Friday, June 12, 2009

Every Day with Bandar

While I pursue a variety of opportunities in the work world, I find myself living with two women here at CadMur Manor. This is what happens when I'm not paying attention. The first woman I had married some 10 years ago, and I rather enjoy living with her. The newer cohabitant is my wife's mother, who appeared here over time in ever increasing increments, visiting frequently but not really living with us -- until about three weeks ago, when I noticed I was no longer driving her home from her weekend visits to Mill Creek. I am under virtual house arrest for as long as she stays, indefinitely or at least for the next three months while she convalesces from a compression fracture of her spinal cord, caused by a fall off her front porch about a month ago. She can't take a step without supervision and physical support from a responsible adult. Since Sophie works full time, that leaves me with my "flexible schedule" to bond with my mother-in-law day in and out, help her out of bed in the morning and walk her to the bathroom, prepare meals, put on her socks and shoes, fetch her meds, bring her her coffee take her to see her doctors. And so on. These are the days of my life with Bandar.

Every day is something new, and an adjustment for us all. And every day is a bit much. I have every right to feel sorry for myself over my newfound responsibilities, and sometimes do. More frequently my experience has been one of receiving and uncovering a succession of gifts, untold opportunities to be of use to someone who needs help, in a profound way -- a daily reminder of the preciousness of life and the power of love and gratitude. And of family, whether born into or the result of a marriage or loving partnership.

Bandar Arraj was born Feb. 1, 1925, in the hills just outside Beirut, Lebanon. She grew up in a traditional, Lebanese-Byzantine household. She dropped out of school in the 3rd grade, or possibly earlier. She was needed at home to help manage the household due to a family member's illness. It may have been her older brother, Sam, who had fallen ill and required a multi-year convalescence time. Whatever the reason, Bandar stayed home, learned to cook, clean and do household chores and little else. She never learned to read or write Arabic, her home language, let alone English, not then, not ever. She can barely write out her name. She can't write a letter or read a map. Street signs have little meaning to her beyond the numerous logos and sign shapes she recognizes. She never learned that there are nine planets, nor that their number recently was reduced to eight by scientific consensus. She never heard of World War II or Hitler even though she was 20 years old on both VE and VJ days. Neither the Great Depression nor the Great Pyramids have any specific meaning to her. She does possess uncommon street smarts and has an intuitive intelligence that allows her to fake her way in and out of most situations. By her accounts she had an unremarkable childhood and had a few boyfriends in her teens and twenties. From the pictures of her early life, Bandar was strikingly beautiful. Yet, for reasons unknown, Bandar remained single until her 31st year, when her American husband-to-be, David Murad, traveled to her country with the sole purpose of marrying Bandar Arraj as was pre-arranged through an intermediary at his Lebanese church in Cleveland. David was 14 years Bandar's senior and a 44-year-old bachelor. Their courtship was three weeks. They married in 1955 and began a life together in Cleveland.

Within a couple years, David was diagnosed with larynx cancer. After the removal of his voice box, he never spoke naturally again -- although he could "burp" his words and be understood. The couple had three children, Morris in 1957, Sarah in 1958, and Sophie in 1962. David worked on the line at GM and eventually retired with a pension and full health benefits. Bandar, the stay-at-home, non-working mother, never learned to drive, read, write or balance a checkbook. She was a devoted mother, cooking Lebanese meals of lamb, humus, baba ganoosh, fattoush, and tabouli. She kept a tidy home and dutifully covered all of the furniture with sheets or fitted plastic, reminiscent of the family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The children grew up and out in the early '80s, Morris settling about a mile away, Sarah moving to Virginia Beach and Sophie staying in the Cleveland area, never too far from Mom. David Murad died in 1989, at 78. Sophie and I married in 1998, and took up residence about 20 minutes from Bandar and the house Sophie grew up in.

As a new widow in the '90s, Bandar adjusted with understandable difficulty. But adjust she did. Unable to drive, she walked to nearby stores, learned how to get around on the bus and even took a part-time job bussing tables at a catering business a short walk away. Self-conscious about her poor English skills and inability to read or write, she eschewed typical social outlets available to seniors -- adult day care, travel clubs and other senior-oriented activities. Sophie and her siblings along with their spouses pitched in as they could to help with reading the mail, paying bills, filing taxes, banking, shopping, yard work, entertaining and so on. Much of those responsibilities fell to the youngest daughter, Sophie. We frequently took Bandar out to dinner, and Bandar became a regular overnight visitor here, staying with us perhaps one or two days a month. Always a healthy eater, and as a result of her vegetable-rich Lebanese diet and frequent walks, she stayed in decent shape up until her late 70s. Then, as loneliness, osteoarthritis and bad knees began to take their toll, her visits with us became more frequent over time, to the point where last year she stayed overnight two or three days each week, requiring us to factor in Bandar for all of our weekend plans -- weddings, family outings, date nights, vacations and work events. Everything either had to be done with Bandar, or we had to make alternate arrangements for her. With increasing mobility issues and general pain and weakness, we discovered about six months ago that Bandar could no longer get up and down our stairs to our guest bedroom. So she moved in a little closer on our personal space, now residing in our first-floor master suite when she spends the night. Sophie and I sleep upstairs and will do so indefinitely, whenever Bandar is our house guest.

Bandar's continued insistence on living alone and at her Brooklyn home causes consternation and concern among the siblings. Bandar has failed to see the advantage to moving in with one of her children. She has refused getting one of those electronic communication buttons that says, "I've fallen and I can't get up." Nursing care has been and remains out of the question as does anything remotely resembling a nursing home. No assisted living or senior housing. She is driven by a mix of shame and fear. Self-sufficiency is a prize in her culture and, per Bandar, no self-respecting Lebanese would ever show any weakness, such as being totally dependent on her children or living anywhere but home. God forbid a neighbor or even a stranger outside of her primary family circle see her in a wheelchair, using a cane or wearing a hearing aid. The family is never to say a word to her neighbors about any physical malady. As for moving out of her house -- anywhere -- Bandar subscribes to the slippery slope argument. A nursing home represents the end of the line -- death -- and anywhere not her current home is an obvious step to her final days.

This brings us to the big stumble of 2009. In mid May while checking for the mail on her front porch in Brooklyn (Ohio), Bandar, tripped on her doorway step and fell onto the slab and down the three cement steps to the sidewalk below. She'd fallen, but, thankfully, could get up -- this time. She received a very noticeable black eye and scrapes on her forehead, nose and cheek. She limped back into the house and, rather than calling anyone, she waited until the next day to casually mention it on the phone to her son, Morris, who raced over to inspect the damage, commiserate and send out the alarm to his siblings. Sophie, an RN, commenced with getting Bandar to the ER for X-rays, and later to a long line of pain specialists, neuropathic doctors, orthopedic docs and physical therapists. Sarah flew in from Virginia for a couple of days to assist where she could. Bandar's back pain was bad, and the initial X-ray missed detection of the spinal cord fracture -- at T12 on her thoracic vertebrae, located at about the height of the lowest part of the rib cage. Over the next few days, the pain and associated leg weakness worsened -- to the point where the docs considered surgery. Bandar was ordered to go on pseudo bed-rest: she is not allowed to take a step without the physical support and supervision of another able adult. She was fitted with a back brace and given a regimen of PT exercises. She's been living with Sophie and me since.

Every day with Bandar is really something. We encourage her to sleep as late as she can, usually until about 8. Sophie outfitted her with a cooking pot and steel spoon, which Bandar pounds repeatedly when needed to alert one of us to come and see what she wants. I help her get out of bed and walk her to the bathroom sink and then to the toilet, outfitted with a portable raised seat. I have to stay nearby, head turned, while she takes care of business. Thus, I escort her about the house for every step she takes until bedtime at 11 p.m. She walks with the aid of a walker, in which case I stand behind her making sure she doesn't fall backward, or a cane, in which case I stand next to her for support and balance. Her gait is ever so slow, about one step every three to five seconds. I put her socks on her feet in the morning and remove them at night; change her slippers and shoes as needed; hand her her teeth; make her breakfast and lunch, serve and clean up same; administer her vitamins and drugs throughout the day; coordinate visits with docs and family members; listen to Bandar's countless stories and opinions and assessments of her progress or lack thereof. Without fail, Bandar goes to bed at precisely 11. Never 10:30 or 11:30. Always 11. We won't see her again until the next day -- unless we're awoken in the dark of night by the clanging of spoon against pot, summoning one of us for a previously unscheduled escort to the toilet.

I've grown rather close to the old girl. She's a little mischievous and a bit of both a drama queen and a trouble maker, loving to be at the center of everyone's world, the topic of everyone's conversation and concerns. She once told me she wants me to tell everyone when she dies that she had a hard life. ("Tell them to feel sorry for me, Steve.") But she has a terrific sense of humor and loves to laugh, especially when she sees some of the absurdities of life in its everyday form. Like so many of my relatives, she believes family is more important than any thing on earth. I've noticed that, especially late at night, Bandar occasionally slips into calling me Dave. She laughs when I bring this to her attention and says, in her broken English, "You like my husband, Dave. You like my father, too. You take care of me, doin' this and that and looking out for me. I'm very lucky to have you, Steve." In those moments I feel blessed, happy to be of service to this woman who gave birth to my bride. In Bandar's gratitude and her tear-filled eyes, I see the miracle of life and its circuitous nature. I embrace this gift of gratitude -- mine more so than hers -- and thank God for allowing me this chance to learn more about myself and my place in the Universe. In serving others we serve ourselves. Thanks, Bandar, for these precious weeks. May we always have these memories, these lessons, this grace. Heal.

1 comment:

  1. I happened across your blog through facebook Steve and was deeply touched by the gratitude you express in learning more about yourself while caring for another! It is so in my life except I have learned to love and care for others at the hospital I work in, as an aide. I never saw myself wiping anyones behind or escorting them to a toilet but this is what I do today, at 53 years old!! and I have learned more about myself in giving to the elderly who can no longer care for themselves. Amazing! 53 years later I learn what gratitude truly means, what unconditional love is, and how giving of myself to others greatly enhances my soul!!

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