Memorial Day, an essay written in 2003

“ . . . Gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime . . . ” [General John Logan, 1868]

Joh Mahaffey old tomb

*

The day lilies come back to stay. Honeysuckle and morning glories climb fences and trellises. Impatiens and begonias border sidewalks. Cannas are on the rise. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the yard.

It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial kick-off of summer. It’s a long weekend, a day off work.

Schools are out, pools are open, and it’s time to clean the patio. It’s time for the first watermelon cutting, time to crank out the first bucket of homemade ice cream. It’s time for cookouts. Time to roll out the grill and slap on some burgers. It’s time for my husband to try out that new steak injector he got for Christmas.

By Memorial Day, my yard is usually in tip-top shape—beds neatly mulched, annuals planted, and pots of geraniums placed on the porch and patio.

Not so this year. Weeds cover the beds like heavy blankets.

Weeds also fill my mind, getting in the way of things I want to do. I can only think about one thing. Dad. He’s ill. In the hospital. Gone from us. I sleep, I cry some, I don’t care about the weeds.

*

I hate thistle. It spreads everywhere—along roadways, in pastures.  It’s a tall and gangly weed, crooked and awkward. It’s repulsive. It reminds me of a fibroid growing unwanted somewhere.

A thistle is growing in the gravel parking lot behind my office building in Cool Springs. I cut a stalk and lay it on my desk because I feel like looking at something ugly.

thistle

It is spiny and coarse with thorns all up and down it. It has jagged prickly leaves, and on top of rows of prickly bracts, sits a purple flower.

The plant is hard to handle; thorns stick in my flesh and hurt. But the flower is what surprises me. It’s purple, soft, delicate. And it doesn’t belong on that awful stalk.

Shades of purple filaments stick up, ordered in a circle around a center of tiny white seeds in a swirl pattern. The seeds seem protected by the outer hairs that curl gently around them.

I touch the flower to my face. It feels like the big round make-up brush I apply powdered blush with. It leaves inky marks on my cheek.

The flower is quite lovely, its fragrance sweeter than I ever imagined.

*

More than four million Americans, ten percent of the population over age sixty-five, have dementia, an ugly disease causing a severe loss of thinking and reasoning abilities. The families of those four million people face anguish, frustration, and grief, watching a loved one slowly slip away, even while continuing to live.

Live, meaning to breathe in, breathe out, walk or pace or shuffle, and talk even if it’s only to someone who doesn’t exist. Live, without a shred of quality or an ounce of dignity. Live in the same old body with an altered personality and a new behavior. Live, eventually, some place other than their own home.

Delusions and hallucinations are common, such as believing money has been stolen, a spouse has been unfaithful, or unwelcome guests are living in the house. Those with dementia see and hear people who aren’t really there, and the fantasies are realities that slowly take over their lives.

Having a loved one with dementia is like having a death in the family with no funeral.

*

Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.

I have two fourth great-grandfathers and a third great-grandfather who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, placed in a mulched bed in front of a Burning Bush. Maybe I’ll put a flower on it.

Dad served in World War II. He rode with the Great Third Army and General George Patton.  Dad was a sergeant, a frontline medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor.

“War is hell,” Dad said.

grave2

“He has terrible memories he will never forget,” Mama said. “When he came home from the war, I listened to him talk day after day until he could sleep and stop shaking.”

“War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!” Patton said to his troops.

No soldier is ever one hundred percent sane after the initial indoctrination of war. No soldier is ever free from emotional scars related to perpetual exposure to imminent danger.

Dad’s dementia has somehow pulled out the war experiences he spent sixty years trying to forget, and they are tormenting him.

War is hell. Soldiers die. Soldiers come home from the battlefront to live among innocents who stick SUPPORT OUR TROOPS ribbons on their cars, and they try to resume normal lives after what they’ve seen and where they’ve been and what they’ve done.

 

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Bailey and Mama

Bailey -- The Little Man

Bailey

August 6. What a day. It has once again stretched the coping ability, now like old, worn elastic. Please, God, no more like this one.

He’s gone… I’d pushed OK, and this text message lit up the screen of my cell phone. I thought I should check it when there was no blinking light on the land line. I knew this was coming. In fact, I had gone outside and walked around Wimbledon Circle once, twice, then I rode my bike, and then ran. I knew it was happening. I just didn’t want to face it. After I got the text, I walked again around the circle and let the acid and anxiety bubble up to my throat and the tears wet my face and drip to the concrete under me.

Bailey was my “granddog.” His appointment with destiny was scheduled for Saturday, but he couldn’t make it. He was diagnosed with Cushing’s years ago, took the chemo treatment at $80 a month, along with Mannatech immune-strengthening products, and lived longer than most dogs with the disease. Then diabetes set in, then kidney failure. Bailey was suffering and ready to go.

___

She’s in! I could tell my sister was driving. I could hear the road noises as she headed north up 61. I sat at my desk at work and clutched my cell phone tighter. I just left her. And she’s not happy. She was getting her purse, ready to walk out with me. Her voice was strong, a little shaky, but determined. It was a hard thing to do, but she drove down from Memphis and did it.

Our mother was admitted to the Senior Care unit of North Sunflower County Hospital. It has been coming a long time, but particularly in the last month, things have gone drastically awry. Her pain, persistent over the last six months, has intensified; no doctors, no tests have shown anything wrong. Her confusion has increased, she has lost her words, her short-term memory has failed.

She’s the matriarch, she demands to stay in her own house, she has threatened to sue us if we challenge that. She’s a fighter, a wildcat, and everyone understands who and what she is, and we’re all slow to cross her. She has refused help, until now. She knows she’s not what she was.

___

Before Bailey, my son had a wolf, a pure-bred wolf. He kept it in my parents’ backyard while he attended college in the same town…and neglected to tell them it was a wolf. Then he married, the wolf got a home in the country, and the young couple traveled to Okolona, Mississippi, and got this tiny white puffball Maltese. Bailey had to be tough, following a wolf. My son would put one end of a rag bone in Bailey’s mouth and with the other end, swirl the puppy around the hardwood floor like a dust mop.

I took my brand new cocker spaniel to visit Bailey. She was standing in one corner of the living room, and he was sitting on the couch on the opposite side of the room. All of a sudden, with no prompting, he jumped straight up in the air and far across the room, landing ten inches from her, and shouldered roughly into her side with a growl that could bring down an army. She cried. She stewed on it for months, and at the next visit, she watched and waited for an opportunity and took it, barking, growling, snarling, pushing him backward across the kitchen floor, and though he was one-third her size, he stood his ground to make it clear he was the alpha dog.

Dad was alive and healthy back then and rode a bicycle every day — an old one with a big fat seat and a basket on the front handlebars. He was determined to put Bailey in that basket and take him for a ride. “No, Dad, it’s not a good idea,” I said. “He’ll be fine, he’ll just sit there and look around,” Dad said. No sooner than they got to the next block, a Great Dane ran out in the street viciously barking at them. Bailey, all of four pounds, bravely leapt from the basket and chased the monster dog down Deering. Dad dropped the bike and ran after Bailey. “Come back here!”

___

“You come down here and get me or I will hate you forever.” My heart flips over and rolls around, feels like a dog lying on dry grass, scratching its back and kicking its legs.

I never thought Mama would need any help. Last summer she was mowing her own yard and doing all the weed-eating and at 87, was still driving and going to church by herself.

As a girl, Mama lived by and swam in the Ohio River. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during WWII; she was making her way to the parade grounds on the army base the day President Roosevelt came to inspect the women, and she stood curbside all alone — three feet from the leader of the free world — and saluted him, and shortly thereafter, he made the WAACs the WACs, an official part of the Army. Mama went to college on the GI Bill, got a BS double major in social studies and graduated with the highest average in her class. She also got a BS in elementary education, an MS in special education, and an MS in Supervision/Administration. She taught school for 33 years. She is a member of Kappa Delta Pi.

She’s always been a strong, independent woman because she comes from a famous pioneer family. Her third great grandfather was a first cousin of Daniel Boone.

“I don’t belong here,” she says. “Tomorrow, you come get me.”

___

The vet arrived at the house and did the deed as the dog lay on the couch in the living room. A half hour later someone from the crematory came. The ashes would be returned in a cedar box the following day, along with a paw print and a lock of hair.

___

How can life take one so vibrant and strong and reduce it to something unrecognizable? True, a newborn baby goes through change after change on the path to adulthood. But then why at a certain point do things start going backward? Why is life so complicated that its processes of movement and growth and flow just stop altogether?

___

It’s time. This weekend I must clean out the drain in the master bathroom. I’ve been putting this off. I can’t any longer. I’ve never had to do this “dirty job” but now I am alone and it falls to me. It is surely clogged with my hair, the dog’s hair, soap residue, debris from plants at its corners, and lint that floats in the air. The tub doesn’t drain, the water just sits there, no gurgling sounds are apparent, like when something bad happens and the breath is knocked out of you and you can’t get air because it cannot come in or go out so you struggle with it and gasp and suck in what you can while you can.