Amazingly, We All Survived Xmas

Happy New Year to you! I hope you’re doing well. And I hope your Xmas was nowhere near as interesting as mine. Not that it was actually interesting, but maybe you know what I mean.

It began on the 22nd of December when I started cleaning the holy hell out of the house (I even vacuumed the inside of the oven) because Spouse closed up his company for the rest of the year in the mid-afternoon and drove the 4-1/2 hours down to his parents. Because this year I was spared the horror that is spending the week of Xmas holed up in my in-laws’ dark and tiny abode. Instead I was subjected to the treat of having them here for what turned into 12 days. Because FIL wanted to come visit us one last time before it would be too difficult for him to do so and because Spouse had this overwhelming feeling like this would be the last Xmas he’d have with his father. I was told to pull out all the stops to make it nice (and to try to avoid being my normally overly territorial bulldog self, growing every time they failed to respect my boundaries (which is all the time)).

By the time 3pm on the 23rd rolled around, I’d burned 2000 extra calories in 2 days scrubbing everything into tip top shape (my MIL is the sort of German woman who literally cleans the bathroom in her home once an hour during waking hours), my nerves were frayed, I was exhausted, and the dog still needed a walk. So, of course, exactly as I was snapping the dog into his harness, they drove up.

The FIL of mine who stepped out of the backseat of the car was a shocking sight. He was strained, mute, exhausted, unbalanced and wobbling, and a strange color of red. Although I could see that something was not right, I attributed it to a combination of the progression of his Alzheimer’s and the rigors of the journey, and I proceeded to take the dog off for a 45 minute walk. I needed to calm my nerves and my in-laws needed time to relax and to get the cat settled into the attic room without the added stress of a terrier who’d love to shred a cat to bits.

When I got back, FIL was awake, but still red, mute, and exhausted. Seated at my spot at the kitchen table, he was drinking coffee and eating Christmas cookies. I went upstairs to say Hi to the cat. Shortly thereafter, chaos erupted. Spouse cracked the door open, the dog rushed in, and all three of us—myself, Spouse, and MIL—started yelling at the dog, who was jumping up on MIL, who was holding the yowling, struggling, terrified cat.

Five minutes. That’s probably all it was that my FIL was left alone on his own.

I was the one who found him either asleep or unconscious at the kitchen table, with his forehead carefully lowered down onto the pillar-like headrest he’d created by stacking one clenched fist on top of the other.

The strange red he’d turned had gone darker.

It was roughly 4pm at this point.

Although this whole thing felt wrong, we ceded to MIL, who coaxed him into semi-consciousness and shuffled him off to bed in the guest bedroom I’d set up downstairs (because stairs are totally out of the question these days, FIL’s feet are so numb from neuropathy and his balance is a thing of the past).

At 5pm, I started making dinner—braised chichory with fried mushrooms and mashed potatoes, in case you were wondering. At 6pm, MIL tried to wake FIL for dinner, but failed. So we all sort of miserably pecked at our food without him. Because it just didn’t feel right.

By 6:30, we finally caved into that thought. MIL went off to wake FIL. Like, really seriously wake him. And that’s when the panic began. Because it was not possible to wake him.

Spouse rushed in and he and MIL began bellowing at FIL. Then they resorted to slapping him hard across his face. His eyes would blink and roll in response to the shadow cast by the hand about to slap him, but, beyond that, he was catatonic.

At this point, Spouse called the paramedics. Then Spouse and I fought to get FIL into the recovery position. That was a battle! Because FIL wasn’t limp and pliable, but as stiff and rigid as a big, thick plank, as if every single one of his muscles was contracted. Yet his face seemed relaxed and vacant, and horribly, horribly rust red.

When Spouse went out to stand on the street in front of our house (which is hard to find) and wait for the ambulance, I sat with FIL. Saying his name, I shook his shoulder gently. But he did not respond. Then I tried to get the pillow under his head into a better position, because his head was twisted at a funny, uncomfortable looking angle. But I failed because FIL’s neck was also frozen stiff, immobilizing his head at the strange angle. Lastly, I stroked his cheek. Again, I got no response, except for that flutter of his eyelids in response to the shadow cast by my moving hand. I’d say it was like he wasn’t there, except it was more like he was locked in there so deeply, there was no reaching him.

Then—bam!— they were there. SIX paramedics, absurdly wiping their boots a billion times on the doormat with remorse, as if it mattered at all in this circumstance whether they tracked some mud in over the tiled floor.

The dog, who, perhaps sensing FIL’s precarious state, has always been very protective of FIL. He also goes cuckoo for visitors. So when he started going ballistic, I grabbed him and hauled him upstairs and sat with him, trying to keep him from barking and howling hysterically. And so it went for the next half hour or so, me staring out the window at the bright orange hazard lights blinking from the front, back, and top of the ambulance in our driveway—alerting all of the neighbors, who were clearly going to have questions for us tomorrow—all the while wondering what was going on downstairs.

The paramedics found that FIL’s blood sugar and blood pressure were all normal. Eventually, they decided that they couldn’t tell if he was having a seizure or a stroke. They managed to get FIL semi-coherently sitting up. Then they loaded him onto a gurney, loaded that into the ambulance, and drove him off to the hospital 40 minutes away, which was the closest hospital that was still admitting patients (because it was not yet full of people with RSV, the flu, and/or Covid).

Times being what they are, we were told to remain at home and wait for a doctor to phone.

So, that was a fun four hours of waiting, all of us imagining that FIL had had a massive stroke hours earlier and that it would have horrific, life-changing consequences for FIL (and, by extension, MIL). Roughly every hour, the admitting doc would phone to ask a question about FIL or to say they still didn’t know what was wrong with him; they needed to do more tests.

Until, roughly around 11pm, the doc phoned to say that just as they had decided that FIL must have had a massive stroke and were in the process of injecting him with a powerful blood thinner, FIL blinked back into consciousness and asked where he was and could he please use the bathroom. (Sly creature that he still is, he did not ask who he was—because of course this would have all sorts of dramatic consequences—although he confessed to us later that for the first few minutes, he had no idea what his name was or where he lived.)

The hospital kept him overnight for observation and, miraculously, released him back into our care in the early afternoon on Xmas Eve, just in time for us to celebrate with the typical German Xmas Eve dinner (which I find horrendously depressing) of boiled hot dogs and cold potato salad.

Although FIL had one or two more smaller “neurological events” (which a doc we spoke to later said were either actual strokes or potential precursors of strokes) during his stay, we managed to more or less have a proper Xmas, with a big duck dinner on Xmas afternoon, and a big venison stew dinner on the afternoon of the 26th (well, no, not me; I ate veggie burgers both times). And we played lots of Jenga (which turns out to fascinate my now clearly mentally decimated FIL). And we had a torturously dull New Year’s Eve dinner over at our neighbors’ (ugh…6 hours of sitting miserably, trying to find an interesting topic of conversation). Meaning that we somehow all managed to survive the holidays… even when you consider we had to draw them out until the 4th, when FIL finally seemed fit enough to be driven home.

There is so much that I could say about all of this, besides those cold hard facts. Like don’t take the wonders that are your body and your brain for granted. Enjoy their powers every day. Because unless you die young and suddenly, one day, your body and/or brain won’t be able to do all the marvelous things, big and small, that you can’t even conceive of not being able to do. Even when life is long, prime time finally passes, and there will no longer be any doing of the things you’d always meant to or had meant to do more of.

But also the convoluted logic of the demented brain is fascinating (at least if it belongs to, say, your FIL as opposed to your own father). The workarounds FIL comes up with to avoid revealing he doesn’t know someone’s name anymore, faking his way through it or figuring out who the person is from the available details… Or the way FIL communicates during those days when the words just won’t come. Fundamental understanding of things (like how to operate basic things, or what is or isn’t an appropriate thing to say) may fail him, but at the same time, he’s just as smart as he ever was. It’s a strange paradox.

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