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  • Kathleen Lenane
  • February 03, 2020 05:22:58 PM
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A Little About Us

Hilarious true-story episodes of returning to my home town to help care for my rascal 90-year-old parents. By a former national magazine editor and ghost writer; illustrated with my sister's way-cool pastel drawings.

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  • Episode Three of the blog "Familyville." It catches you at odd moments, the role reversal. You are now looking after your parents.
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    Episode Six: Tea, Cookies and Clopidogrel

    Episode Six Tea, Cookies and Clopidogrel HAVING SPENT EIGHT DAYS at Mom and Dad’s house in Connecticut, helping care for them as they age into their 90s, I’ve now returned to my adopted home, Florida. Florida in July throws up a heat index that can fry toads. Florida is a fetid, hissing hologram of swelter… The post Episode Six: Tea, Cookies and Clopidogrel appeared first on Clueless...

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    Episode Six

    Tea, Cookies and Clopidogrel

    HAVING SPENT EIGHT DAYS at Mom and Dad’s house in Connecticut, helping care for them as they age into their 90s, I’ve now returned to my adopted home, Florida.

    Florida in July throws up a heat index that can fry toads. Florida is a fetid, hissing hologram of swelter that forces azaleas to bloom in December and has evolved our unfortunate squirrels and rabbits into puny, fur-less versions of their northern cousins. We water our potted orchids around here with ice cubes.
    I wonder if the heat isn’t what makes Floridians so talkative and friendly seeming. You need to keep your mouth open to breathe.
    So when I invite my neighbors Holly and Lisa over for afternoon tea, as a thank you for bringing in mail and packages while I was away, we sit inside, in air conditioning, swapping stories of the bobcats, snakes and lizards we routinely spot in our yards.
    Lisa is a tall and skinny woman unfearful of things that crawl, slide and hop. She scoops up pesky snakes and cane toads big as Frisbees in her pool skimmer and tosses them into the woods. Her hostess gift today is a fly swatter, and she shares her story of how rattlesnakes live in the knee-wall of her front patio. Holly, who is older and has been here 15 years, tells her tale of the armadillo pair that had tunneled under her concrete pool deck, requiring a $1,500 repair. Our houses are just 30 feet from a forested corridor teaming, it seems, with stalking and slithering things. Holly’s lot, she says, once had been home to a bobcat family. During excavation, cats would stand off in the brush, seeming to wonder what had happened to home.
    That’s very sad,” I say. We all take a sip of Earl Grey.
     

    THIS IS THE FIRST REAL HOUSE I’ve owned, and by “real” I mean a place that doesn’t have buss fuses for power and a 55-gallon oil drum as a septic system, or is a city apartment with a toilet ten feet from the studio’s fake fireplace. It’s a stucco ranch with three bedrooms, an actual living room and air conditioning that isn’t an open window or a finned box that plugs to an outlet, sounds like a freight train, and gets hauled in and out of a window with the seasons. When my friend Jan arrived to inspect the house after I bought it, she opened a grate near the front door and opined I needed better air filters. Oh, that’s what that is! I’d exclaimed. I’d never seen HVAC duct work before.

    Today, the ceiling fans are whipping in circles and the thermostat is set to 79 degrees. Outdoors, it’s 92.
    When Lisa and Holly leave, I pull up the medications spreadsheets I keep on my laptop—one list for Mom, one for Dad. Dad takes 11 prescription meds, 16 pills a day. Mom takes seven prescription meds daily, ten pills total. Grasping their prescriptions’ interactions and side effects is like trying to master 3D Etruscan geometry.

    The elderly are susceptible, as well, to what’s called “medication cascade.” That’s when one prescription pill causes a side effect that is addressed with yet another prescription. More to worry about. Remember when Dad takes 11 prescription meds, 16 pills a day. Mom takes seven prescription meds daily, ten pills total. Grasping their prescriptions’ interactions and side effects is like trying to master 3D Etruscan geometry.medicine meant two tablespoons of castor oil? When a good night’s sleep and a swill of apple cider vinegar could cure anything? Those days are gone. And these prices: Is there an affordable disorder left anymore?

    Here’s a drug I haven’t heard of before: clopidogrel 75mg. Yeah, honestly, that’s a word, the scientific name for the blood thinner Plavix. Tamsulosin .4mg: Isn’t that a city west of the Nile?

    This wouldn’t be so bad—researching competing brands and generics for effectiveness and cost—if you could find a concise online comparative of all forms and brands of blood thinners. The first Google citation that pops up when you search clopidogrel is an ad for Brilinta (ticagrelor), which takes you to trial results that toot the ticagrelor horn for superior ability to quash thrombotic cardiovascular events without additional risk of “bleeding outcomes.” Click over to WebMD, and there’s a heap of info on anti-platelets and blood thinners that discourage vessel clot formation. Dad takes two of them: Plavix and Coumadin (warfarin). I click a link and bring up WebMD’s “How Do the New Blood Thinners Compare to Warfarin.” The article lists drugs with names that sound like the offspring of Vlad the Impaler: apixaban (Eliquis), dabigatran (Pradaxa), edoxaban (Savaysa) and rivaroxaban (Xarelto). The drug names sound like the offspring of Vlad the Impaler: apixaban (Eliquis), dabigatran (Pradaxa), edoxaban (Savaysa) and rivaroxaban (Xarelto).

    Should Dad be on one of the new versions that doesn’t require a weekly blood draw and lab test? Well, a few more clicks and no, he’s had coronary stents implanted, and warfarin appears to be the artery Drano of choice for cardiac patients who have been stent-ified.
    Whew!
    Deferring to a doctor on all this is what sane people do, of course, but there is a special circumstance here. Dad is prescribed by his VA doctor, by his outside cardiologist and was set up with meds at the hospital, too, following his heart attack. Keeping a master list of his pills and updating two doctors’ offices is a job: his scripts and dosages get tweaked regularly.
    I print out updated versions of their meds lists each time I return to Connecticut, and ask that the list goes with them, if either needs to go to the hospital.

     
    TRACKING MEDS, as a caregiver, can leave you punchy.

    I will sometimes make a fool of myself by, for instance, tossing Mom and Dad’s new home aide Maureen a ringer of a question about meds over the phone. She’s got to have more of a feel for the administration of pills and unctions than I do, right? Mo and I will be chatting about events of the day, about how Mom ordered the chocolate yogurt this afternoon at Sweet Frog, and I’ll slip in something fully unrelated like Do a lot of your clients take Plavix and Coumadin and Lipitor together? Do their protime lab tests reveal they have any blood left, or are their veins pumping water? or He’s got a pacemaker. Does he still need the antiarrhythmic Cordarone, really? Understood, totally unfair to lob these at a home aide, and I’ll say so, but I always hope for some insight before a call is placed to his doctor.
    Sometimes, too, I’ll have a laugh with my friend Mary Ann, a university research nurse, if just to prove my medical ignorance. I’ll call her up and tease her with something like Hey Mary Ann, what do I do? Mom and Dad are taking so many iron pills—excuse me, ferrous sulfate—they’re facing magnetic north.
    Mary Ann will laugh at my jokes, and I’ll feel momentarily supported in my no-nothing’s entry into the sub-world of geriatric health issues. When I’m seized by some perplexity, Mary Ann offers her experience and perspective, and her assurance. Get off the computer, she’ll say. Go to the beach. Your Dad will be fine. Pre-freeze some iced tea before you go.
    Now that’s a great friend. ■

     

    The post Episode Six: Tea, Cookies and Clopidogrel appeared first on Clueless Caregiver.


    Episode Five: It’s Genetic, If You Ask Me

    Episode Five It’s Genetic, If You Ask Me SOME OF THE ELEVEN GIRL COUSINS on my mother’s side submitted saliva samples to a company called 23andMe for DNA testing last year. We wanted to know if we are all full cousins or not, seeing as how our grandmother had two husbands. That’s right, my grandmother… The post Episode Five: It’s Genetic, If You Ask Me appeared first on Clueless...

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    Episode Five

    It’s Genetic, If You Ask Me

    SOME OF THE ELEVEN GIRL COUSINS on my mother’s side submitted saliva samples to a company called 23andMe for DNA testing last year. We wanted to know if we are all full cousins or not, seeing as how our grandmother had two husbands. That’s right, my grandmother Catherine, after whom I was named, was a bigamist. One husband lived in Connecticut. The other, Pennsylvania.

    I learned about grandmother’s double life, oh, sometime in the 1980s, I think. Mom mentioned it casually. This is what happens when you have family that keeps secrets like a politburo—furtiveness being a family proclivity I can’t say is strictly genetic yet is a running theme among my mother’s clan.
    When we got word on the DNA analysis, it suggested that my mother and her sister Ella, one of Mom’s four siblings, in fact do share a father, though the test-result summary hedged a bit, citing “probabilities” and “tendencies”—the way your doctor talks about your chances of keeling over if you snack on Doritos not kale, for instance. Yet it probably means Ella's daughter, Amy, who is visiting tonight for dinner, is 100% cousin… and not a half-cousin or a maybe cousin or who-is-this-next-to-me-at-Thanksgiving-dinner-passing-the-parsnips person.

    Amy has her father’s dark hair and dark eyes, and a sincere, gentle manner. Her younger sister Lisa and I will laugh together until our small pupils disappear in our heads. My sister Kelly is given to wide-grinned, The 23andMe test-result summary was a little murky, citing “probabilities” and “tendencies”—the way your doctor talks about your chances of keeling over if you snack on Doritos not kale.eye-crinkling guffaws. Amy is more measured, not someone you poke in the ribs, say, or tease. You sense boundaries there.

    By the way, on the upside, the 23andMe DNA report found that our shared genetics may be somewhat protective against bubonic plague and HIV-AIDs. On the downside…our genomes are a little too shared, if Patrick in Connecticut indeed is the progenitor of our clan. He and grandmother were first cousins, married at 15. (Irish Gypsies did that: About seventy percent of Irish traveler marriages are between cousins, apparently.) This confirmation has given us pause, and on any given day any one of us may be seen pursing pale Celtic lips over the upshot of being the generational spawn of kissing cousins. Will we grow warts or a third ear? Will one of our children birth unicorns?

     
    BACK AT MY PARENT’S HOUSE, Mom and my cousin Amy are fussing over Tippy the cat. “He won’t EAT!” Mom wails. We are in Mom’s bedroom—Amy, my sister Kelly and me.

    “Maybe he just doesn’t like that dry kidney-diet food,” Amy says. “He remembers the canned stuff and he’s holding out.”
    “WHAT’D YOU SAY?” Mom asks. She shouts because she can’t hear well. Then: “I can’t get these damned things to work right.” She fiddles with her right hearing aid.
    Kelly is leaning against the door frame, arms crossed, forehead creased. She has now spent two hours at Mom and Dad’s house, which you sense from her is duty enough. She lives half an hour’s drive away, and it is a time-suck to be back and forth every other day or so, to check in.

    She straightens and runs a hand through her hair, auburn and short-cropped. She’s wearing jeans and a work shirt, and she’ll soon be on her way to the barn, where she barters chores against her lease on Cinnamon, Amy, who is visiting tonight for dinner, is 100% cousin… and not a half-cousin or a maybe cousin or who-is-this-next-to-me-at-Thanksgiving-dinner-passing-the-parsnips person.a roan mare. A sneaker flicks the floor and, yes, she’s often impatient, and impatient with me, claiming she pulls most of the weight around here looking in on our parents, given that I live in Florida. It’s a fair claim. She is their Power of Attorney, keeps their checkbooks and pays bills, and looks in several times a week.

    “ARE THE HEARING AID BATTERIES DEAD?” Kelly asks. “AGAIN?”
    Mom calms. “Here, this one’s working now. Come over here and talk into this ear.”
    Amy and I plunk down on the far side of Mom’s bed, leaning in to address her working ear. Our shuffle upends a dish of cat food pellets mom had placed on her quilt. There is a second dish of food on the floor. These are adjunct lures to the larger bowl of cat food always kept on the telephone desk in the kitchen—in case Tippy deigns to nosh while placing a call to Pet Smart for more palatable Fancy Feast.
    “MAYBE…HE .. DOESN’T…LIKE…HIS…NEW…CAT…FOOD,” Amy intones slowly into the working ear.
    “OH GEEZ, don’t shout, I can HEAR you,” Mom yips, jumping away.
    “IS TIPPY SLEEPING? DOES HE SEEM TIRED?” Kelly asks, jamming her hands into the pockets of her jeans. She has worked as a veterinarian tech in the past, and we defer to her experience in knowing what’s what with animals. She stoops to peak under a chair. “WHERE IS HE?”
    At which point Dad shouts from his room, which adjoins Mom’s room via a shared wall, “I CAN HEAR YOU PEOPLE! THE AARDVARK’S IN HERE. HE’S FINE.”

     
    AMY AND LISA’S father Jack passed away years ago, which may explain why our cousins seem to look to my father as a bulwark, a steady presence. This is a miscalculation of Dad’s capacity for inspiring family closeness, if you ask me, and I say that with equal parts disappointment in and detachment from his aloofness. (He wasn’t invited to his own sister’s funeral last year.) What would Amy and Lisa feel if they’d heard my exchange with Dad by phone, eleven years ago. I’d called home from New York.

    “There’s some bad news,” Dad had said, “Uncle Jack died.” Amy and Lisa's father had died of hemochromatosis.
    “WHAT?” I said, astonished. “What?”
    “Something to do with too much iron in the body.”
    “What?”
    “I don’t know. It was all a surprise.”
    “What?” I repeated. Then, still shocked, “When?”
    “Three weeks ago.”
    “Was there a funeral? Why didn’t you tell me?”
    “Didn’t want to bother you.”
    “Bother me? My uncle and godfather dies and no one tells me?”
    “Well, you got out of the funeral, why make a fuss, right? When stuff like this happens, it’s best just to say, ‘Jesus, I didn’t even know he was sick.’”

    And yet…my father, being human, is complicated. Look past his wise-cracking mischief, his darker brooding days, the cigars, his stained clothes, the broken-down mini-truck, and you see what I and others see: an exemplar of a hardscrabble generation—the greatest, say some—and a vanishing America. His hands once lit morning fires in a one-room schoolhouse, raked through jungle as a Marine Corporal at Guadalcanal, “When stuff like this happens, it’s best just to say, ‘Jesus, I didn’t even know he was sick.’”assembled guns at Hartford’s Colt Factory, hammered beams into posts and helped build America. The farm, the war, the rise of industry, the birth of our suburbs … his creped skin, age blotches, drooping eyes … are records of change.

    Did I mention we sent in a DNA swap sample of Dad’s for testing a few years ago, too? He also issues in the way-back from a distinctive gene pool—the Sámi reindeer herders of northern Finland. The Sámi “motif” is a group of specific mutations found in some Sámi people and in only six other tested samples elsewhere in the world. This unique chromosomal profile is thought to be caused by the extreme isolation of far Northerners for thousands of years, right through the time of the last glacial coverage of Scandinavia.
    Extreme isolation: Something about that seems to suggest my father’s temperament, how he sometimes is unwilling or unable to associate in a friendly way. Of course, it’s a stretch to assign his coolness to biological inheritance. Can’t help but wish, though, that the I’m-My-Own-Grandma-worthy inbreeding around here predisposed us all to more hugs, more heart. ■

    The post Episode Five: It’s Genetic, If You Ask Me appeared first on Clueless Caregiver.


    Episode Four: Campaign Curmudgeon

    Episode Four Campaign Curmudgeon I’M HERE IN WHAT I CALL “the bed pod,” the tiny third bedroom at my mother and father’s house. A glance out the window reveals an early mist hanging along the north valley under a swell of blue sky. The house and the big maple at the driveway are all adrift… The post Episode Four: Campaign Curmudgeon appeared first on Clueless...

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    Episode Four

    Campaign Curmudgeon

    I’M HERE IN WHAT I CALL “the bed pod,” the tiny third bedroom at my mother and father’s house. A glance out the window reveals an early mist hanging along the north valley under a swell of blue sky. The house and the big maple at the driveway are all adrift in it, the thick air. I take the fog of the morning as misty, moody cover. I know what I need to do—convince Dad we should have a family talk about their comfort, their safety, their future. A talk long overdue. I’ve labeled the file I keep on topics to raise with Dad “Campaign Curmudgeon.” It’s time to advance.

    The gurgles and burps of a coffee maker sound from the kitchen. Dad must be up. He’s always first to rise in the morning, though at 5’6” now and bowed from sciatica, my father doesn’t “rise” from bed so much as shimmy to a seated position from where he finds the floor with his feet. Then he pushes off, arcing to a stooped stand.
    “It’s sometimes crap to be 91,” he said once, and it was one of the few complaints I’ve heard from him about the dissolutions of old age. He’s stoic, our ex-Marine. Soldiers on when others might withdraw or whine or (wish he would) accept support.
    This morning, I’ll plant a seed with him, about the need for help around here. Early morning, when he’s fresh and alert, is totally the time and place to do this. I’ll be casual about bringing up anything that challenges the status quo too much, as if I’m just jawboning about the weather, and then wander off. A shoot-and-scoot.
    He’s likely to blow me off—as he has in the past.

     
    WHAT'S KNOWN SO FAR: Mom and Dad do not want to go to a senior apartment or assisted living. My sister Kelly and I talked about this the other day. We were in the television den/dining room, a breeze ruffling the potted plants out on the deck that Dad added on about 30 years ago. The room is comfortable but aged, faded: A rattan etagere shelves an odd mix of pieces: Victorian teacups, a squat glass bird, a ceramic soup tureen, I’ll be casual about bringing up anything that challenges the status quo too much, as if I’m just jawboning about the weather, and then wander off. A shoot-and-scoot.a tulip-shaped salad bowl. The walls are a flat and time-mottled beige—all walls throughout the house are this same color, a shade I once teased Dad should be named Mid-Century Barf. “You may want them to leave the house, but they don’t want to,” Kelly said. She was sitting on a rocking chair. Her left foot flicked back and forth at the ankle.

    “I know that, but we’re winging it here. What do you think? How sustainable is their staying here in their 90s, without help? Up at the top of the hill here, when let’s say neither can drive? It’s only a matter of time…”
    “They get help—we can get help from the home care agency, my friend Karen’s agency, remember?” Kelly said this with an impatient clip to her voice—stretching out re-mem-b-e-r, as if she’s talking to a flake. Her face is set and she’s talking to the TV screen, not me. She resents me, it’s clear. She lives 30 miles from Mom and Dad, and I am 1,200 miles away, in Florida, returning home to help out every four to six weeks. It’s a complicated calculus, summing up which of us contributes more time and money to what care Mom and Dad allow us. Kelly takes on more of it, and reminds me of it, loudly.
    Sisters getting along: I’ve heard it happens. Not here, sadly. Here, it seems a rare isotope of harmonium.
    Kelly pulls a hand through her hair and glances my way. “They spend what little money they have now, they’re broke, we apply for Medicaid for them. Simple.”
    Something—a flutter of intuition—tells me simple won’t be simple. That whatever these next months or years bring, a key to coping will be cooperation. A roll up your sleeves, we’re-in-this-together solidarity that will call on us to do and be what we haven’t much done, or been, as a family.

     
    I FIND DAD IN THE BASEMENT, yanking clothes from the washer. It’s a little spooky down there. The washer and dryer are partitioned in a windowless mechanical zone. Pipes run everywhere: plumbing pipes overhead, piping to and from the water tank and oil furnace. A shelf screwed to the concrete wall years ago stores a lantern, a cork-topped green vase and an old Crock-Pot. A large plastic Christmas wreath hangs from a hook. One exposed overhead lightbulb lights the scene, a space we’ve come to call the boiler room of the Bismarck.

    It is my father’s habit not to say hello or good morning or, when he’s on the phone, hello or goodbye—a token of civility which, to me, separates humans from forest animals. Even so I whip out a cheery Good morning.
    “YOU PEOPLE, you load the washer too high. THE MACHINE WILL BREAK.” He grumps loudly, not looking my way, and instead concentrates on sorting. He skims the machine drum with a hand and drops a nightgown and boxers on a table. I look him over. His bare back is mottled and hunched. He’s wearing shorts cinched and bunched at the waist with a belt that he has screwdriver-punched with new holes, so his pants stay up. He’s still sporting the Band-Aids he applied when he cut himself shaving two days ago.
    “Oh ok.” I agree. “So…listen…how are you doing?”
    “Doing about twenty knots.” How many times have I heard that diversion from him, these exact words, to avoid talking about himself, to avoid sincere reply.
    He turns and wide-mouth grins like a Cheshire cat. “Well if you have to know, I’m missing so many teeth—see here? My dentist should give me a discount on cleanings.”

    “Well, between your old age and your missing teeth, you’re in a world of hurt, eh? Want me to start cutting up your applesauce for you?” He turns back to the washing machine with a chuckle. He and I do groove on tossing good-natured insults back and forth. It’s a depraved camaraderie often lost on Mom and Kelly, who tend to field Dad’s sarcasm with withering eye rolls. I try to get us back on track. It is my father’s habit not to say hello or good morning or, when he’s on the phone, hello or goodbye—a token of civility which, to me, separates humans from forest animals.

    “So, Mom was up last night and in some real pain with those arthritic knees. Cortisone shots and that pain pill gabapentin have helped, but not enough.” I pause, still speaking to Dad’s back and wondering if he’s hearing me at all. I crank the volume: “I hear her crying, and I GET UP TO HELP MOM AT NIGHT. But what about when I’m back home in Florida? I’m WORRIED.”
    “I CAN GET UP,” he says flatly.
    Hmm. One for his side. Best to try this “talk” later.

     
    A FEW HOURS PASS and here’s Dad again, picking his way past the broom and the floor mop along the steps of the basement stairway, whistling a wheezy ditty I don’t recognize. This might signal he’s in a good mood, yes? Time for Operation Trench Raid.

    I find him at the washing machine once more, this time hanging wet towels to dry on the overhead pipes. He does this to spare the cost of running the clothes dryer. Two of the towels are frayed at their ends, trailing cords of twisted cotton. Another has a hole the size of a hubcap ripped from its center. All have abandoned identity as a named color and mottled to ghostly blotches of faint hues. I recognize the blue-ish one. It once sort Dad is whistling a wheezy ditty I don’t recognize. This might signal he’s in a good mood, yes? Time for Operation Trench Raid.of matched a favorite bikini. That was in high school. Forty-seven years ago.

    Dad always was thrifty—there’s not a graying leftover pork chop or a day-old donut that doesn’t have his name on it—but at 91 he has turned a laser-like focus to not wasting a dime. He's now a bloodhound sniffing out excess, routinely peering into any bag or box that comes through the door. His geriatric mantra: Did you really need that?
    I’m here to campaign for more help around the house and because there’s a certain intimacy down here in the cave, I make my pitch again: “You know... you guys are going to need more help and other things as you get older. A friend of mine mentioned this nurse who comes to the house and gives us ideas on what equipment and services and stuff will make life easier.” Easier is good, right? “What do you think?”
    “Nah, WE’RE OKAY.”
    I’m now following him through the pine-panel “rec room” of the basement. “You are ok now. You’re amazing Daddio, at your age. But Mom isn’t getting around so good. More of the work around here is going to fall to you. Like she shouldn’t be driving anymore—we both know that.” If you can’t reason with them, guilt them: “Let’s do this for Mom, ok?”
    “Do WHAT?”
    “Get a nurse here to organize the house and stuff for your old old age.”
    “Oh well then…I g-u-e-s-s.”
    Victory! I’m on a roll here. “Hey Daddio,” I continue. “I’m going to go out today to buy some new towels, sheets, bed pillows, night gowns for Mom, that kind of thing. Shit, most of that stuff here is as old as the Byzantine.” It’s the balance I’ve tried to strike with Kelly: She is our parents’ local go-to, and Power of Attorney, while I am Medical Proxy and the daughter that often pays for what needs replacing.
    Dad chortles at the Byzantine dig. “Very FUNNY,” he says. He’s measuring up something over there with a T-square.
    “Heck, you can use the old towels as rags for work projects, right?”■

    The post Episode Four: Campaign Curmudgeon appeared first on Clueless Caregiver.


    Episode Three: Mom is Missing

    Episode Three Mom is Missing IF MY FATHER IS UKKO, the hammer-wielding Finnish god of the sky, weather, harvest and thunder, my mother is…well…there isn’t a goddess that fits here. Not a Celtic Goddess anyway, befitting her Irish ancestry. She’s not Ana, the mother deity of nature and prosperity. Raised in the city, Mom is… The post Episode Three: Mom is Missing appeared first on Clueless...

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    Episode Three

    Mom is Missing

    IF MY FATHER IS UKKO, the hammer-wielding Finnish god of the sky, weather, harvest and thunder, my mother is…well…there isn’t a goddess that fits here. Not a Celtic Goddess anyway, befitting her Irish ancestry. She’s not Ana, the mother deity of nature and prosperity. Raised in the city, Mom is suspicious of carrots and beets that come from Dad’s garden. They’ve been outside. She’s not like Morrigan, the phantom queen who could shapeshift: The only reshaping Mom has done over the years is via girdle and occasional meal replacement shakes, although her pantheon of hair styles over decades might qualify as identify-changing. She was unlike the pagan healer and hearth-keeper Brigid during our growing-up years, when she was so busy selling houses as a real estate agent and running or volunteering on committees, we should have outfitted her with a beeper.

    Mom was born Lucille Rose Rafferty in 1925, the daughter of Irish Gypsies who traveled out of Connecticut to upstate New York each summer performing odd jobs for money and selling lace door to door. Family lore has it the lace was fake, purchased at a Woolworth’s in Hartford and passed off as yardage imported from the old country. In other words, subterfuge is how my mother got her start in retail. She left school at 15 and found a job at a woman’s dress shop. She married at 27, late in life by any standard of that time. My parents built a house east of Hartford, in Glastonbury, a farming village welcoming an influx of engineers and insurance company workers as the 1950s made way for the 1960s.

    Mom took to the novelty of a developing suburb like a pioneer on adrenaline. Picture this: It’s 1962, a Spring afternoon, our Ford station wagon parked in front of Stuart’s Children’s Clothing Store. Mom, standing at the curtains of the dressing room, as Stuart himself, he of the wide-stretched grin, suggests I should be put in a training bra at age 12. Her eyebrows knit, as if to ask…What exactly is a training bra?

    “There’s not much there to…support,” Mom said to Stuart. His Kennedy-big teeth clenched a bit at the challenge of explaining a “trainer.” He pulled a “bra”—two flat stretchy pucks the color of news rag dangling from straps—out a box and coddled it in lanky fingers.

    “I understand. That’s true now, but she will develop in no time, and most girls are wearing them by age 12.”

    Mom squinted, gazing at Stuart’s fingers, gazing at my chest. She scratched her neck where the collar of her camelhair blazer met bare skin, then scratched her head. Her hairdo of the moment was roller-induced arcs that stood from her scalp like thick apostrophes. She looked like a docent at the Hair Spray Museum, and she seemed to be weighing all that a He pulled a “bra”—two flat stretchy pucks the color of news rag dangling from straps—out a box and coddled it in lanky fingers.promising new life away from the tenement of her childhood had to offer. “Growing up so fast,” she sighed. “I guess this is what the young girls wear these days.” She trusted Stuart, for the reason he didn’t X-ray our feet to fit us for shoes, which was the custom when she was our age, in the 1930s. “Ok,” she finally agreed with surprising enthusiasm. “Let’s take two.”

     
    MOM IS NOW 89 years old. She says she will never become one of those “little old ladies with blue hair.” Yet this morning, I’m thinking about the worrisome confluence of her hearing loss, her arthritic knees and hands (hands crimped into shapes resembling Moravian stars), her limited peripheral vision, from shoulder bursitis—and driving. I’m thinking about this because Mom is missing. She’s not in the kitchen, not in the living room.

    I sprint the bedroom hallway and attack the premises like Pericles taking Corinth. Did she fall between her bed and the wall? Get stuck between the grab bars of the toilet topper? Then I see it out her bedroom window. Her car is gone.

    I’m on it, grabbing keys from the hook in the kitchen and jumping into dad’s minitruck to follow her.

    The first turn to town is a right from our street, a mix of ’50s ranch houses (like theirs), ’70s A-frames and sprawling ’90s McMansions—it’s the neighborhood that prudent town zoning forgot. Then it’s that three-mile downhill stretch on the New London Turnpike, the original two-lane artery that links Hartford to the shoreline. Past the Bona family farmland, Mom’s hairdo of the moment was roller-induced arcs that stood from her scalp like thick apostrophes. She looked like a docent at the Hair Spray Museum.the road flattens to the promiscuous sprawl of civilization. The old leather tannery is now a high-end condo complex, and what once had been a small car dealership is now a soaring three-story edifice clad in what look like space tiles. The Turnpike ends at town center.

    When Mom’s Ford Focus slows and dips into Fox Run Mall (nice use of the turn signal!), I am up behind it in Dad’s truck, crawling along a row of parked cars, downshifting to second gear, a maneuver that pops a buck and a metal-on-metal shriek that turns heads.

    Inside the Hearing Center of Glastonbury, my mother doesn’t look surprised to see me walking in behind her, wide-eyed and disheveled. She studies me for a few seconds, head tilted, then looks away as she fiddles with her right ear. “It would be a nice day if I DIDN’T HATE THESE GD HEARING AIDS. They don’t WORK!” she shouts. Her face contorts as she plucks at the ear. Her wrists are thin as bird bone, her skin pale as a lightbulb. She’s wearing an orange mock-neck top with amber glass beads, white jeans, her gray-blond bob neatly combed through. The lipstick is Revlon’s vintage Stormy Pink—she never leaves the house without a necklace and makeup.

    We wait seated on plastic scoop chairs. This is now her third visit to the hearing aid place this month. Each outing, device calibrations are adjusted, the digital shrimps cleaned and re-inserted, a hearing check administered. Janice the audiologist: “So Mrs. Jonah, let’s see how your hearing is, okay? I’ll ask you a question, and you answer me back, OKAY?”

    “OH OKAY.” Mom pulls her purse closer on her lap and tugs lightly on her necklace. She nods. Her eyes are not exactly opaque with age but a bit gauzy, and images of Mom in her “It would be a nice day if I DIDN’T HATE THESE GD HEARING AIDS. They don’t WORK!” she shouts.prime come up for me. She’s in her 20s, in an ice-skating costume and wearing a wavy Rita Hayworth hairdo. She’s in her 40s, hair short and banged—she looks like Shirley MacClaine.

    It catches you at odd moments, the role reversal. You are starting to look after your parents. It’s a time-warp phenom and it comes, to me anyway, in flashbacks. Her hand scribbling into crossword puzzle squares on the screened porch of a rented beach cottage, the brown wool skirt and sneakers she wore to a long-ago teacher’s conference.

    “That’s such a pretty blouse,” says Mom to the audiologist.

    “Oh…ah…thanks.” Janice replies. “That’s a pretty necklace of yours. Now … I’m going to lunch today at a deli I like a lot and I’m going to order a fried egg sandwich. Do you like fried egg sandwiches?”

    Mom hesitates, then answers, “OKAY.”

    “Oh Mrs. Jonah, that was a question.”

    “Huh? Oh, WHAT was the QUESTION?”

    “Do you like fried egg sandwiches?”

    Mom straightens and smiles. “Oh sure. I LOVE FLORIDA TOO!”

    Adorable. Though the thing is, she dislikes Florida—remembers it from a visit decades ago as shabby motels with vibrating beds in the rooms. She won’t get on a plane these days to visit me in Florida. But what the heck. She is beaming like she has nailed the Jeopardy! final question. ■

    Keep reading and laughing...

    Episode One

    It's both warming and weird to sleep in your childhood bedroom again.

    Episode Two

    In which Dad shaves off his chest hair before a doctor's appointment.

    The post Episode Three: Mom is Missing appeared first on Clueless Caregiver.


    Episode Two: A Word from the Gods Who Created My Father

    Episode Two A Word from the Gods Who Created My Father MY FATHER GREW UP ON A FARM. This morning he is outside pushing through his chores—watering the tomatoes, pruning the side-yard horde of forsythia. He’s thrusting as the punch of a hammer, agile as the spin of a screw. Watching him work, at 91,… The post Episode Two: A Word from the Gods Who Created My Father appeared first on Clueless...

    caregiving burnout

    Episode Two

    A Word from the Gods Who Created My Father

    MY FATHER GREW UP ON A FARM. This morning he is outside pushing through his chores—watering the tomatoes, pruning the side-yard horde of forsythia. He’s thrusting as the punch of a hammer, agile as the spin of a screw. Watching him work, at 91, and you’re convinced of his Theory of Life: There’s nothing fresh air and dragging cut brush can’t cure.

    Before noon, seven days a week, he is a rusty engine in second gear, determined not to let his to-do list outlive him.

    The Gods made him invincible, it seems. Created him in their image, if the Immortal Ones look like that old-time comedian George Burns and smoke cigars dawn to dusk. Sure, his taut face now pouches under the eyes, and all 5’6” of him is shaped like a human croissant, from sciatica. But the universe favors the scrappy, the mischievous, the quick, right? My father is especially proud of his cunning in retirement planning. His nest egg is a heap of scrap metal in the backyard: a mound of pipes, faucets, sheeting and the like pulled from construction sites and the town landfill. Metal brings a pretty penny, he’ll tell you. Copper is his version of a Roth IRA: He can withdraw from the pile over time.

    “That pile of junk is such an eyesore,” says my mother, often. Kelly and I remind her that she and Dad have lived so long, they’ve exhausted their savings. She heaves a sigh and changes the subject, yet the reminder seems to give the heap of appliance parts and rusted radiators out by the maple tree a new shine.

     
    THIS AFTERNOON, Dad and I are in the living room, and I am eyeballing him head to toe. We have an appointment with his cardiologist in an hour. I time his appointments with Dr. Casey, and with his primary care doc too, to coincide with my visits home, so I can stay on top of his health plan and medications.

    Dr. Casey is the first doc my father has seen outside the Veterans Administration system in 25 years. The Gods made him invincible, it seems. Created him in their image, if the Immortal Ones look like that old-time comedian George Burns and smoke cigars dawn to dusk.He agrees to these checkups because he had a heart attack a year ago: He had felt funny one night and Mom had called 911 for an ambulance. His hospital visit uncovered two partially blocked arteries, arrhythmia and mitral valve prolapse. He had three procedures—stents, pacemaker and valve reconstruction—went to rehab for three weeks and came home. He was 90 at the time. He seemed tough as titanium.

    Dad is grinning my way. He has turned sideways and lifted a heel like a movie starlet in a publicity photo. His head tilts demurely and he bats his eyelashes. “HOW DO I LOOK?” he shouts. He shouts because he doesn’t hear well.

    “You look like Halloween,” I laugh. He and I enjoy teasing and taunting each other. My sister Kelly and Mom aren’t much into Dad’s jests and barbs; I hurl them right back at him. Besides, he does look scary. There are the watery and bloodshot eyes, from a sinus condition. Cigar-burn holes pocking his shirt add to an air of old-fart deviance, as if he isn’t beyond sticking a suppository up his nose for laughs or crushing a Gatorade powder stick in one hand just for show.

    These are things he has done before.

     
    AT THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE intake window, Dad is a bucket of pathos. Hunched over, having forgotten his wallet, he is streaming face-fluid issued from his rogue sinuses into a Kleenex. My heart goes out to him, our tough-guy veteran, our double Purple Heart Marine veteran.

    I pull a driver’s license from my wallet to identify him, or us—the family unit. The receptionist glances at my license, looks up at me and looks again at the license. Just as I am wondering if we will be shooed off, the woman leans back in her chair. “You look just like that actress,” she says. “You know…um, yeah, Sissy Spacek.” He isn’t beyond sticking a suppository up his nose for laughs or crushing a Gatorade powder stick in one hand just for show.

    Dad lowers his head and shakes it back and forth. “Are we done with the small talk ladies? Can I go sit down now?”

    “Please excuse us…him,” I apologize, putting a hand on Dad’s shoulder and giving him the hairy eyeball. “He’s a mischief-maker, a regular Charlie Sheen, a Charlie Sheen of nonagenarians.” The receptionist and the rascal both looked at me quizzically.

    “You know, nonagenarian. That’s someone who is 90 or older.”

    “Ah yeah?” Dad says. “I was thinking it’s someone who doesn’t act their age.”

    “Tell me about it,” I tease, raising a flat palm over his head to draw a chuckle from the receptionist. “He’s 91 going on lawless.”

     
    WHEN WE SETTLE INTO CHAIRS in the waiting room, I remind our nonagenarian to keep his voice low. He nods, but I sense his impatience is building. His eyes dart to another waiting patient, a middle-aged man in a blue button-down shirt. He catches the guy’s eye and nods again, this time towards a framed medical diploma on the wall. “WHERE’D HE GET HIS MEDICAL DEGREE?” Dad yells out. “WARSAW?”

    We’ve come to expect him to act out. As have many people around town. Introduce my sister Kelly or me as Mac’s daughter, and eyes twinkle a bit and the sense is you’ve just made someone feel good about themselves, secure in their identity as someone who doesn’t spend mornings at the town landfill rooting around for discarded treasures, as my father does, or tossing cigar butts out the window of his truck onto the town green with a snigger.

    This is the man who used to call my high school dates by the wrong name on purpose, to fluster them. Whose favorite saying upon meeting strangers is Let’s not stay in touch. Who else in the world does these things? We broke the mold with this one, I can hear the Gods comment as they go about their business of shaping epochs and arranging stars.

    In the exam room, a nurse takes Dad by the left hand. STICK OUT A FINGER, YOUNG MAN, she says loudly, her voice that mix of warmth and slight condescension that middle-aged people direct at old people. Dad sees his opening. He smiles tight-lipped, giving the nurse the f-word middle finger, then laughs uproariously, catching my eye, looking for approval or a laugh. Dad catches the guy’s eye and nods again, this time towards a framed medical diploma on the wall. “WHERE’D HE GET HIS MEDICAL DEGREE?” Dad yells out. “WARSAW?”

    When he removes his shirt for an electrocardiogram reading—well, where there once were gnarled tufts of gray chest hair there now are folds of naked and mottled skin. It dawns on me: He has shaved off his chest hair to prevent the stick-on EKG probes from getting tangled. Two Band-Aids under his left armpit signal he had nicked himself shaving. On blood-thinners, he’s been warned about bleeding events. Dr. Casey and I share a quick glance that says Maybe someone could stop him next time.

    (This explains why Dad spent so much time last night in the bathroom. Married twice, I understand that men have baffling personal habits—like keeping a flashlight in every room and pondering life’s big questions while on the John. But my father had been in the bathroom last night seemingly forever.)

    We learn that Dad’s blood pressure is low, 84 over 50. He’s been having episodes of weakness and sweating, and I ask if it could be dehydration. We agree to up his water intake and tick up his salt intake some. Could his new prostate pill be taking his blood pressure lower? Could be, Dr. Casey says. Let’s switch him off to a different prostate med.

    I turn to Casey and raise my eyebrows. “Could you please tell our young man here to p-l-e-a-s-e wear his medical alert pendant when he’s out working and, heaven help us, climbing ladders.”

    Casey’s lips purse tight and he seems to be swallowing a chuckle. “Probably a good idea Mr. Jonah.”

    “Ah, bother,” says Dad. “I do wear the damned thing sometimes.”

    I glance sideways at the cardiologist, issuing that We know a fib when we hear one look. “Yeah, sometimes he wraps it around the top of his head as a joke.” Dad squeezes his face tight and makes a dismissive sound. Pfft.

    Dr. Casey turns to read the pacemaker monitor and nods approvingly. “Doing great! Any issues or concerns, Mr. Jonah?”

    “YEAH,” Dad shouts out, then pauses. His hand roams over his left upper chest, where his pacemaker is implanted. As the doctor and I wait expectantly, a harsh cough can be heard from the adjoining exam room. Dad lowers his head, inhales, exhales. A silent fullness descends over us. Even the Gods, knowers of the still-unfolded future, seem to be holding their breath. My father raises his head and his eyes twinkle. ‘YEAH,” he shouts, “IT’S A PROBLEM. I’VE GOT SO MUCH HARDWARE IN ME NOW, I’M BEING FOLLOWED BY SCRAP METAL DEALERS.” ■

    Keep reading and laughing...

    Episode One

    It's both warming and weird to sleep in your childhood bedroom again.

    Episode Three

    It catches you at odd moments, the role reversal. You are now looking after your parents.

    The post Episode Two: A Word from the Gods Who Created My Father appeared first on Clueless Caregiver.


    Episode One: Notes from the Bed Pod

    Episode One Notes from the Bed Pod HERE ARE SOME OF THE THINGS I WORRY ABOUT now that my rascal parents are turning 90: They will stop going to the bathroom, calling it “going to visit the dwarves.” They will mistake a disc of hearing aid batteries for a muffin and call it breakfast. They… The post Episode One: Notes from the Bed Pod appeared first on Clueless...

    caregiving stress

    Episode One

    Notes from the Bed Pod

    HERE ARE SOME OF THE THINGS I WORRY ABOUT now that my rascal parents are turning 90:

    • They will stop going to the bathroom, calling it “going to visit the dwarves.”
    • They will mistake a disc of hearing aid batteries for a muffin and call it breakfast.
    • They will become like Jim Carrey as “The Riddler” in Batman Returns, whacking people in the groin with their canes.
    • They will start to imagine things, insisting they really did see the roof drive away.
    • They will live long enough to see the invention of a sonic screwdriver, and Dad will unscrew all the porch furniture for laughs.

    I tease my mother (Lou) and father (Mac) that they are used parents in fair-to-good condition, while marveling at their durability. They have moderate yet manageable health complaints. Whenever my mother narrows her eyes and says Getting old isn’t for sissies, she rubs her painful arthritic knees for emphasis. When my father’s health issues come up, he cracks a joke to avoid the subject. Ask him how he is doing, and he offers a pat reply: I’m doing twenty knots. Meaning Buzz off. Don’t ask.

    Over the past few years, my younger sister Kelly and I gingerly have raised concerns to Mom and Dad about planning for eventualities that might include illness or disability and the day-to-day upkeep of a house and two lives. Our incursions into their whistling conviction that We don’t need help sometimes gets met with gratitude, and sometimes with dismissive waves of hands—and then there’s that thing they do where they plug their ears with their thumbs and stick out their tongues.

    They think they have things figured out. Really? How figured out is this, an exchange between them last night:

    Lou, do you have a Medicare card? Kathy wants the Medicare cards.
    I DON’T KNOW. (Mom shouts because she can’t hear well anymore.)
    Well, don’t you know if you have one or not?
    A WHAT?
    A MEDICARE card.
    What’s that? Do YOU have one?
    I don’t know.

    Okay, yes, yes, I can be a bit obsessive about order, about making lists and then putting the lists in files and then storing the files alphabetically. I’m the one who closes kitchen cupboards left open by more freewheeling types. That’s me replacing the toilet paper roll when it’s dangling its last four torn sheets. Those of us who are fastidious about such things secretly envy people who aren’t like us, the rebels (Dad) and pixies (Mom) who quip or charm their way through life. Yet we worry for them, too. Who in heck doesn’t know what a Medicare card is?

    So I fret some. Worry that my parents show no interest in moving to the assisted living apartments downtown, where several old friends now reside. Worry that they refuse to move in with me or Kelly. They insist they are okay, they haven’t lost it, they aren’t going to lose it, everyone should mind their own business. Their judgment is impeccable. Everything is fine. The decades-old oil furnace downstairs still rumbles and shudders, the taste of tomatoes from the raised bed in the backyard is the same now as it was in 1969. Mom and Dad figure they will simply keel over one day and that will be that.

    Something tells me that’s not how the sunset years usually play out.

    These days our parents do “allow” Kelly and I certain tasks. My sister sees that bills get paid, organizes doctors’ appointments and keeps an eye peeled that they don’t eat spaghetti four days in a row. She lives 30 miles away and stops in several times a week. By proximity, and because I live in Florida, daughter duty primarily falls to her. I return to Connecticut, to our hometown of Glastonbury, to Mom and Dad’s beloved little ranch house of 67 years, every four to six weeks and stay for a week, to chauffeur Mom and Dad to more doctor’s appointments, monitor their prescription meds schedules and relieve Kelly of household visits. I cram in housecleaning, grocery shopping and cooking/freezing ahead while staying with Mom and Dad. Each lets us know when we’ve crossed a line and their sense of independence—and pride—is challenged. Mom to me yesterday: “I did NOT take two blood pressure pills by mistake this morning—YOU’RE COUNTING WRONG. But if you INSIST on filling the pill box yourself, be my guest. Leaves me more time.”

     

    EVERY ADULT CHILD of aging parents knows this: Mom and Dad have a relationship that has evolved over years into a tricky blend of adoration, accommodation and frustration. Last night, Mom popped her eyes towards mine, face as squished as a piece of used chewing gum, her voice low. “He’s driving me crazy,” she whispered. Then: “He just said THERE’S TOO MUCH LETTUCE IN MY SALAD.”

    I slapped a hand against the kitchen counter for balance, I got laughing so hard. “Too much lettuce in my salad! Well…yeah…funny.” I said. “But there’s some logic to it. Dr. Casey told him that the vitamin K in greens can interfere with his blood thinner. He’s not supposed to have a lot more or a lot fewer greens in his diet than he usually does.”

    Mom waggled her eyebrows. “For Pete’s sake, couldn’t he just say that.”

    Relief from parental skirmishes—over which of them forgot to turn down the thermostat or was a such a lunkhead that they bought Dulcolax instead of Milk of Magnesia—arrives, for me, when I enter the tiny third bedroom at Mom and Dad’s house and close the door. This is my childhood bedroom. I call it the bed pod.

    Like much back home, the room is at once familiar and alien.

    Dad built this house himself, in 1952, teaching himself framing and wiring and plumbing from books. Certain amateur irregularities persist here, like the way the sliding doors of the clothes closet aren’t attached to the floor, and wobble outward when opened, smacking you in the ankle. Relief from parental skirmishes—over which of them forgot to turn down the thermostat or was a such a lunkhead that they bought Dulcolax instead of Milk of Magnesia—arrives, for me, when I enter the tiny third bedroom at Mom and Dad’s house and close the door.You learn to reach long for the door from a safe distance when, say, you’ve weighed in your mind if locating a sweater is worth the risk of a whack to a shin. There are just two electric outlets in the room—1952 apparently bringing up the rear of the oil-lamp era—and each outlet has pulled from its housing so that whatever you plug in sometimes receives juice, sometimes doesn’t.

    It’s here in the bed pod that I ponder the curious nature of family role reversal—now it’s you watching over your parents—and the way that returning to your childhood home as an adult invites a recalculation of who you are that smacks of regression—as if you can feel and taste what’s it’s like to be a teenager again. You now may be a mother of twins who has sprouted four arms and four eyes and can help with algebra homework while resetting the cable box to HDMI … yet at your parents’ place, you still are the old you, the airhead who smoked a bong in 1970 and left her wallet and a litter of munchies under the Slow School Zone sign on Main Street.

    Returning home invites re-adaption, adjustments like eating tuna noodle casserole again and remembering you need to depress the toilet lever until the bowl’s empty or the whole works back up. Things from your past lurk. The T-shirt you wore to that Bon Jovi Runaway Tour concert is still in the dresser of your childhood room: It’s like you never left!

    Some things have changed though. On the table in the little bedroom these days is a copy of How to Care for Aging Parents: A One-Stop Resource for All Your Medical, Financial, Housing and Emotional Issues. It’s here in the bed pod that I ponder the curious nature of family role reversal—now it’s you watching over your parents...Piled next to its 688 (!) pages: my iPhone, laptop, file folders organized for my parents' medical care, a file folder labeled “Their House,” my work files, reading glasses, hair dryer, makeup case, vitamins and fiber chews, a package of Kind Bars. Extension cords crisscross the room in search of a plug that works.

    I’ve also gathered copies of my parents’ Medicare gap insurance policies, their medication schedules, their Living Wills, an application for our town’s senior apartments (in case), the document naming me Medical Proxy, etc. Lists and notes and articles on “aging in place” get tucked in there, too. Mom and Dad aren’t much interested in organizing or planning, and who can blame them, at 89 (Mom) and 91 (Dad), for unshackling from stress and relishing simple things? At their ages, just waking up one more morning to a hot cup of decaf is its own reward.

    So this much has changed here in the little ranch house Dad built six decades ago on a dirt road in a cow town: He’s begun taking blood thinners following a heart attack. Mom uses a walker to help support herself, given her trick arthritic knees. I’m the same woman who smoked a bong on Main Street in 1970 but have since raised a son, divorced and moved away. Kelly has led a life apart from Glastonbury, too. Yet here we are, a family coming together once more, this time on the far side of life. ■

    Keep reading and laughing...

    Episode Two

    In which Dad shaves off his chest hair before a doctor's appointment.

    Episode Three

    So is her Ford Focus. Where did she go? Should she be driving at all?

    The post Episode One: Notes from the Bed Pod appeared first on Clueless Caregiver.


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