I’ve grown to dislike those Facebook Memories that pop up first thing every morning. The old photo posts of Jack and I out dancing, or on a road trip, or hiking in one exotic location or another. Each memory forces me to see the glaring evidence of Jack’s decline, provides irrefutable proof that my expectations sink lower each day. And the bar MUST be lowered constantly. Jack’s physical and mental abilities deteriorate, mostly slowly, occasionally like a giant leap from a cliff, freefalling down to some shaky precipice below where we blink our eyes, teeter precariously and hope to catch our breath before the next leap.
The frustration, and anger, and cognitive dissonance of not lowering expectations is unfair to Jack, who courageously and stubbornly fights to hold on to some modicum of control over his life every single hour of every day. Besides, expecting what he can no longer give makes me bat-shit crazy. The last few days have been especially difficult.
This week was bookended with falls.
From Wednesday to Friday last week Jack grew more and more weak, less and less able to focus, both mentally and visually. The doctors are adjusting his meds, running tests to check for a UTI. We do not know if this is yet another leap into thin air. Is this lower, narrower cliff our new normal? Friday his day care called to say he was weepy, weak, unable to feed himself, stumbling with his walker. Friday night he fell hard, and injured his hip and shoulder.
Saturday we spent at the ER. Catscan, ex-rays, urinalysis, blood tests revealed nothing more serious than a possible UTI. We came home with antibiotics. Jack called a buddy and borrowed a wheelchair as the fancy custom chair the VA has ordered for him has not yet arrived. And, just like that, our freefall landed us in a new normal where, because of the combination of general weakness and the injury to his hip, Jack can no longer safely use his walker. He cannot push his wheelchair with his hands because of the new weakness and because of injuries to his shoulders caused by past falls and exacerbated by the most recent fall. These shoulder problems, coupled with his tremors, and his failing eyesight now make him unable to feed himself as well.
This requires a whole new level of care from me and strips Jack of even more independence.
In his younger days Jack thought having two or three wives was just what he needed. Younger wives, of course. And if they didn’t speak English, even better. No backtalk like his current helpmate. Unfortunately he was never able to convince me to pursue this lifestyle. Now days, I sort of wish I’d been more open to the idea. This man needs a harem of women to care for him. Younger muscles, upper body strength, and strong backs would be appreciated around here.
Because I had severe scoliosis as a child, followed by full-spinal fusion and a couple of years in a body cast, my own back is weak. Bending is not my strong suit and pushing a wheelchair with a large man in it destroys my back, even when that large man is a husband I love dearly. Without help, it currently takes Jack over ten minutes to get from his lift chair, into the wheelchair, and then to the bathroom.
This is a problem. Last night he fell trying to do just this. The EMTs came, got him on his feet, met the dog, and left us safe but rattled. And, at least on my part, scared. How far can I push that chair each day before my own back goes out and I’m flat in bed with no one to care for either of us? How long can I get up in the night with him when he has to get out of bed to go to the bathroom before loss of sleep turns me into a permanent lunatic? How can I get him, well, anywhere? Doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, just, outside the house? I can’t transport the wheelchair and even if the VA gets us a lift, I cannot lift or fold and transport the thing without doing damage to my own back.
Too late, I’m reconsidering those younger wives. Maybe strong peasant stock who could simply lift Jack in their arms and set him gently in the passenger seat of the car?
Ah, but it’s too late for do-overs.
I must simply readjust to our new reality, knowing there is no chance of climbing back up life’s cliff to higher ground. The occupational therapist comes to the house on Monday. She may have suggestions on how to maneuver around our new cliff face.
In the meantime, I am grateful to be home where redwoods meet the Pacific Ocean and where my two older sons offer their help and time and love. Small things make me happy. A warm cup of tea on a cool morning, the embarrassment on the face of our giant galoot of a dog when he accidentally sits in the small outdoor pond, and the touch of Jack’s hand when I bring him his pills – these simple things bring momentary relief from our situation.
While I lose sight of it on an hourly basis, it is nonetheless true that lower expectations bring not lesser joy, but a deeper acceptance of the core goodness of life. I cling to this thought. In an earlier essay I quoted Germaine Greer. Here’s another truth from the great feminist:
“The older woman’s love is not love of herself, nor of herself mirrored in a lover’s eyes, nor is it corrupted by need. It is a feeling of tenderness so still and deep and warm that it gilds every grass blade and blesses every fly. It includes the ones who have a claim to it, and a great deal besides. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”