked, suddenly remembering. “Your Grandpa.”

From my childhood all the way into my adulthood, my Dad would bite into the skin to start peeling an orange. Often he could peel the entire fruit in one intact piece. He probably started perfecting his trick in childhood, maybe about the age of 9, Sabrina’s age. It’s something I never picked up.

Sabrina was mildly impressed. “Do you think he still does?” she asked.

What a good question.

I wondered. I wonder, still. Is orange-peeling a skill that dementia would allow? Is it a habit so well-ingrained as to not be taken from my Dad by his disease? He can’t reliably recognize his grandchild, or child, or wife. But I bet he can still peel oranges.

So instead of getting all sad about how oranges have made a longer-lasting impression on my Dad than I have, I look at that piece of fruit and say a quiet little ‘thank you’ for the memories.

To my daughter, I say: “I think he probably does.”


Happy 69th birthday to my Dad

April 3, 2010

I can’t recall missing one of my Dad’s birthdays since my adulthood. Growing up, we celebrated his special day the way we did everyone in the family. The birthday person got to choose their favorite restaurant, and we had homemade cake at home. Once I was out of the house, the milestones were celebrated via U.S. Postal Service–a small gift and a carefully selected card.

This year, I sent a card. I doubt he will understand who it is from. He probably will not realize today is his birthday. But I sent it just in case. What if the frontal temporal lobe dementia that’s got him in its grip gives him a good day? Some days are, after all, better than others.

My Dad didn’t age until dementia took over, in 2008. He always looked younger than he really was. In this picture, he is 64. He is standing infront of the little clinic in Jacksboro, Texas where he was born. At the time, his family lived in nearby Archer City, (home, too, to author Larry McMurtry.)It was important to my Dad that we travel back to Archer City on Fourth of July weekend every five years for a family reunion that pulls together kin from all over the United States.

When we were there in 2005, we stayed at the Spur Hotel, at the intersection bearing the city’s single stoplight, checked out the still-in-renovation Royal Theater, and looked through all of McMurtry’s book stores. (Even running into McMurtry, himself, in one of them.) We ate at the Dairy Queen, even though the city boasted a brand new Sonic. Dad showed us the rodeo yards, and the house where he grew up. We visited the cemetery where our ancestors are buried. And we toured the Archer County Museum and Jail, a sandstone building from 1910. A docent warned us to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes as we showed ourselves around the property and climbed to the third floor to see the hanging gallows.

Dad enjoyed showing his grandchildren his roots. And I’m glad he got to revisit them, himself, for one last time.


Contemplations over the loss of a pet

March 16, 2010

One of our guinea pigs died today. I raced home from work but missed her last breath by a few minutes. She was about 6 1/2, which is a little longer than the expected lifespan of a guinea pig.

I remember when she joined our family.

My Dad was visiting over the summer of 2004 and while he was here, he got my son (7 at the time) his birthday gift from Grandma and Grandpa: two guinea pigs.

My Dad had grown up in the country, so he was comfortable with rodents. He told many stories about his mother warily opening dresser drawers, fearful of what rodent (or other creature) he might have stashed in there for safekeeping. He set up the cage and bedding with my son and helped him get acquainted with the new little guinea pigs who would become part of our family.

Eventually Allison provided my son with what he describes as the best day of his life. He came home from school to find three baby guinea pigs in her cage. (We had noticed she had been getting rather fat.)

Lately we noticed she had been getting rather frail. My son came home from school today to find her unable to stand. By telephone, he described her limpness, and her legs that were shaking. “Hold her,” I coached him. “Let her feel you touching her. Pet her, and love on her.”

I arrived home to find him in tears. She was gone. And he felt awful about how she had gone: right there, with him holding her.

I thought about how lucky she was. “Actually,” I told my son, “of all the ways there are to die, the way she went is probably the best.”

And then I wondered if–prayed that–his Grandpa would be so lucky.


What would Dad say about this dementia blog?

March 15, 2010

Would Dad mind that I mention him, that I post his picture on this DementiAwareness blog? That question nags at me.

My father was always very proud of my work as a journalist. And I enjoyed, when he came to visit, that he could open the daily newspaper and read articles written by his daughter. But those stories weren’t about me, or him. They did not publicize our family.

This blog sort of does.

It’s too late to ask my Dad how he feels about, well, pretty much anything. We can’t trust much of what he says (he often says he’s hungry just after finishing a meal) so I have to imagine what his response would be, based on the 44 years I’ve known him. Would he be proud of my work? Or embarassed of the content and its occasional reference to him? Would he feel shame?

My father never sought publicity, at least not for himself. But he was willing to promote certain causes. When I was little, he posed for a magazine cover during the energy crisis, bundled in a blanket for a story about energy conservation.

He was a lover of science, too, and when he watched TV, it was often a documentary or educational program. I remember watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins together every week growing up.

So I’m thinking that if he were in his right mind, my Dad would relish learning about frontotemporal lobe dementia. I think he could appreciate the mystery of the disease, if he weren’t suffering from it so. I even think he would forgive me for sometimes referring to him in the past tense, even though he is still alive and, at least physically, well.


Driving with early Alzheimer’s even riskier than first believed

March 13, 2010

Even with early dementia, research is now showing there’s no safe time behind the wheel of a car.

“Alzheimer’s disease affects memory and navigational skills. These impairments may lead to getting lost, which is a life-threatening problem. Family members and friends of individuals with dementia need to recognize these impairments as serious threats to safety for anyone who has dementia,” Linda Hunt told HealthDay. She is an associate professor in the School of Occupational Therapy at Pacific University, Oregon, and author of a study published in the March-April issue of American Journal of Occupational Health.

The study focused on newspaper accounts of 207 Alzheimer’s patients who went missing while driving. Thirty-two died, and 35 were found injured, according to the HealthDay article. Seventy had not been located at the time the data was analyzed. “Some had driven for almost two days and covered more than 1,700 miles while lost. Most had set off on routine trips to the post office, store or a relative’s house,” the article says.

Mom tried hiding the keys from Dad once it was clear he wasn’t right. But of course one day he found them and took off in his car. She called me, fearful of what could happen. We weren’t sure what to do. Would the police find him if we gave them the license plate number? Eventually Dad called saying he was at a gas station. Mom begged him to let her come get him, but he would have none of it. He said he would drive home. So again we fretted, waiting — and were relieved beyond belief when he drove into his parking spot in the garage for what would be the last time.

Shortly after that, Dad’s car went into the shop for repairs. It was gone for quite a long time. Long enough for him to get used to the idea that he could no longer drive.

Some of this advice from the National Safety Commission would not really apply to a person facing Alzheimer’s or dementia, but some of it is useful if you’re faced with taking the keys away from someone you love. This article — “How to Determine Your Elderly Parent’s Driving Ability” — by Leonard Hansen at AgingCare.com may also be of help.


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