Between October 24, 2006 and November 6, 2009, my life is a blur. This three-year period marks the span of medical crisis involving the decline and death of my parents. For the most part, the individual incidents are now fused. The actions—sitting bedside in the hospices and hospital rooms, attending doctors' appointments, touring nursing homes and assisted living facilities, driving the long stretch of highway between Birmingham and Memphis, and the seeming-longer, flat monotony of the drive between Memphis and Little Rock—blend into a hazy, yet poignant, soup. Fortunately, it's hard to remember the emotional turmoil. Time is good that way.
The one instance I recall most vividly occurred during the summer of 2007. By this time, my Dad was doing better—after suffering a heart attack, being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and given three months to live...in October, 2006. Earlier that year, my sisters and I moved our parents into Pleasant Hills, an aptly named retirement community. Despite his diagnosis, Dad improved, but Mom continued to spiral in the clutches of vascular dementia.
I don't recall the exact reason for this particular summer trip. Perhaps it was to celebrate a birthday, or simply because my schedule allowed it. Maybe Mom had a doctor's appointment. Thinking back now, I'm sure there was no immediate medical trauma, because I brought Jack with me. It was the first of many "last times to see Grandma and Grandpa" trips we would make.
Mother was in what I now know as Stage 5 of degenerative dementia. She was still able to walk—with assistance—and communicate, although not clearly, but her perception of reality had shifted. In some ways, this stage was the most difficult because she was still present as the mother we knew and loved, but her appearance and demeanor had changed drastically. We feared she would fall. We begged her to use her walker, to eat more, to take her medication. She still knew our names, but became very frustrated by the fog in her brain.
To Jack, she was just Grandma. He knew she was sick, but he (thankfully) didn't comprehend the gravity of her illness. Jack loved visiting Pleasant Hills with its maze of hallways and frequent elevators. In the dining room he could help himself to ice cream and there was always candy in the lobby. The residents doted on him, as they did on all children who visited. Jack thought Pleasant Hills was a swanky hotel.
For me, the trip was arduous. I wanted to spend time with my parents, but once there, I was overcome with their frailty and all that came with it. Their apartment was too hot and stuffy for mid-summer in the south. Although it had two-bedrooms, the scant 600-square-foot layout was too small to spend extended periods of time, especially with a 5-year-old. My mother's caregiver hovered, which was wonderful and also frustrating. There was no where to run or hide from the oppressive sense of the inevitable.
Jack didn't notice the clutter or chaos that I saw. His toy-seeking radar took him straight-away to the cupboard, where he retrieved a tattered, red box. Inside were Grandpa's old dominos—a well-worn set of ivory double-nines, turned cheddar-cheese yellow with time. Jack was thrilled with this discovery and dumped them from the box. Over the years, my Dad and I played dominos together. The game was a great equalizer. No matter my demeanor, or age, I could relate to my Dad in multiples of five.
"Hey Grandpa," I said. "Wanna show Jack how to play dominos?"
The cool tiles clattering out on the table top calmed my nerves for a while as I sat with my Dad and Jack and focused on the game. We slowly explained the rules to Jack, who caught on quickly—and then pouted when he lost. Grandpa took pity and threw the next game to him. (Something he never did for his daughters. To us, he showed no mercy when it came to sending us to the "bone yard" for more tiles that could be played.)
Mother tottered in and out of the rooms, worrying over things she could no longer remember. She wanted to return to their old house and retrieve some items, or to live there again. Either option was futile. Although standing, little was left of the house. It was just as futile to try to convince her she couldn't return there. Thankfully, my Mom's caregiver, Stella, distracted her with a promise to take her to church on Sunday.
We could not have survived without Stella. She was patient and loving. But she also talked too loudly, as if we were all deaf and scattered across a football field. She filled the apartment with prattle as she went about her tasks, helping mother to bath and dress and eat.
When Jack became frustrated with dominos, and I with the heat and noise, we went for a walk around the grounds of Pleasant Hills. There wasn't a playground, of course, but there was a bench swing that some residents set up surrounded by plastic flowers in a perpetual garden. When we returned to the apartment, Dad was reading the newspaper and Mom was napping in the next room. Stella recounted my Mom's bowl movements and every item she consumed for lunch. Jack busied himself with a puzzle from the cupboard and then began to complain he was hungry. I felt guilty for leaving, and worse for staying. There was no easy answer to be found there.
On our drive back to my sister's house, I stopped at McDonald's to pick up dinner for Jack. Idling beside the drive-thru kiosk, Jack spotted the Happy Meal® special. The new Pirates of the Caribbean movie had just been released and there was a particularly cute Jack Sparrow doll being offered as the Happy Meal toy. Although I hate being suckered into purchasing food to get a toy that Jack didn't know he wanted before he saw it, the day had beat down my resolve and I gave into his request. A Happy Meal is such a simple thing to be able to give my child. I set aside my aversion for cheap marketing ploys—which, I knew all about since I was one of those evil marketers who concocted enticing gimmicks—and ordered the Happy Meal with chicken nuggets, fries and (yes) a Coke.
Jack was thrilled. Although we often indulged in fast-food nuggets, getting the Happy Meal was special. I told him that he had been so good and patient at Grandma and Grandpa's that he deserved this treat. And the Jack Sparrow toy looked to be a better-than-average-break-in-two-seconds-or-end-up-under-foot-on-the-floor kinda prize. I paid at the first window, and then pulled around and was handed the trademark Happy Meal box, resplendent with Pirates licensed imagery.
"Okay, Jack," I said. "Eat first. Toy later."
When I opened the box and pulled out the toy, I saw that something was distinctly wrong. Lying on top of the piping hot french fries was a hard-plastic car with The Incredibles logo plastered over it. What foul trickery was this?
As it happened, I was still sitting at the drive-thru window, and there was no one behind me in line.
"Excuse me," I yelled into the closed restaurant window. The McDonald's worker appeared and slid open the glass.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"This isn't Johnny Depp," I said flatly. "My son loves Jack Sparrow. We thought we were getting the Jack Sparrow toy. Don't you have any of those left?"
"I'm sorry," said the McDonald's girl. "We're out of those toys."
A white hot rage came over me. All my disappointment, frustration and sorrow came bubbling up. And then...I lost it.
"If you were out of those toys," I said indignantly. "You should take down the advertising for them! That's false advertising, you know!"
"I'm sorry, mam," the girl said.
"I never buy Happy Meals because I don't believe in them," I continued. "But today, I decided to treat my son because he likes Jack Sparrow. His name is Jack! His Grandpa's name is Jack! And I wouldn't have bought the damn Happy Meal if I'd known I'd get a stupid Incredibles toy!"
"When did that Incredibles movie come out, anyway? 2006? That was last summer!"
The poor girl behind the window was at a loss for how to make me happy. Then, from the back seat, I heard a little voice of reason. Small and soft, like the voice deep inside you that you can hear if only you'll listen.
"Mom," Jack said, "It's okay. I like this toy. It's good."
I pulled away from the drive thru window and into a space in the parking lot, and sobbed.
"I'm sorry, son," I said. "I guess Happy Meals do not make Mommy happy."
Through my tears, I apologized to Jack and tried to explain that I was just tired and sad about Grandma. I calmed down and apologized again. Then I handed Jack the offending toy. As we drove home, I heard him playing, making those Vroom! Vroom! noises that only little boys can effect while running something—anything—with wheels across a semi-flat surface. If I could have listened over the roar of my own chaos, I would have heard the the sound of happiness.