Tuesday, October 13, 2015

If I Can’t Put My Own Damn Bra On, Let Me Die

I hope to go out of this life like a Viking. Okay, maybe not the fighting and pillaging part, more like Brünhilde, her chest supported with a form-fitted breastplate, singing at the top of her lungs. I want to go out screaming and kicking, too, not lingering on, a burden to others.

My parents Dave and Ann thought the same way. They were lucky and blessed in that. Ann went quickly. She wasn’t feeling well, had a considerable amount of dizziness and went to the doctor. It was discovered that a small-cell cancer had spread throughout her tiny, elf-like body. She fought the pain bravely with steroids and morphine. Toward the end, she would take a prescribed pain pill, chase it with a couple cigarettes and nod off to sleep. It was only the last week of her life that she was bed-ridden. Ann only had to be bathed two times under hospice care. There was one bed-sore in its beginning stages. One morning, her small frame could not take it anymore. Those of us gathered bedside noticed that her bottle of morphine was low. She let out one last gasp. The attending nurse, my cousin, said Mother had passed. Papa took her remaining pills and flushed them down the commode before they could be counted. Pharma or nature? Either way, Ann was gone. If she suffered at all, it wasn’t long.

Papa had been living by himself in a sleepy little retirement area in the Southwest when he took ill. At the age of sixty-nine it was discovered that he had a blockage near his heart. During a life flight to the hospital, he nearly died. Papa decided then to see the world and toured Asia, enjoying every moment. Years later, he too succumbed to lung cancer. It was quick but not merciful.

I remember Papa’s brother Ed used to say, “Getting old is Hell.” Uncle Ed would kick his walker out of spite. This was before the stroke. After it happened, my uncle held on for a few more years, a shadow of the man he was. After work, about three days a week, my cousin went to the care center to massage my uncle’s legs, yet Ed still got pressure sores. The first evening I went to see him, I learned that when he said, “Nurse, GO!” those words meant he needed a nurse or an aid so he could get assistance in having a bowel movement. On my visits I watched many other seniors and disabled people, lingering, crying for death. This was nothing like the AARP commercials I’d see on television, the ones with elderly couples dancing and hiking. This was HELL.

Another beloved elderly relative died slowly over a matter of weeks, hooked to a respirator, watching family members come and go, argue over what would happen to her house, talk as if she wasn’t in the same hospital room. She saw everything happening and had a desperate look on her face. All the nourishment that went into her was liquid, pumped right through a port in her neck and into her stomach. Everything that exited her body came out of a tube. Yellow, almost orange, urine into a bag; brown sludge into another receptacle that hung bedside, sealed from the air but not from the eyes of visitors, friends and grandchildren. One day she made the motions of writing. My husband handed her a pencil and notebook. I think she wrote that she just wanted us to let go and say our goodbyes, but nobody was certain. A family member brought some of her legal papers to the hospital that week. A day or two later, she was sent home, unhooked from her tethers, dying peacefully that weekend.

I tend to a couple, Jacques and Vera. They’re from Canada and were old friends of my family. They knew my parents Dave and Ann since before I was born. A couple times a year our family would meet up with their family at a lakeside resort outside of the Detroit Metro area. They always had some little dogs that delighted us kids. My papa would just scowl. Dogs were farm animals to him, not family. Jacques, an athletic, old meathead even then, would bench press all the kids, one at a time and then invite us all to roller skate while Papa relaxed and told stories. Jacques’ wife Vera and her in-laws would sit around the campfire with my mother Ann listening to my father’s tales. On rainy nights, they’d opt for the clubhouse. We’d go hiking, swimming, fishing and boating.

I lost track of Jacques and Vera for about ten years. Then one day, I answered an ad to do light housekeeping and driving for an older couple. Imagine my surprise when I saw Jacques and Vera! They were “snowbirding” near my desert community where I live half the year. They’d arrive from Canada in October, cockapoos in tow, and leave at the end of April. A couple years later, Vera’s best friend from high-school, Sharleen, joined them. A widow, Sharleen lives in the casita adjoining Jacques’ winter home.

Since I’d last seen them, Jacques and Vera were also converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons or LDS). Sharleen, not a Mormon, was always a hell-raiser, as they say, but Vera loves her best friend none-the-less. They were like sisters. Sharleen, having no living family in Canada, opted to live in the desert Southwest year ‘round.

Three days a week, I’d clean Vera’s home until she and Jacques left in April or May. I’d also tend to Sharleen’s casita for another several weeks, then at the end of Spring, I’d shut off all the toilets, pipes and electrical switches at the main house, head back to Michigan for several months until my return in Autumn when I’d freshen the big house. With my husband’s instructions, I turned all their water and electricity on. This became a routine until last year. Jacques and Vera didn’t show up at their usual time. Weeks went by. I didn’t hear from my elderly friends, not a letter nor a post card. My phone calls went unanswered. Sharleen, who now has dementia, was no help. She has in-home care givers, and does quite well for now. If she'd heard from Jacques and Vera, Sharleen didn't remember and didn't tell me.

Finally I got a call one day in January just before Jacques and Vera came rolling in. Their son J. C. was driving this time. He got them settled in. A day or two later, he flew back to Canada. Turns out, Vera had a stroke in early October of 2014 and it spun their lives around. Additionally, Jacques was in a wheelchair with degenerative disc disease. That wonderful, sweet, crazy couple believed that I could assist in their bathing and toileting. Lord knows I tried, but after Vera slipped and landed on me while I was getting her out of the shower, I asked if they could get a nurse. I’d noticed that morning that Vera had sores on her buttocks. Maybe they developed during the drive south? Anyway, the Canadian government is reluctant to pay a nurse outside of their country for long-term care. (Sharleen pays for her own assistant.) Jacques and Vera begged me to keep trying.

Getting Vera dressed is a game of “Please don’t fall while I’m pulling up your pants,” followed by, “I hope your heavy right arm doesn’t land on my head, knocking me out!” As she bends over me, her large breasts usually box my ears, leaving me with ringing in my head. Her feet are swollen, but she insists on wearing the same size five shoes that she danced in as a young woman. I want to get her some Caitlyn Jenner sized slippers for her tender tootsies to wear instead.

Also, some of you readers may know that Mormons wear sacred garments to promote modesty. Putting a bra of any kind on Vera, even a sports bra, one that won’t eventually roll or pop-up, is impossible. Decades ago, I asked the ladies that sell garments at the store outside the temple if I could make a suggestion that bras, or at the very least, cups, could be a part of the garment tops. You would have thought that I’d asked for pink lacy negligées! I got scowls that would have made Don Rickels wither, speechless. Here I was, years later, in the early winter of 2015 wanting to march right over to Beehive Clothing and demand answers! I wanted something that would fit my buxom old friend and I wanted it now! I have heard that I’m not the only care-giver, patient, child or friend with these concerns. (What can we do but pray?)

Transportation is another challenge to put it mildly. Thankfully, Jacques and Vera live down the street from a clinic and have a great relationship with the staff there. They ride their electric wheelchairs to their appointments. (The bills are paid, I assume, out of pocket. They don’t tell me.) The worst experience was driving Vera to the store, at her request. I only did that once. I could barely get her into my compact car from her electric scooter. Also, I had no way to transport the machine. No problem according to Vera. We could use one from the store. Once there, I couldn’t get her into the one provided. We asked for assistance but the employees at the mart cannot legally assist shoppers. Two guys named Alan and Jose who were walking through the parking lot on the way to the store heard Vera’s pleas for help and assisted her into the electric wheelchair. Bless those angels!

Once inside the store, Vera was quickly falling asleep at the wheel. She had just taken her prescribed pills before we left her home. My dear elderly friend would nod off repeatedly, wake up, select a box of treats and ask if I’d like some. I would decline.

“Oh, Honey, as a child you ate sweets! Let me buy you these!” and she’d grab some cheese Danishes with her good hand.

Frequently I tried to persuade her to go to the check out, but she’d motor on, slow down, sleep five minutes, awake with a startled look on her face and then see something else, sugary, shiny or pretty in another aisle.

After three hours I said, “You’re so tired. Let’s get you home and get you fed.”

She’d smile and show me the hot-pockets in her basket. “I’ll heat these up when you take me home!”

“Okay, then. Let’s go!” I’d say, smiling.

“Not yet!” She pulled away, kids staring at her wide-eyed. You’d think ten-year-olds would have the good sense to run out of the way. They didn’t. Neither did their mother. Vera stopped the electric menace mere inches from them. I honked the horn for Vera. It made a cute little squeak. Pitiful!

I said, “I bet Jacques wonders where we are!” She called him on her smart phone. Well, she tried to. She dozed off, I am not joking, FIVE times before she dialed all the numbers. She left a message. I wasn’t even sure she had the right number. I texted him. Jacques said that I was grown-up and needed to tell her to leave. That didn’t work. I wanted to cry.

By now, I was sweating like a hog and it was only the end of January. Noticing that something else was dripping, I said, “Your ice cream is melting, we really should go.” It was oozing out of the carton. She relented and we went to the cashier.

As we left the store, Vera took my hand and said, “This is the best day I’ve had since my stroke! Thank you, THANK YOU for taking me out of the house today!” We got to the handicapped parking space and I helped her from the scooter to my passenger seat which was lower. My back felt like it was going to give out. Then it happened--thank you Mr. Murphy for your dumb laws--an insect flew down my blouse.

I reached into my cleavage to retrieve the errant creature, but then thought to myself, what if it was a killer bee? Then just as quickly, I had visions of its five hundred hive mates attacking me. Stomping my feet and crying, I unbuttoned my shirt, exposing my bra and garments to the bag boys, shoppers and homeless people on the curb. I was finally becoming unglued. All the time, Vera howled with laughter repeating that this was “The best day ever”. By now, she was having brassier issues of her own. Her sports bra that I had labored to get over her body, the one that I had pulled down past her sternum and rested upon her ribs, had noticeably rolled up and was above her breasts. She peeled in laughter some more. I saw her dentures coming loose, the fixative goo clinging to her lips. In desperation, I reached into my bra and pulled out a little, yellow beetle with black spots. Flinging it, I got into the car, sat down and buttoned my shirt. Reaching into her handbag, Vera handed me her pocket blood pressure gauge, giggling that I wasn’t being very lady-like.

Reporting the results, (my pressure was 172 over 149 -- if that’s possible) I started to weep. “I’ve always had good blood pressure, usually 110 over 60!”

She said, “Oh, Honey, it doesn’t work for me either.” (To be on the safe side I went to the clinic down the street after I dropped Vera off. It was 120 over 78.)

Hours after we left, I got Vera to her home. Jacques was seething. I could see it. I’d only seen him mad one other time and that was at the resort in Michigan when the model airplane that he’d labored on since before I was born defied his commands and kept flying, hitting a delivery truck. All those decades ago he kept calm in front of us kids, and then he went behind the clubhouse letting out a stream of foul language that would make a sailor blush!

He met us at the door, wearing the same scathing look while I explained the situation. I carried in three sacks of candy, cupcakes, éclairs and melting ice cream. To Jacques' credit, he calmly said, “Vera has impulse issues now.” (Well, thanks for telling me AFTER the shopping trip.) Their aging cockapoo Peppy was making a yellow puddle in the kitchen corner. I put everything away, cleaned up and made a hasty retreat.

On the bright side, I will never take Vera shopping again. She won’t buy all those treats. On the bright side, I wasn’t stung by a horde of killer bees. On the bright side, my back didn’t give out and we can buy Vera bigger shoes. On the bright side, Jacques never again brought up our lovely trip to the giant-Wally-world-of-food-bargain-store.

My husband said I needed to have a back bone and just leave. Leave? Leave her in the store? He said that I should have forcibly taken her out. She is twice my size and was driving a small but heavy vehicle. What could I do? What would Papa’s favorite columnists advise? Abby, Ann, are you listening?

Despite trying to think positively, I was left with two major issues that still trouble me: The first, is the idea that ladies’ LDS temple garments should be made with brassieres as part of the top. They could be sold in chest and cup sizes like bras are. God, our Father, made breasts. I don’t see why we can’t accommodate them, large or small. At the very least, provide the option of padded, supportive garment tops to disabled women. My second thought is, when I die, I want it to be quick--after a game of cards like my Auntie Lynn Marie. She won everything, fairly. Nobody let her win. She walked away from the table, grasped her walker and without warning, collapsed, a grin on her face.

I want to go out like that, conquering the world, or at least a board game. I don’t want to live a half-life, lingering, harming other peoples’ backs, spoiling their health. I’ve told my kids, “If I die suddenly, throw a party. Cheer that I went out a winner. Be happy that I wasn’t using up money that could be better spent on my grandchildren’s college educations. Be comforted that I didn’t have to suffer with bed sores, cracking lips, bruises from blood draws, tubes hanging from my body. I don’t want to live in a mortal prison."

Sharleen says that I should let my loved ones tend to me in my old age, that I cared for my kids and that they can meet my needs when I am old and worn out. Our mutual friend Yvette says Sharleen is nuts. I say that it is my decision and despite what the Church says, I hope that I can be put to sleep if it comes to that.

Abby and Ann what would you say? What would you do?

Are you listening?

This is part of my series “If Abby and Ann were Listening” which was originally penned for another blog months ago. I’ll be importing stories from it every couple weeks. Please note also: Jacques and Vera have a sense of humor and support my creative efforts. There are no confidences broken here as actual names have been changed.


  1. I'm not entirely sure if I should or not, but I honestly laughed out loud at this! It was captivating in its organization. I am impressed that you were able to share an anecdote so well as to make it read like a novel of sorts. "I want to go out like a Viking" is easily the best phrase I have read all week.

    Brendon Hudgins @ MedCare Pediatric

    1. Thank you for your comment. If I can make someone laugh in this crazy world, then I feel I've accomplished something. Please, feel free to share this blog with your friends. Have a great New Year. (PS You made my day.)


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