Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Chaplain’s Visit

Today Barbara, a chaplain from hospice, comes to call.

From the next room, I hear Barbara explaining her role and wish I could see the expression on Bea’s face.

There is a long silence. Then Bea says, “I’m very old.”

Barbara brings up death.

I hear Bea say, “I would like to just go to sleep.”

“Yes, that is what everyone would like,” Barbara tells her. “And you know, that happens for a lot of people.”

The two talk about Heaven and why Bea doesn’t believe in its existence. Then Bea turns the conversation to Barbara’s hometown. The chaplain is adroit at returning to the topic at hand. She explains how different people have different reactions to old age and the inevitability of death (my words.)

Bea asks why Barbara came. Barbara patiently explains that Bea qualifies for a hospice visit because of extreme old age, that Barbara is here to help Bea think about these things, that she is “an available resource.”

They discuss the importance of relationships and love in one’s life. Barbara brings up Bea’s impact on me. How I will always carry Bea with me as I move through my life. “If no other way, we live on that way. We continue to live in each other’s hearts.”

Barbara stays an hour or so. At the end, she says a very nice improvised prayer and I hear Bea thank her. They recite the Lord's Prayer together.

A successful visit, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Caregiver Blues

Yesterday my daughter Stephanie commented that I looked tired.

“I need a vacation,” I admitted.

Sometimes I feel desperate to leave this place. I have not had a real holiday in years. Sven has been reading about Portugal, remembering our lovely trip in 1993. He gets to go to Sweden every summer to see family. I stay. No paid-vacation on this job. Who would take over? One year Stephanie volunteered and I took her up on it. My son promptly scolded me: “Stephanie needs to live her life, not care for elderly relatives.” I could not agree more. Four years ago I drove Bea to my brother’s house for the last time and spent three weeks in Europe. Now that Bea doesn’t travel, I don’t either.

Pleasant Bay Rehabilitation Center will accept – what is the word? I want to say “inmates.” Residents? When the caregiver needs respite, the nursing home will readmit someone. Respite care does not come cheap: $250/day. Then there would be the fee for the ambulance to and fro. When Bea went to Cape Cod Hospital, the ambulance cost $1200. The shorter trip from the hospital to Pleasant Bay was a bargain at $625. Luckily Medicare picked up both fees.

So, let’s imagine I go away for a week. Pleasant Bay would charge $250 x 7 = $1750. The ambulance service would also be out-of-pocket $625 x 2, back and forth. The total = $1750 + $1250. $3000, without airfare! Now that is one expensive vacation.

Not to mention what the experience would do to Bea. How could she not feel abandoned? Like a plant without water, she might wither and die while I was away. Not an option.

At least we have hospice ….

Monday, May 29, 2006

Hunger and Thirst

Bea never thought of herself as old until recently. While this may seem bizarre, it is a reality to which I have grown accustomed. She is still not sure of her age. 93? 94? “I’m old,” she tells visitors.

Yesterday Bea slept so soundly that I did not even try to wake her for medicine. The sleep has made her ravenous. This morning she consumes two bananas, a bowl of yogurt, and some porridge, then orders, “Give these people a glass of milk.”

“Which people?” I ask.

“Beatrice,” she says.

I am reminded of how little children refer to themselves in the third person. Children drink milk, something Bea has never requested before.

“I’m balmy today,” she announces when I return later to check she hasn’t fallen out of bed again.

“You recognize me, though, don’t you? I’m Sandy, your daughter.”

Her smile indicates I have been recognized. Her skin appears smoother, more taut across the bony skull. Her eyelids do not seem as wrinkly. I remember how she used to tell me to get my "beauty" sleep. I guess "beauty" sleep works on elderly folk, too.

Every time I enter the room, Bea declares, “I’m hungry,” and I recite what she just ate. Usually she doesn’t remember.

I bring a glass of Ensure. She drinks it down without comment.

It has been a day of meals, alternating with naps. Funny, how my son just commented that his newborn’s major activities are eating and sleeping. My mother is not much different.

Now that I have changed Bea a last time and given her yet another mini-meal, I sit in the next room and wonder if she is going to let me sleep tonight. I am reminded of listening to my children’s baby noises from a hallway. I could hear them gurgling and cooing. Or, calling my name. Bea calls out, but not for me. I do not budge. I have already put her to bed. How much more readily one accepts the inconveniences of caring for a newborn!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Bea’s Books (1)

Books were always very important to Bea.

To ensure that we are able to recognize those she cared about, Bea got into the habit of scribbling notes on the first page of favorites and squirreling the books away on her shelf, sort of like sending out messages in a bottle for someone to find later on.

Today I hold one such book in my hand. It is a hardbound book of poetry, Ants on the Melon, by Virginia Hamilton Adair. Bea has written, “Beatrice Grabbe, early a friend of Virginia, across the street in Montclair where I also met Douglas. July, 1996.”

In the book, Bea stuck a review from the New York Times Book Review, diligently underlined.

A note from Bea's friend Laura Roper falls out. Bea must have written her about Nancy's passing: “That is indeed very saddening news, but hardly unexpected. Her last several years must have been very trying for her not withstanding Nick and Elspeth’s loving and constant care. I’ve been reading Virginia Adair’s poems and think they’re wonderful. Witty, philosophical, beautiful fresh use of language, altogether elegant ...”

Bea has checked off and Xed “An Hour to Dance” so I flip through to page 15.

For a while we whirled
Over the meadows of music
Our sadness put away in purses
Stuffed into old shoes or shawls

The children we never were
From cellars and closets
Attics and faded snapshots
Came out to leap for love
On the edge of an ocean of tears

Like a royal flotilla
Alice’s menagerie swam by
No tale is endless
The rabbit opened his watch
Muttering late, late
Time to grow

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bea's Fall

When I peek into the bedroom, I get the shock of my life: the bed is empty. The comforter lies on the floor to the left. I find Bea huddled on the floor to the right, shivering. I had left her asleep and gone to work in the garden. I expected she would be out cold, due to two previous days of over-activity. Instead, she must have awakened and decided to get out of bed. I do not know how she managed. I didn’t even think she could sit up by herself anymore ...

Immediately I call to Sven. He helps me lift Bea back onto the bed, not an easy task. We pile on covers and a heating pad. I feed her hot soup. Her teeth are chattering. I want to scold her but can’t. It is my fault for not preventing this. I had told myself I should do something to stop her from removing the covers. Bea had expressed the desire to get out of bed several times over the past few days. I had reminded her gently that she was bedridden. Well, now Bea has proved me wrong.

Luckily nothing seems broken. How strong her bones must be!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Early Morning Reflections

I am able to block out the sounds coming from Bea’s bedroom until I start catching certain words, louder than others. “Come!” for instance. There is no way that one can be ignored. The clock indicates it is 6 am. Out of bed I stumble, none too happy to have a second night disrupted this way.

“Is it someone from my family?” Bea asks when the door swings open. “Ah, good! I didn’t have any supper. Not a crumb.” (Not true. She ate half her supper.)

Bea grasps for my hand, as I start to leave, having ascertained all is well. “Please don’t go away.” Who can resist the plaintive tone? I turn back and fix her pillows mechanically, still half asleep.

“One is missing. It’s still at the concert hall,” she tells me in the ebullient tone of someone eager to share a fabulous experience.

“Concert hall?”

“I took it with me.”

“I have to make some coffee,” I announce, not ready to deal with hallucinations just yet.

I stop on the way and read my email There is a message from my son who comments on how caring for a newborn is tougher than he had thought. I reflect on the differences in baby care and the care of an elderly person. You get to hold and cuddle the baby. It’s cute and doesn’t talk back. The baby has its whole life to look forward to …

I hear mumbling as I return to Bea’s room and hand her a banana, which she eats in two seconds flat. Bea has reached the end of her life, while little Juliette is just beginning. There is symmetry there, somehow ...

“Who were you talking to just now?” I ask.

“Grandpa. He isn’t here anymore. He didn’t say a word. I wanted very much for him to tell me that he was okay.”

I am about to feel relieved that Bea has been daydreaming of my father when she asks, “Do you think it is better to take a streetcar?”

“You talking to me?”


“I don’t know," I say, remembering that streetcars still ran up Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC in the sixties. Perhaps Bea's mind has replayed a concert she once enjoyed?

“When can I get back home?”

“You are home,” I tell her, changing her brief. “This is your bedroom.”

“I mean back home where my father and step-mother live.”

There is no answer to this at 6:10 in the morning.

I would prefer to be in Los Angeles, helping out my son and Nathalie. But Bea needs me here. She is helpless, like a baby.

I notice that Bea is settling in to rest.

“Are you going to take a nap?” I ask.

“Yes. How about you take a nap, too?”

Sleep-deprived, I am unable to keep the irritation out of my voice. “I can’t.”

Bea notices the change in tone. “Thank you. I ever so much thank you,” she says and means it.

It is impossible to feel angry under the circumstances.

Bea closes her eyes.

I lean down and give her a kiss goodnight.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


“Is it true there's a new baby in the family?”

This is the first thing Bea says this morning.

In the afternoon I tell her Paul and Nathalie have named their baby Juliette. Bea starts quoting from Shakespeare’s play. She seems very pleased.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Bea’s brain has been a bit foggy these past few days, so I decide to prepare her for the big news of my grandchild’s birth with a quick family rundown:

Take 1:
“Do you remember the names of my children?

“Stephanie. Natalie, and …” There’s a long pause. Then Bea says slowly, “Martha.”

I drop the subject and return a half hour later.

Take 2:
“Remember Stephanie who came this weekend? Stephanie, your granddaughter?”

“Stephanie, yes.” Bea is obviously searching through her mind to match the name with a face.

“Then, there’s Natalie.”

“Natalie,” Bea repeats, less sure of whom her dear Natalie is.

“And who is my third child, the one named after your husband?”

Bea ventures a guess: “Paula?”

Take 3:

“You know my son Paul who lives in California?”

Bea looks confused, so I show her a life-size photo of Paul and his wife Nathalie.

She peers at it and nods. “Is she his wife?”

“Yes. They just got married.” Since this news seems to register, I continue. “Last night they had a baby.”

“What a lovely thing to do! Now let me sleep.”

Take 4:

At lunchtime, Sven comes into Bea’s room where I stand by her bedside with a bowl of yogurt.

“Congratulations,” he says. “You’re a great grandmother.”

Bea nods. I am about to conclude the news has finally sunk in when she asks, “Are we doing anything special today?”

Take 5:

Bea’s regular nurse is on vacation. Diane replaces her. "Hello, Bea," she says.

"The name is Beatrice," declares her patient and pretends to sleep.

“It’s a big day, here, Diane,” I say in a loud voice, knowing Bea will be listening. “My son Paul and his wife Nathalie had a baby girl last night. Bea is a great grandmother.”

“Why, congratulations!” Diane exclaims.

“I’m a grandmother?” Bea asks, opening her eyes.

“A great-grandmother,” I say.

“Well, I hope I’ll be a GREAT great-grandmother …”

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Clothing for Elderly Bedridden Ladies

Bea slept all day, and no wonder. She seems to have a scratchy throat after all that socializing. Therefore this morning I thought I would share what I have learned about appropriate apparel.

Elderly ladies do not need new nightgowns. Old ones are fine. Changing soiled clothes is part of the daily reality.

Nightgowns should be short. I took scissors to Bea’s favorite and chopped five inches off the bottom. Thinner material is better. It does not bunch up as much. Bea gets cold easily, so we do not dress her in flimsy cotton, even on hot days. She gets long sleeves and light flannel.

Under the nightgown goes a brief. Now, I do not say diapers because better to use a euphemism. No one wants to hear they wear diapers. The easiest kind is not pull-ups. Instead, I search out underwear with flaps that have tabs. The pharmacy stocks lots of different models but both nursing and hospice personnel recommend one, easier to change on someone who is lying down. Since everyone is looking for this underwear with flaps, it sells out fast. Whenever available, I buy several small/medium packages. Each brief costs about 70 cents.

Bea wears cotton socks to keep the Bag Balm on her bedsore. Sheepskin booties exist to prevent bedsores from forming on feet.

Over the sheet, I place a sheepskin, soft under Bea’s boney body. On top of the sheepskin goes an underpad.

Et voilà! You have the appropriately dressed and outfitted elderly bedridden lady.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Third Night Without Sleep

Bea has never had such insomnia. It is sort of like being doped up on something. I cannot help but wonder when she is going to crash. Maybe there have been too many guests over the past few days? Yesterday she had a nice visit with grandson Alex who came with his girlfriend. Today my daughter Stephanie was here with Jamie.

When I go in to see Bea a final time around 10, she is chattering away like an over-excited toddler. Her eyes have an unusual wild look. Her thin gray hair is spread out over the pillow, framing her face. I am touched by how frail she is.

“You must be quiet now,” I say firmly. “Stephi and Jamie are trying to sleep upstairs.”

I go back to my room and drift off, exhausted.

In the morning I ask Stephi if she heard Grandma the night before. Stephi says, indeed, she had to go down and tell her to sleep:

“It’s time to sleep.”

“Is it night again?” Bea asks.

Stephi replies to the affirmative.

“I’ve been trying to sleep,” Bea says. “I’ll try harder.”

Stephanie sits down by Bea’s bedside and waits.

Five minutes later the monologue starts up again: “Why don’t you pour yourself another drink, Kitty? …”

Stephi reaches the same conclusion: "She's happy, in the past, having a party. Entertaining has always been an activity she enjoyed. As long as there isn’t too much noise, why stop the fun?"

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Second Night Without Sleep

Bea is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I enter her bedroom at 7 am.

“Could you give me a painkiller? You’d be surprised, but just watching that thing made a mess of my knees,” she exclaims.

“What have you been up to?” I ask, picking up the pillows from the floor after Bea has swallowed an Aleve. She must have been wiggling around during the night.

“Oh, you know,” she says and then suddenly starts to laugh. “Hurts so much, it’s better to laugh than cry.”

“Where were you?”

“Why, at the football game!”

Football? Bea never followed the sport.

“It was curious how the older women looked at me.”

“You mean Nan and Margot?” I ask, confused.

“No. The three older women who were here. They were older than me. To me they seemed older, all so elegantly dressed.”

Oh, my! Bea certainly has a vivid imagination. The other day she told me I was in one of her dreams wearing a high-collar and perfume that smelled of violets.

“I really think pharmaceuticals work wonders in this age.”

I nod. No question there. Thank goodness for painkillers.

“When I worked at MCA, I wrote a book on the chemical industry and –“

I wait for Bea to finish the sentence but she has drawn a complete blank and just stares up at me with confusion in her eyes.

“Oh! I forgot my sequence. This has never happened before. It must be due to my age. I’m 96 now. I guess that’s old…”

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Visit from Bea’s Nieces (2)

Nan and Margot slept well last night, but I didn’t. I had to go in three times and tell Bea to be quiet.

This morning I received the following email from cousin Sally in Tennessee: “I read your blog and it was almost like being there. Please give Bea a big hug and a kiss from her goddaughter. I was so happy to be able to pick my own godparents, having been baptized at the age of 7! I really admire Auntie Bea, the first career woman I ever knew.”

As a child, Nan also admired Bea, who had a job at a radio station.

Dorothy often talked about her family to her daughters. Margot recounted one of her mother's stories: One day Dorothy received a phone call from Bea who was at work. Her guest had cancelled at the last minute. Could Dot come as a replacement? Dorothy dropped everything, and Bea interviewed her about being a housewife.

While Nan has breakfast, Bea tells us about the Odyssey Cruise: “I got bored at the seashore with the family and decided to do something more interesting. So, I got a number of people together to go abroad, which worked out very well.”

“How’s that?” Nan asked.

“People at Vassar had money. It was one of the cleverest things I did.” (Bea received a free trip after recruiting seven fellow passengers.)

Bea is chatty, despite the lack of sleep, and this memory has sparked another: “At the same beach I asked some boys whether they could drive me to New York and had the satisfaction of going to the city without paying for it.”

Bea then relates how she proceeded home to the empty house at 102 South Fullerton Avenue. Scared of being in her bedroom alone, she climbed out on a flat part of the roof and slept there

Bea enjoys her nieces’ visit.

We hope they will come again.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A Visit from Bea’s Nieces (1)

Nan and Margot are daughters of Bea’s little sister Dorothy. Bea seems to recognize Nan, who is older. Propped up in bed, Aunty Bea receives them both for a spell before her nap. I then take my cousins to the beach. Nan wonders out loud why we didn’t see more of each other while growing up.

“Bea and Dorothy always argued,” Margot points out.

I tell Nan that, in some ways, I think my father wanted to protect my mother from her family.

Upon our return, we join Bea for cheese and crackers, a gift from Nan’s successful career-girl daughter, the cheese expert. Nan helps Bea drink white wine through a straw. Nan has brought photos, so I get out Bea’s collection. I provide her glasses, which she puts on, then announces she now sees better without them.

Nan shows Bea various shots of family members, asking questions as we go along. Grandma Bertha stands in front of a rambling house in Montclair, New Jersey, with Bea and her siblings. Most of the photos were taken in the twenties, before the stock market crash changed the family’s fortunes. We ask about Bea’s life then.

“One week I had a date with a different man every night,” she recalls, not without some amazement.

“Mom said men liked Beatrice,” Nan comments. “You were pretty.”

“It helped. Helen was really the most beautiful of us all, when she wanted to be.”

I peer at a photo of Helen and exchange glances with Nan who also remembers Bea’s older sister as an unhappy adult, divorced and bitter.

“Here’s a photo in her wedding dress,” I say.

Helen does look stunning.

“You must have been at her wedding,” I prompt.

“I was IN her wedding,” Bea corrects me. “I had just gotten back from a trip through the Panama Canal, so I was all tan. I’m afraid I rather upstaged poor Helen.”

We laugh, but it must not have been funny for the bride.

Nan has a number of photos of our grandmother, looking rather dramatic, dark Gothic photos. It is hard to imagine what life was like for women back at the beginning of the century. When we show Bea a photo of Bertha’s family and comment on the fact that she had six siblings, Bea says simply, “There was no birth control.”

We look at photos of Uncle Hunter and Uncle Bob.

“They both lived unhappy lives,” Nan says.

Her mother and mine sent money to Bob, who liked to gamble.

Nan has more questions, but Bea prefers not to remember the complex family dynamics of her childhood. She is tired and wants to rest.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Reach Out and Touch ….Someone Elderly

Human touch is much more important to the elderly than to the rest of us folks. Maybe this is because often friends and loved ones have passed on. The elderly have no one left to touch them. We all need human contact. Days can go by without anyone touching or hugging an elderly person.

I have noticed that the nurses and health aides, who have appeared at Bea’s bedside over the past couple months, all seem to be aware of this reality and touch my mother. They do their best to make physical contact.

As I am feeding Bea this morning, I kiss her forehead. Coming in close, I tell her, “We love you.”

Bea rewards me with that twinkly smile of hers. “I love you,” she says. “I love your face.”

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bathing Bea

Some people prefer baths, others like showers. I think that, if you are caring for an elderly person, you should do your best to respect their preference. When my dad was 96, he qualified for a health aide who gave him a shower since a Visiting Nurse drew blood once a week. We purchased a waterproof bench for him to sit on. I tried to bathe Bea the same way. She wouldn’t hear of it. Bea is a soaking-for-hours-in-hot-water type of girl.

To give an elderly person a tub bath, one has to be creative. I would hold Bea’s hand as she gingerly stepped into the tub. I would start with the hot water from the faucet, then add pans of boiling water from the stove, as needed. Kneipp herbal bath salts made the bathroom, Bea, and everything else smell like an orange grove.

The tough part is getting the elderly person out. First I would position the bench half in, half out, near Bea’s feet. I would step in behind her, place my arms under her armpits, and gently pull up, heaving her frail body onto the edge of the tub. I bathed my mother this way for several years.

When Bea returned from Pleasant Bay, she wanted a bath. Sven and I half-carried her to the bathtub. The next week Bea developed a bedsore on her heel, so walking was out of the question. No more tub baths were possible. Now Lisa, her devoted health aide, gives Bea a bed bath once a week, remaining upbeat the whole time. Here is a description of Bea’s weekly bath:

Lisa enters the room with a basin of hot water and a cheery smile.

Lisa: “Have I got some hot water for you!”

Bea: (opening one eye) “Why do I want hot water?”

Lisa begins to work off Bea’s nightgown.

Bea: “Are you trying to kill me? Who says I need to wash?”

Lisa: “It’s something all people do.”

Bea: “Why is this being done to me?”

Lisa: “Because you’re special.”

Bea: “There’s nothing special about me.”

Lisa: “Yes, there is, Beatrice.”

Bea: “Beatrice. What a pretty name!”

Lisa puts a towel over Bea and removes her socks.

Bea: “Why are you taking off my socks?”

Lisa: “I’m going to wash your feet, too.”

Bea: “Oh, God!”

Lisa: “I have hot water for you.”

Bea: “You can keep it.”

Lisa helps Bea roll on one side and gently washes her back with a washcloth.

Lisa: “Are you ready for the hot water? There. How does that feel?”

Bea: “Lovely.”

Lisa: “I knew you’d like it.”

Lisa puts lotion all over Bea who continuously complains.

Bea: “I need a blanket. Please cover me up. I’m cold. Why are you doing this for me?” (etc.)

Lisa: “Because I enjoy you.”

Bea: “Well, as long as you get through it fast.”

The bath, however, is not over yet. Bea finally loses patience.

Bea: “If you don’t stop, I’ll pee in my bed.”

Lisa: “Almost done. Sandy is here. Remember Sandy? Who is Sandy?”

Bea: “My mother.”

Lisa: “And Nick. Remember Nick? Who is Nick?”

Bea: “My brother.”

Lisa: “Now, a little talc under your arms. What do you think about that?”

Bea: “I don’t think.”

Lisa: “You are going to get the toastiest of covers, my friend.”

Bea: “Let’s have it!”

Her bath over, Bea says an eloquent thank you with her eyes to Lisa and settles in for a nap.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Bea's CD Collection

Bea slept soundly all day. I didn't even need to put on a CD for her. I guess she was all partied out.

Each Christmas Stephanie gives her grandma a new CD. One of Bea’s favorites is Andrea Bocelli. His voice seems to transport her to Italy, a country she enjoyed. Bea studied Italian at Vassar and was fond of saying she spoke it well.

Her CD collection also includes love poetry, Frank Sinatra and classical music.

Recently Bea hasn’t seemed to be paying much attention to which CD I chose. We have been listening to Mozart a lot. It is becoming the soundtrack to our day.

Then, suddenly, Bea speaks up: “I don’t want that one. I hear it every day.”

Ah-ha! CDs do provide more than just background music!

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Golf Champion

“Please come, please come, please come, pl-ea-se come. Please come, please come ….”

I hear the voice and open the door. Bea looks up at me with frantic eyes. She has kicked off the comforter and must be freezing. I feel her feet, ice cold.

“Thank God, you’re here,” she says with obvious relief. “Help me out of bed. I have to congratulate him.”

Another dream! Bea insists Sven’s son has just won a golf tournament and gives me all the details while I feed her breakfast.

“Now I want to get out of bed,” she repeats, swallowing a last bit of banana.

Gently I remind her that she hasn’t been out of bed for three months.

“Get Sven,” she orders.

“But why, Mother?”

“To help me get up. He’s waiting.”

“Who’s waiting?”

“The man I met yesterday at the golf tournament,” she exclaims with exasperation. “He said he loved me. The other day he talked to me for a whole half hour on the telephone. Can you imagine? And, he’s beautiful. The most handsome one there. I wish I had met him 30 years ago.” She pauses and says with a coy smile. “He likes me.”

The phone rings. Bea looks up as if she expects her secret lover may be calling. Actually, it is Nancy’s son Nick. He and his wife are in town and want to stop by. I put down the phone and return to Bea’s bedside.

“I simply must get up and meet him,” Bea insists, again trying to rid herself of the comforter.

Distraction is in order: “Guess who IS coming?”

Bea stops kicking and pays full attention.

“Nick and Elspeth. Nancy’s son, Nick.”


“In about an hour. They just called.”

Bea peers around the room with a worried expression on her face. “Are the covers as attractive as they could be?”

I assure her they are.

“I wonder if they smell?”

“I will spray air-freshener, okay? Now you take a nap.”

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” she says and closes one eye.

An hour later Nick and Elspeth arrive. They get to hear all about the golf champion. Bea surprises us by remembering that the Macdonalds used to live in a building near the subway with Italian neighbors and a beautiful view. Bea also confides that she is only going to live a few more months.

We have a nice long visit.

Seeing old friends is so good for the soul!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

True Friends Are For Life (2)

Bea is in a more talkative mood today, so I ask about Vassar friends.

“Why do you want to know?” she demands suspiciously.

Ha-ha! Still curious. I explain that I had realized I knew next to nothing about Kitty Stryker.

“Kitty was pretty,” Bea says.

Well, yes. I knew that.

“How do you spell Stryker?” I ask, hoping to stir up the old neurons.

Bea doesn't miss a beat: “S-T-R-Y-K-E-R.”

“Did she room with you freshman year?”

“With Nancy.”

“Was she rich?”

“Rich enough. She crossed over to Turkey with me.”

I assume the crossing took place during one of the trips Bea organized to Greece. She got free passage for recruiting seven fellow travelers for the Odyssey Cruise.

Bea wasn’t sure which Vassar dorm they all lived in: North (now Jewett), or Josselyn.

I picked up their 50th reunion booklet to search for more details and learned Katharine Stryker taught at Brearley for twenty years.

I read Kitty’s entry out loud to Bea: “If Vassar developed a potential in me, I do not feel that I have used it sufficiently. My outlook on life has changed, chiefly in that I now give much more value to the social (as well as human) importance of being an effective wife and mother. Personal achievement (preferably at the professional level) seemed all important to me for the first 25 years of my adult life, but I stupidly got married with no training for anything beyond my Vassar A. B. With some professional credentials (in 1935) behind me, I think I could have worked part-time even when our children were young, and so enjoyed their childhoods more than I did in those 17 years when I was being a full-time wife/mother.”

Kitty tells her classmates in 1982, “I spend a lot of time writing to senators and congressmen, expressing fears and dissatisfactions with every aspect of the present administration, and support some of the proliferating organizations dedicated to anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons and power, anti-moral majority, anti-right-to-life, etc. I am genuinely frightened by the activities of the New Right and, indeed, by most of the policies and provocative and thoughtless remarks of our so-called leaders.”

Bea’s friendship with this lady is making more and more sense. I look over and notice the dreamy look. Bea is remembering Kitty.

I search for information in other reunion booklets and find the following note from 1997: “Concerned because we had not heard from Kitty in several years, we wrote her a special letter, hoping not to be intrusive. When the letter went unanswered, we were very worried. Before we thought what to do next, there came a letter from Kitty’s friend Bea Chinnock Grabbe, telling us that Kitty had Alzheimer’s and suggesting that we get in touch with her daughter.”

From the Internet, I learn that Kitty passed away in 2005.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bea’s Project

Another grey day, perfect for sorting books. I take many off the shelf in Bea's room, along with a quantity of dust. She is awake, but just barely. Still my presence seems to make her happy. Energized, I then remove from my own crowded library shelves all the books related to Bea’s project. I have been meaning to box them for months. Margaret Drabble, Virginia Woolf, Rosamond Lehmann. Here’s one with an amusing title: “Women Who Run With The Wolves.”

After having helped my dad with his book projects, Bea undertook one of her own in the early eighties. The notes fill two cardboard boxes. Not knowing what to do with the research and loath to throw it out, I placed the following ad in the Vassar Quarterly, along with one for our bed & breakfast:

Book Project? Beatrice C. Grabbe, 1932, researched the emergence of sexual desire in novels written by women, starting with the Brontés. Now 96, she is unable to finish the project. Anyone interested in her research, please contact her daughter at

I just received the following email: “I noticed the Wellfleet heading in the recent Alumnae/i magazine, and immediately thought about your mother. We lived across the street in DC - 44th St. - until their move to the Cape. I am a '56 grad. Be sure to give your Mother my very best wishes. I do hope someone has picked up on her project.” Janette Wood, now Pfeiff.

Unfortunately, no one has.

Bea always acted as if she would live forever. Starting a book in her eighties did not seem foolhardy. I guess she could not imagine her mind ever failing her.

What a shame Bea never finished the project!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Announcing Paul’s Marriage

“Who are you?” Beatrice asks in a sharp voice when I appear at her bedside this morning.

Not being recognized is tough, but I am used to it by now. I smile and remind her, “Sandy.”

“Sandy,” she repeats. “You’re my daughter.”

At least Bea is not confusing me with the nurse today.

I relate good news as I feed her the porridge Sven made: “Guess what! Paul and Nathalie got married yesterday.”

“Who’s Paul?”

I stare at her, perplexed. “Paul. My son, Paul. Your grandson.”

The name still doesn’t ring a bell, and yet Bea adores Paul, her first grandchild, named after Paul, her husband.

My sister-in-law once commented about how good Bea was with children. Betsy appreciated Bea’s opening her arms to Ben, born with Down Syndrome.

“Paul,” Bea repeats in a soft voice, far away somewhere in the past. Maybe she is remembering the days when Paul worked in Wellfleet, the summer she washed his red Lobster Hutt aprons. Bea would get such a kick out of Paul’s girlfriends. Not that there were many, but she always amused us with her curiosity about his love life.

“Now that I’ve had breakfast, let me sleep,” she says.

I know Bea will be pleased when Paul’s marriage finally registers. Getting married was very important to her, and Paul's wife Nathalie is a wonderful woman.

No one was invited to the California wedding. Had I been invited, I could not have gone. There is no one else to care for Bea.

I close the door and let her sleep.

A dreary day from start to finish.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

True Friends Are For Life (1)

Bea is sleeping today, still recovering from the bridge game, which she does not remember. I wonder if she ever played bridge with her best friends while at Vassar?

We are influenced by the friends we choose.

Bea is fortunate to have had three really good friends, roommates at Vassar, all generous, intelligent women with social conscience, who happened to have inherited money. Two had summer homes on Cape Cod, which was one of the reasons my parents moved here after Dad’s retirement in 1970. The third lived in Connecticut.

Let’s start with Bea’s third best friend, Kitty Stryker. “Pretty” Kitty married Ashton Dunn, then Alfred Bingham whose father was famous for having discovered Machu Picchu. Bea remembers Kitty fondly. During the last years of her life, Kitty had Alzheimer’s, which made Bea very sad.

Senior year Bea went to Kent Place, a private boarding school, and there met her second best friend. Since they had both been accepted at Vassar, Bea decided to room with “Miggits,” no doubt embracing the safety of a known commodity. (Bea felt rather intimidated by the social advancement that came in 1928 with admission to Vassar.) Theirs was a rather turbulent friendship. I remember Miggits as being outspoken and admired by peers. A teacher, she spent summers in Hyannisport, a block away from the beach. Margaret Campbell started a boarding school out in Colorado and did charity work after retirement. Sven & I accompanied Bea to Miggits' 90th birthday shebang in a tent by the sea. They seemed glad to see each other again, albeit briefly.

Bea’s other best friend, my godmother, was Nancy Macdonald, former wife to Dwight, famous author. It is impossible to say enough good things about Nancy. She was gentle, kind, and very wise. Bea always reminds anyone who will listen that Nancy was the moving force and angel behind Partisan Review. Nancy also founded and ran Spanish Refugee Aid, giving away her fortune in the process. Bea would visit Nancy as often as she could convince one of us to drive over the treacherous back roads to Slough Pond, on the Truro line. Mother was devoted to Nancy, who passed away in 1995. Her ashes were scattered in the dunes.

Nick and Elspeth Macdonald, Nancy’s son and daughter-in-law, come to visit Mother whenever they are in Wellfleet. Elspeth always reminds me that Bea was aware of what an enormous job elder care is and often thanked them for all they did for her dear friend.

I keep Nancy’s photo by Bea’s bedside.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Bridge Game

Bea seems panicked when I enter her room with dinner.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she says in a hoarse whisper, peeking out from under the covers, which are pulled way up over her head. “They won’t go home.”

I look around the room. Who is she talking about?

“They’re playing bridge. It’s time to go home, but they won’t. They keep playing cards.”

“It’s all right,” I tell her in a soothing voice. “Look. They’re gone now.”

Bea peers around anxiously, then relaxes. “I’m too old to entertain anymore,” she says with a lingering shiver. “Will you please take over for me?”

“Be glad to,” I say and slip an Aricept pill into her mouth. Aricept is supposed to slow down senility, but sometimes I think it increases nightmares.

After I leave the room, the guests return. I put my ear to the door and realize Bea has joined the game. She is using her public voice, the one for entertaining, slightly louder and more gregarious. I hear her making bids, sitting out hands, worrying about a child someone has brought along who shouldn’t be up late.

Sven reassures me that his father went through a similar period of being half in, half out of reality. His parents spent their final years in a very good, state-funded and operated nursing home in their hometown, Eksharad, Sweden.

After Bea’s stay at the Pleasant Bay Rehabilitation Center, I understand the dynamics of the nursing home environment better. Some members of the staff were more emotinally involved than others. Some were preoccupied with their own problems. Most took very good care of Mother.

My daughters wanted me to take advantage of Bea’s hospital stay to put her in a nursing home. I struggled with the decision but could not embrace it. I felt she should be home. Sven encouraged me in this choice. (Ronni Bennett in her popular elderblog writes May 8 about “Long-term Living” and the options available to the elderly in this country.)

Through the door, I can hear Bea's laughter. At least she is enjoying herself.

At 10, I take in a glass of water, which Bea drinks eagerly. Her throat is parched from socializing all evening. I have to go in two more times and tell her to be quiet.

Finally the guests leave around midnight. I wonder whether Bea will remember their visit in the morning?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Trip to Canada

“I’m so very glad to be home,” Bea announces this morning.

I assume she has finally accepted having a hospital bed in her room and now recognizes the familiar surroundings.

“Where were you?” I ask just in case.

“I’m cold and wet, so hurry up with some clean clothes.”

“Did you go to the North Pole?”

“Nope. Canada.”

Involuntarily, I raise my eyebrows.

“Don’t you want to know what I was doing in Canada?” she asks.


“Looking for a good-looking man. I found two. One for you, and one for me.”

The dream has made Bea ravenously hungry. All there was to eat in the far north, after all, was fish, she explains.

Bea consumes a full bowl of cereal and a banana, then declares in that haughty voice she gets sometimes since she has been bed-ridden, “Now leave me alone.”

“You going back to Canada?” I ask.

“Hell, no!” she responds. “Canada’s too cold. Everybody is all bundled up in fur. I’m going to Florida.”

Monday, May 08, 2006

An Invitation to Dinner

I am awakened from a deep sleep by voices downstairs. No light shows yet at the window. I check the clock. It's 4 am. I try to ignore the sounds coming from Bea’s bedroom, but already my mother’s instinct has kicked in. Something is bothering Bea. I have to find out what. Down the staircase I plod.

“There you are,” she says triumphantly as soon as I open the door. “I’m hungry.”

This from someone who had refused most of her dinner, consuming in total a few bites of salmon, one whole banana and a bowl of ice cream.

“It’s not time to eat,” I complain. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“I’m hungry,” she repeats with apparent disregard for my tone, which is not as civil as I would wish it to be.

I go into the kitchen and fetch a biscotti, something she can eat by herself. In the morning, there will be chocolate all over her hands and face, nite-gown and sheets, but at least there’s a chance I can get back to sleep.

“Yum, yum,” she says, accepting my offering with gratitude.

“When you finish that, go to sleep,” I tell her and firmly close the door.

The sounds coming from her room continue but softer now.

I drift off around 5, sleeping until 7. The first thing I do after a cup of coffee is go in to see Bea.

“Would you care to join us for dinner?” she asks in a cheery voice.

Did she sleep at all? Is she still in a dream? Perhaps she is referring to dinner the night before?

I seek clarification: “Who else will be there?”

“Nobody but us. We’ll pay.”

My father used to take her out to dinner every week. Bea loved inviting guests along. At least she is enjoying pleasant memories.

“Yes, thank you,” I say. “I would love to join you for dinner.”

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Active Mind

When I come in to check on Bea this morning, she has the sweetest look in her eyes: “And I shall love thee until the seas run dry,” she says, then adds under her breath, “I don’t remember where that comes from.”

While her cream of wheat is cooking, I administer meds.

“Who prescribed these?” Bea demands, before she will swallow. “Dr. Millhofer?”

As I feed her breakfast, Mother asks what fruit she is eating.

“Tangerines,” I tell her.

“Wonder where they come from?”

Bea’s body may be failing, but what an active mind she has still!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Modern Medicine

This morning, when I come in to the bedroom to change Bea, she tells me her knee hurts. She is in such excruciating pain that moving the leg is agony.

As I remove the comforter and cover her upper body with the lovely shawl my sister-in-law knit for her, the overwhelming odor of a bowel movement slips out from under the sheets and quickly engulfs the room.

“I wish I were dead!” Bea exclaims in a very unhappy voice.

“There, there. No, you don’t,” I could have said but don’t. All I utter are a few words of comfort.

If Mother is still alive at 96 ½, her meds are responsible, along with a successful angioplasty in 1995.

I do not think people should have to continue living if they do not want to, once their quality of life has deteriorated so completely, impacting the lives of caretakers.

Before breakfast, I give Bea a painkiller.

Modern medicine prolongs life. Luckily, it also relieves pain.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bea's Bedsore

Elderly people who are bed-ridden get bedsores. I knew that. What I didn’t know is that you can get bedsores all over your body. I thought they only appeared on the butt. Wrong. Bea got her first bedsore on her heel. I noticed it was red. Then, one day, a splotch appeared. Through the skin, I can see what looks like pus.

When you ask nurses about bedsores, they invariably shake their head with a very worried expression on their faces. One gets the idea bedsores can be quite nasty.

The way to avoid bedsores is to rotate the body. A few hours on one side, a few hours on the other. This is what I try to do for Bea now that I know better.

Our hospice nurse provided a great balm, which I apply regularly: Bag Balm ointment. The label says, “Apply to the affected area twice a day for skin irritation.”

I slop the bag balm on the bedsore, then cover it with one cotton sock. We have been treating the bedsore this way for three weeks. It seems better but has not disappeared.

I also buy a soft lamb’s fleece type pad that now cushions Bea’s feet. Apparently, you can find heel booties made out of the same material.

Bedsores are no fun. They take forever to heal.

Vigilance is in order.

We need to prevent more.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bea's Party

Bea spends most of the day sleeping after a busy night.

I can hear her chattering away when I go to sleep around 10. I wake up later and have to remind her she should be sleeping. I report all this nocturnal activity to Lisa.

“You must have been having quite a party here last night,” Lisa says, preparing to give Mother lunch.

“Yes,” she answers.

“Who was there?” I ask.

“Everyone that mattered.”

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Bea is in a talkative mood today.

This afternoon our health aide encourages Mother to come up with another song. “When she gets the first line, she just goes,” Lisa tells me.

Lisa calls these blasts from the past "pearls."

Here is the little ditty:

“Annie doesn’t live here anymore.
Aren’t you the guy she waited for?
She told me that I’d know you by the look in your eye…”

“That’s my favorite line,” Bea says with a twinkle in her eye and pauses so we can fully savour the meaning.

“She said you’d wear a yellow shirt and polka-dot tie."

"Must have looked awful!" the reciter comments under her breath.

"You answer that description
So I guess you’re the guy.
Annie doesn’t live here anymore.”

When I enter her bed room with dinner, Bea asks how I had liked her speech. I did hear part of it, having noticed a distinct change in tone to the running dialogue coming from her side of the house. The speech was about real estate, in Washington, DC.

Bea chats with people well into the night. One of her visitors is college roommate Miggits Campbell’s brother Ben, who died last year.

Bea had many beaux before meeting my father ...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bertha's Lullaby

Bea spends more and more time in the past.

This morning she talks about older sister Helen, long deceased, who was visiting with two children, one on a tricycle.

“Who is that darling little boy?” Mother asks.

I explain that there is no one there that I can see.

“They were standing right there, at the foot of my bed,” she insists.

Bea, who never used to sing, suddenly remembers songs I have never heard before, songs her mother Bertha sang back in New Jersey, probably to both little girls, since they shared a room. This lovely lullaby, for instance:

“Go to sleep my baby. Close your big blue eyes.
Lady Moon will watch you through the darkening skies.
The little stars are peeping, to see if you are sleeping.
Go to sleep my baby. Close your big blue eyes.”

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Empty-Stomach Blues

There are days that seem destined for sleep alone. Sometimes Bea doesn’t want to eat. Then, at other times, she will play catch-up. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are not sufficient. Whenever I appear at Bea’s bedside, she will say in a plaintive voice, “I’m hungry.”

Since Bea has lost her short-term memory, remembering a meal becomes problematic. Yesterday, for instance. I had just fed her halibut and yellow squash, which she devoured. Upon my return from the kitchen with dessert, she tells me, “I’m hungry.”

“You already ate dinner,” I say, nonplussed.

“What did I eat?” she wants to know.


“Squash,” she repeats, as if discovering the word for the first time.

We go through this routine every time I enter her bedroom over the course of the evening. Finally, before I go to bed myself, I give her a banana to ward off hunger ...