Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Three Kids, a Cat named Smitty, a Caged Bird, a Road Trip & Tiananmen Square

It was early June, in the year 1989.  Even though I was still married, legally, I was single again, and had been for almost two years now.  No time on my hands, no time to waste.  After seven years of marriage and three children, my husband decided he ‘needed some space’, and by the way, he was in love with another woman.  He’d been seeing her throughout most of my recent pregnancy with Mollie.  What I didn't know then.  Okay, good-bye.  What started out as a happy story came up with a sad ending, an ending that wasn’t that much of a surprise when looked on in hindsight.  Two years before, my mother had died.  A year later, I had my last baby, a beautiful little girl.  Then Matt left.  After a bit of awful depression and lots of help from my friends and family, I pulled myself together, working during the day, nursing my baby at night and scrambling with childcare for the kiddies.  Matt came by sometimes to ‘babysit’.  Good of him.  Many years later, we were able to carve out a more civil, if not real friendly relationship, for the good of the kids more than anything else.  
     But back then, June 1989, I was ready to go back home to California, where I belonged.  I had lived in the East part of the country for 10 years then, and I was done with it, I wanted to go home where I was born and raised.  We said our goodbyes to my best friends Cristy and Kelly and to their boys, the best friends of my own little boys.  We said our goodbyes to my brother and his family, Mike, Lynn, and kiddos, and hit the road one morning, leaving Long Island where we’d been visiting for a few days of swimming, eating, laughing and telling stories.  It was time.
     The 1983 Chrysler LeBaron (inherited from Mom) was loaded down with children, children’s books, carseats, children’s toys, cassette tape players, children’s clothing (and diapers), and one yellow, pissed off Smitty the cat.  Behind us, I towed the biggest U-Haul I could talk myself into renting, attached to the frame of the car.  It held sleeping bags, tents, camp stove, lanterns which we used for camping along the way, as well as kids’ beds, dressers, a big console TV that had been my mom’s, boxes of clothing and blankets, more books and toys and bicycles and not much else.  We could find whatever we needed later.  It wasn’t our first cross-country road trip, though it would prove to be my last.
     We left New York, traveling from Center Moriches on I-495 West and on to Highway 80, headed to visit friends in Chicago along the way.  We left mid morning after breakfast with the family, a side of a few wet and salty tears.  We, I, was excited for this new adventure.  Apprehension came and went for all of us, with me helping to soothe the fears of my little guys. 
I couldn’t tell you exactly where we were, but sometime later that night, we were tired, it was dark, it was late, and after passing a few little towns along the road, I decided it was time to stop and get some sleep, all along looking for that perfect little motel in which I wouldn’t have to back my trailer into a parking spot.  I wasn’t up to that at all.  Not that night, not that late, not with my sugar level dropping.  
We found a place, a one-story, long old decent looking motel, with sidewalk, shrubs and trees planted along the front corridor.  We crawled out of the car, registered and paid for the room and walked excitedly to our room, our first motel room! which was dark and dank and just what we needed.  I remember starting the bath for the kids and saying to them, “Come on guys, it’s almost ten o’clock, let’s get you into the bath and to bed.” 
“We’re hungry, Mom, can we have something to eat?”  out of Howie’s little mouth, the oldest, all of 9 years old then.
“Yes, I’ll fix you some cereal while you guys get a bath, and take Smitty out of her crate, please,” It wasn’t a trip for the feint of heart.  Cereal it was.  Cold.
The cat immediately flew under one of the beds, and wouldn’t be seen again until after the kids were all asleep.  I put down the cat’s food and water in the bathroom, along with his catbox.  Turned back across the room, pulled out the plastic bowls, utensils and cold cereal, alongside the cooler packed with ice and milk and fruit and juice.
The boys got themselves undressed and into the tub, Mollie I helped, and pretty soon they were all laughing and splashing and fussing while I pulled out their pj’s and got their food ready.  It had been a really long day and it wasn't over yet.  I reached over, flipped on the big brown square TV sitting on the dresser and was immediately in a state of shock.  I’d had tapes playing in the car all day long, hadn’t heard any news broadcasts at all, other than a few weather reports that I tuned on a couple of poor-signal stations.  It had rained, and rained hard, most of the trip, I kept hoping for some respite from the storm.
     In front of the TV, two feet away, I sat down on the foot of the bed, breathing deeply, watching Chinese soldiers gunning down students and other protestors in Tiananmen Square.  Everyone was yelling, and running and falling and crying.  Sorrow, helplessness and rage quickly turned my own stomach to stone.  I knew the whole world was watching, and that’s all we were doing.  I'd been watching reports from Beijing City for a while now, streams of demonstrators ready and willing to stand up for their freedom and democracy, and now they were being shot down.  I sat in silence, glued to the TV, to the voices of the reporters, the gunshots, ‘til the kids wanted out - they were getting cold.
I decided to leave the TV on, explained to the kids that a terrible event was happening on the other side of the world, assuring them that yes, they were okay, fine, nothing like that is happening here, it’s just a terrible and sad fight for freedom of the Chinese people.  I’d been a political activist my whole life, politics and activism was nothing new to these kids, they listened and watched and then I turned off the TV screen for the night.   
I spent our next bit of time sitting the kids down to eat on makeshift tray tables on the beds, getting their teeth brushed before tucking them in, kissing them goodnight, holding them closely.  As I fell off to sleep, fitfully, the horror on the other side of the world only reinforced to me that I didn’t have any problem that couldn’t be solved.  We were safe, warm, fed, loved and that was all we needed that night in whatever town we were resting in Pennsylvania.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Year Later....

This year as in every year, my birthday rolls around on March 1.  Same date, different day, bigger number.  We all get there, each and every time, unless we die first.

I'm noticing a difference this year, though, since my birthday is now tied into the day I retired from work.  A year ago today, I walked out the door of my workplace for the last time.  It's not a place you go back to visit your friends, as my previous jobs were.  A locked facility is just that.  No keys, no
dropping by.  Those keys could cost you $300, so you can bet I turned them back in.  And on that day,  February 28, 2013, I never wanted to go back.

Just as I planned it, a few days after retirement I left the shores of the USA for an extended trip around the world, visiting friends and family in just about every place I went.  After a little introspective the previous several months, I realized that I needed to do something big when I stopped working, to celebrate, to ease into retirement.  I had no return ticket, so I planned my time based on who I would be going to see next, and when.

I discovered new friends along the way, in flashy cities and quiet villages, on hot, sultry beaches and in the arid dessert of Morocco.  I sat in Paris caf├ęs, wandered through champagne caves in Champagne.
I hiked the hills of Aragon, where you can still hear the sounds of the Spanish Civil War.  I gazed on the murals walls and gates of Belfast, sat high above Bangkok and looked out over
the world.

So many places, so many sights and sounds and smells.
I journeyed to the land of my family, sat in the same room with Irish folk who could rattle off stories of our old ones.  I stood on the ground of Caherboshina, Ireland, where my mother's great great grandfather farmed, before coming to America with his wee family.   I never felt more appreciative for the love of people and the land than I do now, that I learned then.

While I didn't think about it at the time, I've come to realize that people who said to me that it 'was the  trip of a lifetime', they were right.  The timing of that particular holiday, just on the heels of retirement, a few days past my birthday, couldn't have been better.
 Each time I go back through the photos, and I do so often, each time I turn another page of my travel journal, I feel another memory, taste another bite of love, and yearn for another big adventure.  Certain that there will be another, indeed, usually planning another.

My life is now measured differently than it was prior to retirement.  It's not measured by the sound of the alarm in the morning, or my 'days off'.  Because every day is a day off.  If I don't look at the calendar, I can forget what day, or date, has arrived.  My time is now measured by what each day brings to me, and what I give to it.  I'm no longer consumed with fear and loathing in a feeling it now as I go  back there.  Terror rolls my stomach when my mind strays near to the source.
workplace that doesn't seem to value its employees, or indeed, the patients being cared for by my colleagues that I miss seeing each day.  Seldom do I feel that post traumatic stress, though I'm

So I choose to not go there.  Instead, I think over the past year as a series of lifetime events.   Baby showers, new babies, Dad died, class reunion, birthday parties, new love, cherished friends who continue always to be part of my life.  Day trips to the mountains, to the beach, bike rides, hours
painting, or writing, or reading.  Time for me to do as I wish.  I've been told, of this time of my life, 'you've earned it'.  I never really thought about it in that way, and after a year, if I haven't really earned it, I'm sure as heck enjoying it.

Close ties to my family is one of those things I've not taken for granted, I love them and I'm so grateful to have them all.  Marrying and having babies while I was very young assured me I would always have family around.   As my kids have always told me being 'the best Mom in the world' helped make it so.  I basically moved from my
childhood family to one of my own.  I couldn't be happier with all of my extended and natural families, my loved ones, friends as well as family.  I'm sitting here, cuppa tea in hand, dawn awakening outside a stormy window, the embroidered cloth on my table whispering Travel East, Travel West, After All, Home is Best.

It might be best.  Though I have to say, I can't wait to get on that plane again and be carried off to a new land of opportunity.  The opportunity to see trees I've not seen before, flowers in bloom, birds I've never seen and people I haven't yet met.  The dry erase board across the room lists my every day  'things to do': paint the pavers, plant an orange tree, re-paint the gnome, write, paint, edit those photos, smile.

And today, as two of my best friends are on the road to join me for my birthday, that smile is just where it should be.

If you've retired, I'd love to know how your first year was, what you noticed.  What you expected it to be, how it all worked out.

If you're retiring soon, what are you looking forward to??

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Eight Letter Words

He’s a tall man, about 6’2”, black, looks younger than his 46 years.  One of the doctors here told me that ‘many people with schizophrenia oftentimes will look younger in their face'.  It’s their stoic look.  They don’t show a lot of emotion, they won’t use a lot of muscles to frown, or to smile.  This guy, he’s been in and out of locked facilities most of his life. 

As a young boy, he witnessed his father commit suicide.  When he was in his teens, he watched his brother kill himself.  We don’t know where his mother is, or was.  He won’t talk about it and the records are sketchy.

He doesn’t come out of his room much.  Paranoia, say the experts.  Fear, says I.  He’s been assaulted more than once by patients in the hospital.  Before coming to the hospital, he had many, many fights out in the world.  It’s difficult for him not to retaliate.  “I like it in here, I’m staying in my room.  Will you tell me when it’s dinner?”

We all share two long hallways, med room, treatment room, two day halls with windows floor to ceiling.  Steel screens outside of them and a small balcony overlooking the shrubs, lawn, picnic tables, basketball hoops and trees.  Windows that don’t open.  Years ago, when we were fully staffed and often took the guys outside, one of them scaled the outside fence faster than anyone had ever seen him move.  He jumped to his death while patients and staff watched in horror, scrambling to stop him.  

Courtyard isn’t used much these days.  Not enough staff to secure the unit and take people outside at the same time.  We have a dining room and 12 sleeping rooms.  34 patients, 6-8 staff work each of three shifts.  Administrators survey the unit, walking through quickly, keys in hand.  Saving grace for staff is going home each day after one, or possibly two shifts.  Overtime is often mandated, as there are such low staffing  thresholds.  

Of our 34 patients, some will leave.  Some never.  Maybe when they age out, no longer a threat to society, they're transferred to a lower level of care facility, lower level of security.  Where doors are sometimes left unlocked.  Patients are often transferred, only to return after another incident weeks or months or years later.  We get to know the guys.  They think they know us.

This is one of many state mental hospitals around the country.  I thought the one I worked in was unusual for the number of assaults on patients and staff.  I blogged about it a while back and was amazed at the responses from other nurses across the country.  “It’s just like that here, too.”

Three years ago, one of our hospital staff was killed by a patient.  She was strangled to death in the corner behind a building.  We think it was because she didn’t have a cigarette on her to give to the guy.  We really don’t know.  After this incident, there were speeches, letter-writing campaigns, meetings with unions and management.  Rallies were held in the state capitol and in front of the hospital.  Newspaper reporters requesting to talk with anyone who had information and/or would stand up to be heard.  Many of us spoke out and felt the brunt of it from our supervisors.   There was a lot of crying and hand-holding.

Our colleague was buried, we heard her family settled in a lawsuit with the State,  though never confirmed by anyone I know.  Millions of dollars were spent on new state of the art alarms for the staff.  Staff alarms to be used at the time of attack, or in some other emergency, to call for help.  No prevention here at all.  Very little doctor-patient interaction.   Physicians, social workers, psychologists come and go.  Hospital administration preaches ‘continuity of care’.  We don’t see it.

Last week, two staff on my unit were assaulted.  The patient I mentioned was nowhere near the incident.  He was safe in his room.  One of the staff members was treating the attacker for a medical  condition he has.  She’s a Registered Nurse, a short little Filipina who has worked here for many years.  She had other staff in the room with her.  That didn’t stop the attack.  The other staff member, also a little woman, an RN,  has worked for years on the unit.  She was unlocking an office door when she was punched along the side of her head, falling to the floor.  Both of them are off work on workers comp.  The patient continues to walk the halls.  Medicated and watched.

Security is just an eight letter word here.  Officers appear on the units once or twice in an 8 hour period.  They respond after an assault.  Staff carry alarms and keys and watch each others’ backs, always on vigilant alert, reading the patients and any change in their behavior.  Families worry for our safety.  Every staff person on my unit has been assaulted at least once, including myself.  Former colleagues will never work again from the injuries they suffered.  Physical and psychological damage.  PTSD is rampant.

When I talk to outsiders about this work environment, they can’t understand how it can continue to happen.  Why doesn’t someone do something about it?  Mental health advocates and administration claim the patients are patients, not inmates, and won’t allow ‘guards’ to patrol the units.  Staff is trained to restrain patients when necessary, not trained in self defense.  Staff here are professionally trained to provide excellent patient care.  And they do.

There is no security here.  Until we walk out the door to come home.  Later, we cry in our pillows.  We worry in anticipation of the next incident.  We’re care-givers, that’s why we took this job.  To be of service to patients who require care,  who need support, encouragement, understanding and love.  We pull together at holidays to give the guys special treats and entertainment that they otherwise wouldn’t get.   Most of the men here have been abandoned by their families, don’t really have any friends outside.

The patient I first mentioned, he’s still in his room.  He comes out to toilet, to shower, for meds, and anytime he can eat.  Three days a week, he goes to the hospital’s version of a classroom/school where he watches TV, plays video games, listens to music and gets his hands on more food.  You can always find a little bag of chips in his pocket.  

If you want to push it and ask him. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It's Been a Long Day

(original 2011)

It seems like a year ago, in reality, just 14 days ago. We were in Brookings, the morning started off with a bang. Literally. When I got up from sleeping and knocked over the ancient metal TV tray onto the floor. Oh my gosh. It made such a loud noise, startled my son Tom sleeping on the other side of the room, yelling out as if he was protecting the place, "H E Y !!!!!". Oh my gosh, I can't stop laughing every time I think about it.

A few minutes to write is what I need. Please, just a few minutes for me all to myself.

Dad slept in the guest room that last night in his home with his big and black cat 'Hey, Kitty' keeping him company. Sleeping in the guest room because his own bedroom furniture is loaded on the truck.

Tom took off later that morning in the U-Haul truck with more stuff than would fit into Dad's new place. I know, because some of it is still waiting in my garage for me to sort through. Everything left behind at Dad's home will be thrown away or cleaned up with the help of his realtor, sold at an 'estate' sale, and the check sent to Dad. That was a good reply for him asking about this or that, "Let Chris sell it and she'll send you a check for it".

I wondered then how long Dad would be able to hang onto this 'independent' living status of his. His vision loss has deeply affected his lifestyle. He can't read a menu, he tells me food on his plate is a blur, and knows the fork from the spoon only by touch. Even as I sit across the table at dinner, I'm just a blur. He is able to see long distance a bit better, able to recognize buildings and other landmarks, stop signs when he's riding on his scooter. He can sign his name by memory, when I put the pen on the paper; he can't see where to write at all. He can't see that with all the weight he's lost, his clothes are hanging on him. He couldn't even see the ants in his drink last night. When I pointed them out to him and offered to get him a new drink, he yelled at me, "I'M not throwing away a perfectly good drink! I can't see them anyway", noting as he finished it off. Jeez, what can I say?

It's certainly been a difficult move for dad. After spending quite a bit of time with him, I dont doubt it's a good move. Oh, he still regales anyone who will listen with his stories of building the Brookings port, and starting the Elks Travel Club, and his four years in a POW camp after being captured at Wake Island. He can tell those stories four times in a ten minute span, and each time, it's the first time for him. For many of his listeners, it gets old fast.

I guess we're all doing our best. He is. I am. The kids and grand-kids are. I guess best has to be good enough. Because he is NOT making it in independent living. Too many of us know now that he can't do that any longer. He gets lost when he leaves his place. So now he won't leave much. He put his wallet in a safe place, and then lost it for two days until he found it in his freezer when he opened it up to get ice for his nightly Manhattan. The neighbors are worried about him, and so am I.

So, next week he moves again to assisted living/memory care. He doesn't know yet. That's the conversation we get to have on Monday. I lay awake at night wondering if I'm really doing the right thing. He needs someone to take care of him, right? And yet, he could just as easily die in his bed in Brookings as here in Napa.

Well, I've Changed My Mind...

* (original, 9/7/2011)
The screeching stop I was waiting for has slammed me in the face.

Now the delusional side of Daddy has decided to 'stay where I am'. He continued to go on and on about the friends he has (doesn't have any longer, really, at all), about all the things he's done in that town (which he's unable to do now), and he's made up his mind.

And my younger brother who talked with him a half hour on the phone tells me to do what Dad wants.

The three days I was with him, when I saw him, from both a daughter's standpoint, and that of a Registered Nurse, specializing in community, senior health and psychiatry, doesn't amount to a hill of beans.

So I am to ignore the wishes of a delusional old man, and go on knowing he doesn't know what he's doing and that's okay.

I work every day with adult males who cannot take care of themselves. Don't you think I recognize that when I see it? Am I supposed to stand by, morally and legally and say, okay, do what you will.

I guess I am.