Wednesday, November 18, 2009


My sister, my partner. These words reverberated through our home for the better part of 2008. Helen and Steve were the last survivors in the Wind/Nalepa saga. Their sister Mae is still alive, but did not interact with them for the latter part of their lives. They went everywhere together - two peas in a pod, frick and frack. We believe they lived so long because of White Castle, their hangout. They would sit for hours in that place and had many names for the characters that passed through the doors: flea market, grey-haired lady, hot dog man, blue blue, the flea, snake eyes, diet coke, pluto, the top, dibash, mexican joe, oye (short for oyster) and Bob's pet name. Helen had a keen sense of humor and always made her opinion known but in a way that made you crack up.
After George died, Helen learned to drive a car for the first time in her life. I remember practicing with her in Resurrection Cemetary and she did get her license and a car that sat in the neighbor's garage. She conquered her fear of flying and went on numerous vacations with Steve and her sister-in-law from her first marriage, Ruth and Joe Parker. Once they experienced their first cruise, they were hooked. Just as my folks loved Vegas, they loved their ships. The first year they flew to Florida Wayne and I drove down to be with them and help her get through not being with George. We knew upon arrival at the Colonial Inn in Miami that she would be just fine. Years later when our youngest was 2 our family drove to Florida to be with the 4 Cliffhangers. We surprised our boys by making a pit stop in Disney World the first week and upon arrival they all moaned how they wanted to be with Gramzie. They were in Disney World! When we arrived in Miami they were thrilled to be by the ocean and in the pool all day with her. These were great memories for all of us. Uncle Steve made us dagwood sandwiches and we sat on the balcony people watching and waiting for the roof inspector (a crane.) Simple pleasures - and they were loaded with stories and jokes. Just their unique humor alone caused us to chuckle the whole week. The four Cliffies eventually went on 14 cruises together visiting Alaska, Mexico, Caribbean and all over the area. We encouraged them to make time for leisure as they worked so hard all their life. They vacationed with us every weekend for 7 years when we bought our summer home in Delavan and Uncle Steve loved going for rides in the speedboat.
Helen called the shots in her household. If Bob stayed on his meds, life was livable, but if he did not, we had to intercede and get him back on track. Helen was very co-dependant so this was not as easy as it sounds. The Cliffies were very healthy and until they reached their 80s they barely visited the doctor, just for the annual checkup. Their last decade made up for it. I cannot begin to count how many doctor's visits and hospital ER visits we had to endure with them. There were at least 4 close calls with Helen and 2 with Uncle Steve. They almost died each time causing stress for each other. They leaned on each other more than most married couples. They were together all their lives - from birth. Imagine the things we had to purge through upon her death. Mama mia. One thing I must say, Helen did not lack for anything. Her clothes were beautiful and plentiful and she was one classy lady. She could have blended in with the Hinsdaleans very easily based on her taste. She was extremely organized, everything in its place and she was very wise with her investments. The only queer incident was finding money in strange places like the pantry floor and in photo albums, hampers and in the closet in a windbreaker. As I was in her bedroom a picture was falling off the wall and I almost tore it off but changed my mind when I noticed it was St. Anthony. I gingerly put Him back up and immediately afterward I started finding all the money. It must have totalled over $10,000 after all was said and done. They did the classic hide the money in the mattress. This was fortunate because it was about this time that Bob was really out of sorts and finally I put my foot down about getting him proper help and his own living arrangements for the greater good. They were too old to live with him and the toxic cycle had to end. Finally Wayne agreed and we asked Thresholds to help us with the process. They are the very best support group for mental illness and secured disability, a great apartment, link card and helped Bob live his life with the quality and support that he deserves. He still lives just down the block because he needs the comfort of that neighborhood but this is a great success story for our family. Bobby is doing wonderfully and talks about possibly attending school. He never worked and never will, but he is the best he can be. Funny how he gave me such grief at first and I became his biggest supporter.
Wayne spent the last few years shopping for groceries and maintaining their lawn but taking care of 3 homes took its toll. He was very loyal to his mom and put her needs above his own family, something I did not appreciate but sucked it up and did my best to deal with. I remember when Helen needed some TLC she would suddenly get sick and call Wayne to take her to the hospital. We drove in the city rushing her to Holy Cross, or Hinsdale if not life threatening, only to find she was miraculously healed and joking around with us. After a few of these cry wolf calls we got wise and realized she just needed more time and attention. Easy fix. We fervently tried to encourage them to move out near us so they would have better hospitals in emergencies, we could visit easily and I could make sure they ate properly. Now these two Polish people loved to eat - they looked forward to their toochies all the time. I would cook big meals and put aside food for Helen, Steve and Bob which Wayne would deliver when he went in to see them. Whenever I would come in, I would find the food still in the freezer or barely eaten. They just ate from White Castle.
It was getting harder to help them and just as we feared, she fell down the stairs breaking her hip. After surgery her Dr. Simon sat us down and indicated typically geriatrics die within a year at this age. We were crushed, for Helen was always so strong and determined to be as independent as possible. We did everything we knew of to keep them together in their beloved home so they could visit their beloved WC and stay together. They were each other's life force. Helen went to the rehab center in Hinsdale and relearned to walk but it was apparent her dementia was increasing and I remember crying for an hour after this epiphany. She could not name her boys. We hired a caregiver named Harriet to live with her but immediately Uncle Steve had issue with her. He did not want anyone else living in their home. We moved Helen upstairs after 25 years and hoped it would work out but Uncle Steve went ballistic and we frantically drove in the city one night to retrieve him from the home and it took 3 shots of blackberry brandy to calm him down. It took 3 hours to get him to stop ranting and raving about the caregiver. Helen remained in her home with the hysterical caregiver unaware of any goings on. We decided to have Steve live with us and within a month Helen came as well. I figured if I raised my 3 boys I could take care of them as they were just as demanding as little kids. We were in for a rude awakening for it was more challenging than we thought. My home was no longer our sanctuary and literally turned into a senior living facility with nurses and bathers and priests and physical therapists coming and going all day. We had oxygen tanks and hospital bed and sofa bed and commodes. They were always hungry and I was serving them like a slave until my youngest son told me to stop and put them on a schedule. Wise kid, my son. I used a tray to bring everything down at once and figured it out. I was still juggling with trying to keep my business afloat for a few clients and almost took a leave.
Unfortunately within a month Helen fell again breaking her other hip. She did not have surgery and really spiralled downhill rapidly. She lost her will at this time and did not know who I was. She called me Annie and said "you look like Jesus and when I touch you I feel Him." She may not have known where she was and who I was, but she felt our love. Helen called Wayne Joe and this broke his heart for he was her favorite and took care of her his whole life. She remembered Jim and Bob, who never really bothered with her and hurt her most of her life. I spent a lot of energy trying to get him to not take it personally, but this situation was really taking alot out of my family. Finally I researched her symptoms and after consulting with her nurse she was ready for hospice. The nursed agreed and Dr. Simon followed up with the necessary meds and met with me to get me through the next phase. I was just about ready to break when I was walking my dogs and George whispered in my ear"hang in there it won't be long" and that night my angels gave me a date of March 2 and another of March 4. I followed all the notes for impending death, documenting her journey and close to her final days we told Uncle Steve and the boys to say goodbye as the time was near. Oh my God, Uncle Steve was like a wailing wall. For 3 days we prayed the rosary around her and listened to his intense grief. Finally I asked Wayne's cousin to take Uncle Steve so mom could pass in peace. Bob and Bonyok came by on Friday to say goodbye taking Uncle Steve with them. Wayne and I lit candles and prayed while listening to music. Her breathing was indicative of death and we stayed up all night. At dawn I switched from holy music to Andrea Bocelli and somehow I knew she wanted this. At 11:30am she took her last breath, then another, and another, one for each of her sons and each of her grandsons. This was the most profound experience I have ever been a part of in my life. What an honor and privilege to assist in her passing to the next life. Later that day we saw two lines in the sky and knew Dad came to get her soul. March 1. My angels got it right for her memorial and funeral were March 4.
Uncle Steve continued to live with us and Bonyok and Dianne had him over at times, but his mental health was deteriorating and we thought he might die of a broken heart. He was physically strong but dementia was severe. After much anguish and in order to bring some semblance of sanity back into our lives, we counselled with Wayne's cousin who suggested we look into the Veteran's Home in Quincy. His doctor advised us to admit him. He always shared his amazing war stories from when he served our country during World War II in the Rhineland and central Europe, achieving 2 battle stars. On August 1, after Uncle Steve's 91 birthday, we drove him down to the new home. It is exactly what he needs and my fears vanished when we spent time there. He is still with his fellow vets reliving old war stories and remembers very little, repeating what he does know.
We sure experienced the gamut of care giving, rehab, hospice, mental illness and still keep forging ahead. Being the sandwich generation,we are stronger for our challenges and have learned many things enabling us to share our life situations. It is true when they say they broke the mold with these two Cliffhangers. xo