Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rustling up the ghosts of Christmases past

As I rustle through the stores this holiday season mulling the purchases that will either make Santa a hero or me a zero (because, lets face it, blaming the big guy for getting the wrong toy just isn't done) I thought I'd wander down Memory Lane and remember all the gifts that haven't been forgotten the second the wrapping paper had been cleared away:

Toy story

BIC Mark-It permanent ink markers – $23

We bought the 36-count set ions ago. Likely before The Champ was even born. We still have all 36 and all of them work. There is no substitute for good markers. And no end to how you can use them. This year we'll be making tie-dye shirts with permanent markers and rubbing alcohol.


Optic Wonder by Toysmith – $7

It's not really a wonder … it's a binocular/compass combo that rarely gets used in our house for either of those functions. But this a $7 hunk of plastic (now missing the compass feature) has certainly repaid its price ten-times over … though I doubt I bought it. Honestly? I had no idea what this mystery gadget was. It just turned up one day and it's been an important tool for propping up toys, spying on sisters and viewing the opera from the living room ever since.

Toy Story

FurReal Newborn Chimpanzee - $14

We call him “Monkey Baby” and The Champ won't leave home (or sleep) without him. Luckily (because of temporary misplacement) we have three of these babies. The “real” part of the monkey – chittering, snoring and squawking have all lost their appeal (not to mention battery juice). Even I must admit it's creepy how cute he is.

Toy Story

Vintage camera, thrift shop - $1

The kids will always dig this baby out of the toy box.

You can find them at etsy, but I'd go to Salvation Army … or Goodwill … yard sales. You might also want to check grandpa's attic.

Toy story

Haba Geomix blocks - $46

We received these Geomix block by Haba as a gift when Ittybit was two. I'm not sure anyone would outgrow these. Ever.

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Hello Kitty Sewing Machine by Janome - $115

Cute. Versatile. Sturdy. Indispensable.

Santa brought a Sew Mini by Janome, ($60) which was handy and good for light-weight crafting, but ended up needing repairs after only a few months. Santa now recommends spending just a little more.

Toy story

Wooden train set - $50

Their father had a small set … probably from the Brio company.

We went with Circo at Target. Got a 120-piece set for about $50. It's easy to assemble, fits with the old Brio set as well as another plastic model recently and lovingly handed down. I think the best part may be that it's a toy that won't end up in a yard sale.

And it's hours of fun.

Toy story

Legos – Anywhere from $3 to a small fortune

You will step on them, sweep them up, step on them again … but you will never curse the day they were invented. Neither will your kids.

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Littlest Pet Shop - $4 to $40

Ittybit got her first Littlest Pet Shop when she was two. I got an apology from the benefactor. “They're like crack,” she whispered so that her own daughter wouldn't hear. Now we have more than a hundred of these little bobble headed things. Parents hate them. Kids love them. Can't win every battle.

Toy story

Superstar Mic - $1

Target dollar bin. Looks like the biggest piece of crap going: A plastic ice cream cone housing a metal coil. Batteries not even needed. Big whoop.

Yet … It's been the best dollar Santa ever spent.

This year Santa is looking into

A pottery wheel

A marble chute

A microscope

and an ice cream maker

I'll let you know how my kids think they stack up against the best toy ever made …

Toy story

The cardboard box.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's true, actually

The Champ knows everything. It's true, actually.

The only thing he doesn't seem to grasp is the ability to get my attention without tugging on my shirt.

As I gaze down at the creature testing all his weight on my boiled wool cardigan, he smiles cherubically from under his favorite winter hat, his ears sticking out at an elf-like angle.

I catch his hand and gently peel each finger away from the over-stretched fabric.

“What is it?”

“Did you know bats mostly don't eat blood? It's true, actually. They eat bugs and fruit. We should have a pet bat. Can we get one next time we see a bat store?”

“Sure thing. Let's make a list so we don't forget.”

His expression, now puckered and overly cute, tells me he knows the bat store is a figment of his imagination. I have failed to take the bait.

He continues to quiz me.

“Did you know that there's a wolf what eats nothing but insects? It's true, actually. They're called ART Wolves!!! I think they also eat paint and crayons if it's winter out and the insects go off to hibernate or something. But that's only in the winter time. On all the other days they just eat bugs.”

For a moment, as I make a mental picture of a jackal-like ant-eater snacking away on a waxy stalk of Cornflower Blue in the arctic chill of a South African winter, I consider correcting him. “Aardwolves, a relative of the hyena, eat mostly termites, larvae and carrion. ARTwolves are mythical beasts who eat the crafts of children who don't put away their markers.”

Another failure on my part.

He and his sister are fond of nature shows. They've been watching “Wild Kratts,” a nature series for children on PBS starring the Kratt brothers – Martin and Chris – two science grads who've taken the basic documentary tenant of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and blended it with the modern animation and dramatic license of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

Among recent topics has been the diet of aardwolves, the tracking of Monarch butterflies and how to identify venomous snakes. There's always some tidbit of information that makes you look at whomever else is in the room and repeat what you just heard.

“Did you know Zebras can't see orange?”

The adults will answer: “I had no idea.”

The sprogs will blank stare you as if you just walked in from the moon. “Of course they can't see orange.”

By the time the show is over both kids want to be zoologists, sneaking up on their stuffed animals in an effort to study their behaviors.

But the Kratt brothers sometimes do things you NEVER want to do … Things that will make you think there's a little more Steve Irwin in the brothers' background than Jim Fowler or Marlin Perkins.

Just little things like vexing a venomous viper … or hugging an 80-pound crocodile … cuddling up with a beaver.

It's not as if The Champ is going to be swimming with sharks or aping gorillas any time soon, but I still feel the need to tell him manhandling nature, no matter how gentlemanly, might not be in his (or their) best interest.

“Did you know apes can talk … with their HANDS? It's true, actually. If I saw an ape I would talk to him with my mouth.”

“That's probably a better idea then trying to get his attention by tugging on his shirt.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

You never have all the answers

“Do you remember when Amah ate paint?”

How could I forget?

No one had seen it coming, least of all The Champ. Certainly not me.

His palette was a circle of dots of tempera paint on a sheet of freezer paper. Paintbrush in hand, he was mulling his choices before deciding what color to paint the engine compartment of the unfinished balsa wood train.

I thought it was a project we could all focus on together.

She was starting to wander. … He was noticing something had changed. We were together for the afternoon.

Everyone seemed confused and agitated.

Painting, I said to myself, would be a pleasant diversion.

Better than watching TV …

or playing games with complicated sets of rules.

Rules that were changing all the time.

But even as her fingers dipped into the light blue paint and mixed a little with the orange next to it, I thought she was forgoing the brush and painting, literally, by hand.

When the swirl of marbled color disappeared into her mouth, I knew nothing would likely be easy again.

I wiped her hands and her mouth, put away the paints and then redirected my son, who was stunned and angry.

“Let's just play with cars until papa comes back from the store.”

Thinking back, it seemed like something that happened years before ... not just weeks ago.

Thing is this thing that happened to her – first the stroke, and then dementia, and finally delirium – has left us all staring into the high-beams of oncoming disbelief.

It's not as if we had to tell the kids. They already knew.

They could plainly see Amah was different. Her conversations ran on the same loop. Mostly questions that cycled repeatedly: How long had we lived here? How long have you had a pool? I didn't know you had a cat? Your dad has a cat, you know … it just showed up one day … looks just like yours.”

She couldn't remember the answers we gave her minutes ago. She couldn't say our names.

It was happening right in front of us. All I could do was try to explain what they were witnessing, even when I barely knew myself. All I could do was ask them if they were OK … if they had questions … and then answer them as best as I could.

“Amah isn't herself. She's had a brain injury and some things are getting confused. It's not something she can help. We have to be patient.”

But patience isn't something that comes without practice.

I expected The Champ to need lots of patience from me. He was angry and scared and wanting to be far away from her. It was a natural response, and one I didn't try to reform.

I gave him time and space. He didn't want to visit. I didn't make him.

Amah knew she wasn't herself. In between the barrage of questions, which I believe was her own way of trying to make sense of this new state in which she found herself, she wanted to make sure the kids weren't hurt by her forgetting.

“I know them. I know who they are.”

“I know, Ma. They know, too. Try not to worry. Rest … don't try to remember.”

But it was all just slipping away from her grasp.

The Champ can see that now, too. But he's no longer mad.

When he comes with me to visit her, she smiles at him and tells him he's amazing in words that aren't exact translations. I just know what she means and tell him so.

He reciprocates by tossing a ball and helping with her exercises.

I praise everything he does for her. I celebrate every smile he gives her and that she returns.

Being helpful makes him feel good in ways I hadn't really understood he needed.

“I want to visit Amah today, too. I want to tell her I'm sorry for being mad at her.”

“I think she knows, buddy. I really think she knows.”

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A little about my mother

Something was wrong. I was playing Words With Friends with my mother and I was winning.

We'd been playing the game together … at night … in our separate houses … 11 miles apart … for more than a year. It was always the same. I would come up with words like “Pro” for six points and she would counter with “Pyxes” for 104 points … and then she would send me a note over the game's little messaging system with an apology.

She always felt bad about winning.

She'd often joke that I'd taken so long coming up with my plays that she'd had to let the game select strangers for her to play with as she waited. She liked that she could juggle 12 games at once.

For a few days, though, her plays were taking longer and resulting in smaller scores. It. Was. Here.

She told me she'd been having trouble finding words in her letters, but I'd just assumed she'd gotten a load of vowels and no consonants … or something like that. It's an excuse I've used all the time to explain my pathetic strategizing.

I wanted to believe her because the thought also crossed my mind that she was letting me win.

Some things we leave unspoken.

When she called on the phone and told me she was having trouble writing an email to a relative, I just assumed she meant that she didn't know what to say. She hated email. She felt self conscious writing sentiments.

We. All. Do. That.

But that wasn't it.

She confessed she'd started putting the tiles into spaces and letting the game tell her if she'd made a word or not. I've done that so many times, I now know that “Qi” is life energy – the central underlying principal in traditional Chinese medicine, thank-you-very-much.

But. Not. Her.

These. Were. The. Words. She. Had. Been. Guessing. Words she could have spelled in her sleep.

It had taken me four days to understand that my mother, who did four crossword puzzles a day, who had the best vocabulary of anyone I knew, couldn't spell simple words.

Oh. My. God.

“Mom, you need to go to a hospital. You may have had a stroke.”

She tried to dismiss it. “I haven't had a stroke,” she said, worried she'd spend all day in an emergency room only to have a smiling resident confirm her worst fear: This was the beginning of dementia.

But she was also a nurse. She knew that stroke doesn't always come with severe headache, unilateral weakness or slurring of speech. It can be silent, too.

My father took her to the emergency room.

Turns out she'd had several strokes all over her brain.

Still we thought the news was good. No one could have known she'd had a brain injury. When she left the hospital a few days later she was in good spirits. She was walking, talking and conversing rather normally.

She still played Words With Friends.

But it was frustrating. Words didn't come any easier with time. She worried that it was getting worse. I joked that the only reason I was winning was because she'd had a stroke. I assured her things would improve.

I never imagined it would get worse. She'd already stopped playing strangers and now she couldn't read the buttons. She kept resigning games instead of submitting plays. The buttons confused her.

Eventually she stopped playing all together.

Her decline was so precipitous, it was as if she had slipped away as we were talking and someone only vaguely familiar took her place.

But hope persists. My father kept saying “it could be worse” even as it was getting worse.

I searched the Internet, I spoke with family and friends who’ve had similar experiences or who work in medicine. We had some success in finding root causes of her worsening condition, treated them, but nothing turned around. Not the way we'd hoped.

Doctors spoke of new baselines and tough roads ahead. Long-term care was something we, like many families, couldn't have predicted. Not even a few months ago.

I just kept thinking about that first diagnosis, and how the doctor had remarked no one who didn't know her would have noticed the difference.

Now she doesn't recognize me until I tell her my name.

Sometimes I think this is the saddest moment of our lives together. Me and my mom.

But then she smiles at me with her familiar crooked smile …

and she tries to spell something.

And I realize:

She's still in the game.

She's still my mother.