In search of story


There comes a time

It had been a very long day, but then most days were. In addition to the usual bounding between Dad and catastrophe, there was a visit to his primary care physician. Dad was unsteady and taking him anywhere was a challenge. The doctor had told us that he was withdrawing some of Dad’s medications and that Dad should eat whatever he wanted, cholesterol be damned. Well, maybe those weren’t his exact words.

Dad and I had finished our usual early dinner and the day was closing into a winter evening as Dad was closing into himself, beginning his night’s restlessness. The phone rang; I took the call in a room away from Dad and was surprised to hear the voice of Dad’s wonderful doctor.

“I wanted to be sure you understood me today,” he said gently.

I assured the doctor I had understood: aggressive treatment was no longer the greater good. Dad’s body had had enough of swimming upstream. He was 84, worn out by dementia he didn’t even realize he had; his cardiovascular system and heart were exhausted, his mind not his own any more. Death wasn’t imminent, but life was, like the winter day, closing.

The doctor gave me permission to stop fighting the disease. It was OK to let go and know that Dad and God would take it from there. It was time.

It didn’t mean the end of medical care for Dad; it meant that medical care had a different purpose. The doctor was not abandoning his friend, as he referred to Dad, but standing with him, acknowledging reality when Dad couldn’t.

There comes a time when time runs out, and it’s all right to put away the clock.



Once upon a time I walked into my grandma’s kitchen and stopped with a gasp, not believing my eyes. There, on the other side of that rolling rumply floor, was a dollhouse unlike any other. I had to touch it to prove to myself it was real. Such a breathless moment of wonder comes rarely in a lifetime and that’s why I remember it.

Grandma had made that dollhouse from a tall cardboard box and fragments of her own house — bits of wallpaper, plastic shelf trim, Christmas tape, fabric. Except for a few pieces of dollhouse furniture that had been dug out from Pompeii, Grandma created everything. Out of nothing, almost. (Grandma and God were quite a team.)

Many years later, Grandma told me that she’d been astonished at the hours I’d spent with that dollhouse, and I was astonished that she was astonished. Had she not seen what she’d made for me? Did she not know what she’d taught me — that cardboard is the building block of the universe, the alpha and omega of childplay? that household flotsam is treasure? that I had to have a closet like this when I became a grandma?


My grandson can look at any discard in this closet and see five hundred things it could be. My granddaughter can see nothing that couldn’t be improved by being pink. Together they build cardboard cities, urban sprawl from here to there in my home. It is every time a salute to that dollhouse, that grandma.

Some day they will be too old for this closet and it will become boring with ordinariness. But they will never be too old to carry on the legacy: life is a pile of scraps; make something out of it.

Pizza oven. With pizza.

Pizza oven. With pizza.

Ballroom. With rose garden.

Ballroom. With rose garden.

City aborning

City aborning


Remembrance of things never past

February. It has nothing to do with groundhogs or valentines or Lent or the aching drab of late winter. It’s about assisted living. It’s the anniversary of separating Dad from his own home. A Caesarean without anaesthetic. An amputation without tourniquet.

When the memory came back to me a little while ago, I could feel my hands go clammy. I looked: my palms were sweaty. So quickly does memory turn to flashback.

Home is much more than worn highways in the carpet; it is independence, control, identity. All that is lost in assisted living. And, for Dad, by my hand. Rocks in my chest. I feel them now.

Dad’s dementia was non-Alzheimer’s, a cruel state of awareness and unknowing. Dad might seem fine during the day (he wasn’t), but at night he wandered, goaded by that unknown, a danger to himself and me. We were both sleepless but he didn’t know it. So he, uncomprehending, had to go into a secure place. He had a lovely apartment with his own furniture — and a locked door at the end of the hall. Incarceration became cardiac stress and in five days he was in the hospital.

Simultaneously, Dad’s sister Jean was dying of leukemia, his sister Edna showing signs of her own dementia. I was saturated with aging and dying. My face twitched so badly that I seemed to be winking.

No part of caregiving occurs in a vacuum. Always other things are going on. When I see this sweat on my palms today, fifteen years later, I also see my empty-eyed father, my deadly white Aunt Jean, my muddled Aunt Edna, and I long for sleep.

Caregiver flashbacks. Will anyone believe them?