Friday, June 12, 2009

Late Nights With Lily

It was 11 p.m. and she still wasn't in bed. “Let me sit and think for a while,” I heard her say from the kitchen. She rested her head on the table. “Just another five minutes.”

Another five minutes had already turned into 90 minutes past her bedtime, but there was no point in telling her this. She would not remember. We went through this dance of wills at least three times a week, and I was grouchy and wanting to be in bed myself.

“No, Lily,” I said, the edge in my voice obvious. “It’s time to sleep.” I reached for her arm and tried to lead her out of the room. I would more easily have moved a block of lead.

“Bed?” she cried, raising a hand to strike my face when I touched her. “At home I didn’t go to bed until 1 or 2 in the morning if I didn’t want to! Who are you to tell me what to do?”

Indeed. It felt like a good question. Who was I, a 31-year-old, to tell an 85-year-old when to go to bed? More than once I'd felt awkward as I mothered the 10 women in the assisted-living facility. While I understood my responsibilities and rights to carry them out, the role reversal with each of the women made me grieve. Most had raised children who were older than I, been married decades longer than I had been alive, and lived a lifetime more of wisdom, joys and sorrows. My heart wanted people to prosper and continue to grow, not decline and suffer as so many of the residents did. It was especially difficult with Lily, an emotionally unstable and very needy Alzheimer’s patient.

“Don’t let her manipulate you,” the management had warned me. “Don’t give in to her. She’ll use you and drive you crazy. You must ignore her.”

My iron will was determined to follow instructions and not be taken advantage of. It must be what’s best for her anyway, I thought. After all, they’re the professionals. I had no previous experience, so I followed the managers’ and daytime nurses’ examples of curtness, orders and stern words. I ignored her repeated pleas for conversation and attention.

As Lily dissolved into tears and apologies in the kitchen, the growing realization that the “experts’” approach was getting us nowhere hit me full force — and something in me broke. As I watched this violent but emotionally defenseless person who could not remember her own last name, I wondered why God had seemingly abandoned her. I also realized I could no longer ignore her. I had an epiphany that should have come naturally to me: Love her.

That night I tried something other than the frustration I had met her with during the two months she had been at the house. She was always thirsty but couldn't tolerate milk, so I stooped to meet her at eye level and said, “Lily, do you want a cookie and a glass of water?”

“Yes,” she said, looking at me with relief and gratitude as if I were Santa Claus and she were a child receiving a long-awaited gift. “Oh, yes. And can I sit and talk to you for a while?”

“Sure, Lily,” I said, “But you sit in your bed and I’ll sit in the chair beside it.” Even her fragile and childlike mind saw through the bribery, but my offer was too good to refuse for long. This time she took my outstretched hand. She shuffled with me to her bedroom where I sat in an armchair and gladly offered her pecan Sandies and a glass of water. She held my hand as she ate. Her gauzy skin and pronounced veins felt odd and uncomfortable under my fingertips. It had been years since I had held anyone’s hand that long, let alone one I felt I could injure if I moved the wrong way. Everything in me wanted to pull away to safety, but I did not. I felt her relax, and that night she slept peacefully for the first time in weeks.

From then on whenever she was exhausted but too escalated to be still on her own, we sat in her bedroom and discussed the world as she knew it during that difficult season of her life. “I believe that Jesus and all the angels are watching me,” she said one night, though my first thought was, I can’t see that they are caring for you well. Some nights she scolded me because she needed an outlet for her anger. Occasionally we giggled about the house rules or something funny that had happened during her day. Sometimes she wept for no apparent reason, so we prayed. Some nights we sat quietly until she fell asleep, she with her cookies and water and I with a book, just the companionship being enough for both of us.

At times she couldn't remember how to dress herself, but she still remembered fragments of her childhood and shared them repeatedly, each time with enthusiasm as if she had ridden the pony or sneaked the kiss from the boy next door just yesterday. As I listened I saw that in her wrinkled face was a life story. And despite her condition, I uncovered a devilish sense of playfulness, compassion and unselfishness that lived on in Lily despite the disease that attacked her brain. When she was cogent and calm she was concerned about me and my problems. I knew that whatever I said to her would be quickly forgotten, but I shared the goings-on of my day anyway, including my joys and some of my problems.

“Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me,” Jesus once said. I wondered what I had done for them, but I knew it was not enough. It began to dawn on me the inexpressible and inestimable worth of each human being, simply because God created them. I knew enough of Lily’s background information to see that her life had been full of mistakes — alcoholism, estranged relationships, gambling, abuse. Still, I was humbled in her presence. Through this obstinate, fierce, humorous, caring woman, God showed me how much He loves even the least of us, including me. I was embarrassed by my years of indifference and I thought of other people I had carefully chosen not to love because they were too messy, too boring, too difficult, too whatever. The reasons looked hollow on examination. I realized how supremely selfish it is to withhold love when it is within our ability to give it. I also realized that I might be one of the tools God used to show Lily His love. Maybe Jesus and the angels really were watching after her.

Lily’s needs had always been beyond the capabilities of the care facility, but because of what some may call a clerical error — I call it a God-ordained mistake — she was allowed to live with us for four months. Eventually, when her needs became so severe that we could not cope with her, she was transferred to an Alzheimer’s unit that could better handle her outbursts. Her final words to me were, “And what was your name again, honey?”

I hope we can meet each other in the perfection of Heaven where she will finally know who I am. And I will carry what God taught me through her for as long as my mind can contain it.

International Flights

A Primer on International Flights

In 2006 I flew around the globe. Friends and acquaintances who know this say in awe, “You are a world traveler.” I merely tell them that I am perpetually jetlagged and haggard. In fact I am currently recovering from my 45th international flight. This means I have hurtled through space in an aluminum tube for a rough total of 15 or 16 days, excluding domestic flights in the United States. My passport looks as if it has been through a war, and I have occasionally looked as bad as my passport picture. I have endured seating conditions that would make even veal feel more claustrophobic, as well as erratic thermostats that cause people to hunker under blankets or mop pints of sweat from their faces. During Asian flights I have eaten several meals that stared back at me through noodles. During European flights I have eaten half my weight in shortbread. Besides this I have read hundreds of dry airline magazine articles, though the pieces on travelers who developed blood clots were enough to scare me into walking laps around the plane, much to the joy of my fellow veal who had to let me into the aisle. Through all of this and more I have learned a few things about the dynamics of overseas flights. For those who have never had the pleasure of traveling internationally, allow me to fill you in on what the economy-class section of an airplane is like for the long haul.

Phase One: The Connecting Flight (With Children)
For many of us Americans who leave the United States there is usually a connecting flight to the West or East Coast. This is the last taste of home we will have for a while, so we hope this flight offers a nice cross section of Americana — maybe Little Leaguers, grandmothers crocheting scarves or even a Hell’s Angel or an Elvis impersonator. Unfortunately most airlines no longer serve free apple pie or much of anything else on most domestic flights.
Despite my idealistic hopes, on one connecting flight two little boys and their harried mother sat in front of me. The older boy, who was probably 6, stood on the seat, looked me squarely in the eye and yelled, “You’re a big fat chicken butt!”

It’s funny what runs through your mind when you are loudly compared to poultry in public. My first thought was, How would you know? You’ve never seen me stand up. I will not share my personal second thought. My third was, This will be a long two hours. I was right. The boys continued to cow their mother, kick seats and hit each other. Soon virtually every passenger in our section had been called a big fat chicken butt or, worse, the dreaded “pig-nose face.” (I must admit I felt vindicated by the fact few were exempt.) I finally turned to the businessman on my left and whispered, “I have a bottle of Nyquil in my carry-on. What do you have?” He had Benadryl so we endured part of the flight by quietly plotting creative ways to introduce the boys to an hour of naptime. Eventually the other man in our row was brainstorming with us. We agreed to look for the boys’ adult faces on future FBI posters. We also discussed how to split any reward based on the various levels of emotional trauma we had sustained. I was to receive the most.

On a different flight to New York City a 5-year-old boy incessantly kicked the back of my seat for two hours. It was like having ruthless hiccups, and no matter how nicely I asked his father to help him stop, the man said, “He’s just a child. He’s not bothering you that much.” I finally addressed the boy himself in my sternest teacher voice. The kicking stopped immediately and the father’s icy glower was much more tolerable.

Lest you believe all children are like this, however, the majority of them are sweet and they enjoy fun conversations while peeking between seat cushions. There is hope for our country. The future juvenile detention duo and the soccer player are exceptions, and you laugh about them or you get an aneurysm — or a blood clot.

Phase Two: The Honeymoon Period
This is the first hour of the actual international flight. You’re relieved you made it to the airport on time, you’re thrilled your bags weren’t overweight, you’re excited about the big trip and you’re looking forward to nine to 15 hours to reflect, read, work and sleep. You know you will accomplish so much! The air is pregnant with expectation and the faint smells of jet fuel and men’s socks. You love your neighbors and everyone else on the plane. Life is good.

Phase Three: Disillusionment/ Entertainment Frustration
It is roughly the third or fourth hour when you realize that “Miss Congeniality 2” is just as bad as the critics said it is if not worse. Still you are so tired of reflecting, reading, working or trying to sleep while your neighbors walk into and around you that even mindless entertainment is slightly better than just sitting there. After the movie, “Frasier,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Mr. Ed” and numerous other sit-com reruns play for several hours, but for some reason you’re allowed to see only half of each episode, and sometimes in reverse or upside down. The cockpit apologizes for the technical difficulties and then runs the news in French, Chinese, German, Russian, Thai or some other language that you do not speak well or at all. To combat boredom you make up your own news based on the video and the few words you understand. You might even smile to yourself as a result. You hope no one sees this.

Phase Four: Loss of Contact With Legs
Around Hour Five it dawns on you that you need to move, but you might lack the ability to do so without hurting something — or someone. This is when you remember the aforementioned blood clot article and quickly decide to go for a lap or two through first class, where you silently covet their legroom if you, a peon, are allowed in this section. Then you go to the back of the plane and stand around with the attendants — who don’t realize you’re there and complain bitterly about their healthcare benefits or the man in row 27 who smells bad and isn’t happy with anything. As you listen and learn a lot about how much of their bridgework was covered by insurance, slowly but surely blood flows again to your thighs, knees, calves, ankles and feet. Reassured by improved circulation, you return to the other veal. Your neighbor sighs deeply upon your return and slowly removes all of his things from your seat. His reproachful eyes make you want to smack him, but you do not. At least not yet.

Phase Five: The Awful Realization
This is about midway. You suddenly realize that you are NEVER going to reach your destination. Desperation hits. You see that the flight crew is actually just moving the cloud scenery through high-tech DreamWorks-type cinematography (you swear you have passed the same cloud 14 times and you wonder how it’s possible for a 767 to hover). Perhaps you never even took off! You wonder what on earth you can do to remedy the situation. Taking a dose of Nyquil, Sominex, or Dramamine seems appropriate now even if it throws off your time zone.

Phase Six: Sleep
Chemically induced slumber is a beautiful and effective means of passing airplane time. Even lower back pain goes away. At some point during your nap a flight attendant tucks two or three immigration cards into your shirt pocket and you wake up with a noseful of paper.

Phase Seven: Guilt
Grogginess now aside, you are besieged by the guilt of having accomplished nothing so far. If you are overworked, as I am, you pull out your projects and make a final attempt to do something productive. Just as you are settled with papers and poised with pen, the flight crew wants to feed you again. Lifeless chicken cordon bleu liberates you from work.

— Tips on Meals
Every few hours the flight attendants will feed you. In some cases they will try to do this even if you are asleep. Helpful hints: When conscious always choose anything else over fish. Tuna, for example, can be hepatitis A on innocent white bread, and it is not fun to be sick at 37,000 feet. Noodles for breakfast over Asia will feel alarming, but it will be OK. During British flights DO NOT eat the Marmite they offer in any form; industrial sludge found at the bottom of factory ponds probably tastes better and has a better consistency. (I first thought it was chocolate spread, and years later I am still trying to scrape the taste from my mouth.) Do try to use the chopsticks on Asian flights. Cheesecake and the occasional Dr Pepper are good in any language.

Phase Eight: Bathrooms
Acquiring a master’s degree in mechanical engineering is helpful before entering an airplane bathroom. There is so much compression, torque and balance involved that the mathematics of such should be done on the mirror with a bar of soap. And it never hurts to bring copious amounts of hand sanitizer in case soap is missing. Always check for toilet paper on your shoes if you can squeeze your way back outside. Avoid hitting the poor schmuck who is waiting for you in the nose with the door when you open it.

Phase Nine: Arrival
Approximately nine to 15 hours after you walk onto the aluminum tube, you actually land on the ground. Refrain from kissing the ground because you do not know what has been there. Welcome to your new temporary home. Now you must lug a 30-pound backpack, a laptop carrier and one or two 50-pound suitcases through the airport maze to the taxi stand. Good luck bartering for a decent fare. Good luck finding your hotel. Good luck, good luck, good luck. You are now on your own in a huge city and you cannot speak the language very well — even in Great Britain. But if you love traveling as much as I do, things have a way of working out. You will survive and write your own articles about the joys of overseas adventures. Just remember: If you don’t do laps around the plane you might write while recovering from a blood clot.