The Unexpected

If there were a single theme for the lives of most people, it would be The Unexpected.  So common is this theme, there are many clichés describing it, phrases like “life threw me a curve ball”, or “expect the unexpected”. We may wish for predictability, and certainly there are predictable outcomes to some of our actions and words, even Nature is predictable in many ways, but the unexpected is always just around the corner. With climate change, even the predictability of the seasons and Nature’s cycles of birth and death are shifting and changing in unexpected ways. The Earth itself has behaved more unpredictable in recent years.

A popular quote from Buckminster Fuller is “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”  Our lives are our greatest experiments and the unexpected events, people, challenges, and blessings, that come to us indicate discovery, successes, the ebb and flow of our journey.

So why am I waxing philosophically this morning about the unexpected nature of life events?  During the past weeks, as we ride the tidal wave of changes in mom’s life, with the accompanying emotions and demands on our time and energy, there has been a side-story, a duck story, and a few days ago, it threw us “a curve ball”.

Black Duck and I having a moment together last summer.

Black Duck and I sharing  a moment together last summer.

We returned in June from our two-week wedding trip to discover a raccoon had dug under the pens and killed both our little hen, Millie, and Gray Duck, a pet of 8 years. We felt devastated by such a loss of two sweet birds whose comical ways and personable personalities provided entertainment, diversion and balance in our hectic lives. We were faced with a dilemma, do we call it quits, find a new home for our remaining lone duck, ending decades of poultry pets, or do we begin again? It seemed like a simple choice since we had previously decided to let go of bird raising when the last ones died. Here we were at that crossroad and unsure of our decision.  Black Duck (we are so creative with naming ducks!) was broody, laying unfertilized eggs daily, which gave us options. Get her some fertilized eggs to sit on or find her some buddies to live with. We went for it, found someone with (supposedly) fertile Muscovy eggs, bought 8, and put them under her. Now for the math…2 eggs broke immediately, leaving six for the long incubation period of 35 days. Still not sure of our commitment, we were too preoccupied finding Mom a new place to live, an unexpected change of course in her life, to think much about a setting duck. She was doing her thing and required little attention. But after investing in and building the Taj Mahal of duck pens (as my older brother calls it), we were getting excited about having a little flock of ducklings again. I was counting the days. IMG_5345 35 days came and went. We began to think of plan B, after all, we had this super-coop ready to house someone! I contacted a woman who had ducklings to sell, some a few weeks old, others a few months. Maybe Black Duck would take to the young ones and raise them, or maybe it would be better to get the older ones, already independent, and let her get use to them as they mature. Then the miracle happens, Tuesday evening a tiny duckling appeared under Black Duck. I check the next morning, still just one. Holding them up to the sun, I find two eggs full of liquid (infertile) and toss them. Later in the day she tossed another, leaving a stinky rotten egg smell in the coop. Worried about the little one not being cared for as she continues to sit, I take water to the nest, and a plate of food, cradle the soft little one in my hand and introduce it to water. It drinks, Mama eats and drinks like she is starving. Day two. Still only one duckling. Still two eggs. The hard choice. Remove the eggs, bury them, not knowing for sure, but assuming nothing is alive in them. Then she will get up and care for her one little duckling. I will wait, maybe give her one more day and do the sad deed tonight. (see below for update)IMG_5337This was not expected. None, or some. Not one. One is both joyous and sad. One is not enough, for her or for us. It will be raised as an ‘only duck’! I’ve raised Muscovy ducks for decades and never have I had just  one hatchling. Yet there she/he is, one little yellow and black fuzzy life form, already curious, already in wonder, already wonderful. We can’t bring in older ducklings who would be bigger than this little fuzzy one. Black Duck, in her mother protective mode would likely view them as intruders.

Plans for the fancy new duck house are ditched. Black Duck (for now called Mama Duck, named after our wonderful white Mama Duck), with our help, will move into the new security coop, and in a small older house, raise her single little duckling. We will pray each day it thrives and survives. Mama will nurture it, and raise it as her baby, but it will grow to be either her sister or her mate.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men, and ducks, often go awry.”

Such is the unexpected.

Afternoon update: Checked the last two eggs, they too are full of liquid…rotten, infertile eggs. I grab Black Duck, tuck her under my arm, pick up her duckling, and off we go to the new coop. A spontaneous move made without thought to the consequences. I know full well a setting duck, not wanting to soil her nest, gets up once a day to void, a yellow, stinky, thick liquid. My clothes are now in the washing machine, after a thorough hosing of the left side of my body, clothes and all. Thank goodness it’s 90 degrees out!

Below is our new little one, already wet, already starting to preen and fluff herself…..those instincts kick in immediately!

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The Girl In The Turquoise Swimsuit

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The girl in the turquoise swimsuit runs along the rocks, feet protected in turquoise, cowgirl-looking rubber boots. Red bowl in hand, it appears she is looking for pools in the river. Wonder what she is hunting for? No tadpoles in this river. Scrambling over rocks and downed trees, she is a picture of youthful summer freedom. The red bowl disappears and she grabs a fishing pole, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s pencil thin profile camouflaged on the rocks.

My thoughts go back to my mom and the horrific week she has had, first medicated into a glassy stare with few audible words in her already diminished vocabulary. Alarmed finding her this way, I discuss it with her doctor who suggests one of her meds is stopped. The next day she begins to throw her food, refuses to stand to go to the bathroom, and when offered, throws her remaining meds on the floor. One caregiver, the quiet, gentle, night-time one, manages to give her night-time meds and she blessedly has a few quiet nights.

Tomorrow is the sixteenth anniversary of dad’s death, her husband of 55 years and best friend since she was fifteen, for better or worse. Consciously she does not even know the day of the week, let alone the date. Tomorrow is also the wedding of a beloved private caregiver who has been in her life for 2 years, she has waited a year for this event. Last week she talked excitedly about it.  When I told her Tuesday I would be back Saturday to take her she replies, through her mental fog, “I hope I am here”. The longest sentence she said that day. (It is looking doubtful we will be able to take her, but we will try.)

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I am startled by the girl in the turquoise swimsuit as she approaches. “Can I pet your dog?” “Yes” I say, but over the rippling river song she does not hear me and repeats the question as she walks up and asks Abby’s name. I ask her if she has caught any fish.

“A little tiny one, a bullhead. It got away. I named it Swish.” She looks at me and laughs self-consciously.

I ask what she was catching in the red bowl. “The bullhead, get it…bowl, bullhead!”

I wasn’t that witty at (I’m guessing) age eleven.

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Summer fun in the water, 1937. Mom, in the stripped swimsuit, is sixteen. Dad, with his foot up, writes they were nursing his cut foot.

I no longer have a memory of my mom’s voice and personality before Alzheimer’s stole who she was. I wish there were videos, but her pre-digital generation is preserved and documented in precious old brown tone pictures, black and white snapshots, and early Kodak color prints, now faded to muted tones. There is no voice to these images. Soon there will be no voice to the woman she has become, the woman with the diseased brain who dominates my thoughts and pushes memories of the mom I knew out. I try to make choices in her life that honor the choices she made when she could better express herself. I remember her values, her likes and dislikes, I remember for her.  Occasionally she remembers too, and those are the precious moments.

I ask this young girl if she fishes often. She says this is the second time and notes that both times it has been when they were camping. I ask her if she has a dog. Yes she says, and tells me the dog’s name. A voice calls her, she yells “What”, and is off running. Apparently her mom is sunbathing on the river rocks around the bend, on the little island formed by tree debris and pillars set in the river.

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Mom use to light up when she would see children. She had a friend who brought her young children to visit with “Grandma Ruth”, the little girl would dance for her and mom would talk about it for weeks as though it happened yesterday, because for her it did. But they do not visit anymore. The two adult family homes she has lived in the past six months are not so child-friendly to visit.  And mom not always pleasant to be with. Mom has to move, her third move in 6 months. Her behaviors “too disruptive to the other residents”. I will resist “soapboxing” my thoughts about the hypocrisy and cruelty of this “eviction”, everyone in the caregiving business will tell you how moving a person with dementia accelerates the decline. It has been true for her.

The girl in the turquoise swimsuit and her mom take a dunk in the river. Her mom is young, athletic, slender. She wears a turquoise bikini. It will be decades before this young free spirit playing in the river will one day notice her mom is aging, perhaps she too will need to do more for her, picking up the pieces of life her mother drops and can no longer manage, trying her best to respect, support and honor her mother’s own free spirit.

I silently offer a prayer for them as I watch them walk out of the river together. I pray that if that day comes for them, it be in a different world, a new age of compassion, understanding and knowledge, a world where people provide care for the sake of caring, and not focused on profit. A world where Alzheimer’s disease, a cruel, slow way to die, is absent.

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Note: it has been hard to write lately, my life fairly consumed by the rapidly changing needs in mom’s life, my own emotions, and exhaustion. I’ve tried to avoid writing about Alzheimer’s disease, there is nothing cheery to say about it. But it touches many lives, not to talk and write about it is like not talking about the elephant in the living room. Taking a rare break for a few hours today, I was still on the phone with caregivers, the doctor ‘s office and pharmacy. The girl in the turquoise swimsuit reminded me there is life beyond Alzheimer’s. For me, but not for mom.

footnote: the morning after I wrote this I received a phone call and text ultimatum from the RN owner of the adult family home where mom lived. At her request, we already had plans to move mom August 1st, but she told me I had to move her immediately or she would send her to an ER.  Mom’s life was not in danger, nor was she a danger to anyone else. She just wanted mom out of her house.  She said we had one hour to come up with a plan. On a Saturday. Long ferry lines, a long day, 12 hours later we left mom in an unfamiliar room in a strange place, not the room she can move to the 1st. She knows nothing of the who, why, where of this, only that she was put in the car, driven a long way away, and is now around unfamiliar people. They are kind people.  She no longer talks with any cohesiveness, so it is hard to know what she thought on this day up upheaval.

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mouth of the Dosewallips River