Cathy A. E. Bell

Personal Essays and Poems by Cathy A. E. Bell

Category: Family

My latest essay…

ranch

I spent a year working on my essay “Drive-by”. It started as fragmented, became a narrative, grew huge, shrunk back, and on and on. I needed this essay to be perfect. It’s my heart. It’s my baby. I’ve never loved an essay I’ve written more than this one. It chronicles a turning point in my life, a moment I could admit I missed my mother after years of no contact between us.

It’s taken a while to find the right home, but it DID find the right home at Full Grown People, a journal that that looks at “the sometimes glorious, sometimes messy, stuff that comes with adulthood.” I can’t begin to list the people who helped me workshop this piece in all its forms (thank you everyone!), but I will say thank you to Lynn Hall who has been the biggest champion of this essay since I wrote it and for her amazing editing skills to help me cut 1500 words from it. And thank you to FGP’s founder and editor Jennifer Niesslein for publishing and fine tuning it. I am so happy to have this essay birthed into the world today. I hope you’ll share in the journey (both the journey to publication and the literal drive-by of the story) with me.

“I wonder if reliving our childhood through day-long drives, as we often do, gives us insight to the ways the past intertwines with the now. Sometimes we don’t know how we really feel until we come close to the object that excites us, or haunts us, or excites and haunts us all at once, like our mother.”

http://fullgrownpeople.com/2015/09/01/drive/

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A new essay has just been published in The Rumpus this morning!

I’m very excited to announce my latest essay publication in The Rumpus this morning.  It’s one of the shorter essays I’ve written, so it won’t take long to read. Thank you!

 

Mom sent my blue baby book to me once in an act of severance.  As I flipped through the musty pages I found where she recorded my first sentence:  “Momma, see!”

Read the whole essay here:

http://therumpus.net/2014/11/the-sunday-rumpus-essay-cold-blue/?fb_action_ids=10152906764449739&fb_action_types=og.likes

(Photo by Kristin Basta)

My Mother in a Song

 

My poem “My Mother in a Song” was published at http://run-to-the-roundhouse-nellie.com/readers-house/ this month, so I wanted to post it here as well. The prompt was MOM.

catsunglasses

My Mother in a Song

She is the orchard
and the peaches that come later in a jar.
She is the music playing from the radio, filling the car.

“Seasons in the Sun”
“Hooked on a Feeling”
“Sunshine on My Shoulders”
“Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”

She is a clean house,
the smell of Windex and the clear pane of a window.
She is the music dancing from the cabinet stereo.

“You Make Me Feel Brand New”
“Shining Star”
“I Can See Clearly Now”
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life”

She is also the black, chilly night
an absence of light, a void without stars.
She is the music blaring out from the bars.

“Dark Lady”
“One of These Nights”
“Drift Away”
“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”

And she is the gap in the baby book,
the blank pages after age four (where writing should have been).
She is the music whispering from the record’s spin.

“When Will I See You Again?”
“Day by Day”
“Song Sung Blue”
“If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”

Still,
She is blanket laid out by the mountain stream,
roasted marshmallows, fried chicken,
bologna sandwiches—the goodness that picnics bring.
She is the song the artist loves to sing.

“The Best of My Love”
“Rocky Mountain High”
“Jackie Blue”
“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”

“Wash Me Clean” Earns a Pushcart Prize Nomination

gramme1971

I’m so thrilled that this little (very personal) essay is taking on a life of its own! I was informed yesterday by the editor of Hippocampus Magazine, Donna Talarico, that “Wash Me Clean” is one of her six choices for nominees this year. Literary journals and small presses are all allowed to nominate six pieces published in in the last year. You can read my fellow nominees’ work here: http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2013/12/hippocampus-announces-pushcart-nominees-for-2013/  All excellent personal stories.

It’s an honor to be among all the other nominees–writers light years beyond me in talent and craft skills. Even so, it’s a blessing and more than anything I just want my grandmother to be proud of her girl.

http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2013/10/wash-me-clean-by-cathy-a-ebell/

Gram and Me

Gram and Me

Wash Me Clean

An essay about caring for my grandmother during her Alzheimer’s illness. It’s about the way we forget who our loved ones were before they got sick. Please go to Hippocampus Magazine to read it! Thank you!

Gram and Me

http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2013/10/wash-me-clean-by-cathy-a-ebell/

Life in a Scrapbook (Originally Published in Colorado Central Magazine–January 2013)

Cotton Proe as a teenager

Cotton Proe as a teenager

Anyone who ever met Charles “Cotton” Proe quickly forgot about the iron split-hook peeking out from his buttoned cuff where his left hand should have been. Instead they would be whirled up into Cotton’s friendly ambiance: his smile, firm handshake, and a gentle shine in his eyes. All who knew him called him “Cotton,” a nickname bestowed in early childhood for his nearly white head of hair. Although his shock of white became more blonde the older he got, the name stuck, becoming a small part of what made him such a unique man to those who knew him.

The essence of a man’s life may be difficult to capture, especially in a scrapbook. But, for Cotton, his scrapbook sums up his character and fortitude well. Many of his triumphs, illustrating his ability to overcome his limitations, appear in newspaper clippings; those that weren’t written about might be captured in a photo or a story told by his only living daughter, Bobbie, sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee, looking through his scrapbook. And with Cotton Proe, there’s never been a shortage of stories.

One black-and-white photo in his scrapbook, circa 1909, shows Cotton as a young boy in Nebraska wearing his newsboy cap, kneeling within a row of other young boys all holding up dead coyotes. Cotton is holding one canine’s head while another boy holds the limp but beautiful body. The animal looks like he’s sleeping. Behind them are nearly 50 adults, family, and neighbors, the women in bonnets and dark coats, the men blurry in the background, most with barely detectable smiles or none at all. But Cotton, he looked like a boy who had just lost his best friend, with his full lips in a pout. Some looking at the photo might think it’s just country ranchers showing off their kill, but for Cotton’s middle daughter, Bobbie, that photo tells a much sadder story. “Daddy begged them not to kill this one coyote. He loved that coyote—he was like a pet to him. But, they went ahead and killed him anyway and Daddy was crying for his friend in that photo.”

Cotton with his family and neighbors iin Nebraska.  Cotton is first row, third from the left.

Cotton with his family and neighbors in Nebraska. Cotton is first row, third from the left.

Later years, in high school, a sepia-toned photo shows a basketball team, Cotton standing the tallest, arms crossed like his teammates, long nose, dimpled square chin, blonde hair short on the sides and longer on top, brushed straight back, resembling hair styles of the present day, his head tilted slightly, looking a bit cocky and certainly sure of himself. After high school, an article titled “Creamery Five Cinches Title in City Loop” describes a winning game for the semi-pro Norfolk Creamery team. Cotton scored well above his other team mates (and his competition), earning 12 points out of the 22 points that won the game. One can imagine his large, strong hands grasping the basketball and shooting the winning hoop. “It was the basket flipping of Proe, Creamery center, that cinched the game for his mates.”

Cotton with his basketball teammates. He's back row, center.

Cotton with his basketball teammates. He’s back row, center.

When Cotton was about twenty-two, Colorado came calling and he made the move to Alamosa, where one of his first jobs was hauling bricks to the construction site of the Alamosa State Normal School. Years later, when his oldest great-granddaughter told him she was accepted to Adams State College he said, “Well, I’ll be darned, Lil’ Red. I hauled the first load of bricks used to build Adams State back in the early 1920s when it was just a patch of grass. Isn’t that somethin’?” Whether her great-granddad was more proud of her or his part in the history of Adams State, she wasn’t sure; but his enthusiasm was evident either way.

One day, Cotton was driving to South Fork for a date when he spotted a beautiful woman standing on a bridge looking out over the Rio Grande River. Dorothy was helping a friend serve food to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad crew at Masonic Park and was taking a break. Self-assured as always, Cotton pulled his Model T off to the side of the road and began to chat Dorothy up. Cotton quickly changed course and took Dorothy on a date that night instead. They married in 1925.

Cotton and his wife Dorothy on the Alamosa bridge

Cotton and his wife Dorothy on the Alamosa bridge

Other photos of the early 20s show Cotton, tall, lean, and dusty, in his life as a farm-hand, with bib overalls rolled at the cuffs, holding the reins of a horse. Lending more detail of Cotton’s life at that time is a photo-copy of an article about Jack Dempsey, the championship boxer. Jack was visiting his family’s farm in his home town of Manassa, just outside Alamosa. The photo shows a row of people standing in front of a Model T. In the middle stands a man in suspenders with a wide-brimmed black hat, hands in pockets—the only one with a slight smile in the photo. The caption reads: “Dempsey held a deep affection for this family and kept in constant touch with them. Here he and Kearns [his manager] are seen visiting Dempsey’s brother. Unidentified man in center was hired farm hand.”

Cotton working as a ranch hand in Colorado

Cotton working as a ranch hand in Colorado

After Cotton’s life as a farm hand, the photos of his life fade out for a bit, but the stories don’t. There’s no newspaper article telling of the Denver and Rio Grande railroad train he saved from derailing as a young brakeman working his normal route from Alamosa to Chama, New Mexico. But his daughter Bobbie will tell of the night in a dark canyon when Cotton was alerted that something was wrong while working in the second engine car. He swung out of his car, hurrying across the side until he reached the locomotive engine in the front. Finding the engineer asleep, Cotton grabbed the brake, grinding the train to a halt before it hit a large boulder on the tracks. Those that know Cotton will say he recounted all of his stories with humility and humor and, although he was a hero in this story, he probably didn’t feel like one.

In the early 1930s, a couple of years after leaving Alamosa (after quick stint as a Hoover vacuum salesman in Wyoming and Limon, Colorado), Cotton moved his wife and young daughter, Elaine, to Cañon City. A few years later he found one of his callings as a prison guard at “Old Max,” Colorado Territory’s first prison, built in 1871. Cotton’s relationship with the inmates wasn’t typical, but nothing much about Cotton’s life was. He put together a baseball team of trusties and took them to play ball with other town teams at the baseball field. He’d cart along his daughters and afterwards he’d treat them all to a burger at Murphy’s Drive Inn. Bobbie still looks back on those days with a giggle and watering mouth—it was the one time she was allowed to drink soda: an icy-cold bottle of Orange Crush. For Cotton and his girls, the cons were extended family, even the murderers. One convict even made Cotton’s eldest daughter a beautiful wooden chest, which remained one of Elaine’s most precious possessions.

Between baseball seasons with the inmates, Cotton’s youngest daughter, Peggy, was born premature. (Peggy would put together the scrapbook for her father decades later.) She was so tiny Cotton could slide his Masonic ring over her hand all the way up to her shoulder. Fearing she’d be dropped by a nun at the hospital, he built an incubator for her at home that used a light bulb for warmth. That story never made the paper either, but it survives in family lore.

Cotton with his German Shepard

Cotton with his German Shepard

But amidst the newspaper articles of Cotton’s life, among his obituary and short articles telling of his volunteer work and civil duties, is the one that explains best how a man lost his large, strong hand: the one that built the incubator, stopped the train, and threw the winning basket, and overcame his disability to keep playing his beloved game of golf.

“Up to 1943, I had a four handicap [in golf],” Cotton told reporter Bob Wood in an article published in 1973 and again in 1987. “In 1944,” he continued, “May 18th at 8 o’ clock in the morning, I cut my arm off in a sausage grinder.” Cotton was working in a grocery store, grinding meat, and when he pushed his hand in too far, the blades grabbed it. Cotton was rushed to a hospital in Colorado Springs where doctors managed only to re-connect his thumb to part of his forearm. Waking up from surgery, Cotton’s realization of his changed life must have been crushing.

“Lying in bed there, when the doctor came in I said, ‘Hey Doc, can I play golf anymore?’ He wouldn’t answer me.” After Cotton’s surgery, he asked for the thumb to be removed as well. He had befriended a young girl in the hospital with a prosthetic leg and seeing that her leg didn’t slow her down at all, he decided he wanted to be fitted for a prosthetic arm and couldn’t have one with his thumb attached. Cotton endured more surgeries. He confided years later to his son-in-law that the subsequent surgeries were harder than the initial one because they had to amputate even more of the arm to accommodate the prosthesis. He was often “cranky,” Bobbie remembers, primarily because the shoulder strap that controlled his hook’s opening and closing would rub his skin raw. It took many drives to Denver before the substitute arm and hand fit well.

Once Cotton’s pain was under control, his feisty spirit returned and it wasn’t long before he was on a mission to find a way to play golf. His goal: to build a prosthesis that would allow him to hold and swing his golf club again.

“I had the cons at the penitentiary help me at first because I was an ex-guard and I built eight of them before I finally perfected one.” Cotton designed his “hand” out of a piece of hose from a tractor for flexibility, a locking pair of pliers, and a rounded clamp welded the to the tip of the pliers. “I went out to the course and I hit a ball about 200 yards down the middle and I said, ‘Boy, I’ve got ‘er.’”

Life went on for Cotton. He bought and remodeled an old theater on Main Street, turning it into a bowling alley. An old black-and-white photo shows a piece of Main Street with a large white bowling pin sign attached high on the brick near the apartment windows above the store-fronts. Nestled between two signs, “Liquors” and the “E-A-T-S; Ellie’s Diner,” is an arrow pointing to the door of the bowling alley that says “Popcorn,” perhaps left over from the theatre days. He set up bowling teams for the kids in town and Bobbie would do her homework there after school so she could bowl afterwards. He ran the place for years, hiring a couple of club-footed siblings to be pin setters. He’d buy the kids shoes and other items their family couldn’t afford, save their money for them until they had something they wanted to spend it on, and drive them home “way out to the boondocks” when the bowling alley closed at night.

Main Street, Canon City, Colorado in the 1940s or 1950s

Main Street, Canon City, Colorado in the 1940s or 1950s

After Cotton left the bowling alley business, he began a twenty-year career as the superintendent of the “finest humane shelter in the United States,” according to a Daily Record article in January, 1969. Multi-page articles fill the scrapbook touting the new animal shelter (better known as the Humane Society of Fremont County now) with photos: the shelter with the caretaker apartment on top; brand new dog kennels and runs; Cotton preparing dog food for the nightly feeding; and his wife, Dorothy, bathing a stray dog. As well as taking care of homeless dogs and cats, Cotton and Dorothy often took in whatever family members needed taking in—somehow managing to fit everyone into the small five-room apartment above the shelter.

One perk of being the superintendent of the shelter was that Cotton oversaw all filming of movies, like The White Buffalo starring Charles Bronson, near the Cañon City area if horses or other animals were involved, ensuring the animals were treated well. He quickly became a favorite of cast and crew on many films. “The actors loved Daddy and looked after him,” Bobbie remembers. In one film, an actor tried dismounting a horse when his foot became caught, dragging him behind the running horse. Cotton quickly grabbed another horse and stood in the path of the runaway horse to stop him. He did stop the horse but was knocked around a bit and broke some ribs in the process. But, Cotton did what he always did: saved the day in his humble sort of manner.

Charles "Cotton" Proe

Charles “Cotton” Proe

A few pages over, a clipping shows Cotton accepting an award from the Elks (even though he wasn’t a member himself) for “Citizen of the Year.” They praised him for running the Fremont County Humane Society for two decades and for his care and love for animals. After a speech by an Elk member proclaiming Cotton’s “brotherly love” because he saved thousands of animal lives, he received a standing ovation from over 150 people. Cotton’s smile is humble yet proud.
After Cotton’s loss of his forearm and hand, he went on to become a legend in small-town Cañon City. He encouraged wounded World War II soldiers who’d lost a limb not to give up and showed the vets, by example, life could continue with some hope and determination. He won trophies for his excellent golf game (and bowling) and folks hailed him when he still continued winning trophies at tournaments into his 80s. And although he’s the only one in the golf and bowling photos wearing long sleeves (a far cry from the sleeveless shirts showing off his muscled arms of his basketball days), he seems a happy man, someone who did his best to make the town he loved a little better than he found it.

One writer, his name not visible from the photocopy of the article, after watching the Senior Beacon Open golf tournament and telling Cotton’s story, summed up his quintessence well, saying, “Now that’s what I call the determination of the human spirit; to carry on no matter what the odds.”
Those who knew Cotton were left with an impression of him as distinctive as his name. It was only fitting that the older Cotton grew, the more his hair color resembled the color it was as a child.

Cotton told folks, “The hardest thing about gettin’ old is watching your friends die,” and because he died at 93, he outlived most of them. But his family keeps the stories and images of him alive—even if his friends can’t—picturing him on the golf course, holding the 9 iron firmly with both of his hands, his tuft of white hair glinting in the sun.

The Way He Loves Me (A Daughter’s Appreciation of Her Father’s Love)

 

Some of the most loving fathering I’ve had was not when I was a small child or a teenager.  It wasn’t when Dad said he loved me; that’s only happened a few times in my life.  It wasn’t through hugs; those are rare. He’s not that kind of guy. He’s a serious man—a retired cop who has seen a lot of rough things in his life.  Fortunately, though, he has grown a little softer through the years.  So, when I think of how my father has cared for me and sheltered me, I think back to my late 20s when I moved out-of-state to Arizona for graduate school and then moved back home a couple of years later. 

I made a neglectful mistake by not asking my father for help in driving the huge, stuffed U-Haul with my car in tow when I moved to Flagstaff.  I’m an independent person and I didn’t think to ask for help—or maybe I didn’t think he would help me.  It didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know how to drive a truck while hauling a trailer until my father asked me several times if I really knew what I was doing. 

“I wish I had known sooner when you were leaving. I could have taken time off and helped you move,” he said. 

“Oh,” I paused—the thought just occurring to me for the first time that I could have asked him.  I reassured him I’d be fine, trying to convince him and myself that I could move on my own.       

“Make sure you don’t hit anything with that trailer. Driving a trailer is not easy, Cathy,” he said with a knitted brow. I smiled faintly, looking doubtful, and told him I’d figure it out. But as I was driving away and ran over the curb with the trailer, I began to tear up, cursing myself for not thinking beyond packing the truck.  I had no idea what it was going to be like pulling a trailer.  

A couple of hours later, I nearly took out a gas pump and had to beg the attendant to pull the truck out for me.   After that incident, I made sure to only buy gas where I could pull through easily.  About 11 p.m., desperate to stop for the night, my young sister and I ended up at a motel in Albuquerque.  I pulled into the parking lot and had nowhere to pull through, but didn’t realize it until it was too late.  I was boxed in with a chain link fence ahead of me.  The next morning, it took me 30 minutes to back my way out of the lot, practically t-boning my car in the process.  Eventually, we reached Flagstaff and I immediately dropped off the trailer at U-Haul. I never wanted to see another one again.

When my two years of graduate school in Health Psychology were nearly over, my dad kindly responded to my desperate plea to come help me move home.   A few nights before he came to Arizona, I experienced an incident so frightening that I called him in the middle of the night crying. Late the night before I defended my thesis, I was watching TV because I couldn’t sleep, rehearsing my thesis defense in my mind.  To compound my stress, I was getting sick.  In a couple of days it would be bronchitis and a sinus infection. I was fidgety thinking about whether I’d be able to successfully defend my thesis the next day.   

I lived in a tiny studio apartment, less than 500 square feet.  I slept on a futon in the main room just a few feet away from the front window.  My apartment faced out to a never-ending forest on the edge of town and I had the window open. Even though the blinds were pulled down, I could still smell the pine trees outside.  The apartment was dark except for the light coming from the TV.  Suddenly, a man wearing a baseball cap was standing against my window peering down through the blind slats at me. I could hear the gravel under his feet as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  I froze.  The gravity of the situation didn’t escape me—I knew he could rip my screen out and get to me in 3 steps. My breathing stopped.  I felt a rush of adrenaline surging from my kidneys, flooding my blood stream.  I was outside myself watching my reaction. I thought, so this is how it feels when something like this happens. 

I knew I wasn’t helping myself by freezing: I had to take action.  After what was only about 20 seconds but seemed much longer, I heard my voice say, very calmly, “You better get out of here, or I’m calling the police.”  He didn’t flinch. He stared. I thought, thank God this is the one night I didn’t put my phone on the charger across the room.  “I mean it. I’m calling,” I said louder.  He still didn’t move.  I slowly reached over and picked up the phone.  I dialed.  “Police.  Is this an emergency?” The dispatcher said.  He was so close he could hear the dispatcher’s voice.  As I replied saying quietly, “Yes, there is a man outside my window,” the man walked away.  The dispatcher told me to stay on the phone with her until an officer arrived.  Once the officer pulled up, I quickly hung up the phone, dressed, and answered the door. 

I tried to downplay the situation to the cop: “Oh, it’s just a peeping Tom. They’re harmless.”  “Oh, no they aren’t harmless,” he said.  “It always escalates. First it’s peeping, then it’s assault.”  He spent the next hour convincing me I needed to be scared by telling me stories of peeping Toms “gone violent”.  It worked and after he left, I was frightened, feeling vulnerable. 

I called my dad in Denver.  I tried to be strong; but as always, I cried as soon as my daddy—my protector—answered the phone.  Sobbing.  “What’s wrong, Cathy?” he asked.  More sobbing.  “Cathy?” he asked again.  Finally I managed a couple words in between gasps for air.  “Some—guy—was just—outside my window—peering in—at me. I called—the police.  I’m—okay.  Okay, I’m scared—but I’ll be alright.  Sorry, Dad—for waking you up.”  Slowly I regained my composure.   His reaction was soothing: “Too bad you didn’t have a gun! You could have whipped that right out in his face and scared him to death! That would teach him not to peep in windows.”   I felt better after talking to him, but still had to make it alone until graduation. 

Finally, Dad arrived. I picked him up in Phoenix and we rented a U-Haul and drove back to Flagstaff.  That night in my apartment Dad said, “I hope that guy comes back and I’ll hurl this front door open and scare the heck out of him. What do you think he’d think about that?”  He threw the front door open and looked outside, rehearsing his imaginary scene.  I laughed and felt comforted. Finally, that night I slept. Dad probably slept for the first time in days, too.  Graduation was the next day and Dad and I had a quiet dinner at my favorite restaurant and then we began packing and cleaning.  Soon we were on the road headed back to Colorado. No more peeping Toms to worry about.  I was moving in with my dad for “a while” while I looked for work. Going home. 

Not only did Dad give me a wonderful place to stay for free, he paid my bills while I looked for a job.  We gardened and fixed up his new house together. I repaid his kindness by cooking home-made meals for him and cleaning.  We were buddies, watching our favorite TV shows together and going to eat dinner in new restaurants. 

One night, we got home late from dinner.  I felt disappointed that it was dark already but was determined to get in my daily run around the townhouse complex.  Dad said, “Can’t you wait until tomorrow?  It’s just not safe to run at night, Cathy.”

                “Dad, you can’t worry about me so much! I’m 28 years old!  How do you think I’ve survived all these years without you?”  I smiled, went up to my room, changed clothes, and started jogging around the huge complex on the sidewalk.  It started to rain.  As I was coming up the last stretch, breathing hard, I thought “I bet he’s worried sick about me.”  After I cleared the last hill, I thought I saw something move under a tree.  I squinted through the darkness and rain and looked again.  There, hiding behind the tree, soaking wet, was my dad—holding a flashlight and making sure I was safe.  And that is the way he loves me.

An Essay About My Grandmother and Her Alzheimer’s called “Number One”

My earliest memory of her—rocking me in her arms, singing You are My Sunshine, patting my butt to the rhythm of the rocking—her velvety hands, smelling of Avon hand cream, caressing me, patting me, loving me.  Later, whenever I visited her, I remember her always showering me with gifts: perfect outfits she spent hours sewing, little girl jewelry, modeling clay, personalized books with me as the leading character, and a doll that crawled.  My step-mother was fed up with how many dolls I received from her, but my grandmother bought them for me anyway.  She loved me.  I was the center of her universe.  As a child, a teen, and then a young adult, I knew—when I was in her presence—the world was just right and safe and good. 

I miss her.  I miss calling her when I have news. Sometimes I make up conversations in my mind.  “Hi, Gram. Guess what? Remember how much my eyes have been bothering me?  Well, I found out that I have severe dry eye.  All these years, I never knew that’s what it was.”  She’d say, “Oh, no. That’s just horrible. You poor thing.  I hope they can figure out what to do to help your eyes.”     

Or maybe I want to tell her about someone I’m dating.  But, I really don’t date anymore, so I guess that’s one conversation I don’t have to make up in my head.  Maybe I just want to cry to her and say, “Gram, the last 6 years have been so hard…I miss having you to lean on.  I miss you taking care of me and I’m tired of taking care of you. I love you, but the burden of your house and finances and the fights trying to get you in the shower and taking care of Grandpa and getting you on Medicaid and finding a nursing home—it’s just all too much. I’m tired and I just want you to hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay, like you used to.”

I guess, technically speaking, I could drive over to the nursing home she’s in now and have any one of these conversations with her—well, maybe not the one about taking care of her. She wouldn’t understand because she doesn’t know she’s sick. But certainly we could have a chat about the dry eyes.  She’d say exactly what I know she would. Yet, somehow it’s not the same because, one minute later, she won’t remember the conversation we just had. So, the comfort I used to get, and the best friend she used to be, are gone.  But, I still tell her things anyway. It makes her happy to hear about my life and it gives me a little glimmer of how things used to be. 

They call Alzheimer’s “The Long Good-Bye”.  It’s true.  You say good-bye a little at a time.  You miss your loved one and then feel guilty because he or she is sitting in front of you.  I’m lucky, though—my Gram still knows who I am. She still lights up when I walk into the room and brags about me to her family and friends.  She’s told me the story of the day I was born more times than my mother has. She always tells the tale with her arms cradled like she’s rocking me to sleep.  “You were born and I just felt like you were mine.  I knew you were mine.  God gave you to me and I had meaning in my life like I never had before. All the nuns in the hospital thought you were my baby.  You were my angel and you were all that I thought about. I hated to leave you with your parents. “

And who’s to blame her for not wanting to leave me with my parents?  When I was born, my mom had just turned 17; my father, 19.  They were kids who had no idea what to do with a baby.  It must have been hard for Gram to leave me, knowing my life was not going to be the calm, comfortable life she’d give me if she could.  She worried about me constantly.  My parents were dreadfully poor, so Gram would try to help as much as she could.  She bought fans because our trailer was too hot and bought me clothes, toys, and blankets.  She had a way of stepping in and filling in the gaps—not just when I was a child, but for most of my life.  She protected me.  She cherished me.  I constantly felt her love. 

Gram always tells me, “You are my number one!” and holds up her index finger to punctuate the point.   I’ve never felt more loved by anyone.  Luckily, that hasn’t changed since she got sick.  Thank goodness she’s still “there” enough to know she loves me.

 

Gram is happy now in the beautiful nursing home I chose for her.  She was depressed at first and cried every day.  She wanted to go home, even though she couldn’t always articulate that sentiment.  I felt horrible guilt when I wasn’t there with her every day.  But, now she has a friend, Charlotte, who wears funny hats and hobbles around using her walker.  Charlotte doesn’t talk much, but breaks out into song in response to anything you say to her.  If Gram says to me, “Cathy, your dog is so cute!”  Charlotte starts singing, “How much is that doggie in the window?”  Then Gram lights up and starts singing, too.  When they aren’t singing, they laugh at each other’s senseless jokes for hours.  They are so crazy about each other that they aren’t even allowed to sit together at meals because they never shut up long enough to eat. 

Sometimes I visit and we hang out in her room.  I lie down across the bed while she sits in her wheelchair and we fantasize about what trips we want to take—sometimes it’s to places she’s been or sometimes places she’ll never see, like Hawaii or Europe. Instead of letting her feel sad and trapped because she can’t just hop in her car and drive, I initiate imaginary trips.  We ate lunch on the sidewalk of a French cafe, chatting and people-watching.  We drove the English countryside, looking at the rolling hills and farmers with their sheep.  We traveled across Colorado and New Mexico in a fast car—she’s driving of course, with her foot to the floor. 

Sadly, though, some days when I go visit her, she’s so enamored with Charlotte that she forgets my dog and I are even there.  Talking to me, she’ll turn her head to hear something Charlotte has said. The next thing I know, she’s rolling down the hall in her wheelchair, laughing and looking up at Charlotte as they head to Charlotte’s room to eat candy and tell their secrets to one another.  I try to tell myself that it’s wonderful she’s so happy now and that she no longer relies on me to make her happy all the time, but later I cry because it hurts to not be “number one” today.

Several months ago she told me that we were soul mates. “Yes,” I said, “I know,” with a nod and a smile.  I’m not sure how I know, but I know she and I are connected spiritually—always have been, always will be.  I know I’ll be as close to her in death as I have been in life.  I feel such a sweet comfort in that knowing.  

I don’t think I’ll have any regrets when she dies—no wishing I had done this or said that.  I’ve said everything I need to say.  I’ve loved as much as I can.  I’ve washed her hair in the sink like she used to wash mine as a child.  I’ve curled her hair hundreds of times, just the way she likes it, and told her how beautiful she is—as she did with me when I was a kid.  I’ve bathed her, cooked her favorite meals, and listened to her stories, much as she bathed me, baked my favorite cherry cheesecake, and listened to my stories about boys.  I just hope I’ve been able to return the favor and give her the sense that life is just right and safe and good.

Originally published at A Long Story Short and as “Missing Her” in The Human Touch Journal at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus

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