A TV Evangelist and A Woodchuck

Everything was yellow: the exterior vinyl siding, the front door, the walls in every room, the furniture and even the shag rug on the living room floor. For a moment I suspected a humongous bottle of French’s Yellow Mustard had exploded, drenching the 1950s Cape with its contents. But no – it was simply the house of my most recent Hospice patient.

Her name was Connie and she was in her seventies. I knew her terminal disease was a slow going one, unlike some of the illnesses that stole the lives of our patients before we even had an opportunity to form a relationship with them. I also knew I could not – under any circumstance – visit Connie between the hours of eight and ten in the morning, and two and four in the afternoon. Those four hours were strictly off limits to any Hospice workers.

“What’s going on between eight and ten, and two and four?” I asked Connie’s Hospice nurse before my first visit.

She laughed and shook her head, “That’s when Steve is on.”

“Steve?”

“Steve Brock.”

“Who’s he?”

“Some TV evangelist.”

“No way! Really?”

“Really. She’s like, crazy about him. Everything stops when he comes on. Once she made me go home and I wasn’t even finished with my evaluation.”

As I followed Connie’s voice through the house, I found her sitting in a recliner chair that was positioned in front of a huge television. Her hair was a mess of white curls and she was wearing make-up. For a Hospice patient, she looked pretty spry. Her eyes narrowed when I entered the room.

“Which one are you?” she barked.

I sighed. Typically, social workers were the duds of the Hospice team. Unlike the nurses who brought comforting medicines, the volunteers who provided respite for the caregivers, or the aides who cleaned and cooked, the social workers were the “talkers” and, generally, our services were deemed unimportant and intrusive to most patients.

“I’m the social work intern.”

Now it was my turn to narrow my eyes. I had noticed the excessive number of picture frames scattered around the room, and they all seemed to contain pictures of the same man. Connie followed my gaze.

“Go ahead,” she said, her voice instantly warming.

I reached and took one of the frames, and then another. They were all Polaroid photographs, and it appeared the pictures were of … Connie’s television screen. Or a man on Connie’s television screen. I blinked. She had taken a Polaroid picture of a man on her TV screen and framed it. And not just one, but dozens.

“That’s Steve,” Connie explained.

“Steve Brock.”

“Yes! You know of him?” Connie sat up straighter in her chair.

“Yes, actually.”

I put the picture frames back in their place and pulled a chair next to Connie. Her eyes were closed, reminding me of a teenage girl swooning over the music of a rock band.

“Tell me about Steve.” I prompted.

Connie’s eyes fluttered open. “He’s so strong and handsome! And you should hear his voice. When he sings I get chills. That’s why I send him money every time he asks … and he writes back!”

Before I could respond, Connie reached into a basket that was half hidden under a folded blanket next to her recliner. She handed me a pile of papers.

“Read them,” she urged.

Carefully, I unfolded the first letter. It was a standard “thank-you-for-your-contribution” letter with Steve Brock’s signature stamped at the bottom. When I raised my eyes to Connie’s she was looking at me expectantly. To her, these were personal communications. She thought this TV evangelist had thanked her personally – many times – for her money.

“These are … lovely,” I stammered.

My freshly minted social work brain knew I was supposed to be doing something social worky. I should ask her about her husband! That’s it! Maybe there was some link between her deceased husband and this intense infatuation with a man on television. Or perhaps her father! What about him? What would make this dying woman latch onto – and give her money away to – some lounge singer sounding, dyed brown haired TV evangelist?

“I have a pet woodchuck,” Connie said, suddenly.

“Excuse me?”

Quickly, I shifted gears from the TV evangelist/dead spouse/father link to a pet woodchuck. I looked around the yellow room, expecting to see the rodent lumber in and sit by my feet.

“I have a pet woodchuck,” Connie repeated, somewhat exasperated, as though she were growing annoyed. “His name is Chucky.”

“I … I’ve never heard of having a woodchuck as a pet,” I stammered.

Connie raised an eyebrow. Clearly, she deemed me a moron.

“He doesn’t live in the house. He lives outside.”

“Oh!”

“Aren’t you going to ask me how I know Chucky is male?” Connie asked.

This visit was not going as planned. I hadn’t even approached the topic of her illness. I could envision my supervisor, shaking her head in disappointment. When would I learn?

“Um … how do you know Chucky is male?”

“I checked and saw Chucky didn’t have nipples.”

Whoa! What have we here? Connie was checking woodchucks for nipples, after giving her money away to a TV evangelist whom she believed was writing her personal thank you notes in return. Either her disease was affecting her brain or she had a history of mental illness – but her medical history didn’t state either. She was simply quirky.

I sat back in my chair and smiled. 

“Tell me about Chucky.”

And she did.

Eventually Connie was discharged from Hospice because her illness stopped progressing. She seemed indifferent to the news she wasn’t going to die within six months, and relieved Hospice would no longer be traipsing through her home several times a week. We left her exactly as we found her: swooning over her TV evangelist, with a pet woodchuck named Chucky.

For all I know, she is still sending Steve Brock her money, cherishing his letters, and checking woodchucks for their gender.

A Place For Who?

Perhaps you have seen the advertisements on television for A Place for Mom, “the nation’s largest FREE elder care referral service.” According to its website, A Place for Mom can direct you to elder care resources and living arrangements in your area. Despite its title, A Place for Mom is a service for anyone who is elderly and needs help – it’s not just for elderly moms.

It’s rather interesting that the company’s title singles out moms. Why not mention dads? Maybe they’re just cutting to the chase and saying, “Listen, we all know that mom is the most important, and no one really cares where dad goes,” so they decided to name the website solely after the matriarch of the family.

Who on earth was their marketing consultant? A place for mom. It sounds like they are trying to find a spot for chipped China dishes or old sneakers they’re not quite ready to throw away. I envision the company’s title stemming from three squabbling siblings, sitting around a computer arguing over what to do with their ailing mother.

“I’m not taking her! Hell no. I had her for the past five Christmases and you know how THAT turned out.”

“Well, she can’t live with us! I simply don’t have the room now that Jake moved back home and converted his bedroom into a studio so he and his rock band can practice.”

“Someone has to take her.  Here, hand me your laptop. Let me Google ‘where to put your mom’ and see what happens. There has to be someplace for her to go.”

“A place for her to go … hmm… a place for mom. You know, that kind of has a nice ring to it.”

While my stint in medical social work was fairly brief, I can tell you with full certainty that the elderly do not like moving into  assisted living facilities. It means losing their last shred of independence; it’s the final step before the big NH (nursing home). Now picture the situation being made worse by referring to a company called  A Place For Mom.

“Uncle Tom, you know it’s no longer safe for you to live home alone. Karen and I are worried about you, especially since the last kitchen fire. We really think it’s time for you to move into a facility where you will be cared for.”

“I’m not moving into any nursing home. Those are for old people.”

“Now Uncle Tom, it’s not a nursing home. Karen and I used the services of A Place For Mom and we found the best -”

“A place for Tom? It’s named after me?”

“Not a place for Tom. It was called A Place For MOM. Not TOM. MOM.”

Mom? I’m not a woman! Why are you putting me in a ladies place?”

Need I go on?

In reality, the company’s intention may not have been to exclude dads or other people. The original name could very well have been A Place for Mom, Dad, Aunts, Uncles, Crotchety Neighbors and Elderly Family Friends. Or A Place for Mom, Dad, et al. I suppose they also  figured So They Don’t Have To Live With You would not only be crass, but equally wordy.  End result? The name A Place for Mom was chosen.


Growing Old

All I could see was the top of her silvery-blue hair. She was creeping her boat of a car inch by inch into the parking spot, like a barge navigating its way on a canal. I sighed and glanced at the time. So far she had been working on this arduous task for three minutes. Several cars had lined up behind mine.

In true New York fashion, someone laid on their horn. Silvery-Blue Hair’s car came to an abrupt halt and she looked in her rear view mirror, confused. I should have given her an encouraging smile, but I too am a New Yorker, so all I did was raise my eyebrows hoping she could read my thoughts of, “C’mon lady!”

Silvery-Blue Hair faced forward. The car moved a millimeter. Progress was being made! I could almost fit my car around hers if she would just –

Wait! Oh no! What was she doing? Why were her reverse lights on? It doesn’t need to be straight honey! Just. Park. Your. Car.

The jerk laid on his horn a second time. Someone else joined in. This time, Silvery-Blue Hair was not daunted. She was too focused – too determined – to get her Buick Lesabre in the spot. Her little hands were putting the car’s power steering to the test. Suddenly, the car lurched forward and she turned off the engine.

Hurray! I stepped on the gas and sped past her, only to stop behind another car.  This time an elderly man was reversing out of a spot.  Where was I? On the set of Cocoon? Painstakingly, the gentleman eased his car backwards. He looked straight ahead, as though he was assuming – trusting- other drivers to give him the right of way. We did of course, but not without groaning, throwing our arms up in the air, or banging our foreheads on our steering wheels.

At last, he was out of his spot and gliding ahead. He looked ridiculously small in such a huge car, his hands positioned at ten and two. I was now able to drive around him, and I did so deftly. Wasn’t I just the coolest, spunkiest driver ever?

Then it struck me. Decades ago, Silvery-Blue Hair could have been me: impatient, patronizing in thought, in a hurry to run to the grocery store before having to shuttle her children to an activity. Likewise, the elderly man could have been just like my husband: working long hours to provide for his family, young, strong and handsome, driving a sporty car with ease.

All this meant, of course, that someday we would be them: frail, uncertain, and slow. In a few decades, I could be trying to maneuver my car (a car that used to be easier to drive) into parking spots that now seemed much too small – while irritable, young drivers like myself beeped their horns and rolled their eyes. I was ashamed.

Feeling sentimental, later that day I asked my ten year old daughter if she would take care of me when I was old.  Suddenly, the idea of growing old seemed very near and real.  I pictured my daughter as she is now, only taller, cradling my arm as she eases me into the passenger seat of her car.

My daughter was quiet for a moment before answering.

“I’ll be too busy with my own family to take care of you,” she said, “but don’t worry. I’ll visit you in the nursing home … as long as we’re not on vacation.”

Move over Silvery-Blue Hair lady, I just may need a ride.

When Life Gives You …

When a freak autumn blizzard nailed our state two years ago, many made the best of a difficult situation. Once electricity was restored, these pioneers posted statuses on Facebook like, “Didn’t have power for five days, so the kids and I camped around the fireplace and roasted marshmallows!” and “After singing Kumbaya, we all snuggled in our sleeping bags. I just love October blizzards!”

Wow. I’m impressed (and slightly nauseous). As the winds howled, these people turned a challenging situation into a good one, as I pressed my forehead to the window, watching the power lines – begging them to work.

Having the ability to take a difficult situation and make the best of it is a great quality. But having the ability to take a difficult situation and use it to your benefit is even more impressive.

When Life Gives You Lemons (Or A Confused Grandfather), Make Lemonade (Or Buy Beer).

Our neighbor opened her home to her father when his Alzheimer’s became too advanced and he could no longer live alone. This was quite an adjustment for the family – especially for our neighbor’s sons. The oldest (Jason) was forced to give up his bedroom for his grandfather, and had to share a bedroom with his younger brother.

Yet, Jason used this seemingly unfair situation to his benefit. One afternoon during his Senior year in high school, Jason coaxed his confused grandfather into his car. He and his friends then drove Grandpa to a convenience store. (Lucky for Jason, Grandpa loved car rides.) They proceeded to put Grandpa in a wheelchair, plop a six pack of beer on his lap, and wheel the confused, old man up to the cashier. Grandpa was then instructed to hand the cashier the six pack. Grandpa was certainly over the legal age to purchase beer, and the cashier had no choice but to let them purchase it.

Hate Your Job? Find a Refuge (Or Watch The Price Is Right).

Several years ago when I worked in a hospital, there was a cleaning lady (perhaps I should use the politically correct title she was given: Housekeeper) who clearly did not enjoy her job. She went about her work with a permanent scowl on her face, giving the sinks a haphazard wipe; the floors a cursory mop.

One morning, as the Housekeeper was cleaning a patient’s room, she noticed the patient was asleep while the television was on. After propping her mop against the wall, the Housekeeper gingerly eased herself into a chair and quietly tilted the TV in her direction.

Eventually this became routine. Every day, the Housekeeper would poke her head into random hospital rooms, find a patient who was comatose, and proceed to watch her favorite soap operas and game shows. This continued for quite sometime, until a patient who was not in a coma – but merely sleeping – opened his eyes to find his TV on and a strange lady sitting in the chair next to his bed.

To all of you who brave October snowstorms by doing crafts by candlelight, or teaching your children how to canoe when your driveway is flooded – I am deeply impressed. But to those of you who use confused, elderly men to purchase beer, or manage to watch television and get paid for it, well, more power to you.