blog posts by melissa

  • Full course

    If I didn’t think I would lose all credibility as a responsible parent, I might have rousted my children from their beds last night and asked them to help me with my homework.

    As it was, I seriously considered it.

    I am a student again. For three days now, 12 hours in all, and I can say with certainty that I don’t remember ever concentrating so hard when I was an actual college student. I also don’t remember ever being so hungry in school.

    I am currently taking a faculty class in preparation for teaching the type of multi-media techniques and technology now required of journalism students. Though I am pleased to report that I am picking up new skills and knowledge in “visual storytelling,” as the course is called, I am also quite confident that any students I may have in the future, possessed more technical ability when they were toddlers than I do now.

    It’s the same with every generation. My parents marveled at my aptitude in operating a microwave oven; I watch my kids download their iPods and think they’re geniuses. My nephew Daniel is 16 and if he printed up a few business cards could quit school tomorrow and support the entire family by charging for the kind of video montages that put the pros to shame.

    Like me heating up Stouffer’s Lean Cuisines all those years ago, it simply comes naturally to kids to perform complex computer tricks.  When our son Alec was two, he once toddled up to our computer, logged onto the Internet and was e-mailing Japan when we walked in.

    OK, just kidding about Japan. But he was doing something neither his father nor I understood.
    But the computer part is really only a fraction of the adjustment I have been undergoing this week.

    Apparently, since I graduated from college, students are now allowed and even encouraged to eat in class. And not just eat. In my class which, remember, is for faculty, eating is part of the curriculum. For those of you in the Chicago area, I’ve seen less food at Ravinia.  All that’s missing are tablecloths and candlesticks. I’m waiting for the wine.

    Today, we had a delightful spread of Cheezits, pretzels and cookies. I saw people with full meals. Salads, sandwiches, fruit, mysterious packages wrapped in aluminum foil and a wide assortment of breakfast bars.

    As for me, I was hoarding peanuts, a banana and two strawberry Nutri-grain bars in my purse. I didn’t know it was family style.

    On the first day, I brought nothing and couldn’t have been more humiliated. After class, I headed straight to Dominick’s to stock up on supplies for the next day. I am currently planning for next week’s classes and thinking hummus and pita chips, perhaps a nice fondue.
    Am I the only one who remembers when gum was discouraged?

    When I asked one of my classmates about this practice of chowing down in the classroom, she looked at me as if I was hauling around an electric typewriter and a hotpot. Evidently, students today cannot possibly be expected to make it through a three-hour class without nourishment. Our class is four hours long and I am currently still on our five-minute break.
    I tried explaining this to my husband Rick with a certain righteousness about the whole thing, when he quietly pointed out that there are cultures all over the world in which people survive and even thrive for four hours at a time without snacks.

    Hopefully, I will learn a lot from this course. I already feel smarter. And maybe by the time I face my first class next quarter, I will be able to button my pants again.

  • One e-mail, one connection

    I had to look up her picture in our high school yearbook.
    I remembered her name but had to remind myself what she looked like. I don’t think we were ever in the same classes, though maybe in grade school.

    Not that I wasn’t happy to hear from her.
    Since my 30th high school reunion, mostly through the power of Facebook, I had been in touch with several former classmates, some I had seen at the reunion, some who weren’t able to make it.

    Merle wrote to me after my blog on the reunion, joking that she was sorry she missed the
    mysterious guy in the burgundy sport coat whom I had written about. I don’t know how she had found me. I only know what connects us now.

    I called up her second e-mail as I stood on the corner one morning last week, waiting to meet up with a friend and go walking. When I saw the word “Alzheimers” in the subject line, it did not particularly shock me.

    I hope it doesn’t sound pompous when I say that I don’t think a single week has gone by since I wrote about my family’s experience with Alzheimer’s in the Tribune Sunday Magazine a year and a half ago, that I haven’t heard from someone about it.

    At first, the response was shocking – both in volume and in the depth of emotion. In some cases, I had friends and colleagues who were going through much the same thing my family and I were going through and yet we had never talked about it, never knew. But I was just as touched by total strangers who wrote or approached me, and who continue to do so, saying they read the story, that they remembered it or that they related to it somehow.

    When I called up Merle’s e-mail while standing on the corner last week, the words, sadly, were not unfamiliar. And so, as I always do, I kept reading:

    Dear Missy,
    My father just died from dementia this summer.  We didn’t go to the reunion, because we couldn’t afford to go back to Chicago again after the funeral tapped us out.  I am married to xxxx. from high school, we have two children and we live in [California].
    More to the point, my father was diagnosed in 2000 with Alzheimer’s.  At first he lost his short-term memory and our lives were like the movie, “Ground Hog Day.”  Every three minutes we would have the exact same conversation. 

    “Dad, you have a doctor’s appointment in an hour, you have to get ready.”
    “You didn’t tell me about the doctor’s appointment, what doctor?”
    “Doctor Green.”
    “Who is Doctor Green?  He is not my doctor, I am not going.”  (repeat for the next half hour)

    The good part was that because my father could not remember, we just would make up answers until he would respond and do what we needed him to do.  He was angry, suspicious, and I assume – terrified.  He knew he was literally losing his mind.  I think in some ways the beginning of the disease was about the hardest, because of the anger and the personality change.

    My mother died in 2001 and my father really deteriorated at that point.  We had moved my parents out to California in 2000 because they were both so sick and we needed to take care of them.  From 2000 to 2009, my father lived on his own with a caregiver who came in during the afternoons and evenings.  He never left his home, never tried to cook, and seemed to be safe on his own. 

    He slowly forgot our names, our ages, his name, his age, his profession, and everything about his past life.  His personality totally changed.  He went from being the most gentle and most polite person I knew, to a person who was rude and threatening with strangers.  He went from a man who was obsessed with diet and exercise to a man who ate junk food and refused to leave his home.  But, he was always loving and kind to his family and his grandchildren (even though he did not know their names).

    Education was always very important to my father.  He was always embarrassed that he was the only member of our family with only a baccalaureate degree.  Two years ago he asked me if he was in first grade. I told him that he had been in first grade 81 years earlier and that he was an accountant.  He seemed very happy for a minute or two, until he forgot and asked me again.  The only thing that my father remembered was that my siblings and I were very important to him and that he loved us.  When I would come over, he would often tell the caregiver that she could leave, because I was there.  He would sit with me and hold my hand while watching television.  He would hit strangers.

    One morning this past May, my father refused to get out of bed and to eat or drink.  We took him to the hospital and were told that it was end-stage Alzheimer’s and that his brain had lost the ability to feel hunger or thirst.  We took him home to die and it was brutal.  He literally starved himself to death.  When we tried to feed him or give him something to drink, he would spit out the food or water, he couldn’t swallow and did not know how to eat.  He also went blind.  A friend of mine is a neuropsychologist and she told me that the parts of the brain that control appetite and thirst are close to one of the vision centers and that it made sense to her that he would lose his vision at the same time.  However, even in the last few days before he died, he would pull me, my brother and sister toward him in bed and hug and kiss us.

    He couldn’t stand, talk, or really move, but he still knew who we were and he was saying good-bye.  When he died, my sister and I were lying beside him in bed and holding his hands, and his caregiver (who had taken care of him for seven and a half years) was holding his feet. He just stopped breathing.

    When the dementia got severe, I felt like not only was my father dying, but that my childhood was dying with him.  A part of my childhood was also going, because those memories of me were gone.  The mourning process has been more difficult than I expected.  I have had to take care of my father for the past nine years and suddenly that responsibility is gone.  I miss going over to his house and seeing him sitting on the couch, watching television, and eating candy and potato chips.  I miss seeing his face light up when I walked in into the room.  Even with this horrible disease he was always my father and I will always miss him.

    I am sorry that you are going through this too.
    Merle 

    I’m not sure why this one letter from this one old friend affected me the way that it did. Maybe because her words were so spare, her feelings so raw. Maybe it was because I happened to get her e-mail in the days following the two-year anniversary of my mom’s death. Or maybe, more likely, because as she described her final days with her father, I could not help but think of our final days with mine.

    All I know is that the tears came when I least expected them, standing on a corner, alone with my Blackberry, connected to someone I barely remembered. And that they came hard.
    With her permission, I am going to post Merle’s letter on the Alzheimer’s page of my website with hope that it will encourage others to tell their stories. Not to make each other sad, but to feel connected. She said it was cathartic writing about her dad, that she felt a little less isolated.

    That’s how it works.

  • Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

    Most of what I pretend to know in life can be traced to a sitcom. If it isn’t Seinfeld, it’s Mary Tyler Moore. If it isn’t Sex in the City, it’s The Brady Bunch.

    That’s probably why, when my daughter came home from her first day of high school today and listened wistfully to her brother talking about his first day in junior high, I thought of the Brady Bunch episode when Marcia pretended she was sick on her first day of high school.

    Frankly, I was surprised Carol and Mike fell for this but of course, Carol called the doctor, who of course made a house call and diagnosed, with a hearty chuckle, first-day-of-school-itis. You could hardly blame Marcia. A big wheel in junior high, she was now attending a high school where apparently she was the only student from her entire district and thus knew no one.

    I’d be sick, too.

    When her parents made her go the next day, her brother Greg said he’d introduce her to his cool, football player friends who all looked 35, right down to the receding hairlines. But Marcia was suitably impressed and trying too hard to be mature, she embarrassed Greg by telling one of his friends that she looked forward to the “intellectual stimulation” of high school.
    (Note: While I am embarrassed that I remember this right down to the exact dialogue, I am also secretly proud and would be willing to bet big money that I am right.)

    Anyway, Greg comes home humiliated at his wacky sister’s behavior – or maybe it’s her bell bottoms. Kidding, of course. Marcia was wearing a tasteful skirt and pumps. And he urges her to be herself, which she agrees to do, going back the following day and signing up for all eight clubs in the school until she finally tells her parents she has to be herself, so she’s sticking with the rugby club. Kidding again. She drops everything but ceramics as I recall.

    I’ll have to remember to ask Amanda if her high school has a ceramics club and tell her to check the bulletin board.

    You would have thought Greg would’ve been a little more patient with his sister, given his first day of high school a couple seasons earlier resulted in him demanding that his father give up his den and make it into a mod bachelor pad. Greg, too, was trying to be too mature, translating to his outfit of fringed vest, headband and shades, and he, too, was laughed off campus.

    I find these stories to be instructive and am sure my kids will take some important lessons from them as they transition to their new schools.
    And in the absence of a sitcom, I can always reflect on my own childhood, which often was funnier than The Brady Bunch.

    Aside from the kid on the kindergarten bus who threw up out the window, I remember one other first day — coincidently my first day of high school — when I called my good friend Bari the night before to ask what she was going to wear.

    This was of critical importance because designer jeans were just coming into vogue and it would be a little daring to wear them on the first day of school when all of our mothers would be horrified that we weren’t more dressed up. Bari assured me that the jeans would be saved for the second day of school, so I wore my powder-blue polyester pants with the narrow glittery belt and shimmery polyester blouse with the seascape design. Stunning, huh?
    Except that Bari, in an apparent last-minute conference call with every girl from our junior high, elected to go with the Gloria Vanderbilt’s, thus leaving me humiliated. Really needed texting.

    Despite all of this, I stuck with Bari the following day and when it was time to find our bus home, I decided that I would wait for her, even though she had a tenth-period class and I was finished after ninth. It was either that or board the wrong bus and end up having dinner in Morton Grove (not my suburb).

    Trying to be casual, I passed by her class to make sure she was there and that I wouldn’t miss her when she came out. Then, with nothing else to do and still concerned I might miss her, I passed by her class again. Over the next 50 minutes, I would circle the first floor of the school and pass by the open door of her classroom approximately 43 more times until every kid as well as the teacher became acutely aware of me and giggled every time I walked by (naturally, I did not know this until Bari came out afterward and told me).

    I am thinking that if my children are at all anxious over these next few days and weeks that these stories might calm their nerves and let them know that we’ve all been there and that eventually we all adjust and move on.
    And maybe if they’re lucky, they won’t remember it in vivid detail 35 years from now.

  • My sad friend Jerry

    I realize it seems like an awfully suspicious coincidence that the Cubs disappeared at about the same time my blog did last week, but I can assure you one has nothing to do with the other.

    I can say this because while I grew up in the northern suburbs surrounded by Cubs fans, I was, by birth, a White Sox fan and therefore have never been privy to that particular brand of angst.

    Other kinds of angst, for sure. But not that. And so I have observed each season as the Cubs created new and usually exciting forms of losing with a mixture of awe and yes, empathy for my fellow Chicago fans. It’s not that I haven’t, at various times of my life, been wracked with frustration over the Sox or the Bears, the Bulls or the Hawks. But no one knows despair like that of the Cubs fan.

    If I had any doubt of this, my friend Jerry pretty much convinced me with a recent e-mail that both moved me and made me want to get him professional help. The Cubs were in mid-freefall last week and he was giving me his opinion on their current state, which then gave way to his perspective on life as a Cubs’ fan.

    I feel I must share this, in part because it is such an exquisite slice of Cubdom and in part because, if you think you have problems, this might cheer you up:

    I am convinced that my entire being was shaped in 1969.  I was 13.  I was so into the Cubs and then the final couple of weeks of the season hit and my life began to change.  I firmly believe that my outlook on life was planted in those memories.
     [Jerry referring here to the Cubs’ collapse to the eventual world champion New York Mets]

    I wait for the other shoe to drop.  I look at the half-empty glass and know that at any minute that glass is going to fall and break.  I know that the promise of tomorrow is all we can hold out for.  I know that yesterday was crappy, today will probably be just as bad, but tomorrow will be better.  Then tomorrow will come and it will be today and the cycle will repeat all over again.
     

    Then we somehow got to 2003 and I remember being at the playoff games and feeling like I was kicked in the head. Too painful to go back.
     
    [Jerry referring here to the Cubs’ collapse — just five outs short of their first World Series since 1945 — to the eventual champion Florida Marlins]
     

    And another year goes by and another year of season tickets.  And another year of hope.  And then another “wait until next year”.  Next year will be better. 

    Then next year is this year and next year will be better.  It repeats and repeats and repeats and repeats.  I can’t stop the madness.
     
    Dr. Missy, what can I do?   
     
    Dear Jerry,
     

    Though I am not, by trade, a psychologist, I feel I could be one if I really wanted to be. Thus, I feel more than qualified to address your problem.
    You should have pulled the plug in ’69.

    I realize this is like asking most Cubs fans to have a sex-change operation even though they aren’t inclined to switch to the other gender; that it’s not that easy to change one’s orientation from birth. But something should have told you at 13 that you were headed down a dangerous and self-destructive path.

    I realize that’s a tender age to make such an important determination, but just think of how your life could have been entirely different. You could have cheered for slugger Dick Allen (just don’t call him Richie)  in the early 70s; could have enjoyed the “South Side Hitmen” wearing the most hideous uniforms in the history of organized sports in the late 70s; then gloried in Tony LaRussa’s team’s “Winning Ugly” in capturing the ’83 division title.

    In the 90s, you could have actually watched baseball in a sparkling new stadium (provided you didn’t try to do it from the upper-deck seats, thus contracting altitude sickness); seen some more uniforms come and go; and observed Ozzie Guillen develop from a crazed young shortstop into a crazed young manager.

    And finally Jerry, in 2005, you could have celebrated a WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP. A World Series, Jerry.  That’s when the two best teams in baseball, one from the National League and one from the American League (your Chicago White Sox) meet to determine the WORLD SERIES CHAMPION.

    Since you are my friend, I may have even brought you a souvenir from that series, which I not so proudly swiped from outside the winning lockerroom in Houston. You see, I knew that my brothers being Sox fans, would appreciate a little trinket of some kind. So breaking every sportswriting code and all journalistic ethics, I removed a used champagne bottle from a dumpster and smuggled it back home, still sticky and smelly and carrying germs of unknown origin.

    I brought it to show to my daughter’s fifth-grade class and then I kept it because I thought it was cool and my brothers didn’t seem all that thrilled or grateful enough at the gesture. So Jerry, I probably wouldn’t have ended up giving it to you. But I may have showed it to you and then you too could have shared the thrill that my family and I experienced.
    You could, on this very night, be watching the White Sox lose another heartbreaker to those no-good, nickname-stealing, bad accent Boston Red Sox. But at least the White Sox are still in the playoff hunt. Tonight, your Cubs beat one of the few teams in baseball worse than yours, the Washington Nationals, which means that despite the fact that they’re still nine games out of first place in the division with only 38 games to go, you might have just a teeny sliver of hope again. You know you do, Jerry.

    And hope is never good. You said it yourself.
    It’s madness.

  • Family fall time

    Fall is a strange and harrowing time for me.

    My birthday is in fall, but I’ve never had a problem with my birthday except that one moment of panic I had when I turned 27 and couldn’t remember how old I was until I did the math.
    Football season is in the fall, which, given that I live in Chicago might explain this feeling of impending doom I have been experiencing lately. But then the Bears are full of hope, what with their new quarterback and everything, so that doesn’t really explain it.

    Maybe it’s all this talk about superbugs, but I don’t think so since I have no idea what that means.

    Nope, I think it’s just fall and the knowledge that no longer will my biggest decision each day revolve around which popsicle flavor to choose (no wait, that’s my son Alec’s biggest decision). But it’s definitely school starting and everything that implies – the hectic schedules, the responsibilities, the lack of family fun time (and oh, what a day that was).

    With one child starting high school and the other, junior high, in a matter of days (see, now I’m nervous I’m going to forget which day it is, and my kids will miss their first days of school), there is anxiety aplenty. I believe this dates back to my first days of school and again, it’s probably my parents’ fault.

    They never sent me to nursery school as they called it then. Either they forgot because I was the youngest of four or more likely, my mother did not want me to leave home. As a result, I was hardly prepared for my first day of kindergarten, which is why I remember everything in such vivid, terrifying detail, beginning with Ed, the bus driver, peeling me off my father’s leg and continuing as we pulled up to school and someone whose name I had not yet learned, throwing up out the window.

    School is simply nerve-wracking, period. My brother Barry, at 57, still regularly has that dream where he can’t find his class, shows up late, finds out it’s the wrong class but that he has a final he didn’t study for. I have that dream too. I believe it’s the classic dream of an overachiever. Either that, or an obsessive-compulsive neurotic, I’m not sure which one.    

    My children appear to be OK, though my husband and I did a little checking and discovered that
    ours was not the only incoming freshman who forgot her name when going to pick up books. I would have made fun of her, but Rick reminds me he had to accompany me to Northwestern that same day last week to help me park. Really, that’s not true. I could have parked alone. But it was scary finding the right building where I had to bring forms for a class I’m taking.

    I find I am almost paralyzed these days by simple tasks, which explains the weeklong dearth of blogs (my apologies and thanks if this caused great concern or threw anyone off their normal routines). For a while there, I thought I was done, had nothing significant left to say anymore. Then, thank goodness, I realized that having nothing significant to say had never stopped me before and in fact, goes right to the heart of what my blogs are all about.
    Furthermore, I think I need these blogs more than ever as my anchor and a sort of repository of insignificance as life becomes that much more complicated.

    I am quite sure, in the coming weeks, that this faculty class I am taking will cause me great angst. I should mention the entire class only lasts 10 days, but they’re accelerated days and since I did not understand the course outline, I am a bit concerned.
    Also, in case either child decides for the first time to ask me, and not their father, for any guidance on homework, this could cause some anxious times as well. The books look very scary this year.

    Then there are the Bears, which have always made me a little nauseous. And this continued quest toward re-invention, which people now want me to actually speak about as if it is
    something I have figured out.

    This is what I wanted, I keep telling myself. Back when the Tribune told me that in a cost-cutting move, they didn’t want me anymore but then started hiring people and finding other ways to spend the money they had saved, and all I could see was a big void in my future, I wanted to be busy. And honestly, there wasn’t a single day, including the day I left, that I haven’t been busy.

    I am, in fact, much busier than I have ever been. And happier, I should add.
    This much I have figured out.
    The fall? Not yet.