Friday, July 31, 2009

Two part time jobs

I have two part-time jobs, creating and maintain a vegetable garden, and caring for my 100-year-old mother. Both require time, patience and love.
Of course, I'm not comparing my mother to a vegetable garden. But there are some parallels.
Both are givers. The garden, sustenance for our bodies. My mother, her love, her prayers, her blessings.
Both are takers. The garden requires my physical presence, hovering to make sure I harvest at just the right time before the zucchini turn into zucchini bread right on the vine, the tomatoes don't become tomato sauce, and the beans become tough and chewy. It has to be kept watered, just enough, but not too much that the vegetables become watery.
It's all one grand experiment this year of my first garden in 13 years. My friend, Sue, helped me in the garden yesterday and chided me for how crowded the rows were.
"I was greedy," I responded, but three rows per bed will be more appropriate than four.
I thinned madly yesterday, and suddenly stood up and took a deep breath, as I was imagining the garden was doing now that it could breathe without interference from encroaching leaves from other plants.
My mother requires love, time, energy, endurance, patience, and physical presence, hovering just a little to make sure the water in her cup by her sofa doesn't make the inside of the cup slimy from sitting too long, making sure the knife the caregiver uses to cut up her oranges is properly cleaned. For months and months I would come in and find dark and crusty orange rind caked to the serrated edges. I would rant. Finally, after years of that knife perched dirty on a napkin, every day it's in the dish drainer--clean.
Every week or so I tweeze her "feathers," what my great niece Tai calls those pesky whiskers that us women are prone to as we age and our hormones desert us. Mom puts her head back and closes her eyes and I tweeze away. She loves it, being nurtured in that way.
I comb her hair, even though at this point it's often a lost cause, especially when her perm is gone. I make her doctor appointments and take her to the doctor, helping her maneuver her walker into and out of the office and into and out of the bathroom twice on each visit. I lose my patience at the time it takes. I pause and wonder who will wait for me.
Today she needs cash for her hair appointment, yesterday she needed prescriptions at the store. The day before she wanted pain medication for the vascular disease that is plaguing her. The day before that it was medication for the gout she got the first time in her life.
When crises come, and they have many times over the last ten years, I am always there. I sometimes chafe at the interruption to my life, but then I remember the words of my good friend, Bonnie.
"This may be the most important work you ever do."
I hope there is more work for me to sink my teeth into when my mother is gone. But this work I do with her and for her, is indeed important work.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Taking Care of Mom

“Everything before this has just been life. Now is the test of your true character.” My nephew, Donald Goudey Solleder, speaking to me about me taking care of mom.
My mother, Sybil Sharp, turned 100 years old in April. She thought that once she got to 100, a goal she developed in her 99th year, she would lie down and die. Unfortunately for her, she says, that has not happened.
My brother and I, her grandchildren and great grandchildren, are grateful for her long life. In the last ten years, since she turned 90, she was present at my brother's wedding six years ago, present at my wedding three years ago, present at my long-delayed graduation from college, and saw photos of my son’s graduation from college. She has seen her great granddaughter, Tai, five different times. Tai and her parents, Donald and Nga, live in Southern California and my mother and I, and my husband, Ben, live in Central Washington. They have made the trip so that Tai would have a memory of her GG, or Great Grandmother. Mom’s other great grandchild, Shin, lives in Australia with my nephew and his partner, Kishiko. Mom has been able to see and talk to Shin on Skype, a technological advance that was not even a glimmer in an inventor’s eye when my mother was born in 1909.
I called mom this morning. I asked her how she was doing and she said, “My ankle is driving me nuts. I sure hope they can figure out what is wrong.” I reminded her that the doctors already know what is wrong.
“It’s vascular disease and lymphedema, mom.”
“Oh, yes, what are they going to do about it?”
I reminded her that her doctor had mentioned angioplasty, a procedure to open her arteries and increase blood flow.
But, she insists there will be no surgery.
Starting at age 90, mom would routinely refuse medical care, thinking that she was too old, that it would cost too much, and that she was going to die soon anyway. When she was 90 she fell down the stairs at her retirement home. The paramedics were called, but she, refused to go with them. She called to tell me she fell down the stairs, but was doing fine. When I arrived, I was shocked to discover that she was bruised from head to foot. I took her to the doctor, who dressed some wounds on her shin, but other than that she was fine, except for the broken wrist they discovered two months later. Every day I called her and asked her how she was doing and she said, “My ankle hurts but I’m doing okay.”
A week later I arrived to find her ankle black and blue. She had cellulitis and spent the next week with her foot elevated. For the next ten years, until now, she has had trouble with that ankle and foot, including lymphedema, which causes swelling, and the vascular disease, which is a narrowing of the arteries, which impinges blood flow. The lymphedema can be treated with support hose, but the vascular disease circumvents that treatment.
A few years later, mom was diagnosed with skin cancer. She was hesitant to see a doctor, but eventually had two surgeries two separate times for basal cell carcinoma. Both times she had procrastinated about going to the doctor.
When she was 95, she was having difficulty breathing. Her doctor prescribed allergy medications. After months of suffering, we insisted on a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who diagnosed a tumor in her pharynx. When he removed it, he held up his thumb and said, “This is how big it was.” It was lymphoma.
He also said it would grow back unless she had radiation or chemotherapy. Mom refused, saying, “I’m too old, I’m going to die anyway.”
The tumor grew back within a few months. After another surgery, the doctor, with bedside manner befitting a general and appropriate for dealing with my strong-willed mother, said, “You will die a terrible death if you do not do something about this tumor.”
Meaning chemotherapy or radiation. She agreed on chemotherapy, and became the center of attention in a doctors’ focus group on how to treat patients with difficult diagnoses. She had several chemotherapy treatments before they determined that radiation would be the best course of treatment. By the time she started radiation, the cancer had metastasized into her skull. She had 15 treatments and was cancer free. My brother said it was a miracle.
As a result of the radiation, mom lost 15 pounds and became more frail. One morning she fell, but didn't tell me for a couple of days, when she was finally in so much pain she asked to go to the hospital. They put her on morphine to control the pain caused by a broken tailbone. The morphine almost killed her, or so it seemed, and after several days in the hospital we moved her to a retirement home that did respite care. My brother arrived to help. Mom told him she was ready to die and was going to stop eating.
My brother, thinking mom was serious, said, “Mom, could you wait until Annie gets here.”
I cried with mom. She told me not to grieve. And then I realized that mom wasn’t really dying, she just felt like it. The nurse confirmed my feelings and said, “It’s the drugs that make her feel like that.”
Eventually a caregiver told her that suicide was illegal in Washington State and mom started eating again.
After several weeks, mom was back home giving the caregivers hell for being in her apartment.
In early December that year, mom went back to her oncologist for a check-up, and complained to him about a backache. He was convinced that her cancer had returned, but now in another place in her body.
“Cancer has a certain smell, and given her symptoms, I think it has returned,” he told me out of hearing. Who was I to doubt a well-respected oncologist?
I asked, “How long does she have?”
“Probably a couple of months, but we’ll do a CAT scan to confirm it,” he said.
The family arrived to spend the Christmas holiday. We were stressed and grieving the pending loss of our mom and grandma and thought it was our last Christmas with her. It wasn't the first time I had grieved. My mom had pneumonia at 87 and was "dying" in my spare bedroom for a week. She recovered and was still driving at 95.
A few weeks after Christmas, we waited to hear the results of the CAT scan.
“It’s all clear,” the doctor announced, looking chagrined.
I think that because he saw so many people die who were so much younger than my mom, he went with his gut, which told him, incorrectly, that she was a goner.
I had a mixed reaction. Already, mom had dodged the bullet. Several bullets. And she had expressed repeatedly that she was ready to go. I was perplexed. Anticipated grief had once again taken a back seat to relief.
Four years years later, she still has no sign of cancer. Just vascular disease, which is not terminal, but causing her so much pain she wants to die.
Surgery may be an option, but will she go for it?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Insects don't respect private property

But then, that is a good thing. Insects come in all variety of loveliness and weirdness. Take the earwig, for example. Slithery and wicked looking, it's really not all that bad. Yes, it eats a few leaves, but the secret is just grow enough for everyone. They have particularly liked the turnip leaves, which are holy, and the roots, which are tasty (to both human and insect) and have little burrows in them.
A (or some) squash bug, or a pack rat, or a Magpie has been eating the pumpkins. When I thought it was a squash bug I sprayed a solution of baking soda, olive oil and soap on the pumpkins, which seems to have slowed down the invasion. We have about 14 pumpkins, enough for us and the neighbors, and the neighbors' neighbors.
Nothing seems to bother the cantaloupe, as of yet. They are as hard as rocks. Four little watermelon are doing well. The yellow squash plant bit the dust. No idea why. Pulled up a potato plant to see the progress. Two or three egg size potatoes with four or five tiny potatoes.
My great niece, Tai, is here visiting with her dad, my nephew, Donald, and his wife, Nga. Tai is a tiny harvester of peas. Her first day here she also pulled up a perfect little carrot. We washed it and she started munching. A delight to watch her eat that carrot.
Speaking of munching. I also found a bite out of a zucchini with teeth marks. Wasn't sure what it was, but the mystery may be solved. Donald had rat poison in his engine compartment because in Borrego Springs, Calif. where they live, pack rats get in the engine compartment and make nests. After they arrived at our house, they smelled something foul. A dead pack rat was discovered curled up in a corner where Donald had the poison. So, they brought poison all this way to kill a tiny Washington pack rat that had collected dog food, dog feces, grass, a pea pod, leaves and sticks in a matter of two days...and then died. R.I.P. little pack rat. I wouldn't have killed you. I would have let you have a pumpkin all to yourself.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Giving Garden

For most of my adult years, I have had a vision of being a gardener, creating a vegetable garden with rock pathways, wild flowers blooming, sunflowers leaning over the edges looking down on fresh, organic vegetables that I have grown.

But life has intervened with other responsibilities and circumstances, making it difficult to realize the vision.

I had my first garden in Utah in the early 70s when I moved there to ski and work with my first husband. That first summer I didn't have to work, as I had since I was 17, six years earlier. So, I grew a garden. I laid out saucers of beer to combat the six-inch long slugs. I stuck a hose down the gopher holes after I was shocked to discover that a row of spinach had disappeared--not a leaf, not a root, remained--sucked into the earth by a pesky gopher.

A few years later we moved to the Heber Valley and tilled an enormous garden. But before it was planted, I moved on, divorcing my husband.

My next garden wasn't until eight years later in Del Mar, California. That one started as a two-by-two foot plot carved out of a crab grass lawn next to a fence. But that was enough to inspire my roommates, Hal and Gina, to help out. Next thing I knew the landlord had taken down the fence, opening a large area for a garden. I don't remember how successful the garden was, but the process was fun.

The next garden was in Leucadia, California ten years later. Jared was four and we had moved into a little house overlooking the ocean. I have a clear image of him planting peas. But once again, life intervened. We didn’t plant another garden in Leucadia because I was too busy working.

The next garden was included in the vision of moving to Washington when Jared was nine. Friends had moved from California to Washington a year earlier, and we followed them, finding a house an acre away. We decided that a 30-by-30 foot corner of my acre was a perfect spot to enclose with a fence. The previous owners had gardened the plot organically and had enriched the soil. We planted, but Mary had four young children (out of an eventual seven) at the time, so her time was limited. My memories are of weeds overtaking everything. But, the kale was good. After two summers, I gave up gardening once again. I was working. Mary was busy with kids, and it was too big a task to tackle alone.

The garden lay fallow for 13 years while I raised Jared, went back to college for four years, and then worked for 3-1/2 years.

After I graduated I met Ben. We married and I talked about the garden with him. He had been a orchardist for 20 years and had previous gardens. He wasn't much interested in the idea and I still didn't have time. My vision lay fallow.

But last September, I quit my full time job. Mid winter, Mary and I again started talking gardens. By spring we had purchased seeds. The soil had grown thick with grass, so a lot of tilling was in order. A neighbor had rented a tiller for a day and offered to till. We rented another tiller and Mary's boys, Sean and Jacob, (15 and 17) tilled again. We still had tiny clods we had to endlessly rake. Finally, we were able to prepare, with everyone's help, two 4 by 20 foot beds, divided in thirds to make easy access to each planting. Mary's daughters, Kate and Molly (11 and 13) helped prepare beds and plant seeds.

Into the beds went lettuce, beans, beets, kohlrabi, turnips, green peppers, carrots, and onions. The beds are crowded now, but we are learning space requirements. Outside the beds we planted three rows of potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, jalapenos, cantaloupe, zucchini, yellow squash, pumpkin, and peas, which are still abundant on the vines into the warm days of July.

Ben helped prepare the beds, but his most important contribution was the drip irrigation, which has made all the difference in the success of the garden. I would never have a garden again without it. He attached the lines to the new frost-free faucet we had installed when we had a new well dug last fall. I lift the handle and voila, water flows to almost every plant in the garden.

The vision is in bloom, thanks to Mary, Ben, Kate, Molly, Jacob and Sean. Kate and Molly dubbed the garden the “Giving Garden” as we are able to share the abundance with our friends as well as our two families.

Next post: Bugs don't respect private property.