Just Enough Pie

It took me almost a year to return to the cemetery where we laid my grandpa to rest.  And almost two more to write about it.  He is eternally bird watching now, high up on a hill that overlooks the city, just a half mile from my house.  There is an overlook there, with trees and memorial stones, and a wall with etched placards to tell the stories of the the ashes it holds.

It was a normal day when I first visited, in the fall.  I headed to the grocery on my lunch break to get some ingredients for a cooking project that the kids in the after school program wanted to tackle.  I suppose they were tired of charades and my budget friendly game of “let’s build something out of paper towel rolls”.  There is almost nothing that will keep me from a chance to teach those cute little urban kids a reasonable life skill and quite literally nothing that will keep me from a reason to eat.

I was standing in line at Kroger with a bag of frozen hash browns, staring at the gum and mints listening with half an ear to the elderly gentleman in front of me, struggling with his food assistance card.  The cashier looked at him solemnly and said “You ain’t got enough” in her slow Appalachian drawl.  I looked over at his cart; 6 cases of assorted sodas, 4 bottles of shampoo, 3 frozen pies, and more bags of cheese than I could count.  The old man scratched his head and tried to swipe his card again while the bag boy started offering up options that he might not need from his cart.  I couldn’t imagine any reason he would need any of it.

“You AIN’T got enough.” the cashier said again.
“But I need it…I need it for the thing.” he said earnestly.  My breath caught as I recognized the tone of a man missing his words.
“You’re ten dollars short.” the cashier said, waving her open hands in his face.  He looked at his own hands, as if there might be something in them he had forgotten.

I opened my purse and slipped a ten to cashier.  “Here.” I said patiently, not moving my eyes away from his wrinkled confused face, staring desperately at his basket, “It’s really okay.  Just take this and let him go.”

The cashier looked at me blankly and stuffed the cash in the drawer, handing the gentleman his receipt.  He turned and looked at me, almost aware that something had happened but in his distant blue eyes, I knew he wasn’t sure.  They were the same color as my grandpa’s eyes.  An antique blue, aged by a good life but a bit sadder than when he was young and now laced with confusion.  He was tall like grandpa, a small tuft of hair on his head and freckles on his arms.  He didn’t say anything to me, but shook his head a bit as he turned with his cart through the automatic doors.

How many people had paid for my grandpa’s groceries before we noticed a problem?  How many hours had he spent wandering the store, choosing too much of the wrong thing?  Were people rude to him?  Did they help him?  Did he know something was wrong?

“He didn’t even say thank you.” the cashier scoffed, breaking my train of thought and shoving my hash browns into a bag.  I started to cry.  Large, silent tears that confused the bag boy and annoyed the cashier.  I handed her a five, and tore out of the store with the frozen bag under my arm.  Before I knew it, I was sitting on the same stone bench that I hid behind at my grandpa’s funeral.  I cried for awhile, clutching the hash browns until they melted, cold potato water dripping over my arm.  I don’t know if I was crying about him, or for him, but I missed him.

Three fourths of Alzheimer’s patients go undiagnosed, left to wander the grocery stores unattended, wanting cereal and heading home with frozen pie and reduced fat cheddar cheese.  Even in families as loving as ours.  Ultimately, it was a brain tumor that took my grandpa, but it was Alzheimer’s that took his livelihood.  There is a whole world of people out there, sobbing silently into their hash browns, and because I never took the time before, I want to dedicate this blog to them and most importantly my mom.  Because she noticed.  Because she took his keys.  Because she changed his locks.  Because she wrote his bills and managed his care.  Because even when it was hardest, she made sure my grandpa always had the right amount of love, the right amount of care, the right amount of shampoo and just enough (but not too much) pie.

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Sugar and Spice and Puppy Dog Tails

Ensuring that my grandpa receives adequate nutrition slash doesn’t die from food poisoning is almost exactly like trying to tempt the palette of a dog.  He will eat just about anything that he finds lying around, but he most certainly does not have any interest in what you have planned for him to consume.  He is a huge fan of meat, as any true man is, though he has a habit of buying 4 lamb chops, 2 ribeyes, and some veal all at the same time, and all (of course) within 2 days of expiration.  Now, I’m not positive if ya’ll are good at math but I’m sure you can imagine the meat to meal number ratio that is created when you leave Grandpa to his own devices while at the grocery.  You’d think he was actually shopping for a pack of rabid dogs, not a single old man with the appetite of a sparrow.

Now, critics may say that I should just freeze the excess.
And I have.
However, I have learned my lesson.  Because while rummaging through the freezer looking for either ice cream, or his keys, my grandpa has come across my secretly stashed frozen meat, each and every time.  And though just barely, he does in fact know that this was not where he had originally put his prized purchase.  In an attempt to right the wrong that I have created, the chops, steaks etc end up reassigned to the counter, the silverware drawer or the ever-surprising dumping ground that is the bread box.

Carbs are a whole ‘nother can of worms (though canned goods themselves, on the other hand, are like Pandora’s box).  Somewhere deep in the recesses of grandpa’s mind, underneath the cobwebs, and his wife’s name, wedged carefully next to his anger at my mother for taking his keys, is the lecture given to every newly diagnosed diabetic.  “Limit carbohydrates, sugars, everything delicious.  If you want it, it probably isn’t good for you.  If you eat it, you will die.”  Of course, when confronted with the oh-so-tempting, Gramps always reaches for the serving spoon, but something more often than not nags him into obedience.  Maybe it’s my grandma’s voice, still echoing in annoyance, “Baaaaaaaaab” as he scuffs his dirty shoes over the clean white floor to reach his hidden stash of cookies.  Or maybe it’s his own realization that eating too much of the stuff doesn’t make him feel so hot, but time after time, those carefully portioned carbs end up a wasted course.

“I don’t like that stuff.” He’ll say, eyeing a bowl of spaghetti.
He pokes at rice, pushes around his baked potato and scrapes his cheesey noodles into the trash when you’re not looking.  But, without fail, he will buy carton after carton of pre-mashed potatoes, and sneak off to the kitchen to make a giant bowl of ice cream when you are otherwise occupied.  It’s a mystery of his mind that may never be solved but will forever taunt us from his chocolate stained lips and his glucose meter readings.

And then there is the meal location.  Location, location, location.  As of late, lunch has been on his own; Ziploc container filled with leftovers, a sandwich wrapped in clear plastic wrap, a salad with too much dressing and soggy leaves, all with a note plastered to the front reading “LUNCH” with subsequent heating/eating directions.

But the real challenge comes at suppa-time.  As it goes, approximately every Monday, and third Tuesday he is too mad at my mom for taking his keys to walk the block and a half to her house for dinner.  The rest of the time, he’ll walk the walk, but he most certainly will not talk the talk.  Or talk any sort of talk for that matter, unless it has to do with returning his keys/freedom/fatherly dominance over the oldest, but softest daughter in the bunch.  As you can imagine, this silent treatment makes for a solemn, short affair as far as dinners goes.
The other days of the week, dinner duty falls on me.  When I can, I try to cook the usual, and coax him away from the 6/6:30/7 o’clock news long enough to eat dinner at the kitchen table.  If that is impossible, as it almost always is, I at least lead him with a glass of sugar free chocolate milk to a TV tray.

Now, lets go back to that Pandora’s box of cans.  There is this cabinet in the corner of the kitchen that, quite frankly, I believe my Grandpa has dubbed his endless pit of things he might need one day.  Inside are trash bags, Swifers, wood polish, carpet cleaner, old grocery sacks, water jugs, and canned goods.

And there in that last item, lies the problem.

The canned goods with their expirations dating all the way back to 2003.  It’s a regular schmorgasboard inside those wooden doors.  Templton the rat would have a field day.  I’m talking spaghetti sauce, tuna, stuffing mix, cranberries, peeled potatoes, green beans, Hungry Man, and anchovies.  You name it, he’s storing it.  Until the apocalypse?  Armagedon?  Saturday?  There’s no telling.  I have slowly, but surely, started throwing things away.  One by one, sometimes taking a few home with me to toss in my own bin.  But whether my Grandpa notices that the trash is feeling awfully heavy or he really does keep tabs on his expired non-perishables, 9 times out of 10 those sticky, previously trashed cans end up in the cupboard again.  If he was a sucker for starving children I would pretend like we were donating them to a youth center or homeless shelter, but my Grandpa’s charitable contributions normally go to park preservation and schools, so we’re out of luck.  Suggestions welcome.

If the cabinet is Pandora’s box, the old icebox is more like Where’s Waldo after a hit of LSD.  Now, aside from the Listerine, salt shakers, Idaho spuds, tooth brushes and 16 bags of carrots that you will find inside (see “Kitchen Finds” post), it’s a pretty normal fridge.  The door handles get sticky like only the personal refrigerator of my grandpa or a tubby little 3 year old might, but otherwise, it’s doing alright.  It’s what you don’t find inside that will screw with your mind.  The butter is often half melted on the countertop, the milk (poured from the jug into a separate pitcher) found curdled on top of the fridge, ice trays in the cupboard (water still inside), petrified mixed greens in the bread box, wrinkled grapes in the oven and mustard under the sink, snuggled next to the Drain-o MAX and other toxic cleaners.  It’s a fight to the finish to keep things where they belong.  Unfortunately the mustard doesn’t have a habit of wearing red and white striped sweaters and ski caps.  That would make finding it in time to make a sandwich so very much easier for my semi-professional Waldo seeking mind.

But in spite of, or rather, because of all of this, cooking in the Bob household can truly be a hilarious experience, if you let it be.  Caring.com has a wide range of suggestions for anyone struggling to feed their Alzheimer’s loved ones.  One I particularly took to heart is their suggestion for spillage: Lower expectations and look the other way as much as you can. Spilled food can always be cleaned up.”  Though crumbs have never been a personal vendetta for me, I was pleased at the two word introduction to that suggestion. 
Lower expectations
.
Everyone has a tendency to carry a torch for their grandmas, grandpas, moms, dads, older (and sometimes younger) sisters and brothers long after they have aged into versions less akin to their former selves.  It may be frustrating to cook the same meal every night, to have the same fight every day, to see them put on the same clothes every morning, but that frustration comes from the expectation that it might be like it used to be.  That it might somehow be different today.  Different than yesterday.  Different than the day they were diagnosed.  But, however much you love them, however fun their semi-sedated selves are, they are forever changed, forever different.  After all, you must have noticed that now it is you calling them to make sure they made it home alright, you checking their temperature when they feel warm, you carting them to doctor’s appointments and remembering to pay the cable bill.  The shoe is on the other foot and you’re about to walk a mile or two in that shoe.

So, lower our expectations we must.  Expect that it will be hard.  Expect that you will cry.  Expect that you will fight, yell, slam doors.  Expect deep down they love you.  Deep down they understand.  And expect that you will make it through.

So these expectations in hand, I will continue to cook dinner even though the lamb is rather greasy and the veal makes me want to gag, the requested meals are unbalanced and the mint jelly has the potential to make my grandpa’s blood sugar sky rocket.  I will cook it.  Whatever he wants.  Because who, at this point, is really going to deny an 85 year old man’s true pleasure in life by trying to count calories or worry about animal rights?  (Sorry PETA).

And when the meal is done being seared or baked or grilled or toasted, I will sit with my arms folded on the stained tablecloth and expect the inevitable:

“You know, people don’t eat this stuff very much around here.” He will say.

“Lamb?”  I’ll ask, gesturing at whatever meat is on his plate, for no matter what animal it originally was, it’s always lamb to Grandpa.

“Yea.  I wonder why nobody around here likes it?  It’s so good!”  He’ll reply.

Fact: the only evidence my grandpa actually has to support the idea that Mid-Westerners aren’t fond of lamb chops is that my mom once told him it wasn’t her favorite, and a faint memory that I used to watch a show by the same name before grandma took me to ballet practice.

And then, “You know,” he’ll say spreading mint jelly over his feast, “This stuff comes from [insert: the Netherlands/India/Russia/some ‘Oriental country’], over there by Austria.”

“It comes from Australia?”  I’ll say, correcting him.

And as always, he will agree then add, “They must make lots of money sending out all this meat to every one all over the world.  I thought that they only had kangaroos and bears but apparently they have lots and lots of lambs.”

“Apparently.” I’ll say and laugh, knowing, expecting, what always comes next.

A smile that spreads slowly across his face, a chuckle from deep inside, and then, lamb still stuffed in the corner of his mouth, “I’m sorry, Mary, I hope this wasn’t YOUR little lamb.”

A different kind of Swing

“Do you want to go to the park with the pond?  Since it’s hot?”  I waited to hear his seat belt click.

“No no no!  We have to go this way!  Go that way!”  He was pointing out his window towards our usual park.

“Okay okay okay!  Calm yourself!”  I turned out of his driveway, preparing for the obligatory U-turn.

“Turn here!  Turn all the way around here!  Now!”

“I GOT it Grandpa!”  I rolled my eyes.

“Slow down!  Slow down!” He said after a bit.

I looked at my speedometer.  I was under the speed limit, every one was passing me, probably shaking their fist too until they saw my grandpa’s white hair peeking up over the seat.

“TURN HERE!”  He pointed at small store in an otherwise empty strip mall.  “WINE, CIGARS, BEER, MILK” plaster in white across the green awning.

“What are we doing here, Grandpa?” I asked, pulling into an empty space.

“I need a rocket.”  He was already opening his door and struggling to unfold his long legs from my mini hatchback.

“A what?”  I trotted after him.

“One of these!”  He drew his fingers to his lips and sucked in and then blew out, tilting his chin up.  Cigars.

Back in the car my Grandpa patted me on the shoulder.  “Thanks for taking me!  You’re a good…a good…”  He blinked a bit, “Well what are you?”

“I’m a good granddaughter?”  I asked.

“That’ll work.”  He replied, unsure if that’s what I really was.  “Boy that woman at the desk sure is friendly!”  She clearly knew him from his recent months of cigar smoking.

After we arrived we took a short walk to my grandpa’s favorite spot.  It’s a wooden porch swing, donated by the Boy Scouts, deep on the trails of a nearby metro park.

“There’s someone in our spot!”  He looked surprised at the idea that anyone else might ever sit there, as though it were actually located on his own back porch.  His eyes narrowed at the two year old and his mother who swung violently  on the swing, laughing and drooling (the child not the mother).

“Well let’s wander a bit further down the path and then we will come back and sit there for awhile when they are gone.”  I guided him gently away from the swing, worried that if we didn’t get moving there might be a throw down despite the 83 year age difference.  Grandpa followed me, glancing back over his shoulder at the mother and son.  After we descended a bit down the hill we stopped.  “Can I take a picture of you?”  I held up my SLR, hoping to use up the semi-expired black and white film inside.

He eyed the camera.  “Okay.”  He put his arms at his side and gave me a big goofy grin.

After a few minutes of idly waiting just out of sight from the wicked mother and son on our swing, I was kneeling down, trying to focus on a flower.  I somehow lost the ability to take pictures manually and was verbally cursing the digital age.

“Hey!  Over here!” Grandpa called, standing in front of a few trees.  “Take my picture with this behind me!”  He threw his thumb over his shoulder, gesturing at a giant tree, eyes wide with pleasure at his new find.  Next we took a picture of him on a bench, then in front of a field, then grinning, then looking pensive, one solemn, one happy.

Grandpa and the large tree (quite accidentally hidden behind him)

Grandpa posing for me in a field.

This is my grandpa, laughing as I cursed the digital age.

Grandpa doing the Captain Morgan pose. (ish)

“Your turn!”  He grabbed the camera from me, but before he could snap a picture the cursed mother and son came over the crest of the hill, the boy falling over some roots.  “IT’S FREE!” he hollered.  “Hurry let’s get it!”  He jumped a bit as he hurried toward the swing, stumbling as he fell back on the seat.

Swing dominance. Thank you Boy Scouts of America.

We swung for a bit, talked about the weather, the economy, his brother, dogs.  “You know that guy that tried to sell me stuff yesterday?” He asked, referencing the gentleman from the home care facility we met with the day before to talk about hiring extra help.

“Yea, I can’t remember his name though…” I replied, wondering if Alzheimer’s is contagious.

“I think he was a fruit.” Grandpa replied, decidedly.

I laughed.  “You do?!”

“Well don’t you?!”  He looked at me.  Expectantly.  “I suppose that’s ok though.  He wasn’t trying to sell me work.  Just people.”

I let it lie, allowing the steady rocking of the swing relax me a bit.

“You know, I love these walks.” He said after a bit.  He folded his fingers, rubbing his index finger back and forth in an uneven rhythm.

I patted his leg.  “I do too.”

“I haven’t done much since my grandma died.”  He thought for a bit scratching his melanoma scar on his forehead.  “My wife.”  He said, editing his last thought.  He had pointed out the hospital she was taken to after breaking her arm on our drive to the park.  “That’s where we lost my friend.” He had said, pointing out the passenger side window.  “She went there and never came home again.”

I looked at him swinging, lost in thought, possibly trying to organize his words, possibly trying to remember them.  “You have done a few things that were fun.”  I reminded him of his trip to Michigan, playing bridge every afternoon, and riding his bike, anything to smudge out the gloom on his face.

“Yes but I don’t have her to play with anymore.  I have to play alone.”

I stayed silent, uncertain how to respond.

“You know, I like to combine things.”

“What kind of things, Grandpa?  Like when you’re shopping?”  I turned toward him, trying to gauge if we had changed the subject or not.

“No.  Not shopping.  Like…you know…this.”  He squeezed his fingers together and moved them up and down against the air.

“You like to write?”  I asked him, following his hand with my eyes.

He nodded, lips pressed tightly.  “I’m a good writer!”  He smiled at me, “I’m like Allen Edgar Post!”

“Just like him?”  I was laughing now.  “Do you write about ravens too?”

“No!  No no no!  I don’t write about birds.  I like people.  And the sky.”  He was very concerned with this.  “We could exercise together!”  He seemed excited.

“Like we are doing on this walk?”  I asked, trying to connect this to birds, or writing, or anything really.

“No.  You know for money.  I’ll do this,” he scribbled at the air, “and you’ll do that.” He finished, pointing at my camera.  “Together.”

When we got home he rummaged through the end table drawer next to his faded leather couch.  “Here.  See?” he said, handing me a birthday card.  “I designed this..this rocket.”  I took it from him, already knowing it’s contents from my hours of snooping and organizing as I cleaned his house.

A Poem by Bob
To N:
When the cool Spring air has warmed into Summer’s heat,
When all the leaves have fallen and Winter’s silence descends,
I will love you still.
And when the city lights have dimmed,
And the city’s hum has hushed,
When all the music has been played,
And life’s beat has left,
I will love you still.

Happy Birthday,
Your husband