March 16

16. Marts

I just read a pretty good explanation of this holiday here... so I don’t need to completely rehash it. The basic idea is that this is a Veteran’s Day march for the specific group of Latvians who fought in World War II. The problem, of course, is that those men who were drafted into the German army, like my father and uncles, were given the SS tag and later called “Nazis.”

When I was growing up in small town America, I heard slurs from both sides of the aisle. Because Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union, there were people who called me a “Commie!” and a “Ruski!” and made fun of me for that. I chose to simply ignore their ignorance. Latvia never had a choice in the matter.

However, the issue of being “Nazis” was a bit more difficult to deal with. My father and my mother’s family both owed a debt to Germany after the war. When Latvia fell to the Soviets, it was Germany, a war torn impoverished country with issues of its own, which took my people in and fed them and housed them when they needed it. Because of this, I grew up hearing these stories from my mother about how the Germans kept track of every single item that they took with them on the ship when they left Riga, and my father singing German marching songs with my uncles. It was something they had in common.

I read the post which I referenced above, and it seems to completely absolve the Latvian soldiers from any allegiance to the Germans during the war, but honestly, this isn’t the way I understood it while I was growing up. My father and my uncles definitely felt an allegiance toward the Germans. I do not know what would make one cross the line from being a supporter of Germany in WWII to being a “nazi”, but I don’t think there was much separating the two in my family.

I am not writing to simply whitewash or excuse this history, but trying to understand and cope with it.

Today, I had a break during our debate tournament (see the side notes below) for lunch, and I rode my bike to the march to see what I could see. I could not believe how cold it was. When I rode this morning, it was not nearly as frigid as it would become only a few hours later. Otherwise, it was a gorgeous sunny day. I approached the monument and saw a crowd of people, but more police than anything else. They stood out in their neon, glowing green vests, surrounding the monument with yellow barricades. It was an impressive show of force to make sure that the peace was kept. Then, at about 11:00 a.m., the procession slowly moved from Old Town to the monument square in front of the Laima clock. The march itself was silent. People carried flags and flowers. Men and women, young and old, walked quietly across the street toward the monument. It was one of the most peaceful marches I had ever seen. And as I stood in front of the Liberty Monument, watching the bystanders and police watching in the freezing March morning air, protecting the marchers, I felt lots of emotion.

I saw three old men talking about the old days. I saw the marchers, and I thought about Vitauts, my father, and how he would love to be here to share stories with all of these men who went through what he went through. He was only 15 when the draft orders came through, and he left his home and his family to go fight in a war that really had nothing to do with him.

The war swept him away, as it swept millions of people away, as war does. But here, on this day, those few remaining souls came together to march down the street holding Latvian flags, celebrating the service that they completed so long ago. It was… nice.

I am happy that the reports of protests were exaggerated. I did a search for news, this link was the first to show up. One protester was arrested at an otherwise completely peaceful march. There were no Nazi flags. I saw one sign protesting about these people being lovers of Adolf Hitler, but that was about it.

In America, we have similar arguments about what should be celebrated and what should be forgotten. I have no real insight on any of these issues. I just know that in this case, my father would have appreciated being surrounded by others who went through what he went through… as mixed up and turbulent as it must have been here from 1939-1945… and then under Soviet rule for 60 years… I think we can give these people a little slack when they want to celebrate some Latvian pride.

Photos:

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Side Note:

After a semester of frustration, I finally got a team to commit to going to the Riga Go! debate tournament. I am now an international speech and debate coach. I can check that off of my list. Impressions? It was neat to see an Opening Ceremony at a tournament. I like the idea of making these contests more meaningful with some kind of pageantry. Here they had each nation send up delegates to represent. There was some singing and some speeches. Most of it was in Russian, so I didn’t fully understand, but it was still cool.

The tournament lasted two days, and the organizers provided mixers and excursions for those visiting from out of town. The main topic was about cryptocurrency, and we prepared for it pretty well. Then there were two impromptu rounds where students were given a topic and 30 minutes to prepare a case. What an interesting challenge!

The debates themselves were a bit sloppy in terms of structure and argumentation, but it was great to see these kids putting in such an effort to debate in English as their second language. What a great way to put language into action! They were enthusiastic and very fierce with their engaging rhetoric.

My kids went 1-2 and got a bye in the final round. Four teams went to semi-finals, we were not one of those teams. The results were okay considering this was our first contest. I have a feeling that we all learned quite a bit about the Karl Popper style and format. Like so many other things in life, you don’t really get it until you experience it.

I have to share this final video of one of the speakers singing during the opening ceremony. I have never heard a voice quite like hers. I had the pleasure of judging her during a round and thanking her for her incredible singing! I hope you enjoy…

Vitauts Turns 90

Have Good Living

It seems like there should be something written here about my dad who turned 90 years old on November 1, 2017. I have done some interviews and recordings with him over the years, and I used one line in the video I made for his party that stands out for me. “My father hugged me and say, ‘Have good living.'”

Dad left his farm just outside of the small town of Smiltene, Latvia when he was sixteen years, and he didn’t return for about 60 years when when he had known was already gone. But I do not think one could argue that he did not have “good living.”

I was just looking at his old photos and tears welled up in my eyes when I thought about all that he has seen and done in his lifetime. At age 45, I am half his age, and it really is hard to imagine doing this for another 45 years. Vitauts worked until he was 87. Who does that? He worked full-time at 4 different parishes across Nebraska and worked part-time at a couple more in Omaha and Des Moines, Iowa. Who can even fathom how many people he has served in his years as a pastor?

It was great to see people show up from different congregations for his party at the Yutan Country Club this Sunday. He was smiling in almost every photo, posing with people from his past who all have fond memories of Pastor Grinvalds.

I am not sure if I have unearthed any special connection to my father since I have moved to Latvia, seeking my heritage, but I have begun to understand his and my mother’s ways a little bit more. So many of the little quirks and habits of theirs seem very familiar now that I am surrounded by Latvians.

One quality that Vitauts has that is deeply rooted is his work ethic and drive. In all of his years working to raise his seven children, did I ever hear him complain? Did he ever call in sick? Was he ever not ready for his job? Even on the day I was born, the weekend his oldest son passed away, and even when Liesma died, he was dressed on Sunday doing his job. What a forgotten quality this is as we find ourselves pampered by first world problems and the constant whining of the modern world.

To look at Vitauts’ life of overcoming one obstacle after another, is to realize that human potential is about effort. Drive and perseverance are two qualities that dad exemplifies like no other person that I have ever met. To hear his stories about almost dying when he was young from a tooth infection, or diseases in displaced persons camps, or his travels across America in search of a better life is to be inspired.

So this is just a little happy birthday message from Jeff, Vitauts’ youngest son, who can only wish to be half the man at 45 that he was an is.

daudz laimes dzimšanas dienā


Time is Different in Latvia

16.9.17

I think I have mentioned this before, but one big difference that I have felt but been unable to express is that Time is different here. I was talking with a colleague this morning, trying to explain what I meant, but it is so hard to describe in rational terms because we all know that time is relative. Time for you is different than time for me. Time here or there, however, should be constant, shouldn’t it?

But I continually find myself in time warps. Right now, for example, I am sitting at my desk in the classroom during our lunch break. The lunch break is only forty minutes long. I went downstairs, bought a piece of pizza bread and juice, came back upstairs, ate it in another room. Then I walked back to my classroom expecting the bell to ring soon. NO! I still have 15 minutes left, and this is after sitting at my desk preparing my lessons for the next two classes. It is like there are these bubbles of time in Latvia, and you find yourself floating, like Glinda, in your own magical bubble as the world goes on around you.

This is not the first time I have felt this way. I remember now, writing about how time is different. Mornings seem to last forever, and this is also true. Maybe there is some compression theory when you go from a country that is so large and has so many people to a much smaller place, there is some kind of actual mental compression that happens to you. You idea of time and social structures is out of balance because you are not bombarded by 350 million thoughts in the same general space. Okay, so this idea is going to get a bit wacky, but what if that is true? What if we are affected and impacted by our collective thoughts. I am no longer in the hive of the United States of America, but in a new hive with far fewer bees. So what if this allows me to slow down, reform my thoughts, to process less and to feel like there is more time to do everything?

Maybe it is like Superman. He came from a planet with a red sun, and now the yellow sun gives him these super powers. It could be true, couldn’t it? I am not saying I have super powers or anything, but it does feel like everything is different. Rice cooks faster. My tomato sauce is ready almost instantly. I can ride my bike from one end of Riga to the other in no time at all. It takes me five minutes to commute by bike from my flat to school. The same commute in Omaha left me sweaty, breathless, and took at least 30 minutes. I am not making this up.

Time is so strange, that I started writing this post a few days ago, and it feels like it has only been a few minutes. So much happens, and yet, the compression effect can seem to work both ways. Did it take me three hours to make coffee this morning? I think it did. But it is all relative, I think.

Today, I rode my bike home from the Depo. I found this shortcut under the bridge and followed this punk rock dude. I caught up to him and asked if he liked punk rock. He replied, “I don’t like it, I am it.” He didn’t like any of the bands I like, but faster, more thrasher/metal punk. We talked for about six seconds, and suddenly I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” I swear, I some how rode about 10 blocks out of my way in the time it took to ask him two questions. I looked at my map and had no idea which way I was going. Distortion. Time. Distance. All of it loses meaning when you are here.

I think I have said all I need to say, and I do not have any photos to show time other than a screenshot of a map and some other photos I took today as the rain pelted me.

Be free in your thinking. Allow yourself to wander and wonder. Consider all possibilities.

Side note: The same word is used in Latvia for time and weather… “Laiks.” Go figure. What does it mean? I don’t know. I just know I got rained on today.

 

Random photos!

 

 

 

Vitauts: May 22, 2017

Forgetting How to Cook

Vitauts peeling potatoes

I remember when my ex-ex-mother-in-law was ill or away for a few days. My ex-ex-father-in-law didn’t really know how to cook anything. This was a bit of a shock for me, but I guess it is a fairly common thing for American men of a certain generation.

However, this has never been the case for Vitauts. Dad has always cooked. He never relied on Liesma to prepare his food for him; in fact, he rarely ate what we were eating.

His recipes were spartan and masculine. Pork chops, fried in lard with potatoes and a small salad on the side. Lamb chops, fried with potatoes and some bread. Bacon. So many varieties of fried and baked bacon.

When we were little, on some weekends or days we were home sick, dad might have woken up before mom, and he would make us French Toast or his lamb chops. One of my friends liked his pork coutlets and his steak tartar. He was no gourmet, but he could hold his own with his fried crispy blood sausage or fried kielbasas.

So when he moved in with me, one concern outsiders had was, “Who feeds him.” Vitauts has never really been one to be fed by anyone. Each morning, I would see him with this beautifully balanced breakfast with a grapefruit and some sandwiches. When I came home from school at lunch time, there he would be, frying up some masterpiece to be enjoyed at the table with his newspaper. Supper was usually leftovers from lunch or some other prepared meal.

He would go through potatoes, pork chops, bacon and sausages quickly and need to replenish his supply every few days.

But lately, I noticed that he hasn’t been cooking as often. I wasn’t aware of what a trend it had become until I saw him put raw bacon on a sandwich. “Why don’t you cook that?” I asked. “It takes too long,” he said. Weird. I had to coax him to even boil some potatoes.

The bacon and sausages and pork chops sat uncooked in the fridge, so I asked him about them. I pulled out a pan and the chops for him, and eventually he went to cooking them. He enjoyed them immensely, and I warmed them up for his supper later. The bacon, however, remained.

So last night he was kind of sulking in the kitchen, looking for something to eat but claiming that he wasn’t hungry. “Cook your bacon!” I told him. And he said he would, but then he went back to his room to sit down and watch t.v. I went back in and asked if he wanted the bacon. “There is bacon?” he asked.

So I got the ball rolling. I started frying the bacon, and he walked into the kitchen to see what I was doing. He took over cooking with a fork, carefully crisping each piece. After it was finished, he devoured the whole slab.

Today, I went home for lunch at 12:30, and he hadn’t eaten yet. He was protesting as he does about not being hungry and this and that. I put an uneaten kielbasa and some boiled potatoes out on the counter. He walked in, looked at them, and after a few minutes he muttered, “These need to be warmed up. How do I warm them up?”

He was completely confused about what to do with cold food. Suddenly, the gift of cooking was now a mystery to him. He literally did not know what to do with it. I told him to get a pan, get some oil, and fry it up, but he looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about. So I went into the kitchen, and got one of my cast iron pans with some grease in it, and set it on the stove. “You just put the meat and potatoes in here and fry it up.” He still looked confused, but soon went to cutting up the potatoes and sausage. He did a really lovely job of that.

I left before he started cooking, but I think I gave him enough tools and suggestions to get him going.

I can only hope that this is a temporary loss of memory. You can’t forget something you have known your whole life, can you? I suppose you can. You read stories about it all the time. But forgetting names and events is one thing, but forgetting the fundamental nature of your being? That seems entirely ludicrous and cruel.

On a side note, he has also forgotten at times what he did with his life. He didn’t know he was a pastor for over 50 years. One of my friends sent me a program from a school of divinity that listed Vitauts Grinvalds and three of his classmates from the Fremont Seminary: 60 Year Anniversary. Pretty amazing there, VG.

p.s. I’m still off Facebook. It’s been two weeks or so since my last actually login. This and other posts to FB come from my other social media accounts. Enjoy, but if I don’t respond, that’s why. JG. So send thoughts or comments to me via gmail. Thanks!

Vitauts: March 13, 2017

Wintery March and the Caddy

Monday the 13th has been a strange day.

It was the first work day after the Spring Forward of Daylight Savings Time. It is the day after my birthday. There was snow on the ground when I left for work, and people were driving slowly. And, apparently, it’s a full moon.

I knew it was going to be just a little off.

This morning, I left Vitauts a note, like I usually do, telling him what day it is, giving him some affirmations, and explaining that I would take him to the store after work to get some food and whatever. I saw him at lunch time and reminded him that we would go to the store together. However, when I came home, I realized that my right hearing aid was missing, and this preoccupied my time. I was busy searching everywhere with a flashlight thinking that the pesky cat had gotten it… again. I don’t think I reminded dad about the store again before I went back to school.

When I came home from work at an unusually early 4:00 p.m., I noticed that the Cadillac was not where I had left it this morning. Vitauts had not been driving, and had not driven since he had come home from the hospital. This was worrisome. I texted my brother Al, and he said that I should go looking for papa. I told him that I’d wait. He sometimes took awhile in the supermarket, and where would I even begin looking?

After anxiously waiting and doing some more searching for the missing hearing aid, my phone rang. It was my sister, Andra. She told me that dad called her because he was lost and out of gas. She reported his location as “Fort Calhoun Road.” I did a quick search, and found that this was indeed a road in Fort Calhoun. How did he get to Fort Calhoun? Neither of us had a clue, but we decided to go ahead and start driving. I got my shoes on and started to leave when the phone rang again. This time it was dad.

I was worried about calling him because he never hears the phone ringing, and he acts confused when he picks up, if he picks up. But he was calling me. I answered, and he explained that he was lost and out of gas. I asked him where he was, but he didn’t know. So I asked him to hand the phone to somebody nearby. He found a kind man who said he couldn’t help him, but he gave me the exact address. He was in Bellevue on Fort Crook Road, and not Fort Calhoun.

Luckily, Al was planning on coming over, and he lives in Papillion which is much closer to Bellevue than I am. He agreed to swing by and help dad out. He dreaded the drive home imagining dad trying to follow him, but they made it back together in one piece.

Vitauts Home Again

Dad walked in with a bag from CVS pharmacy which is about two blocks up the street from our house. The bag contained only a container of milk and some instant coffee. He used to walk to the CVS when he felt better. So somehow, he drove from the CVS on 90th and Blondo, all the way to Bellevue, and he would have just kept driving if the car hadn’t run out of gas. I would estimate that he drove over 100 miles. Who knows when he left the house? I’m just thankful that he finally ran out of gas, and that nothing too tragic happened. He did tell Alan that, “I have never been in so much trouble.” Al and I agreed that he had probably had more miserable times in his life, but to him, right now, this was the worst.

After settling in and making sure Vitauts was okay, Al and I sat down to do some work on our Fantasy Brackets game, and I told him about my hearing aid. He said that he had noticed dad messing with it when it was on the coffee table in the living room the day before. That was where I had last left it, and I just assumed that the cat had dragged it somewhere or I had misplaced it. But this was strange. “Yeah, he didn’t know what it was, and he kind of picked it up and looked at it. I told him it was your hearing aid, and he put it back down saying, ‘So that’s what this is.'”

I was immediately suspicious. I went to the kitchen and started digging through the trash. Nothing at the top, but I had a feeling. I took the plastic newspaper bag, and sifted through the coffee grounds and other nasty sediments at the bottom of the can.

This is a good time to explain that dad doesn’t understand the concept of trashcan liner bags. He walks around the house every day like a janitor and reaches into each trashcan in every room, manually pulling out each piece of trash and putting it into a new bag. He then puts all of this debris in the larger kitchen trashcan. And if the kitchen bag gets full, rather than take out the bag, he will reach into the disgusting, smelly kitchen trash and manually move piece of trash from the larger bag to a new empty bag. He has never emptied a trashcan in the “normal” fashion in his life. He says he never learned and he doesn’t know how. I had to write him a note not to touch the kitchen trash because after awhile, it reeks. It’s also really gross to think about this poor, old Latvian immigrant who has worked so hard his whole life digging into the trash with his bare hands.

My Found Hearing Aid

So, as I dug, I found it. It was buried in the bottom, covered in coffee. My $2500 hearing aid was in the trashcan for no other reason than I had set it on the table where dad could see it. Last year, when I lost my other hearing aid, I blamed the cat, and I blamed myself. I had to pay for a replacement. Now, I’m pretty sure it was dad all along. Why would he choose that one item out of all the other trashy looking items that he leaves alone or purposefully saves? You tell me. Was it an accident?

I asked him about it and he said he didn’t do it. He said that there was no way he could have done it. “There must have been some mistake.”

Yes, I suppose there was.

So the full moon. The 13th day. Monday. It’s all over now, and everything is much better. I am just hoping for a less eventful Tuesday and rest of the week!

 

Vitauts Update: March 1, 2017

Dad a the Doctor

I took dad to the good Doctor S. again yesterday. All the way there he gave me the same lecture about how he had driven these roads many times and how he used to know how to drive there. When we got to the office, he asked the name of the doctor, so I pointed to the door. “Ah, yes, I see,” he said, repeating the name. Then, once we were inside, he asked at least ten more times, “What is her name again?”

The nurse told us that she was running late because she had been making a hospital visit, so she took dad back to take his vitals and to draw some blood. Then we sat and waited.

As we sat there, he remembered how he had been “coming here for years”, and how he used to “come with Liesma.” This isn’t true, of course. He has now started this new habit of referring to Liesma as “mom” or “mother.” It took me a minute to figure out who he was talking about. And now, when he talks about my siblings, he refers to them as “our children,” as if I am one of the familial patriarchs. Everything feels a bit upside down.

When Dr. S finally got to the examination room, she hadn’t really read his chart nor gotten the updates from the hospital. When she finally looked and realized how serious it was, her mood got so dark so quickly. She was apologetic and asked if there was anything she could do. We were talking about dad’s heart and how well he was doing for how weak it was, and dad was kind of listening. At one point he said, “I know you are talking about me, but I do not know what you are saying.” He kept asking about his medicines and he wanted to know which ones he was on. He didn’t seem concerned about his health at all.

The most powerful part of the whole experience was the helplessness on Dr. S’s face when she asked, “Is there anything I can do for you, Jeff?” I was just sitting there, looking at my phone, trying not to get choked up thinking about it all.

Trader Joes

Then we drove to Trader Joes, and dad bought some cheese and meat for sandwiches. I swear, he has more cheese and meet for sandwiches than anyone could ever want. He got a little lost looking for a bottle of wine, and decided not to buy anything.

When we got home, he helped me learn some Latvian and we talked about the future. I have been trying to interview him each day with a different topic, jogging his memory. Last night, he was playing solitaire, like he does, and I asked him how he learned how to play and to share some memories about playing cards. He talked about one “old guy” who used to play with them that they called “The Cheater.” I don’t recall anyone by that nickname, so I’m wondering if it’s a real memory?

 

The Good Old Days

Liesma and Vitauts
Vitauts Kicking

Vitauts in the Hospital: February 10-13

“Old Age is no Fun”

After visiting Dr. S, we came home and it snowed. School was not called off on that Wednesday as it probably should have been, and I drove my Honda through the messy streets, picking up donuts for my morning class, and barely making it up Dodge street to 90th.

By lunch time, the roads were mostly clear, so I drove home, as I usually do to check on dad. It was trash day, and since moving in, dad has diligently pulled the trashcan back into the garage after the garbage men come by. He also has never, ever not gotten the paper in the morning. But today, both the trashcan and the paper were where I had left them in the morning. Unusual.

With my imagination, I automatically fear the worse. With an elderly parent, you just never know. I went inside and walked upstairs, and he was sitting in his room. Alive and well. “Dad, are you okay? You didn’t get the paper.” I handed him the orange bag holding the daily news.

“Jā, I am okay, I mean. But my leg hurts. I have some cramp and I did not feel like going anywhere.” And that was that. He seemed okay other than the sore leg.

The next day, he had gotten the paper as usual, but when I came home from school, he again complained of a cramp in his leg. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a cramp anymore.

On Friday, he was supposed to go to my aunt Valda’s house for a lunch party with his cousin John. Andra, my sister, happened to stop by while I was at school grading papers. She called me and said that he didn’t want to go to the party because his leg hurt, and he didn’t even want to stand up.

“It’s not a cramp,” I told her. “Have him check out his leg to see if there is any bruising or discoloration.” I was worried about some kind of blood clot or something. He refused to do any self check, and my colleagues overheard my phone call, so they all said to go home. They would cover me.

So I went home, and John and Andra were there with my cousin-in-law who is a nurse. She had a stethoscope and was taking his pulse and heart rate. He was panting in the chair. I called the doctor, and she said to give him some ibuprofen, and if the pain didn’t go away to take him to the doctor. I called back to tell her about his breathing, and they said to take him into the emergency room.

It was hard to convince him to go. He was very disoriented, and his voice was high pitched. I think he was in more pain than he would let any of us know.

After checking him in and doing some tests, the doctor told us that he had suffered a heart attack at some point in the last few days. The leg pain was likely a sign of that. He didn’t even know. He never complained about his chest hurting or anything like that. They gave him nitro glycerin and a blood thinner and checked him into the hospital.

He stayed for three days with visits from all of his children who wrote messages on the board in his room. He made the nurses laugh, and, of course, they all loved him.

One nurse asked how to pronounce his name. She got it after a couple of tries and said, “Vitauts? Where is that from?”

“It is Spanish,” dad replied, holding in the laughter the way he does, then smiling. “No, it is Latvian. My mom liked the name, so she chose the name.

We had a sobering talk with the doctors who said that he has congestive heart failure. His heart is not pumping nearly as much blood out as it needs to, and this leads to stress and strain, low oxygen levels and shortness of breath. There isn’t really anything they can do for him at this point, so we just want to make sure he is comfortable and that he doesn’t try to over exert himself.

The good news is that he came home on Monday, and he seems okay. He is not quite as spry as he has been, but he’s 89, and he still gets around the house, cooks his meals and takes care of himself. What more can you ask for?

On a side note, yesterday  we talked about his illness, and he didn’t quite remember being in the hospital. I showed him some photos of him in his bed, and he didn’t really recognize himself. He found it quite unflattering. I guess this is when losing your memory is kind of a good thing. You may be able to simply erase the bad experiences like wiping a chalkboard clean.

Oh, and another little story… throughout his visit to the hospital, he kept telling the nurses that he wasn’t hungry. He has a speech that I can deliver almost by rote. “I am not hungry, I mean. When you don’t work,  and you don’t really do anything all day, you don’t really have an appetite.” He will go on with this little speech for a few minutes. Then you put a plate of food in front of him, and it magically disappears. Even after the meal, when the nurse was collecting the plates, he would protest and say, “I didn’t really eat much because…” but most of the food was gone. It’s a wonderful world.

A few choice quotes about food. Given a bowl of soup, he looked at it and stated: “This soup? This soup is not for me.”

Given a plate with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, he said, after eating most of it, “This meat? This meat is difficult.”

And finally, “Old age is no fun, that I know. No, seriously!”

Doctor Dementia Feb. 7, 2017

I am trying to deal with yesterday’s visit to the doctor, so I’m writing it out.

Vitauts went to a neurologist in December for a dementia test. Susan and Andra brought him for what he described as “three hours of torture.” The neurologist asked him question after question after question making notes of what dad could remember and what dad could not.

The report was sent to my family practitioner, Doctor S., who is a wonderful woman, and who, I think, really loves Vitauts as so many other people do.

I finally made an appointment to discuss the results of the test, and dad and I went in together. I think I was a bit edgy just because I knew what the report would say. I am trying to be better about understanding my own feelings, but it wasn’t until today that I realized why I was tired and cranky yesterday afternoon.

After waiting a while, and watching dad kind of stumble his way through the waiting room, forgetting where he was and who his doctor was (despite me giving him a card with her name on it), we sat together waiting for Dr. S. The nurse was already enamored by dad, praising him and joking with him. He was smiling and laughing as he does, and he even took her arm as she led him to the examination room.

As we were sitting there, I had a conversation sparked by his question which seemed to come from nowhere, “Ja, and I do you know where Liesma, my dear wife, is buried?” I answered, “Of course I know, and so do you.”

“No. I do not.”

“Yes, you do. Think about it.”

He wouldn’t actually think about it, instead, just insisting that he couldn’t remember. So I tried a little memory exercise. “Name any town you’ve lived in.” He couldn’t. “Tell me where you were born.”

“Latvia.”

“Yes, what town?”

“I do not know.” I was pretty disheartened by this exchange.

“Yes, you do! Remember? We were there. Think about where your mom and dad…”

“Smiltene?” He remembered. We were getting somewhere.

“Yes!” I shouted. “Now, where did you live when you came to the United States?”

Nothing. He was drawing a blank. “I don’t even think I know where I live, I mean.” He said, dejected.

“Okay, how about presidents… do you remember the president who freed the slaves?”

He thought for a moment, “Lincoln?”

“Yes, and the town that Liesma is buried in?”

“Lincoln.”

“And you should remember Lincoln because you used to … ” I was waiting for him to fill in the blank, but he wasn’t getting it. “For 23 years, what did you do in Lincoln?”

He was a pastor at the church, the same church we still go to every now and then. But he couldn’t remember. This is what struck me so deeply. He was a pastor for sixty years, and here he had forgotten that part of his identity. How is that even possible?

Dr. S came in, and we had a wonderful visit. The neurologist suggested in her notes that dad find some groups to join and some social activities at some senior care facilities throughout the week. I told her that dad really wouldn’t like that. We had a conversation about what his daily activities were including his daily routing of doing puzzles, playing cards and cooking meals. She said that sounded fine. She understood him when he explained that he had already me thousands of people in his lifetime, and he didn’t really want to meet anymore.

“He is my kind of people,” she said. “That’s how I’d like to be when I retire. No pressure. On my own terms.”

I felt validated. For the past month, I’ve been feeling so guilty about leaving dad at home to himself, as if he is in some prison. But when you turn it around, and point out that he is doing what he wants, on his own terms, and he doesn’t need to be told what to do or where to go, I feel a little better.

The next part of the visit got a bit scarier. “How bad is it?” I asked.

She said he had dementia, and she described what would happen as it progressed. “He will forget how to dress, how to go to the bathroom, how to do his own cooking. He will forget who you are and eventually forget himself.”

We were sitting there discussing the fate of my father right in front of him, and yet he was oblivious of our conversation. The disconnect was unsettling. I could already see signs of Vitauts’ world getting smaller. He no longer drove very far away from home. He didn’t like to leave the house. He didn’t even like to visit with his children.

The worst part of it all is that he is quite aware of this memory loss. He knows it and it eats at him, gnawing at him each day when he cannot remember simple things that he knows he should.

During the examination, Dr. S proclaimed her love for this man. She even said she would marry him if she could. He does have that affect on people. Charming. He made a few jokes with her, and she was just taken with his wit. Here is a man who doesn’t even know where he is sometimes, but he can crack a joke about anything. How the mind works! It’s just so strange.

She prescribed him a dementia medicine, Namenda, that doesn’t sound too promising, but also doesn’t really have many side effects. She suggested that it won’t reverse the effects, but it may slow them down. After all, dad could and probably will live for several more years. He’s incredibly healthy, so we need to do what we can to maintain as good a life as possible.

It’s just too bad that we can’t do more.

Vitauts takes out the Trash

vitauts-1-1Yesterday was Wednesday, trash day. I didn’t realize it until I got home from school only to see empty recycling bins and garbage cans lining the block.

“Shoot!” I thought, now we have to wait a week to empty the trash. Oh well, no big deal.

Then, it wasn’t until Thursday evening that I looked into the big bin in the garage to find it completely empty. Dad took out the trash? My 89-year old father?

He was playing solitaire at the table like he does, and I asked him, “Did you take out the trash?”

“Ja. Ja, I did take it out,” he replied, seemingly remembering.

“How did you know it was trash day?” He has trouble remembering what day it is, even if I tell him in the morning, at lunch and when I get home in the evening.

“When I looked outside, I saw all the trashcans on the curb, so I knew it was the day, and I took it to the curb.”

This isn’t a small trashcan. This is a big, gray model with wheels. He is so conscientious it is amazing.

The whole situation just made me reassured that dad does not have Alzheimers or some bigger issue. He has terrific cognitive functioning, and he can figure things out just as well as he always could. It’s just his memory is gone. It has faded, and steadily declined over the years.

Tonight, as he was playing cards, he asked me again, “What day is tomorrow?”

“It’s going to be Friday, dad.”

“Friday, yes, I forgot already. I used to remember everything, every name, everyone. But now my memory is not so good. Now I don’t even remember what day it is.”

But that’s okay because he remembered Trash Day!

 

Just one more note on how conscientious he is… if Alex, the cat, is sitting in his chair, he will lie on the bed or go to another room so as not to disturb Alex. Who does that?

Vitauts, that’s who.

Vitauts and the Gas

cadillac 2 - 1I got a phone call today at school during my second day of speech camp. It was my father. His car had broken down, he wasn’t sure where he was or what was wrong, but he needed help. Thankfully, some nice Samaritan had pushed his car of the busy main road and stayed with him. She was able to explain where he was, so I could go pick him up.

I apologized to my student and co-coach, and left to go see how I could help Vitauts out. All the way I was thinking, “Oh, no. I bought a lemon.” After his first Cadillac was stolen, I bought him another, much newer and fancier one thinking it was a good deal. But since then a power window has broken, and the transmission light comes on, so I was worried that it was something serious.

On a side note, my brother Paul has a theory that dad will never see himself as a “Cadillac Man,” so no matter how many Cadillacs I buy him, he will never think he is driving a “real” Cadillac. He keeps dogging on the ones I get for him. He doesn’t think they are up to snuff. I am thinking that he is probably right.

I drove to the New Cassel Retirement center near our home, and I saw the Cadillac parked nearby with a big pickup behind it. The good Samaritans were waiting. Even as I drove by slowly, dad was on his phone calling me again. He was looking right at my car, but it wasn’t registering at all that I was driving it. He didn’t realize it was me until I rolled down the window and waved.

I pulled up bumper to bumper in case I had to give him a jump start. The good Samaritan left without saying a word, and I waved goodbye. Then I tried to start the 2004 Cadillac DeVille. It turned over fine, started and then died. Out of gas. Completely empty. Dad admitted that he didn’t know where the gas gauge was, and he didn’t really know how to put gas in this particular car.

We drove home, got a gas can, and came back to give it another try. By this time, the battery was dead because I guess he had been trying to start it over and over.

This whole scenario is funny and fits into a running theme that Chris, my nephew, has about his grandpa in his later years. Chris thinks that lots of these things that dad does are actually revenge plays. He lets water run in the kitchen for hours while preparing food or washing dishes. When we were little, he would always yell at us for leaving the water running.

And now, here he was, running out of gas just like I used to do in my 1979 Oldsmobile 98 back in high school. My mom would always joke about how she knew that the white car on the side of the road on Friday nights as they drove home from our cousin’s house was mine. And usually it was. I would drive that thing until the tank was dry, and then leave it on the side of the road somewhere to walk home. Maybe this was dad’s little moment of revenge?

Either way, I coaxed him to open the door to the gas tank. The button is on the dashboard in plain sight, and there is a picture of a gas pump on it. Yet he could not for the life of him find the button. Eventually he did, but it took several tries to get the stupid door open. American quality shining through in this beast.

We got the gas in the tank, but as I suspected the battery was dead. I gave it a jump start, it cranked and started, and we were on our way. I had dad follow me to the gas station so he could fill up the gas. I swiped my card at the pump and started pumping while I went to use the bathroom. When I got out, dad was trying to pay for the gas. He has such a hard time understanding any sort of automated system.

I asked him where he was going before the car broke down, and he said, “To the bank,” so I told him he could follow me there. He said that he could find his way home once he got there, so I said, “Okay, I’ll get you there, and then I’ll head home.”

We drove and he followed. We got to the bank, I waved at him, and turned out of the parking lot. He followed. I pulled into another parking lot, he followed. I stopped, got out and asked what he was doing. He had completely forgotten that we were going to the bank, so I had him follow me back.

I parked and he parked, and I said I’d wait for him, and then he could just follow me home. I waited. And I waited. I waited some more, and then I figured something must be wrong. Sure enough, he was at the counter talking to a teller who I know pretty well. Dad had a checkbook from four years ago with an expired account. The last entry was November 8 from some bygone year and his balance in the checkbook wasn’t even close to accurate.

He wanted to take out an enormous sum of money, and I said, “What are you going to do with it?” “Pay bills.” “You have no bills!” We settled on a more modest amount, and he took the cash. I couldn’t believe how completely confused he was. I thought he would welcome the idea of following me home.

I got in my car and waited for him to back out and get behind me. Instead, he backed out the opposite way and took off. I had to zoom around the parking lot to see where he was going. Vrooom! He turned out of the lot going the wrong way. “Oh no!” I thought. I rushed to get behind him. But he was on autopilot making an illegal u-turn on Regency to get back to Dodge street and zippity doo da, he was heading back home without any help from me. I think he completely forgot that I was even there.

We got home, and he struggled to try to figure out how to roll the windows in the car back up, but that’s okay. At least he was home safe.

I really want him to have his independence and feel comfortable driving, but it’s getting harder and harder for him in so many ways. I was thinking, “Man it would be great for him to have a GPS to just tell him where to turn and how to get places.” But then I thought about the nightmare of trying to teach him how to use it.

So that was my adventure with Vitauts today. We found his new checkbook, threw the old one away, and hopefully, we won’t run out of gas again!