Anyone of who knows me will find the title of this essay amusing. I am not a caregiver, professional or otherwise. I’m more of the day-tripper variety of care-giving. Kay has more the heart of a caregiver. Aside from her thriving practice as a mental health counselor, she also keeps our Nashville granddaughter on Fridays, which includes taking our uncle out for lunch and running errands for him. Yes, I live with a queen and a saint. And if you think this is going to be a story that will bring a tear to your eye, or that you might take offense at my annoyance with my adorable, nearly four-year-old, granddaughter and an uncle with Parkinson’s, then read no further.
On several occasions I will join Kay on a Friday and spend time with my granddaughter and Uncle Tad, known affectionately in the family as U.T. On a rare occasion I will pinch-hit for Kay, giving her a respite, and do all things a good grandfather and nephew would do; not always with the best of attitudes, but the job gets done. On a recent Friday I left Kay sleeping soundly after a long night of counseling and braved the rush hour traffic into the city. Kay has a set routine that she follows, and the day before, she briefed me on my duties hoping I would not be tempted to stray. For the most part, I walked the “straight and narrow.”
The granddaughter and I went for a hike (my routine), and afterward we picked up U.T. at his assisted living facility. So far, so good, but the moment U.T. got in the car and said he wanted to get a special battery at Walgreen’s that makes his baseball cap light up so he can see to put his medicine in his dispenser, I got this foreboding feeling that we might be in trouble. I’m all for individual liberty that under-gird the rights of humans to be eccentric, but a baseball cap that lights up so you can see where to put your pills? Does China even make such an item?
U.T. could not remember the brand name of the battery, just a number: 20-32, and that it was shaped like a flat, metal slug. It was in the battery section of the store, he said, and I thanked him for keeping me from wasting time wandering the candy and greeting card aisles as I got out and left him and my granddaughter in the car. Once in the store I faced a wall of batteries, enough selections to power half of the populace’s mechanical needs, and after a thorough scan, could not find a slug-like, 20-32 battery. I went back outside to confirm the particulars and returned for a second sortie. No luck. Why not ask for assistance, one might say, and normally I would, but given the particulars of the item and the purpose it served, I just couldn’t get the words to roll out of my mouth. I did not want to see a you-got-to-be-kidding-me expression on the face of a Walgreen’s representative that matched my own.
A return to the car after a second failure meant that U.T. and the granddaughter would have to get out of the car and come inside. U.T. has Parkinson’s and requires a walker to assist with mobility. At times he has difficulty getting his feet moving. The medication he takes helps with this, but often as we wait for the central nervous system to transfer the brain’s command to move down through his legs to his feet, U.T. will jokingly say, “Feet, don’t fail me now,” a catch-phrase spoken by vaudeville tap dancers. This time all the cylinders were firing and we were able to scoot into the store with the aide of his walker. U.T. went straight to where the batteries were hanging. Yes, they had been right in front of my face both times, and yes, there is a baseball cap that lights up, and yes, a slug-like battery is designed just for this very purpose, and yes, the cap was made in China. I live my life in a cocoon.
Back in the car we headed to Cracker Barrel for lunch. One of the perks that comes with having an uncle who uses a walker is the little blue handicapped tag you can attach to your inside rear-view mirror. And yes, I despise those people who park in handicapped spots without the blue hanger or the wheelchair insignia on the license plate and hop out like the whole world revolves around them. I have muttered under my breath on occasion, “You must be mentally handicapped because you seem to be walking just fine.”
Lunch was ordered and the granddaughter was amusing herself with the wooden triangle peg game that sits at every table, the one where you test your brain power by playing leap frog with the pegs in the holes. I hate all games where inanimate objects have the power to determine one’s genius level or the lack thereof. Instead, my granddaughter and I decided a better use of our time was to test our eye-hand coordination by flipping the triangle upside down and setting it on the table top without allowing a peg to fall out. She spent most of the time on the floor collecting the fallen pegs, but at least my Energizer Bunny granddaughter was happily preoccupied while we waited for our food. I call that genius level thinking on my part.
Before the food arrived a grumpy old man sat down at the table to my left. He had yet to speak a word, but his dour expression, the way he pondered the chair he would take—he had four to choose from since he was dining alone—like a cranky Goldilocks expecting not to like any of his choices, and the disgruntled flourish of removing his cap and plopping it down along with his cane in the seat next to him, signaled to me that his waitress was in for a challenge.
Our food arrived via the same waitress as our crabby neighbor, and after setting our plates before us, she stepped over to take his order. Oh yes, I eavesdropped while buttering and splashing syrup over my granddaughter’s pancake. The room was full of patrons and the clack and clatter of dozens of people eating and conversing prevented me from clearly hearing everything the grumpy man was saying, but I could see that with each question he posed regarding how something was cooked or could he make a special order or was an item currently not on the menu now available was slowly eroding the smile on the waitress’ face.
It was time to concentrate on my meal and make sure U.T. and the granddaughter were happy…part of the caregiver’s job. But when the waitress brought the grumpy man his meal that included a slice of ham that he rejected within seconds, I almost laughed at the if-looks-could-kill expression on her face. It wasn’t long before the manager arrived with a new plate of ham hoping to appease the piqued patron. I wanted to tap the old coot on his shoulder and say, “You’re not at Fleming’s Steakhouse, alright? You have a steak at Fleming’s you don’t like, you send it back. This is Cracker Barrel for crying out loud.”
The real fun began when we had finished our meal and was ready to leave. U.T. can use his walker as a seat, which he had done in this case. He uses the handlebars to lift himself off the seat. The first problem was that by using the walker as a seat he must turn it in the opposite direction, which means he would now have to turn 180 degrees to be headed in the right direction. He rose upon his numb feet and could go no farther and was now bent forward facing the table with his hands behind him holding onto the handlebars. Between us we mumbled a mixture of sacred and profane utterances all in hopes of encouraging the “feet, don’t fail me now” saying.
A sensitive person would look at this picture and subtly nod to their lunch companions and whisper “look at that poor man” (U.T.), while ill-thoughts about the other guy (me), just standing next to him like a doofus doing nothing bounced around in their heads. The truth was we were doing something…waiting for U.T.’s synapses to fire. I suggested he sit back down and try again in a minute, but he didn’t want to do that. “Too hard to get back up,” he grumbled. When U.T.’s arms began to tremble from sustaining his weight, I grabbed the waist of his blue jeans in the back to help hold him up. There we were with dozens of strangers in a room eating lunch and trying not to stare at a still-life of an old guy holding up an even older guy by the seat of his pants whose hands were frozen on the handlebars of his walker; all the while the granddaughter was wandering around the tables. What none of these people would know is that this is a scene our family is very familiar with: U.T. rises from his seat and we wait for his feet to receive the go-ahead from the brain.
U.T. and I started chuckling which was enough of a distraction to sneak a signal passed the roadblock of his faulty brain circuitry and he was able to move his hands, one at a time, from the handlebars to the table so I could spin the walker around and point it in the right direction toward the exit. I called my wandering granddaughter and encouraged her to return, which she did without making a scene. She would have to swing from the rafters to upstage the slow dance U.T. and I was doing. There were two men seated on our other side who initially looked at us with concern, but it quickly turned to humor when U.T. made the successful 180 degree spin at his stop-motion animation speed, gripped the handlebars and said, “And now for my next trick.”
But we all had to wait for his next trick. There was no forward motion to be had, and so we were forced into a second holding pattern. We conversed with the two men, again to give time for brain and feet to work out their coordinates. In this hiatus, U.T. had a sudden realization and exclaimed, “Well shoot, I forgot to take my 11:00 o’clock Parkinson’s meds.” And then I knew all things: no take Parkinson’s meds, no make feet work. I saw the straight line connection of the need for the 20-32 slug battery, to light the baseball cap, to see to fill the dispenser with the proper meds, and hopefully to remember to take the proper meds so we might avoid our current gridlock at the Cracker Barrel.
Life in the dining room continued as normal: patrons eating, waitresses scurrying, and bus boys busing. I suggested that I ask the manager if they had a house wheelchair, but U.T. said that he was beginning to feel that tingling sensation signaling imminent leg and foot activity. Then came a mysterious sequence of events that can only be described as something out of a movie: I ordered the granddaughter to stick close to me, a bus boy drops a porcelain plate that shatters into pieces, dozens of heads turn in the direction of the chagrined bus boy, U.T.’s legs spring into action and he announces, “We have lift off,” and my hand shifts from the back of his pants to the back of his neck intent on maintaining our forward momentum. I notice a large fragment of porcelain plate lying in our path and try to steer U.T. away from the piece by twisting his neck (no cognitive thought for my choice, just reptilian reflex), and, of course, U.T. hits the piece of plate and it lodges in the right wheel of the walker. But did we stop? No. We didn’t even slow down. I might not have been able to steer U.T. away from the plate fragment, but I wasn’t about to stop for it. And so we rat-ta-tat-tated our way across the faux brick flooring that is in every Crack Barrel dining room until we hit the faux hardwood flooring of the merchandise area where the plate piece was knocked loose from the wheel. As every actor knows, a great exit is most important. If we had been in front of a theatre crowd, our exit would have garnered an eruption of applause.
In the midst of our hasty charge for the front door, I lost my granddaughter. She was in the building, so I did not panic and we pressed on down the constricted main aisle. There was so much merchandise in the store two normal size people could not walk side-by-side to marvel at the abundance of swag. I paused for a split second to inform a passing Cracker Barrel employee that I was going to put my uncle and granddaughter in the car, and then would come back and pay the bill. I don’t know what she said because I hardly slowed down. About that time the granddaughter flew out of a side aisle happily clutching the soft, fluffy neck of a pink figure of a cat sewn into the side of an oval pet bed. I understood her reasoning. She has a real cat at home, but her timing was off.
“Clara-Larie Pearson, put that thing back right now and follow me,” I barked, and I got the surprised look from a child who could not understand why her grandfather had suddenly turned into Mr. Hyde. But she complied and we rattled and stumbled our way out the door. After getting everyone buckled into their seats I went back inside to pay the bill and was asked by the cashier, “Was everything all right?” Here was a moral dilemma: tell the truth or lie? I dodged the question with, “May I add the gratuity to the credit card receipt?” Given an affirmative nod, I signed my name, dashed out the door and hopped into the car.
Just when I thought we had gotten out alive, we heard the long, sharp blast of a car horn. I could not discern the cause for such insistent honking and chose to ignore it until I heard the crunch of metal on metal. I slammed on the brakes just as I saw a man leap from his parked car and rush toward us. I jumped out and went around behind the car to see U.T.’s walker wedged between the car and the raised concrete curb between the pavement and the grass. I thanked the gentleman for his warning blast, worked the walker away from the car, collapsed it, and slung it in the backseat.
“I always love coming to Cracker Barrel,” U.T. said with a straight face as we pulled out of the lot.
I could have hung him by his red, white, and blue suspenders, but then I would have had to hold him up by his pants to do it and by now I hadn’t the strength to commit murder except in my heart. So I give an enthusiastic cheer to all the caregivers around the world. With the rising number of aging Baby Boomers your employment is secure. I expect soon I will be in need of your services. Kay is a saint, but even saints have their limits.