February 18, 2016, Cochise County, Arizona. “The Twig Helper” is the first Alzheimer’s anecdote I’ve written (about my wife’s ongoing experience with the disease) since late September of 2015. I wouldn’t even be tackling the subject now…except for a reader who found the previous sixteen anecdotes and sent a powerful email asking me to please write some more.
As any writer worth his salt knows, a sincere request for more from an appreciative reader is only a few steps shy of a direct mandate from the Almighty.
We’ll need some fill-in, a bit of backstory (even if some of it’s been said before), prior to getting specifically to The Twig Helper, though, so here goes.
By the time cooler weather had settled in last autumn, Pammie was thoroughly settled in with her current primary medical care practitioner, a truly awesome nurse practitioner…but my redhead remained unable to regain and keep the poundage she’d lost to the previous doctor’s betrayal. A brief summary goes like this: Pam had been holding her weight above 90 pounds (at five feet, one inch in height) until Dr. Dastardly arbitrarily–with no warning and no discussion–cut her pain meds by roughly twenty percent in November of 2014. We had more or less expected Dr. D. to pull something like that. He wouldn’t even prescribe any of her anti-anxiety regimen at all, insisting that we “farm that out” (my words, not his) to my wife’s mental health care provider. In my opinion, Dastardly was the not so good doctor’s first name, Jerk his last. D. Jerk, M.D., self described King of the Castle.
This was tantamount to a death sentence, as Pam has many severe pain issues not directly related to her dementia. Lack of collagen, bone on bone, head to toe. Fibromyalgia. Wildly destroyed shoulder and knee joints, plus the same for one big toe. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. So many broken bones over the years that both of us lost count. And so on and so forth. Even when she’s on her pain meds, total strangers can still see the pain in her eyes.
One tough lady, but when Dr. D. did what he did, the worst pain was the pain of betrayal.
Pam started losing weight, even as we considered our limited options. Eventually, we consulted with her eldest daughter, who lives in northern Utah and at that time worked for a nurse practitioner who volunteered to take over Pam’s care without trimming down the regimen she’d been on for more than a decade and a half. Pammie would move in with her daughter’s family, live there full time. I bought a heavy slide-in camper for the long 900 mile commute from southern Arizona, delivered Pam to Utah, packed her stuff, arranged for a U-Haul rental, and even arranged to purchase a second home in Montana where I could take Pam at times. It would be a much easier run for her, six hours and all freeway.
The Utah experiment lasted all of 26 days. “Get me out of here!” She said on the phone, and away I went, time to rescue the fair damsel from the fire breathing dragon-castle one more time.
Back home in Cochise County, we lucked out. Found the much beloved Medicine Woman, a nurse practitioner we both knew and appreciated, but with whom we’d lost touch. As far as we knew, she was still working in Tucson, a long run for Pam for routine medical appointments. But she’d returned…and opened up her own practice, right here in Sierra Vista, just 30 minutes from the Border Fort.
All’s well that ends well, right? Whoa. Not so fast, cowboy. May rolled around…and I rolled out one morning to discover my only option was to call 911. Pammie was out of it, drastically dehydrated, unable to communicate well. IV stick in a bad vein, ambulance to Bisbee, “only” five hours in the ER, and released to go back home. Long story there, blood flying in the ER when she accidentally yanked the IV needle halfway out of her arm, but still.
The redhead bounces back. The hospital run was no fun. Got Pam’s attention. Working together, she and I got her weight and hydration back up in short order, slamming down 800 calorie strawberry milkshakes from McDonald’s and the like. Once she’d recovered enough to ‘fess up to her man, we were able to piece together the full story of what had happened to her. Major psychotic episode of some days in length. Throwing her meds in the trash so I wouldn’t know she hadn’t taken them. Not drinking. Not eating. Then, in this near-death state, she’d been outside while I was sleeping, picking up pretty rocks, piling them on the mini-gazebo’s concrete pad. Tripped over a full five gallon bucket of paint she didn’t even see. Major hurt, but somehow made it back to bed…where I found her.
All righty then. Between that time (May of 2015) and yesterday (February of 2016), she’s continued to struggle with her weight. A couple of times, she dipped as low as 78 pounds, closing in on Karen Carpenter territory. The lower her weight reading, the higher her pain level. In recent weeks, miracle of miracles, she’s managed to hold around 84 pounds most of the time.
That’s the “new normal”. At this point, none of us–Pam, me, or the much beloved Medicine Woman–expect to see her hit 90 pounds again in this lifetime.
Additionally, her mind is continuing to slowly “fuzz out”. She’s keenly aware of it, owns it fully. Doesn’t like it much, but she owns it, and on a good day she can still laugh about it. Poke fun at herself. Being awake and aware for three or four hours per twenty-four is more normal than not, though she can still manage a twelve hour day every once in a while. Her memory has more and more holes in it.
Valentine’s Day, 2016. I got my sweetheart a card from Hallmark (duh), a little stuffed dog from Safeway, and a helium balloon from Safeway. She loved the card, named the dog Pup-pup (while noting that Kitten Precious loves little Pup-pup as well), and was the one to figure out the best place for the balloon so the cats wouldn’t bother it.
Now comes the bit about The Twig Helper.
Pam has a lifetime habit of being “helpful Henry” whenever anyone she’s with is working on something to which she can contribute. In her prime, that was a whole lot of something; she’s worked as an assistant mechanic, a big rig driver, raising Arabian horses and silver blue Great Dane dogs, and building fences. She is to this day a cook to whom few can compare, an insightful counselor to those in need, and a whole lot more. But now…it’s the little things that count. Though I’m not a Christian, I have read the King James version of the Bible, cover to cover at least twice, and her contributions these days remind me of “the widow’s mite”–not a lot of coin in numerical terms but huge when considered as a portion of what she has available.
Like the widow, my wife gives her all.
This winter, we decided to (a) clear some of the mesquite trees away from the area near the Border Fort as a fire prevention measure, (b) let me go “play” with my new Kubota backhoe (purchased in October of 2015) by digging a pit, and (c) bury the cut-down brush piles in said pit. In other words, give the trees back to the land. The idea seemed right to us; this clay-and-caliche desert soil needs all the nutrition it can get. The backhoe came with a mere twelve-inch bucket, and the budget didn’t really want to see money spent for a twenty-four inch bucket, so digging a pit like that would take a while, but what the hey.
So that’s what we did. I’d finished the pit, roughly five feet wide, eight feet deep (it’s not a full sized backhoe), and thirty-two feet long. This Tuesday, I started lugging pickup truck loads of thorny mesquite trees over to the pit and tossing them into the hole. Our part time hired hand pitched in for part of the day, but I put in a full nine hour shift…and a couple of times during the day, Pam toodled on out to “help”.
Which she did. I’d be dumping a batch of tree-and-branch pieces that were often longer than I was. Pam, bless her heart, worked around the edge of the pit, picking up little mesquite twigs that had fallen loose. The twig helper. Major woody items, some as long as (gasp!) twelve inches and (double gasp!) perhaps three eighths of an inch in diameter.
The image was inescapable. She was a devoted four year old, out there “helping Daddy”. And like any good Daddy, I made sure she knew her help was appreciated.
“I did help, didn’t I?”
“You sure did, honey. You definitely helped.”
There was nothing childish about the scene, but it was totally childlike. A child of God in every respect.
Neither of us was terribly surprised to discover that we’d dumped no more than half of the available slash (cut brush/waste) into the pit when I decided it was “full enough”. Backfilling would tamp the trees down a good bit, but not having done this before, I didn’t know exactly how much. Which means that I get to dig another pit (Who’s the child at play now?) and Pam will, eventually, get the chance to “help Daddy” again when it’s time to bury the rest of the mesquite.
That’s a win-win situation, right there, Alzheimer’s or no Alzheimer’s.