Category Archives: old and getting older

Before we head back to the mountain house…

“In order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all be a sheep oneself.” (Albert Einstein)

In the past few days, I’ve mumbled “Just shoot me now.” more than once. Probably at least three times. In a good week I only have to deal with one of the following: Direct TV, BrightHouse, Anthem Blue Cross, Sprint or Citizens Insurance. In a bad week I have an encounter with Pudgy Fingers at Bank of America. (If you don’t know that rant, you’re not on my FB and it’s just as well. That was both an all time high and an all time low in rants, applauded by many.) This week I have had to deal with ALL of the above, plus a plumber, a rodent control person, a wind mitigation insurance inspection, an appraiser and a new bank. This last group, to a one, have been quite nice and professional but still. The contractor who did the improvements on the house didn’t have his crew reattach the screening that covers the cinder block vents that are common to Florida houses where you have crawl spaces rather than basements. Rats got in and ate through the main house drain. Really? I know. Really. Most likely they came to call after a major rousting from construction on the house next door. Rats are endemic to places with citrus trees. Anyway, they got thirsty enough that they ate through the drain. We called pest control. Crawl spaces are not nice and the access is a little 3 x 2 hole in the closet floor of the guest room. About the third time someone squeezed out of that crawl space covered in mud and filth with a giant dead rat, I said “Just shoot me now.”

(The plumber noted that sometimes, here in Florida, rats come up into the toilets through the pipes. WTH? This is the stuff of nightmares.)

Then the plumber went down and came up and looked like he might be having a heart attack so I invited him to sit his filthy self down and have some ice tea. He recovered, left and once again I cleaned up the mess and shoved some of the detritus that doesn’t fit in this tiny house back in the closet before the appraiser came. But before he could get here, the screen repair guy came and everything was dumped out and down he went with bales of screen and tools and then he came up wheezing and sweaty and I cleaned again and refilled the closet.  Not 24 hours passed and the mitigation guy came to inspect the house for homeowners insurance. This is because, although Florida is notorious for gouging people on their homeowners insurance, I have long felt as though we are being especially gouged. Singled out, you might say. This house is a piece of sh historic property which means we get to pay 3500.00 a year to insure 1200 sq ft for 200,000 which it is probably not worth and definitely wouldn’t be enough to replace it. We also haven’t been getting any credit for new hurricane shutters, new roof, new heating/cooling, etc. And we’ve been charged for being in a flood zone, which we are not, according to the city. We are on relatively high ground. The solution is you hire a mitigation inspector to come and certify that you have certain protections and then hopefully your insurance rate is reduced.

The mitigation inspector came and I sort of whimpered, “You don’t have to go in the crawl space do you?” and mercifully he said, “No.” Instead he pulled down the ceiling ladder and crawled up into the attic to look at the inside construction of the roof. Insulation rained out of the attic and I sighed. When he came down about 10 minutes later he said the new roof was up to snuff but it appeared there was a possum living in the attic. Just shoot me now.

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (St Matthew 7:15)

In my never ending effort to put as much distance as possible between those criminals Bank of America and ourselves, we’ve applied for a new mortgage with a bank that seems, up to this point, helpful and courteous. They’ve offered us a good rate compared to Bank of America, where they are braced to raise our already outrageously high adjustable rate through the heavens when it comes up for change in 10 months. The fine print of the contract that was signed 6 years and 3 banks back notes that, in lieu of attaching our rate to some reasonably low federal index plus some, they can attach it to any old index- oil futures, gold, intergalactic exploration, whatever- and then add a whole lot more for their trouble. How does 10.75 percent sound? Funny, the stuff you’ll sign without considering all the possibilities of the fine print. So, early this morning a very kind, round appraiser shows up to figure out how much our house is worth. We already know that what seemed like a lot of down payment equity a few years ago is now a drop in the bucket of a dead housing market, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed. We spent the past little while stripping and refinishing 600 feet of deck, power washing the house, cleaning (and re-cleaning) from top to bottom in preparation. The house now, on the eve of our return to North Carolina for the year, is so spit-spot that it sparkles in that way that houses do only when they are up for sale, not when people are actually living in them. This gentleman measured, photographed, scrutinized the premises and admired it greatly. And then he spent half an hour telling me horror stories of every single upside-down house he’s appraised in the last six months. Just shoot me now.

(It’s a cute little house.)

The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same. (Stendal)

Meanwhile, back in the world of health insurance, Anthem Blue Cross is trying to kill us. There are many details and hours of heated exchange about how they quoted us, in correspondence which we signed, copied for our records and returned, the wrong rate. I won’t go into all that because it would get your blood pressure up, too. Although we’ve been, all these months, dutifully paying that quoted and already prohibitive rate that makes us seriously consider living uninsured, we fell behind by a couple hundred dollars, unbeknownst to us. (what kind of sentence is that?) I guess the real rate was a secret, kept only unto Anthem Blue Cross. We didn’t know any of this until we showed up for Rich’s middle-aged person’s routine colonoscopy (which means he’s already having fun, right?) and the little clerk informs us that that will be a deposit of 1700.00 please, because our health insurance was cancelled. The total cost will be determined after the fact, depending on the state of his colon.(It’s good. In the end, no pun intended, we are always grateful.)  The one and only thing that is covered short of the Mack truck scenario under our policy is now not, because we have been cancelled. Seriously. the ONLY thing they cover is a routine colonoscopy and it’s so exciting to have something, anything covered by insurance that it seemed like a great idea to drink a gallon of Go-Litely and toddle on over to have it done. So I said to Rich, “Hey! This is great! You go first!” except after he did, endlessly, we find our insurance has been cancelled. Just shoot me now.

Wait. I’ll do it myself. The idea seems even more attractive because THIS HAS COME TO MY ATTENTION. Click on the link to see this 3000 year old innovation. Right when I despair that the whole world has gone mad AND is against us a friend sends me this. In an age when so many old fashioned common sense ideas have  fallen by the wayside, when all sense and sensibility seems out of reach and values have thinned to translucency HERE is an old idea whose time has come. Debby, a savvy woman of great good Midwestern sense,  passed this on to me and by God, it makes death look down right attractive. I mean this is everything I have been trying to explain to people for the past two years. Cozy, soft, warm, no artificial colors, ecologically sound. I am about to re-write “cremation, please” to “wool coffin, please.”

Wool: The Perfect Fiber

Sheep : The Perfect Animal









These sheep which belong to Donald Slater of Whitehouse Farm Centre, Morpeth, Northumberland, were sprayed, using the paint with which farmers traditionally mark their flocks, with the words of a “haik-ewe.” They were then left to graze, and the poems formed as they wandered into different patterns were noted down.

And for Bonnie, who always leaves perfectly poetic comments :

Si quelqu’un veut un mouton, c’est la preuve qu’il en existe un.”






Life is short

or long, depending on your perspective. I spoke with my sister Laurel yesterday and Bud is giving her a run for her money up in Oshkosh. My friend, Mary, has been going through the process of helping her parents transition into what will inevitably be one of the last chapters of their life and I follow along closely. Because she writes so very eloquently, walking the line between showing us her most intimate fears, controlled hysteria and outrageous good humor, I can’t read her blog posts without these literal little twinges in my chest, pings to my heart. It’s a hard road and I’m pretty sure that it’s a different road than the one many of our parents walked down- and different from much the rest of the world today. One of our most agonizing questions is, at bottom, “Where to put them when they can’t manage on their own any more?” as opposed to “Who sleeps on the floor to make room, who spoon feeds, who washes the dying or dead bodies in the end?”

I’ve been largely spared by distance and still it’s been tough. Back when the Bud and Jan Show was alive and sometimes well at Lost Loon Lodge I found, through writing here, the love and humor, connection and support that came with sharing stories about their old age. My mother never went anywhere gently, let alone into that good night; getting out the door for a Christmas Eve visit to my father’s parents involved yelling and screaming back in my earliest memories. In retirement, she found her angry voice in saving the environment and used it effectively, saving thousands of acres of Lake Superior shoreline from any possible development. Not before she got herself and my stepfather, Bud, sued by a mining company and not before they polarized the entire Keweenaw Peninsula and not before she somehow managed to trickle down her passion and love for Mother Earth to my daughter, who just now, this week, begins her PhD at the Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke University. I say somehow because she was never a very good mother to anyone but the earth, having essentially no interest in the ways of babies or children. She was a wonderful teacher, a compassionate and open-minded woman, an inspired writer, a wise and clever spirit and we, her children, benefited most directly. But mother? No. And she was difficult and stubborn, much like Mary’s mother- more pings and twinges. Bud, not unlike Mary’s father, was the one who made life manageable and the one who loved her so dearly and fed her, bathed her and carried her until her last week when she went to the regional hospital and died, in relatively short order. I say that in retrospect; it was the longest week ever. Some of you might recall that period in my life. I did some of my very best writing then.

Bud carried on, alone, on that distant Lake Superior shore in their humble cottage. In the first couple years we had him to visit each winter and we made offers to let him come live with us, although if I’m honest, each offer was fraught with anxiety that he would accept. But nothing was going to pry him loose from Lost Loon Lodge and it took a stroke and 17 hours through the night on the frozen ground before a neighbor found him and literally saved his life by carrying him into a warm bath, waiting for the ambulance, to finally get him to a place where he could be helped. It’s possible that at Bud’s funeral we will all laugh about that extreme event, finding the macabre humor in it. Who knows?

For now, Bud is living at the not so aptly named Evergreen assisted living home in Oshkosh near my sister (half, if you want to get technical and Bud’s only child by birth) and she is living out Mary’s life; not me. Bud went in under protest but within a couple months he began to find his way around and make new friends. He started young and worked his way up and his time there has been full of comic relief, in that exquisitely painful way that this stage of life can be. He proposed to his 20s-something physical therapist, he exposed himself in the swimming pool. He plotted his escape with a paraplegic. Then he got a job taking fellow patients to physical therapy and arranged a marriage between my son Daniel and a 23 year old PT student. When I say arranged, he went so far as to have a hotel room reserved for them and he had invited all the other residents in the dining hall to the ceremony, much to Daniel’s (and the young woman’s) chagrin when he innocently showed up for a visit. When Daniel humbly declined, Bud managed his disappointment by insisting that Dan play his saxophone at dinner for everyone. Most recently, a couple weeks ago, he insisted that my sister, Betsy, who 35 years ago aspired to go to music school, sing Amazing Grace in the dining hall. All verses.

Here’s the thing about old people worth their salt: when they insist on something it’s different than when you or I are insistent. It is with all the cleverness of decades of living and all of the energy of a wild and unreasoning tantrum-throwing three year old. Toss in lots of onlookers, sprinkle liberally with guilt and all those other emotions you have about losing your grasp on your parents as you knew them and wham! They prevail.

Bud has gotten something of a new leash on life (if I were accurate here, I would say “a new hard-on for life”): he’s fallen in love with Helen. Helen has somewhat advanced Alzheimers so although they spend every waking minute together and only get pried apart to their own rooms at bedtime, she loves him madly yet calls him “what’s his face” .

Laurel recently described a visit to the optometrist that had us laughing to tears on the phone; I know it was extremely taxing and frustrating for her as it unfolded. She had let him know repeatedly that she was squeezing the appointment between her work commitments and he had to be ready and waiting at 530 pm. She was clear that he should not go to dinner; she would get him a Subway sandwich (one of his favorites) right after his appointment. She arrived and he and Helen were in the middle of dinner and she only managed to drag him away with Helen in tow (he insisted) and that involved signing out and paperwork and so forth. When they arrived at the eye care office Helen began to take every single frame- dozens and dozens- off  the racks and set them down in various places around the office so Laurel was literally holding on to her and steadily replacing frames while Bud tried on potential new glasses for himself. By the time she caught up with him he had chosen some rapper designer frames from PhatFarm and he insisted those were the ones he was having. Arguments about cost, appearance and the large PhatFarm logo on the temple of the frame only made them more desirable. He refused to put his eyes against the optician’s machine; “I don’t know whose head has been on there!” Helen was back to wandering around displacing frames. When then finally left Bud announced that now they could go out for Chinese and when Laurel reminded him that was a Friday evening scheduled event but not now when she had a business meeting to get back to, he insisted. Bud now sports PhatFarm eyeglasses at Evergreen.

The most outrageous transgression was also the funniest. Laurel got a call to inform her that Bud was instigating trouble in the dining hall. He had convinced Helen that her breasts were so beautiful they should be shared with the world and Helen obligingly flashed all the octogenarians at dinner, with Bud exclaiming “Aren’t they beautiful! Aren’t those the most amazing casabas you’ve ever seen?!?” When Laurel asked the assisted living staff what they wanted her to do about it the administrator laughed and agreed there wasn’t much to be done after the fact but Laurel might want to do something about the wine country tour Bud had booked for himself and Helen. A travel agency had called the home trying to find out who they should charge for the slated Napa Valley extravaganza.

Bud’s good friend, Ray, recently made the long trip down from the Keweenaw to visit Bud and informed him that since his wife Donna died, he’s scheduled a trip to go to Japan to find a bride. I guess the pickings are still slim up in Calumet. In any case, this visit got Bud all riled up about his own lack of independence and Laurel says it’s been very difficult with him ever since then. Ray went over and started Bud’s car after almost two years (“Yup! Fired right up!”) so now Bud wants to retrieve it. That leads up to this weekend, which I fear will be sorrowful and exceedingly difficult for everyone.

Bud hasn’t been home to his beloved cottage on the lake since he was taken away by ambulance. My sisters went up at some point, got plastered on all the greasy dusty 15 year old partial bottles of cheap liquor and cleaned the place top to bottom. This basically involved stripping out all of the carpet and disposing of all the upholstered furniture, clearing out all the cupboards, closets and appliances. Decades of living: raising Keeshonds, adopting cats, canning and preserving, heating with woodstoves, huddled against winters with 300+ inches of snow, life on a lake. Most all remnants of that are gone. Lost Loon Lodge is now clean and closed up and on hold. Until this coming weekend, when Laurel and Ian will take Bud home for a visit to that most beautiful Lake Superior peninsula. Bud has been insisting, Laurel has been resistant and they have been arguing. Bud will want to stay. Bud has plans to put the dock and the boat in the water. Bud wants to get in his car and drive once again to the IGA for his own groceries. Laurel admonishes him like a child that he must agree to cooperate, that it is a short weekend visit only. They fight. Bud gets angry and loud and then sulky. Somewhere in there, Betsy was visiting and trying to bolster support for Laurel and then the only thing that would settle Bud down was for her to sing Amazing Grace at dinner. (In assisted living, it’s all happening in the dining room, which is quite the zoo.) And so she did and many sang along and Bud was briefly mollified. Laurel felt some relief because one of us had actually witnessed Bud at his most unmanageable. This weekend will be extremely tough, that I know. Laurie says it’s fine with her if Bud cries; she can help him with his emotions. She’s good and strong that way.

When I talk with Laurel, when I read Mary’s bits about life with aging parents who need to be parented, I feel their feelings to a certain extent. Partly I am spared because that is not my life right now. Partly I am sad, because that is not my life right now. When I was in the thick of it with my mother’s end of life I felt more connected to my family than at any other time. I felt more connected to my own emotions, as wild and painful and hysterical as they were.

Right now I think I will ring up Betsy and leave her a message insisting that she call back, singing Amazing Grace.