Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Sad News and the Better

At the Memory Care Unit yesterday, I was sitting at my mother’s dinner table with her coffee, waiting for her to be brought out from her room. One on the CNAs we’re friendly with came over to me and said very softly, “Ruth passed away yesterday.”

I wrote about Ruth previously: she was the woman who thought my husband and I were her niece and nephew. I was shocked to hear this news, as she didn’t seem to be in ill health. It was a heart attack, the CNA said. I don’t know whether she died there in the unit or was taken to a hospital first, and I didn’t want to ask; as I wrote once, the staff protects the confidentiality of the residents and their families. She told me, she said, because she knew we were friendly with Ruth.

Ruth was a sweet, lovely lady who laughed a lot and always seemed to be happy. She enjoyed playing bingo and doing jigsaw puzzles, and she was very good at the latter. Every time we came in she would beam and call out, “There’s my nephew and niece” and beckon us to come over. My husband was happy to play along with her, answering her questions about other family members by saying we hadn’t seem them lately but thought they were doing well. We will miss her, but I hope that her belief that we were relatives made her a little happier in her last year of life. And I’m glad that she’s been released from the prison of her damaged mind and taken to a place where everything will be clear again.

Later the CNAs were talking with a new resident, a man who’s been there about a month, calling him “Dr. Jack.” One of them said to us, “Dr. Jack used to be a heart surgeon.” That took me aback. A heart surgeon, and where is all that knowledge and skill now? How many people’s lives did he save during his career? They will surely remember him, but he no longer does them, nor how his mind and hands performed medical miracles every day. It was another sad and scary reminder that this disease can happen to anyone, no matter how intelligent, no matter how much you used your mind and brain in your lifetime.

But we did get some positive news yesterday: the itching that has been plaguing my mother for the past couple of weeks seems to be subsiding. She had been scratching constantly, and her skin was red, torn, and mottled on her arms, face, and stomach. She’s had episodes of this in the past and needed a dermatologist’s care. This time the doctor didn’t prescribe medication but a regimen of over-the-counter preparations: Eucerin cream, Dove soap, Aveeno lotion. Fortunately it seems to be finally working.

And in this warm weather she’s been getting out into the garden to sit in the sunshine; she loves being outside. “We take them out in the morning, and she raises her face and closes her eyes and nods off,” one of the CNAs said. And when the garden starts to bloom again, it will warm her gardener’s heart to see the flowers and vegetables, to be in the warm free air after being confined inside all winter. And I’ll be grateful for the new rays of sunshine in her life.

Friday, May 4, 2012

I was planning on blogging about this anyway, but then I realized it fit this week's prompt beautifully...

A Home for Strangers

My husband and I spent the day yesterday helping to build a home for strangers.

Ever since I learned about Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s work with Habitat for Humanity, I’ve been intrigued by the organization and wanted to volunteer with it, but somehow I never did.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter working at a Habitat site in India. Photo from Habitat for Humanity website.

My husband’s company provides their employees with “service days,” on which they’re given a day's leave with pay to spend working in the community. He and several of his coworkers decided to work with Habitat for a day, and I, being self-employed and not needing anyone’s permission to take a day off, decided to go with him.

For those who don’t know, Habitat is a program that uses volunteer labor to build houses for low-income families. It isn’t a giveaway program; the homeowners are expected to be employed and to be able to make payments on an interest-free mortgage. They also are expected to contribute some of their own labor. The people from the local Habitat organization meet the future homeowners, but most of the volunteers don’t. They remain strangers to us.

Unfortunately it was a cool, damp day when we arrived at the house at 8:30. Fortunately, we were scheduled to work inside. The frame of the house was complete and the outside walls all up, so we were protected from the elements, though it was a bit chilly inside. We all signed in (necessary for insurance purposes, we were told), and the volunteer supervisor split us up for different duties. Two women began putting up insulation, and my husband and I followed them, using tape to seal it to the studs and installing some of it ourselves. Others went to the second floor to nail up drywall, and two more of his coworkers used a circular saw to work on fitting a frame into a doorway.

After we finished with the insulation, the coordinator asked me and my husband to take utility knives and cut away large globs of insulating foam from the windows and wall joins so that drywall could be installed flush against the walls. “I know it’s a boring job,” he said, “but it has to be done.” That was all I needed to hear. I started going at the pieces of white and yellow foam with my knife. I began to get into a rhythm. It was a good job for an introvert--just me and my knife, close work to concentrate on, no need to try to make conversation with covolunteers or to return over and over to the coordinator to ask for something else to do. When I finished one section I just moved to another.

We broke for lunch, eating our home-packed sandwiches in the car. After lunch my husband headed upstairs to help with the drywall. I returned to my task, roaming the first floor with my knife, slicing around windows, on the edge of the ceiling, at corners where boards joined. I began to enjoy the repetitive rhythm. I heard footfalls and power tools upstairs, and the smell of wood and sawdust reminded me that I love the smell of wood and sawdust.

And as I moved through the not-yet-rooms, I tried to imagine what they might look like when the house was finished and the family moved in. The section in the back would be the kitchen. Where will the cabinets and counter go, the stove, the refrigerator? It looked big enough to be an eat-in; where will they put their table and chairs?

The house will be cute, I think; small but comfortable. The living room has several windows, and there’s a small enclosed foyer inside the front door with what looks to be a coat closet at the far end. The foyer should help keep some of the cold out in winter and also adds a little touch of elegance. I think there’s also going to be a lavette between the kitchen and the foyer; to my mind that’s a necessity. If you have more than one person living in a home, you need more than one bathroom--especially if one or more persons are female.

There are four bedrooms upstairs. I start picturing this as a family with three children, and I imagine the parents happily allowing the oldest one to choose the bedroom he or she wants. I imagine it’s a girl and that she’ll pick one overlooking the small backyard. Then the next oldest will pick. I remember how, when my family moved, I was allowed to choose my bedroom first as I was older than my brother. I try to picture where they will put their beds: facing the door? Looking out the window? What else will they have? Dressers, desks? What color will the walls be painted?

I don’t know anything about the strangers who will call this house their home. Yet in an odd way I don’t think that we’re doing this work for people we’ll never meet. Imagining them moving in, furnishing the house, putting away their belongings, makes me feel as though I know them. I feel like I want to visit them when they’re settled in and see how they fit into the house and how the house fits them.

And I feel like I’m discovering a bit of a stranger in myself—the part of me that really enjoys doing things to help people I don’t know: making prayer shawls, donating time and money to Alzheimer’s research, or working to help build houses. For one who has always been somewhat of a loner and a little afraid of meeting people, it’s been a great way for me to contribute something of value to the world. So I welcome my own stranger, and I look forward to getting to know her better.