Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Alles klar"

I thought briefly about packing the shotgun, but the car was nearly full and I was exhausted with 120 miles yet to drive. Having any sort of a weapon in a house with an elderly ex-soldier with dementia issues never sounds like the brightest of ideas during daylight, no matter how "dodgy" the neighborhood. I also left the chain saw behind. Not that I'm sure I couldn't find a use for it...

The car was packed to the brim with my vacuum cleaner, the tool kit (with hex wrenches AND flat head screwdrivers), the cordless drill, extra plates and silverware, clothes for colder weather than the night I'd blasted down to Chicago like a bat out of hell, extra movies on DVD, my latest Oprah magazine, winter jacket, gloves and, of course, my Swiss Army knife which had already been pressed into use. And don't forget the plain black suit and heels, equally appropriate for either a funeral or a court appearance. Next stop, a nearby hardware store for a replacement part for an ancient broken doorknob, a fillup at the local gas station where regular unleaded goes for fifty cents less a gallon than it does in Chicago, a pitstop at Starbucks for some caffeine and a comfort zone, and a cruise through the racks of Best Buy looking for DVDs of Lawrence Welk and the Jackie Gleason show. Didn't find 'em, but at least I tried.

When I finally pulled out of the driveway, the late afternoon sky was starting to darken, heralding temps below freezing just ahead. The setting sun blazed gold from behind swaths of grey and silver clouds to the west, while the three-quarter moon glared brightly like a chunk of ice in the clear eastern sky. Squadrons of geese flew overhead, and a hawk soared over the interstate, utterly unconcerned with the myriad human dramas unfolding below him at seventy miles an hour on six lanes of traffic.

I was headed back to Chicago, my home town, for the worst of all possible reasons. The first frantic dash had been a few days earlier. One minute I was sitting at my desk at work, pushing my way through a neverending pile of paper. The next my cell phone rang with the news that my elderly mother, already in a wheelchair most of the time, had fallen and badly fractured a femur. My equally elderly father, incredibly feeble and showing symptoms of both Parkinson's and cognitive impairment, needed full-time care and supervision while the medical crisis unfolded.

And so I went, and waited, and talked with doctors and social workers and administrators and nurses, and tried to reassure my father that all would eventually be well. This last was a Herculean task. He and my mother had shared the same apartment for thirty years, and his anxiety was palpable.

In the coming days, I tag teamed him with my mother's two sisters--one with a game leg and a psychotic Dalmatian, the other, younger, married to a former firefighter who, in his eighties, proved to be the Rock of Gibraltar every evening as we showed up at their house for dinner and a movie like orphans in a storm. With my father's limited mobility and attention span, we've watched a lot of TV and movies. Took in Gunsmoke episodes, laughed at the Three Stooges, guffawed at the mud-splattered antics of George Clooney and his football team in "Leatherheads." I tried hard to find movies in German, his native tongue, but turned up only two. One, "Schultze Gets the Blues" was so slow paced we switched it off. But not before he surprised me by singing along in German with the characters in a scene where some miners were being congratulated on their retirement.

We also watched Wolfgang Petersen's wrenching WWII epic "Das Boot" again, which we had first shared last summer when he visited. Seeing it again reinforced my twin beliefs that (1) the movie is a genuine classic with a thrilling, haunting musical score, a "must see" for film buffs even with only English subtitles, and (2) the actor playing the stoic, nuanced submarine commander, Jurgen Prochnow, is the most compelling actor I've ever seen on screen. And that includes Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," Viggo Mortenson in "Hidalgo," and Cary Grant in just about anything.

Just to get out of the house one day for a destination that didn't involve the hospital, I loaded him into the car and we visited the Garfield Park Conservatory, reveling in a riot of exotic chrysanthemums and bizarre succulents and lush foliage. We stopped for a while by the indoor pond populated by a colorful variety of ornamental carp and decorated with enormous glass waterlilies by the artist Dale Chihuly whose thousands of colorful glass flowers also famously grace the ceiling of the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. I restrained myself from physically yanking the trio of folks seated in the only bench near the water, and reminded myself that I was lucky to be here at all.

We drove through Humboldt Park in the old neighborhood, where I used to bike and swing and sled as a child and he and I searched for lost marbles on our walks in the woods. We cruised past the fieldhouse and the park's formal gardens and pool flanked by the pair of magnificent bronze bison originally designed for the 1893 World's Fair by Edward Kemeys, the same sculptor who created the signature giant lions guarding the staircase of Chicago's Art Institute. As we drove through the park, he recalled the neighborhood bakery, Rosers, and so we stopped there too, buying a loaf of rye bread and a butter coffee cake smothered with icing. Our drives here and there were often spent just listening to music, but sometimes he would give me a short impromptu lesson in German. I would have to lean close to hear him, because his speech is no longer clear.

My mother continues to improve, and the next days are fraught with uncertainty as to the future for both. But every night, as I have since this crisis began, I tuck him into bed with the words "Guten nacht, mein Papa." Then I kiss him on the cheek and tell him "alles klar." Roughly translated, it means "everything's fine." He smiles and closes his eyes and I turn out the lights.

Alles klar. At least for this night.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I hope they are both doing better! And you, take care of yourself! As always, your writing is spectacular. Well wishes for you and your family!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mary,

I'm sorry about the difficult time your family is facing. It sounds like there is a lot of love to go around though. I love your writing. It is inspiring me to start journaling again. Did I tell you I had the baby in September? She's doing amazing. I'm sure you'll see her at some point. I intend to go back to work and you'll see my face at the courthouse soon enough. 8) Good luck.


Mandy Garrels

Jennifer Fink said...

"Alles klar" -- I wish I'd known that one a few years ago. I used to care for an elderly gentleman at the nursing home, one who occasionally lapsed into his past and youth, one who grew up speaking German. When he got confused, I'd reassure him that his horses were OK and tell him "Guten nacht." Wish I could have added "Alles klar."