Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hello, Darlene

Until the day comes when I am professionally subsidized by my career as a writer of children's picture books and middle grade novels, I will more than likely continue working with my father as a civil engineer.

It is a job I feel like I have had for ever. When I was 14 I got a work permit so I could actually get paid by my father for drafting and surveying. Now at 45 I am a licensed professional engineer and sit at a desk about 30 feet from my father's. He is 84 now, and still going strong. I like working with him, even though every day usually ends like family thanksgiving with one of us yelling at the other. Still, we are close in a strange father son way. I was never in little league with dad. He never took me to cub scouts. We just didn't do those things. My childhood is as my adulthood, learning from my father about what engineers do.

My relationship with my mother is also not typical. She is, for lack of several better words, obsessive. It is probably why I grew up with a weight problem. Mom cares and caring to her means being able to show the world how much she gives to her kids. Weekly she still comes to my desk and slips me a few dollars. She is always asking me if I am hungry and if she can buy me lunch. At 79, she is showing no signs of stopping. I resist, sometimes loudly, and she pushes back. That is how it works.

Since becoming connected via cellular phone, her obsessions cast a wider shadow. Mom never used to call me on my cell phone. She always presumed I would be driving and that her call would cause me to be involved in a fatal accident. Since I explained the workings of voice mail, that is no longer a problem. Now she calls whenever she wants and sometimes it is actually for a reason besides the offering of food. Today mom called with a starkly cold message. "I need you to come up, someone was trying to get into the house." That was what she said when I answered the phone.

"Who's trying to get in the house?" I asked. It seemed the most appropriate question. "There's a woman who says she lives here," mom answers. That was all she needed to say for me to understand what I needed to do. I have known this woman for 45 years and the tone in her voice coupled with the hardness of her native Austrian accent meant she needed my assistance but everything was under control. I presumed someone was seriously lost and replied, "Mom, I'm gonna call the sheriff. Is this woman older than you?" "Yes," she answered, sounding like she didn't want the woman to know who she was talking to or what I was planning to do. "Is she confused mom?" I asked. "I think so... Would you please come?" she said sounding like she was forcing a smile and nodding toward the woman.

I got off the phone with mom and called 911. I told the dispatcher what I had going on. I gave her my cell number and headed up to mom and dad's house to see what I could do to help. Dad stayed at the office, glad that I was going so he could stay at his desk. After all, he is happier there. 

It is a short drive to my parent's house and while behind the wheel, I said a little prayer for guidance and the ability to say the right things to the confused woman who tried breaking into my parent's house. Hoping this was not a crack addict I was going to meet, I wished the ride, and the prayer, had been longer. I felt ill prepared for the task at hand, and yet the writer within was already taking notes. Mom needed me so it was time to man up, social worker style.

When I arrived, I found my mother was still in her car. My sister who had just returned from taking my nephew to soccer practice happened to be driving by and stopped briefly to see what was up. When she saw me she decided to bail and get my nephew home. I parked my car. Eyes were on me, as if I had all the answers. Man were they wrong. Not knowing what else to do, I walked over to the strange woman standing by my mother's car and with an open hand and said, "Hi, my name is Ed... and you are?"

 The gaunt, tall woman had an expressionless face and with a hint of embarrassment she answered, "Darlene." Based on her reaction I decided to keep it light and friendly, probably more to calm down my mother than anything else, I motioned toward mom and dad's patio furniture and said, "Darlene, why don't we sit down in the shade while we figure out how to get you home."

Last week I had an upsetting situation take place in my car. On the way home from the county fair, our 5 year old was asleep, that is until he threw up. "Guys, while I was asleep, I threw up," he said. Then he threw up again. This is my wife's first child but I have a 14 year old from a previous marriage so I am no stranger to the slow motion, sepia tone vision of paying attention to the road while assessing the crisis in the back seat. I am always amazed at the calmness that over comes me when I need, really need, to be the best parent in the moment. Knowing there was nothing I could do and that vomit filled with corn dogs and soda was already pooling on the backseat floor, I offered a sympathetic and encouraging, "That's okay buddy, let it out, you'll feel better." He threw up again. My wife, on the other hand, rolled down the window to avoid getting a whiff of the unpleasantness. I did not know it at the time but this was a dry run for my first meeting with someone suffering from dementia. The key I found as with any crisis, from your wife announcing she was leaving to crapping your pants, was to just stay calm.

"So Darlene, can I get you some water?" I asked to break the ice. She was sitting in the shade now and I asked about the water because I had no idea if she might be dehydrated or not. My parents live about a mile from the nearest town and their hill is surrounded mostly by farm fields. Perhaps she had walked through the countryside, maybe from one of the older farmhouses in the area to get here. Dehydration was a real possibility. "No, I am fine," Darlene said pleasantly. Her mind seemed stuck in, 'wait a minute, something doesn't seem right,' mode. "Okay Darlene, but if you get thirsty, you let me know. Now Darlene, I called someone who is going to help you get home. He should be here soon." It's all I could think to say, as a way to prepare her for the eventual arrival of a sheriff's deputy. Not being familiar with how her mind worked, I presumed surprises would not bring happy results.

I continued, "So are you from around here Darlene?" "Oh yes," she said rolling her shoulders to the side and patting her lap with her right hand. "I was born right here in town." When she said, right here, she pointed at my mom and dad's house, which sits about 200 feet off of the highway, on a simple gravel driveway, by no means any part of the nearby town. "Do you live alone?" I asked Darlene. "No, I live here with my son David. Do you know David?" Darlene asked. "The name sounds familiar," I said, rather I lied, to Darlene. "So where is your house located?" I asked. "Right here on South Street," Darlene said, again motioning to my mom and dad's house.

I thought quickly about South Street and remembered there was a South Street in the nearby town, about a mile and a half away. It wouldn't take long to drive that far, but Darlene had no car. She also had no purse, no identification, no keys, and no phone. Considering the walk, the heat, and Darlene's age, getting her to drink some water became a high priority to me. Luckily my sister had returned and joined me, my mother, and Darlene on the patio. She placed a bottle of water in front of Darlene. She drank almost the entire bottle with her first sip.

It seemed like the sheriff was never going to arrive so to pass the time I started talking about things familiar to me in the hope it would put Darlene at ease. I talked about things I remembered from years ago, about prominent local figures, the barber who used to be in town, how the old high school was now the middle school, and such. She smiled in agreement but wasn't able to really add any information. She did explain that she grew up on a farm which is where she learned to be a hard worker. Then she asked me if I knew her son David, again. "I don't think I do Darlene, but how is David?" Darlene told me David was out of work and that she didn't like the way he made coffee in the morning.

I am not sure Darlene understood most of what I was saying. When I would tell a story, she tended to smile when I smiled and often looked to my mother to figure out what she should do to not look out of place. Darlene was a receptive audience of one and she seemed to appreciate my writer's gift of being able to tell a story. Soon it wasn't at all like she was a confused stranger who tried to break into my mom and dad's house. Instead she was a friend who stopped by unexpectedly and was surprised over and over that I didn't know her son David.

The sheriff's deputy finally arrived. I got up to meet him in the driveway and asked his name so I would be able to introduce him to Darlene as if we were friends. After all, she seemed to be enjoying herself and the last thing I wanted was to startle her. He came over and I introduced him to Darlene. Instantly the mood changed. We were no longer the circle of four reminiscing. Now we sat and watched the deputy ask Darlene questions, secretly wishing that Darlene would get the answers right, that she wasn't as disoriented as she really was, that she would just get up and say, I feel better now, sorry for the confusion, please take me home. That was not the case. She could not remember her age, did not know her middle initial, and could not venture a guess as to what day was her birthday.

The deputy returned to his car to contact the police department in the nearby town. I tried to get the conversation back to the cheerfulness it had before but it was no use. We knew Darlene needed more help than a minor cheering up. We feared for her situation domestically and hoped she was not a victim of abuse. We looked at each other and waited for Darlene to be collected. Finally the deputy returned. This time he had information for Darlene that included her middle initial, her birth date, her age, and a confirmation of her address on South Street.

As it turned out, she was one year older than my mother. I could see in mom's eyes that we would be dealing with her worry about aging and experiencing a similar fate soon enough. The deputy announced he was going to take Darlene back to her house where he would meet with the local police. Together they would asses the domestic situation and determine if a trip to the hospital would be in order.

For the first time Darlene took charge of the conversation. She extended a hand and said, "I've had a wonderful time and we need to get together again very soon." It was her relying on the kindness of strangers moment. She smiled as I took her hand and wished her well. Then in turn she bid farewell to my mother and sister.

No longer did Darlene think this was where she belonged, that mom and dad's house was her house. The deputy led her away to his patrol car. I followed to make sure she got in safely. When he closed the door, she stopped smiling. I suppose she no longer had anyone else to mimic and the need to appear that she was fitting in had dissolved.

After about an hour the deputy called me to let me know how it went. He related this was not the first time Darlene wandered away from home and that by the time he got to Darlene's house, acquaintances had already begun to look for her on foot, never once considering calling the police for assistance. David was indeed her son and did live with Darlene. However, his well being was diminished by several past strokes and his ability to keep track of his mother was not keen. The deputy thanked me and hung up the phone.

I still have little or no understanding of the workings of patients with dementia. My belief in the power of prayer is firm as without some exterior guidance I don't think I would have been able to do anything but stare at the stranger named Darlene. Later that night as I told my family about my adventure, I considered how precious the gift of life and its experiences really is. I will remember a woman named Darlene, although I doubt she will remember me.