The day was May 7, 2010, and I had found a note by mother’s chair, upon which she had written: “When Annmarie was 8 to 11, her grandmother would get put out (sic). Why, she would take Annmarie and Carla to a fair(s) and/or carnival. She would give them each the same amount of money. Annmarie would spend all of hers on herself and Carla, and Carla would roll around in the back seat of the car, counting and crowing over her money!!” I remember that, Carla would beg me for treats, saying that she had no money left, so I shared mine with her. They say character changes slowly, but that it does change over time, even so my sister’s character does not appear to have changed for the better.
Back Up—BEEP BEEP BEEP
(This is how I felt, like a piece of worn-out, dinged-up machinery beeping in reverse, as I cared for my parents during their decline, without a kind word or a penny from either of my siblings.)
by Annmarie Throckmorton
6:00 AM on May 7, 2010. This morning I was working in my front yard very early as I liked to do. I pulled out a hose and watered the iris beds which I had recently put in along each side of the driveway, then I set up a tall ladder and trimmed the burning bushes (small trees really) away from my house, all the while I was planning what I would do in the fall to winterize my various gardens: my rose garden of fifty rose bushes, each one different and each planted by my own hand; my five iris beds with both locally grown irises and exotic types; and my butterfly garden along the back fence where I had put in only plants to which butterflies are partial. Suddenly, I realized that time had slipped away to the point where I had to call my parents immediately, cue them to take their morning pills, and tell them that I would bring them brunch. It was almost noon.
Mother did not pick up or return my first few phone calls, when I finally got through she said, “G*d D*mn it to H*ll”, and hung up. She sounded confused and frazzled. I remembered that she had refused take her pills the day before and the day before that, and I realized that I would have to find a way to make her take her medicine. Eventually I learned to just stand quietly in front of her holding out her pills in a pill cup until she took them, and to watch her to make sure she did not spit them out.
I picked up fast food and drove over to my parents’ house as quickly as possible. When my Father had heard that I called, he quickly made sandwiches, to prove they did not need help I suppose, but the sandwiches were of some odd combination that no one would eat, I forgot what. They were sitting untouched on a kitchen counter when I came in. I went into the sunroom and put a small box of the best donuts in town at mother’s elbow, and went into the kitchen to plate up delicious tacos from Taco Johns’, “serving Bloomington, Illinois since 1969”. They turn up their noses. Taco Johns’ tacos had always been one of their favorites. Mother announced that green beans and navy beans were the only beans she ate, other beans like the ones in the tacos were “too strong”. She gave a little smile to acknowledge the lie, the imposition of restricting me. I thought that she was full of beans but said nothing as her temper had a very low flash point. The all-beef tacos had beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese, but not one bean in them.
More and more often my parents were only willing to eat home-cooked meals that I had prepared, they protested against fast food that they had once enjoyed as a treat. I suspected it was now too spicy for them. I tried to home-cook for them at least once a day, because I felt that they needed more than sandwiches and the like. More and more often I was feeling the impact of being in my sixties. My age made it harder to do what I should and must do. Anyway, I especially liked to make them breakfast of egg (father wanted his single egg soft-boiled presented in an egg cup, mother wanted her two eggs fried over-easy and disapproved of father’s egg cup to the point of smashing them, so I bought plain ones by the half-dozen instead of the expensive, cute ones that he favored), buttered toast or pancakes, sausage or bacon, juice and milk, and stewed fruit. Perfect. I wished I were younger and stronger. Father took ½ of mother’s donut immediately after I asked him to help me encourage her to eat. Gut knotting.
When father told me to take the tacos home with me, I could not tell from his odd manner if he meant it kindly as in have some nice tacos for yourself or brusquely as in get them out of here. I had the feeling that he himself did not know how he felt. I asked him to leave the tacos out on the table in the sunroom for mother as she had eaten only ½ donut so far today and by now it was well past noon. He said nothing, all I could do was hope.
I cleaned up Labrador dog-sized poop which I discovered under the dining room table where one of the dogs, which my parents were starting to forgot to let outside on a regular basis, had tried to hide it (so at least it was not mother’s accident this time). I removed the grill and scoop up spilled dog food from inside the floor heating vent. My parents refused to let me move the huge, open bag of dog food away from the vent, and the dogs knocked it over every day when they helped themselves from it. I dragged the bag of dog food into the kitchen, and my parents moved it back, I moved it into the kitchen, and they moved it...and so on. Anyway, I let the two very happy, unscolded Labradors dogs out to do what they still needed to do. It was almost impossible for me to work at my parents’ house due to the complaints and confusion. I am by nature a very quiet, orderly person. Maybe I should have stayed at my parents’ house that afternoon, maybe I should have lived there, but my own home was so comfortable and comforting, so I went home to make their dinner in my own kitchen. It would have had to be something substantial as brunch had gone so poorly.
I was just beginning my third year of providing daily care to my parents, Dr. Peter Eugene Throckmorton, Ph.D. and Phyllis Marie Throckmorton, B.S. They were not what they used to be. Their house was in Normal, Illinois, my house was fifteen minutes away in Bloomington, Illinois. I knew the route back and forth very well by then. I knew the short cuts and I knew what time of day I would jockey around traffic onto the quicker side streets. My nice little car (a desert-gold Ford Focus, formerly in mint condition) had food stains on the carpet from meals that had tipped a little and my vegetable beef soup or spaghetti sauce leaked out. It seemed like the juiciest things that I cooked for them were the ones that did not fit into my thermal packs and were most likely to spill. Later, I learned to transport their food containers in buckets, which amused me. I remembered feeding buckets of oats to horses in a paddock and they bumped me around too. I used to meticulously clean up each spot in the car as soon as I got back home, but I ran out of steam for that in the first year and just wiped it up as best I could. My energy went into providing the nicest dinner that I could each day, and either breakfast or lunch, depending. As the years went by, my parents started thanking me when I placed a meal on the table before them, and I saw how much they both appreciated my care. I am very proud of having enabled my parents to stay comfortably and safely in their own home together for the last five years of their life, until father’s stroke put him in a nursing home, and although I took mother to live with me, she passed a few months later.
My mother was an Assistant Auditor for the State of Ohio before she retired, my father was an Senior Research Chemist. Mother suffered dementia and father started his own decline into old age ungracefully. It broke my heart to see them that way. Since my second heart attack in the fall of the preceding year (my first heart attack was fifteen years earlier and followed closely by two strokes, but that is a different story), father had begun doing their laundry for me and driving to get snacks. I still maintained their pantry, shopping for groceries, preparing their meals, cleaning up, setting out snacks and fruit for them. Sometimes father and I would end up buying two of the same thing, which was very annoying to him, as he did not want two of anything sitting on the pantry shelves. Having never kept a pantry or shopped for bargains before, he was a cranky novice. I would have preferred to do their laundry, because it seemed there was an art to measuring detergent, and skill in knowing how long to run the dryer to avoid wrinkles which he did not have. But father did their laundry on Tuesdays and shopped for snacks on Wednesdays like clockwork. Mother did not mind their wrinkled, slightly smelly clothing. I was relieved that she was easy-going about it, and I was grateful that Father took the burden of their laundry from me. When they had doctor appointments, I would wash sets of clothing for them to wear at my house, the night before. With both of them in wheelchairs, and as they would usually only go out together, was a challenge. Sometimes they seemed to enjoy their outings, other times they balked and refused to go, so that I had to reschedule. I had no feelings about it one way or the other, I was just trying to live through it.
Father recycled their newspapers, plastic containers, and tin cans, he insisted upon it. He tidily bundled up the recyclables and took them out to the car in one hand as he stumped along with his cane in the other hand. I liked his order in life, his civic-mindedness very much. My father walked for several years with my great-grandmother’s early 1900’s bent-wood cane for sentimental reasons. He refused the expensive, sturdy, light-weight plastic cane that I bought him on prescription, calibrated for his weight of about 300 pounds. I finally convinced him to use the new cane by telling him how much I worried about his safety as the old cane kept slipping out from under him, and by discarding the old safety hazard and leaving the new cane in its place. I also walked with a cane but I was in my 60’s, whereas my father was 82. Mother said he needed a walker but he became uncharacteristically enraged when we argued for him to try it, so I returned it to the store. Father typically walked from room to room with one hand on his cane and the other hand along the tops of furniture, which worried me. Mother was 81 and had just started using a cane, maybe so as not to be left out because in general she could move quite well when she wanted to, even at a running speed. She usually carried her cane instead of leaning on it. This was almost amusing. Sometimes she threatened me with her cane.
On Fridays, my father still drove mother to her younger sister Aunt Mary’s house for a Chinese takeout dinner, and they would all play poker with her two of other siblings, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Edward. Since my mother could not remember from minute to minute, I wondered how that worked, but they enjoy it and rarely missed a week. When father could not drive, mother’s siblings would drive to her house, and I would cook or pick up dinner for all of them, and put out their snacks. I do not recall them thanking me, nor did they ever ask me to play poker with them. They took my work for granted, as did my sister Carla and my brother Peter, who were both still fit and in their fifties.
Poker night was the highlight of Dad’s week, but my parents had other pastimes. They both worked out the daily newspaper crossword puzzle, in competition with each other. Mother would become cross when she lost, but father usually lost and he congratulated her with easy enthusiasm. Together they watched Wheel of Fortune, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), and other TV shows. Father knew what shows were on which day, and how to work the quirky, old TV remote control. Mother appreciated that, and waited for him with remarkable patience. Their agreement on muting the commercials was entertaining, if father delayed even a few words into a commercial, mother would yell out, “MUTE” and he would fumble at the TV remote to quickly mute it. I enjoyed watching Wheel of Fortune with them. If mother happened to be in the kitchen getting a Pepsi soda or a piece of cheddar cheese when the show came back on, I would yell out, “The letter is “x”, what’s the phrase?” Father’s eyes would twinkle. And, mother would laugh because she knew that I was saying that she was so good she could guess the mystery phrase from just one letter. And, she was very, very good at Wheel of Fortune. The dementia let her have that for many years.
My father read three newspapers each day, the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, the local Pantagraph, plus numerous science magazines, and of course, his railroad hobbyist magazines. He eventually let the Wall Street Journal subscription lapse but he would not say why. I suspected that there had been some sort of tiff over payment, but he would not let me help sort it out, and he managed all of their finances until his stroke in 2013. Just prior to father’s stroke a lawyer had strongly recommended that both of my parents have Powers of Attorney drawn up, they did so and appointed me as their Power of Attorney, but I did not have to assume that responsibility until after my father was incapacitated by stroke in 2013. I was very frightened to see how little money they had. If they had not had me to care for them, they would have had to leave their home and go into a nursing home five years earlier. Thankfully, they did have me.
Mother enjoyed holding a magazine even though she could no longer read, and sitting in their sunroom looking at the trees and birds in her backyard. She was always the first to see the bright red flicker of cardinals or a beautiful purple sunset, and she would point them out to me with a breathless excitement that she had at no other time. She used to read murder mysteries and the local paper but that ability was lost to her early into her dementia. It broke my heart. One day she stood at the window and said, “I can’t even think, I should end it.” I immediately said, “Oh, no. Mother, I will help you, don’t worry.” And I did help her. I believe that she was happy in my care. I do know that she often and consistently thanked me for everything that I did for them. I know my father was relieved and satisfied with the way I managed their household for them. My siblings would come into town several times a year, not speak to me, not help me, but they would leave cleaning supplies for me, lots of cleaning supplies lined up in accusation along the wall. They did not clean our parents' house, nor did they put a dollar on the table. Heartless.
In my own refrigerator at my home, I have always kept an assortment of dried fruit which I stew in a little bit of sugar. Stewed fruit is tasty and healthy. Mother liked it very much, but wondered at the fuss of making it. It seemed like no trouble at all to me. Father wanted only stewed prunes or applesauce. So I served him stewed prunes or applesauce. But I also put a very little side dish of stewed fruit (for the vitamins and trace minerals) beside his plate, and often he ate them, especially after I explained that they probably contained vitamins and trace minerals. Mother was very good about eating all of her stewed fruit: prunes, apricots, golden and purple raisins, currants, cranberries, and cherries. She ate it because she liked it. Stewed fruit is easy enough to make, bring a small pan of water to boil, turn off the heat, drop in the dried fruit to steep for ten or fifteen minutes, and add a spoonful of “pure cane sugar from Hawaii”, which may have more of the aforementioned trace minerals as it was grown in the volcanic ash enriched Hawaiian soil (a nice idea but I was mistaken). I loved both of my parents and I wanted them to live for their own personal “forever” in their own home. That is why I cared for them each day and every day, even on those days that they fought against being helped.
My journal entry on May 7, 2010 records that I was so wrung out by the time that I got home that I rushed through my own chores, kept my journal, and took a nap. It rained as I slept. I did not record what dinner I took my parents that evening, but you can bet your bottom dollar it was a good one.
Caption: A Promise Of Rain In The Air
true color photograph by Annmarie Throckmorton 2017.