Category Archives: Growing Up

Grandma Betty Update

From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura. I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.

December, 2012
I am happy to say that my grandma came to spend Christmas Eve with the family this year. She refused to come last year when my uncle attempted to pick her up and bring her to my parents’ house. He begged, pleaded and tried to reason with her, but she refused to get dressed and leave her bedroom. I guess she was just having a rough day.

My grandma has been living in an assisted living facility that specializes in Alzheimer’s care for the last two years or so. Even with a woman living with her that watched over her and my mother visiting once or twice a day, her house became too unsafe. My grandma had finally reached the point where she required constant care.

Her heart, lungs and body are still in great shape. At 84 years old, the doctors say that if it was up to her body, she could live another 10 years. Her mind is a different story. My grandma is at the point where she does not know who any of us are anymore, and she really has no idea what’s going on around her. Sometimes when a family member goes to visit her, she will recognize them as someone that she has met before. But she is usually not able to recall their name, or her relation to them.

Every so often she’ll have a day where she is sharper than usual, and will tell accurate stories. Mostly they are old stories that date back to her childhood and teen years. But a majority of what she says is random chatter that doesn’t make sense. If a dog barks, she will make up an outrageous story about how it’s her dog, and tell it to us like she could actually convince us.

I often wonder if she believes herself as she rambles. The Alzheimer’s mind sure is an interesting little world. One thing I am grateful for is that at least in the case of my grandma, this little world appears to be a bright, colorful one that doesn’t seem scary or harsh. Like anyone else with Alzheimer’s Disease, she has a few cranky days here and there where nothing you do or say can snap her out of it. She acts like a big five year old and getting her to be nice or go anywhere is impossible. We’ve had to cancel hair and nail appointments for her at the last minute before, and last year we had to do Christmas Eve without her.

But overall Grandma is chipper, friendly and pleasant to be around. She smiles and giggles as she people-watches and will chat with anyone that approaches her. According to my mother, the conversations that she has with the other people at her home (who are in a smiliar mental state) are entertaining.

This Christmas Eve she sat in a chair near the middle of the room and enjoyed socializing with everyone around her. She also enjoyed watching and talking to Coco. Whether she recognizes my dog or not, she always gets so excited to see her. My grandma ate well and was in the best mood possible. I wonder if she understood that she was surrounded by family members who love her. Whether or not she remembers, I’m pretty sure she can feel the love.

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What I’ve Learned About The Real World (So Far)

When I was in college, I thought it was never going to end.  I was untouchable, working two nights a week in Miami as a club bartender and making more than what most people make in two weeks.  I went out the other five nights of the week and still managed to maintain a 3.8 GPA.  And then I graduated and everything changed.

I knew that bartending was not a career, not for me at least, so I made my way into the real world.  I quickly learned that it can be pretty rough.  It stressed me out so much the first time that it was a big factor in going back to get my Master’s degree.  Another 18 months of being a student was lovely, but then I was forced to graduate and grow up once again.

I will break this article up into two parts– post-undergrad and post-master’s degree–because I learned valuable lessons each time.

POST-UNDERGRAD

I can do anything.  Now that I was finished writing papers and pulling all-night study sessions, I suddenly had all this spare time on my hands.  Take full advantage, as this is your time to live it up.  Most likely you are not employed at a serious job, married or a parent.  Nothing is holding you down and this might be the only time for the rest of your life that you have this chance.  So go backpacking, experience life in a new city, learn yoga or jump out of a plane.  In the six months following graduation, I did a cross-country road trip, moved to Los Angeles, went to Israel with 40 strangers and got into the best shape of my life.  Live a little, before life ties you down.

My college lifestyle was so unhealthy.  When I was in school, I was the vending machine’s best customer and ate Quizno’s, Wendy’s and Pollo Tropical on a daily basis.  I’d stay up for days before a big paper was due, consuming espresso and Adderall to stay awake.  Once my paper was finished and turned in, I’d go out with my friends instead of catching up on my sleep.  I don’t know how it did it.

It’s hard out there to get a job.  Not many companies are hiring these days, but when they do, there are dozens of people who will fight you for the position.  Having a large pool of people to choose from makes these companies very picky.  It seems like they all want someone who has tons of experience, speaks four languages, doesn’t mind picking up the owner’s dry cleaning and is willing to do it all for $10 an hour.

It’s all about who you know.  Given what I just said, having a good connection can be extremely helpful.  It could be an “in,” or introduce you to other important people that you can learn from.  Networking and connecting is everything, because you never know who you might need or run into at some point.  The world is much smaller than I thought.

Internships are important.  My one regret from college is that I slacked on internships.  I missed out on meeting and learning from valuable people while I was still in school, so it was harder to get a job after graduation.  Everywhere that I applied wanted me to start off as an intern.

Your first job won’t be perfection.  I consider my first “real job” to be at a fashion PR agency in LA.  I was an unpaid intern that they started paying, mostly in clothes, once I made myself valuable to my boss.   I did this by going to every vegan restaurant in town to pick up food for her, dealing with the whiny swimsuit models at fashion shows on my weekends and getting screamed at by publicists wondering where their celebrity client’s free gifts were.  It was far from glamorous, but I learned a lot and had to start somewhere.

You don’t have to stay at this horrible first job forever.  I realized fashion PR was not for me pretty quickly.  Nevertheless, I stuck it out for a few months so I had some experience on the resume and then left to pursue other things.  I haven’t looked back.

Now is the best time to go back to school.  Your mind is fresh, you haven’t forgotten everything you learned and nothing is tying you down.  If you are considering going to grad school, right after undergrad is a great time to do it.

POST-MASTER’S

It’s still hard out there to get a job.  I felt a little cooler at job interviews saying that I now have a master’s degree, but I still faced the same problems that I did post-undergrad.  I lucked out and reconnected with an old high school friend who got me in at his company.  Yeah, it’s all about who you know.

My take-home pay is not as much as I thought.  The only thing that was worse than finding out how low my entry-level salary was going to be was seeing my take-home pay amount on that first paycheck.  It makes me miss the bartending days of bringing home wads of undeclared cash each night.

An emergency bank account is important.  Last year I started a savings account that takes $40 from my checking each month.  I now have about $850 that I didn’t even miss that I can use if I ever need it.  I understand that at some point I will probably get sick or hurt and I will need it.  If not, it’s nice to know that I have a little cash to buy myself something nice.

Student loans are borrowed money.  Next month will be six months since graduation, and I will have to make my first payment.  It’s about to get real.

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Living With Grandma “Who Died?”

From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura. I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.

September, 2009

I moved out of my grandma’s house to attend college in Miami in August 2007.  My grandmother was left to live alone, but luckily my parents lived only about 10 minutes away.  Just as she did when I was living there, my mother came over to check up on my grandma every morning, and she added a daily afternoon visit to her schedule.

On the day that this story took place, I was in West Palm Beach to be with my family after the passing of my paternal grandmother. While I was up there, I decided to go visit my grandma Betty and spend some time with her.

“We need to break the news to her today,” my mom said in the car as we drove closer.

I wondered how she was going to take it. My grandmothers had known each other for over thirty years, since my parents were high school sweethearts and got married. They saw each other often at my brothers’ volleyball games, were extremely friendly and never forgot to send each other birthday and holiday cards. I knew my grandma was going to be upset about the loss of her old friend.

When we arrived at the house, my grandma was overjoyed to see me. She smiled, hugged me tightly and told me how good it was to see me after “all these years,” even though I had visited her only a few weeks earlier. I knew better than to waste my breath correcting her, so I just smiled and nodded.

My mother and I sat down with her at the long wooden dining room table where she was drinking a cup of coffee and eating a large slice of red velvet cake topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.  As her disease has progressed and she gets older, my grandmother eats more and more like a little kid.  She no longer has any interest in gourmet meals from her old favorite restaurants, but she can’t get enough of grilled cheese, chicken fingers, Egg McMuffins and desserts of any kind.  This scared us originally, as we worried about her health, but her doctors say that her heart and blood pressure are fine and she hasn’t gained much weight.  At this point, why not let her eat what makes her happy?

“Mom, Sheila passed away yesterday,” my mother announced loudly so that she would hear.

My grandma’s light eyes looked up slowly with a sad but confused look. She looked at my mother with her head cocked slightly.

“Sheila Kurlander, Mom.  Randy’s mother…”

“Oh, that Sheila! Really? That’s terrible! Was she sick?”

“Yes, she’s been sick for a while now. She was fighting cancer. Remember I told you she had cancer and that she wasn’t doing very well?”

“Yes, yes. Gosh, that’s terrible. What kind of cancer was it again?”

“It started as lung cancer, but by the time they caught it, it had spread to her brain, lymph nodes and kidneys,” my mother said, rolling her eyes at me from across the table. I understood that she had probably explained this to my grandma every day for the last two months.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” my grandma said sadly. “I liked Sheila.”

“I know you did, Mom. You’re going to the funeral with us next week. It’s not until Tuesday, which is six days from now.”

You must always give my grandma plenty of notice before getting her to leave the house. She needs enough time to fill the 40 pockets of her huge leather purse with anything, and I mean absolutely anything, that she feels she might need for her outing- a shower cap in case it rains, sunglasses for if it’s sunny, extra underwear (sometimes up to four pairs), entire Kleenex boxes and other random things that I can’t even predict. She has never failed to shock me.  And my grandma doesn’t attend any big event without having her hair and nails done first.

“I’d better get to the beauty parlor then,” my grandmother said in an alarmed voice.

“Mom, you have six days. Don’t worry, there is plenty of time for you to get ready,” my mom assured her. “I’ll call and make an appointment with Mary for the day before the funeral.”

“Who died again?”  The bewildered look in her eyes had returned.

“Sheila,” my mom said with a sigh.  “She exhausts me,” she mumbled as she stood up to go refill her cup of coffee.

I switched the subject to a lighter one and updated my grandma on my life in Miami. I made lots of small talk, telling her about my job, school, friends and dog.

“Coco likes to bark at all the bigger dogs on Lincoln Road, but when they get close she hides between my feet,” I told her, and she responded by cracking up.

“I love Coco,” my grandma said.  “I use to play every night with her.”

She asked questions and giggled the way a five-year old would and I couldn’t help but notice how happy she seemed. My grandma might not be all there, but it was refreshing to see her so carefree. She had certainly come a long way from the depressed, paranoid and improperly-medicated person I once began living with three years earlier.

“Hey…” she said across the table in a low voice, almost a whisper. “Who died again?”

I heard my mother groan from the kitchen. I held my breath a bit and hoped she wasn’t going to come back into the dining room to explain once again.

If there is anything I could change about my grandma’s situation (besides eliminating Alzheimer’s Disease altogether), it would be the toll it has taken on my mother.  She has lost her mother and best friend, and constantly has to worry about my grandma’s happiness and safety.  It’s caused her a great deal of understandable sadness and stress, but she’s also had a really hard time accepting what has happened.  For a long time my mother would repeat information over and over to my grandma that I knew she was just going to forget, and then she’d get upset when my grandma forgot.  I never understood why she would remind her of hair and doctor appointments that were days away.

“You do know that Grandma is still going to wake up that morning and have no clue that she has a doctor’s appointment, right?” I’d ask her.

I’m not sure whether my mother was hopeful that things might get better or if she just didn’t want to believe that this had really become her life.  Seeing the disease take over my grandma was definitely hard, but once we got her medications balanced and her moods stabilized I think things got a lot easier.   My grandma was pleasant and cheerful once again, and a majority of the crazy mood swings and depression disappeared.  There is nothing pleasant about Alzheimer’s disease, but I’m thankful that my grandma is not in any pain.  She is not even aware that she is sick.  Even though she doesn’t always remember who we are, she does seem to understand that she is surrounded by people who love her and I can sense that she is content.

Thankfully my mother did not walk back in the room and try to explain who died again.   My grandma and I sat in silence for a moment before she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and started to laugh. I laughed back with her because I accepted the fact that she isn’t going to get any better a long time ago, but it sure was good to see her happy.

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Living With Grandma : “Coco Kurlander”

From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura. I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.                                                                   

April, 2007

I was staring at the clock on my cell phone, calculating the minutes until the end of my statistics lecture, when I felt it vibrate in my hands as a new text message came through.  It read: “Do you want a dog?”  The text was from my friend Anika, whose boyfriend spent a pretty penny on an eight-week old Pomeranian as a birthday gift for her just days earlier. Attached at the bottom of the message was a blurry picture of a tiny white ball of fur.   I couldn’t understand why my friend would want to get rid of this pretty baby, but the idea instantly got me excited.

For the past year, I really missed having a pet around.  Before moving in with my grandma, there had never been a point in my life where I didn’t have a dog or cat.  I missed being greeted at the door, cuddling at night and just the overall comforting feeling you can only get from a loveable pet.  I sometimes whined about it to my friends and would check out the dogs up for adoption on the local animal-rescue websites, but I restrained myself from visiting these shelters because I knew I’d never be able to walk out empty-handed.

At that point in my life, I knew that adopting a dog was not the most practical idea.  I was a month away from earning my associates degree at the local community college and four months away from transferring to Florida International University.  I had finals and graduation coming up, followed by a long summer of apartment-hunting and moving down to Miami.  I wanted to be patient and promised myself that I would get a dog after settling into my new apartment, but suddenly here I was, hit with an offer that was going to be hard to refuse.

Through a few more text messages back and forth, I learned that Anika and her boyfriend, both full-time students, got the puppy four days earlier and were quickly overwhelmed by how much time and work it required.  The huge responsibility and loss of sleep had already gotten to them and they were realizing the whole thing wasn’t such a good idea.  The breeder was willing to take the puppy back but refused to refund their money, so Anika was desperate to try and make some of it back while finding it a good home.  She heard me mention my desire for a dog many times, which made her consider me before anyone else.  I called her the moment I walked out of my statistics class.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.

“I feel like I have no choice,” she whined.  “She needs to be taken outside like every 15 minutes, it takes an hour to get her to eat and she cries all night.  I’m sad but I don’t have what it takes to care for a puppy right now.  I can’t do it.  I don’t even expect you to give us the full $800 that Tony spent on her.  Just give us what you can and give her a good home.”

“I really want to, but I’m not sure about this, Anika.  I’m pretty busy too…” I started to say, but then I moved the phone away from my ear and glanced back down at the blurry photo of the little white fur ball.

“Well at least you graduate soon and your grandma is always home, so she could help you out, right?”

“Ummm… Let me think about this, run it by my mom and see how she feels,” I told Anika.  “I’ll call you back.”

My grandma was a possible obstacle that I had not even considered yet.  I knew that she loved animals, but would she really want one living in her house?  If not, would this be something I would move out over?  Being a 20 year-old living with an 80 year-old, I always tried to make sure I wasn’t missing out on anything as a result.  I wasn’t going to let taking care of my grandma hold me back from doing something I wanted to do- and I really wanted this dog.  I realized that it really didn’t matter whether I asked my grandma or not. She wouldn’t clearly remember the conversation an hour later, and with her temperament, I knew her feelings about a dog would fluctuate on a daily basis anyways.  One day she would be all over it, and the next morning she could want nothing to do with it and say she never wanted a dog.  She wasn’t capable of making a decision; it was ultimately my mother that I was going to need to ask.  I took a deep breath, hoped for the best and dialed her number.

“Absolutely not,” was what I expected to hear, and naturally it was the answer I got.  My mother has always been one of those who says no at first, but often changes her mind after much begging and convincing.  I know exactly how to work her and was prepared to argue my case.

“Why not, Mom?  Give me one good reason why not!”

“You absolutely cannot bring a dog into Grandma’s house!  It’s taken us so long to finally get her medications and moods balanced, and you know that the smallest things can still set her off.”

She had a point- it was true that something as minor as a scary dream could put my grandma into a wacky mood that lasts for days.

“Casey, a dog can end up being a huge setback for Grandma.”

“So if it doesn’t work I’ll give it back to Anika or move out earlier.  It’s only going to be for four months.  You say it could be a setback, but this can also end up being a great thing.  Think about it- the dog will give her something new to do.  It’ll keep her occupied, and how can you hate a little one-pound Pomeranian?  Wait until you see this thing, Mom.  It’s so small and cute!”

I knew that even my tough mother has a weakness for sweet, furry little animals.  She caved a few minutes later and agreed to let Anika bring the puppy over for a trial visit, to see how my grandma reacted.  When Anika’s car pulled up in the driveway, I told my grandma to go sit on the couch; that I had a big surprise for her.  I was taking the little-kid approach that I often used with her, especially when I was trying to get her psyched about something.

“Me?  Sit on the couch?” she asked.

“Yes, you.  The couch!”  I pointed to remind her.

When she was settled on the couch beside my mother, I opened the front door for Anika and led her to the living room.  Squirming in her arms was the smallest puppy I had ever seen in my life.  It was the size of a hamster with really long, soft white fur and two pink ears that perked straight up.  I reached for the dog, held her up to my face and looked right into her chocolate brown eyes. I was instantly smitten.  I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.

“Look, Grandma!  Look at the puppy Anika just got!”

Her eyes lit up and her mouth formed an “O” when she saw what I had just carried into the room.  I placed the puppy on her lap and it crawled up her chest and began licking her neck.

“Oh Lord!  She’s beautiful!” she said between giggles.  Even my mother could not hold back her excitement.  While she and my grandma took turns petting, kissing and talking gibberish to the dog, I shot Anika a look and a thumbs-up.    Step one was a success.

“Anika’s boyfriend just bought her this puppy, but unfortunately they can’t keep it.  They’re going to give her away.  Isn’t that sad, Grandma?” I said, hoping my grandma would catch my drift.  “Do you know anyone who would like this puppy?”

She paused for a moment and actually gave my question some thought.

“No… I can’t think of anyone,” she answered after about twenty seconds.  She had not comprehended what I was hinting at all.

I walked Anika and the puppy out a few minutes later, and promised to let her know whether or not I would take the dog by the end of the night.  I went back into the house to deliberate further with my mother and we worked out an agreement:  I could have the dog, but only under the circumstances that if it wasn’t working out for any reason, Anika would have to take her back.  I gave my friend a call to let her know the deal and she agreed.   We met the next day in a mall parking lot where I gave her the $400 I was able to come up with and she tearfully handed the puppy over to me.

The first week with Coco was not easy.  As Anika had warned me, she needed to empty her tiny bladder at least twice an hour, even in the middle of the night.  Getting her to eat required me to sit on the tile beside her, feeding her each piece by hand.   The worst part was that whenever I locked her in her cage, she cried those high-pitched yelps that make small dogs so annoying.  With school during the day and work at night, I always felt guilty when I had to leave my crying baby.

As I predicted, my grandma was like a kindergartener with the puppy- sometimes she’d come in my room eager to play and take care of her, and other times she had no interest whatsoever.  Both moods always seemed to occur at the most inconvenient times.  I had to create guidelines and explain why waking me up at 5:30 a.m. to play with Coco was not acceptable, and that it was not nice to stubbornly refuse to watch her for me when I needed to shower.   While getting the dog hadn’t necessarily brought major problems, it brought a whole new kind of stress into my life.  I often felt like I was caring for two little kids.

The nights when I worked late stressed me out the most because I worried about the possible things that could be going wrong back home.

“Unless the house is on fire, do NOT take Coco out of her cage.  Don’t even go in the room with the cage,” I warned my grandma on a daily basis.

“But what if she’s barking?  She always cries when you’re gone and I can’t sleep with all that yapping!” she argued.

“Don’t ever let her out, Grandma.  Please.”

Based on how loud we had to blast the television or shout for my grandma to hear us, I knew for a fact that her ears were not able to pick up Coco’s cries from behind a closed door across the house.  The only reason she knew my dog barked at all was because she was crept across the house and did exactly what I told her not to do.  The scattered toys and small yellow puddles I’d find on the tile were clear indicators that she let Coco out while I was gone.  My biggest fear was that she would take my puppy out of the cage to play with her or let her outside, get sidetracked and forget about her.  My grandma misplaced things all the time, and the thought of Coco becoming one of those lost items terrified me.

On one particular night, I arrived home from work and was surprised not to hear Coco yapping from my bedroom at the front of the house.  I nervously opened the front door and sprinted to the empty cage.  Immediately panicked, I ran straight to where I could find some information, and hopefully my dog as well.

“Grandmaaaaaa!” I shouted as I pounded on her bedroom door.  “Grandma!  Open up!”

There was no sound coming from her room.  I didn’t hear her stirring around in there, or the sound of her feet moving on the wood floor.  I gave the door one last hard pound and pulled the bobby pin out of my hair so I could pick the lock.  I had the door open within seconds and there they were, my grandma and Coco, all snuggled up together in bed.  My puppy had heard my screams and looked up at me with sleepy eyes, but she remained curled up against my grandma’s chest.  My grandma was in a deep sleep and lightly snoring.

Although I was angry and wanted to scream at her for freaking me out, I did not wake my grandma.  I motioned Coco to the edge of the bed and brought her back to my room for the night.  My grandma and I had stern talk in the morning, but I found it hard to stay angry because her intentions were good and it was obvious that Coco adored her.  My puppy often sat outside her bedroom door when she knew my grandma was inside, and would perk up and twirl with excitement when she’d come out.  It was my grandma who sang to her, snuck her extra treats and taught her to fetch a ball.  Even though I was nervous about what took place when I was not around, in the end it worked out for the best.

The four final months of living with my grandma quickly flew by, and at the end of August it was time for me and Coco to move to Miami.  As I finished packing the last few things in my car, I went back in the house to grab my dog and say goodbye to the woman who had been my roommate for the past year and a half.

“Okay Grandma, it’s time for me to drive to Miami now,” I started to say as I carried Coco to the door.

“You’re taking Coco?”

“Yes.  Coco is my dog and I’ve told you many times that she’s moving to Miami with me.”

“You mean you’re really taking Coco?” she asked again.

I was amused at the fact that she was not at all disappointed that I was moving out because she was so distracted by the devastation of losing the dog.

“You can’t take Coco!  I’m going to miss her!”

“I’m sure Coco is going to miss you too, but it’s not forever, Grandma, and we’ll come visit you all the time.”

I’ve kept that promise and whenever I visit my grandma I try to bring my dog.  Even with her memory quickly fading, it is safe to say that Coco may be one of the last names she remembers.  She usually cannot remember any of the names of her family members, but she has not forgotten Coco.  The way her eyes light up each time we walk through her door lets me know she has not forgotten those good memories.

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30-Day Challenge?

People all over the world set themselves challenges every day.  Inspired by Matt Cutts, who often gives himself challenges and discusses them on his blog (http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/type/30-days/), I have decided to make my own list of 30-day challenges that I would like to accomplish at some point.  All of them are aimed at making me a stronger, healthier and a overall better person in some way or another.    Here are some of my ideas I have come up with so far:

  • Do some act of kindness for someone every day (without donating money)
  • Blog every day
  • Exercise every day
  • No celebrity gossip
  • Read every day
  • Paint every day.
  • Go completely gluten-free
  • Practice Rosetta Stone (Spanish) every day
  • Hug someone every day (my boyfriend doesn’t count)

I consider those to be some of the easier ones.  Here are some I think I would have a harder time with:

  • No sweets
  • Cook every day
  • Go vegetarian (or vegan if I really wanted a challenge)

What are your thoughts?  Please leave any other suggestions in the comments!

Living With Grandma : “Do Her Parents Live Nearby?”

From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura. I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.

February, 2007

One night after being sent home sick from work, chugging some liquid Tylenol straight out of the bottle and going to bed with an extremely sore throat, I awakened in the pitch black from a pain so sharp I couldn’t even pretend it was part of my dream.  Groggy and disoriented, I attempted to inhale a deep breath and swallow.  The breath barely went in and the swallow felt like tiny new razorblades scratching against my throat.  I put my hands up to my neck to discover it was so swollen that it protruded outward, resembling a huge double chin.  I tried swallowing again and was left dizzy from the agonizing pain.  I began to panic.

My mind pondered what appeared to be my only three options: I could continue silently lying on my back and risk dying a slow, lonely death; I could dial 911 and seek medical assistance; or call my mother and have her come take care of me.  The third option seemed the most logical and comforting, but when I went to dial her number I felt a bit guilty.  A 5:30 a.m. wake-up call was surely going to startle her, and there wasn’t going to be much she could do for me anyway.  She could bring me more of the Tylenol that wasn’t working and keep me company while I whined until the doctor’s office opened at 8 a.m., but that was about it.  I knew she’d be waking up in another hour or so and coming over to eat breakfast with my Grandma like she did almost every day, so I figured I might as well just let her start her day peacefully.  “As soon as she gets here, I’ll have her drive me to the doctor,” I told myself.

I wanted to walk to the kitchen and chug some Tylenol even though it had already proved to be useless, but getting up sounded like a painful mission.   Just moving my inflated neck slightly to the right or left was torturous.  I lay very still on my back, counting the minutes until sunrise and when my mother would arrive.  My throat throbbed so hard I thought the veins behind my ears were going to rupture.  With each throb came a pumping sound- my blood trying to push through the narrow veins past all that swelling, I guessed.  Over the pumping sound I thought I heard light footsteps outside my closed bedroom door.  The sound of the washing machine slowly being pried open confirmed it.

“Grandmaaaaa,” I croaked as loud as I could.  I hoped for the miracle that she was wearing her hearing aids and that they were properly turned on for once.

My prayers were answered; a few seconds later my door opened and she poked her head inside.

“Anybody in here?” she called into the darkness.

“Grandma!  It’s Casey!  Come over here to the bed!”

As she opened the door all the way the blinding light from the hallway poured in.  She made her way over to my bed and sat on the edge.

“I was just doing some laundry.  It’s early, right?  What are you doing up at this hour?” she asked.

I can’t sleep because my throat hurts so much, Grandma.  Feel how swollen it is.” I instructed.

I took her hand and guided it to the big double-chin growing out of my neck. She nodded as she ran her hands over it.

“I remember when I was young, my mother would make us her special hot tea whenever we had a sore throat,” she reminisced.  “She’d use lemon, apple cider vinegar, cayenne and lots of honey.  It always made me and my brothers feel better.  Much better than any of those medicines they use today.”

I explained to her how the Tylenol had not worked at all for me and how I was just waiting for my mom to arrive so I could see the doctor.  My grandma sat and kept me company, rubbing my head and chattering on and on about her mother’s tea and other childhood adventures of growing up as a first-generation American in a Swedish immigrant family.

She told me how her family would listen to stories on the radio before they owned a television and it would help her parents with their English.  She explained how my great-grandmother, who was dead long before I was born, was hooked on her radio soap operas and would spend most afternoons listening to them.  “Ma Perkins- that was her favorite,” my grandma told me.  “My mother would laugh and cry all day listening to that show.”

My grandma’s thoughts were a bit scattered and she didn’t stay on any subject for very long, but at times her memory was sharp.  For an Alzheimer’s patient who sometimes did not remember how to spell her own name (or what it was for that matter), I was amazed at how well she still recalled vivid memories from over seven decades ago.  That’s the thing with my grandma: one moment she’s so perceptive and will say something so profound, and the next moment she’ll swear my deceased grandfather just clogged the toilet (it’s never her that clogs it).

When we heard the sound of my mom’s Mini Cooper pull up in the driveway about an hour later, she stood up to go unlock the front door.  As my mom stepped inside I heard them talking to each other in the hallway.  My grandma was filling her in on what was happening.

“The girl in there is very sick.  I’ve been with her all night,” I heard her say.

“Really?  What’s wrong with Casey?” my mom asked.

I think she said her throat, but I’m not really sure.  She’s very sick and I’m worried.  Do her parents live nearby?”

There was silence for a moment and then I heard my mother’s voice again.

“Mom, I am Casey’s mother.  She is your granddaughter,” she started to explain for probably the eightieth time.

I pictured the blank look on my grandma’s face as she listened and as miserable as I was, I managed to let out a small, painful laugh through my sore, swollen throat.  She might not remember exactly who I was or why I was in her house, but at least she still cared about me.

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Living With Grandma: “They Stole My Purse!”

From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura.  I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.

 May, 2006

After tossing and turning for the past three or four hours, I had finally managed to drift into a light sleep when I sensed someone creep up and stare at me.  I pulled the thick white down comforter over my face in an attempt to block the sunlight and hide even though I was burning up.  A second later I peeked out, directing my eyes to the doorway to see that she was still there and then over to the clock.  It was 7:30 a.m., an ungodly hour to a 20 year old who was slinging drinks in a loud bar just four hours before.  I rarely awoke before noon, but in the two weeks that I had been staying with my grandmother, I had seen almost 14 mornings.  Stuck to the tan leather couch by a thin layer of my own sweat, my tired body yearned to stay there.

“Get up!” my grandma demanded, looking frazzled.  “I need your help.  They took my purse again!”

“They took it?  Who is th–” I started to ask but quickly cut myself off.  I bit down on my tongue hard.  This repetitive wake-up call was causing me to grow impatient.

Stay calm, Casey, I told myself.  She’s been through a lot lately and she’s not in the right mind.  It’s not her fault.  Be nice.

These reminders failed to keep me from feeling angry as I slowly peeled myself off the warm leather couch.  I did a quick stretch, made a promise to find her purse, and began checking her usual hiding spots.

“I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” I assured her, hoping she would calm down.

My family had noticed my grandma becoming increasingly forgetful in the months before my grandfather’s sudden death, but we blamed it on her old age and didn’t think much of it.  After he passed, her mental health took a sharp decline and I hardly recognized the woman I grew up being so close with. My grandma’s forgetfulness was now mixed with sadness, confusion and mood swings where she would go from being calm to completely irrational in a matter of seconds.  We were worried and did not want her being home alone, so four days after my grandfather’s death I packed a small bag and drove across town to stay with her for as long as she needed me.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The first place I checked for the purse was the laundry room. I looked inside the washer and dryer and on the shelves above, my eyes still heavy and half-asleep.  My grandma had absolutely no perception of date or time- she’d sleep for a few hours, wake up and wander the house for a while, then go back to bed, always thinking it was a new morning each time she awoke.  After two weeks I had somewhat adapted to her erratic schedule because I had no choice.  Whenever she was awake at all hours of the night, she found reasons for me to be as well.  I was nudged and woken up when she decided to do laundry at 4 a.m., only to realize she forgot how to use the washer.  I was awakened when she was hungry, bored, or confused, and of course when she misplaced things.

I found no purse in the laundry room, so I continued on to the huge walk-in closet of her guest bedroom.

“Do you remember if you hid it in here?” I asked.

“I didn’t hide it anywhere.  Somebody took it!” she said convincingly, nodding her head.

The bewildered look in her ice blue eyes as she anxiously watched me search told me she honestly had no recollection of where she had stashed her purse.  Bouts of paranoia caused her to stuff it with anything she considered valuable and to carry it on her shoulder around the house.  The only time she appeared to take off her purse was when she showered, slept (she cuddled it like a stuffed animal) or got even more paranoid and felt the need to hide it.  She often forgot where she stashed it, thus creating a repetitive game of hide-and-seek for me.

The walk-in closet was usually where it turned up, hoarded somewhere among the endless clutter.  My grandma spent a lot of time in there, aimlessly rummaging through her belongings.  The closet was like a time capsule, housing old clothes, toys, exercise equipment, boxes of papers and family photos, holiday decorations and anything else my grandparents had tossed in there over the decades.  To navigate through it, you had to step over and around stacked boxes, rolls of Christmas wrapping paper and other random junk that had fallen to the ground.  It was a broken hip waiting to happen for a 79 year-old who was unsteady on her feet to begin with.  Instead of searching through the messy closet once more, I decided to eliminate the problem.

“Grandma, I’m cleaning out this closet before you trip and kill yourself in here.  Have a seat on the bed, watch what I’m clearing and we’ll figure out what you do and don’t need to keep,” I said firmly.  “And in the process, I’m sure your purse will turn up.”

“Why the hell would it be in there?  I haven’t been in that closet in years!” she started to argue, but then nodded and sat down.  The look on my face warned her not to challenge me any further.  I grabbed a handful of black heavy-duty garbage bags that I would surely need and got to work.

“Do we really need these anymore?” I asked, holding up a set of work-out videos from the early 90’s.  “You don’t even have a VCR to watch them.”

“I guess not,” she said with a sigh.

Into the Hefty bag they went.  I had two full bags within 20 minutes and was pleased with my progress when I looked up to see that she was quietly sobbing.

“What’s wrong, Grandma?” I asked, sitting beside her.

“I don’t even know anymore,” she said between sobs.  “I don’t remember what is going on these days.  But I’m sad, confused, and I feel like everybody is mad at me for being this way.”

I reached for a box of tissues and thought I was going to need them as well.  I wiped the tears off her cheeks and rubbed her back with my other hand.

“Nobody’s mad at you, Grandma.  We’re just worried about you and trying to help, but we’re just as confused as you.  I’m sorry if I snapped earlier, but I’ve been losing a lot of sleep over this lately.”

I went on trying to explain that everyone was just extremely stressed out, nobody was angry, that we loved her and we were going to do everything possible to get things under control.  I spoke to her as if she was five years old, realizing it was the most effective way.

My grandma had the mood swings, temper and emotions of a kindergartener, and over the past few months we had slowly switched roles.  Though I didn’t understand, I rubbed her shoulders and tried to be understanding.  I had no idea what it was like to be old, to lose a spouse, or to be suffering from the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which we were slowly realizing she had.  All I understood was that she needed a lot of care and that I was going to be there for a while, but that was okay.  I would be there as long as she needed me.

The purse turned up about 10 minutes later, buried beneath some old tennis racquets on the closet shelf.  My grandma was overjoyed to have it back and still denied that she had put it there.

“Whoever took it from me must have gotten scared and hid it,” she swore.

The next week my mother and I got her into the neurologist’s office and the process of finding the right combination of prescriptions to balance her moods began.  While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are treatments to help with cognitive and behavioral symptoms.  I slept on that uncomfortable leather couch for five months before I had my bed moved in for the other nine months that I lived there.  It was an interesting year with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.

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Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Last week this summer’s “On the Ave” event kicked off with a circus theme, so Jeremy and I walked down the street to check it out. There were circus performers spread out throughout the streets, walking on stilts, dancing with fire, making balloon hats and bending their bodies in ways that just look painful. I haven’t been to the circus in years (and I don’t support them because I don’t believe in the animal cruelty that takes place at them). Luckily I saw no poor animals and I was having a blast. I felt like a little kid and wanted Jeremy, who is not quite as giddy and immature as me, to feel the same way. I decided that he should get his face painted. Being the great, easygoing boyfriend that he is, he agreed after I promised to do it too. And he could pick what was going to be painted on my face.  Sure, why not? I love being outrageous as much as possible.

Fifteen minutes later we were painted like little black cats and continued down the Ave. I had read that there was going to be a trapeze that you could pay and sign up to try. We came across it and I got a little knot in my stomach. I’ve always wanted to swing on one but I’m aeroacrophobic, or absolutely terrified of heights. This is something that definitely began in my adult life.  As a child I’d climb to the top of trees or jump off the roof into the pool with no fear.  Now I don’t even like climbing on the kitchen counter to reach something on the top shelf, so was I really going to climb this crazy ladder onto a little platform with no rails and then jump?

I guess I love trying new things and taking up on opportunities a little more than I’m afraid of heights. How many times is there going to be a trapeze in front of me that I can swing from for only $20? YOLO.

“What am I afraid of?  Getting hurt?  Dying?” I asked myself.  “What are the odds? You’ll regret not doing it.”  I’ve told myself this many times, before I zip-lined and jumped off cliffs in Jamaica and before I did the bungee free-fall at Six Flags.  I have accepted that while I may never overcome my fear of heights, I can at least make myself stronger than it for a few minutes.  Experience something new.  Say I did it.  Get the adrenaline pumping.  There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes after completing something that scares you.  I love it.

I signed my life away, strapped on the belt, told Jeremy to take lots of pictures and climbed the ladder without looking back (or down).  The worst part was the few seconds where I had to bend my knees and lean over the edge of the platform.  But once I was flying, I let go of all fear and made it the best experience possible.  I figured that I was already painted like a cat and flying on a trapeze, so why not hang from my knees and do a flip as well?  I’m glad to say that I can cross that one off my bucket list.

“On the Ave” events take place throughout the summer on selected Thursdays from 6-10 p.m. Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach is blocked off to traffic and replaced with live music, open house specials, gallery exhibitions and other fun little things to take in.

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