Sunday, March 21, 2021

Time to Meet Marlene

It seems lately I have been waiting for signs, or more like unmistakable kicks in the backside, to write about some of the stories swirling about in my head. Today is no different, as this introduction is long overdue. Grab yourself a snack as this one could take a few minutes. 

I was sifting through the mail on the counter, and while I have grown accustomed to seeing several items for "Marlene Venuti", this one caught me off guard...

She has not commandeered the entire household, and we've lived here twenty years! The "who" of Marlene has a simple answer in that she is Jeff's mother, but her reality, like most people's, is much more complex than that. The "why" of Marlene, and her place in my home on a figurative level, has the same sort of layers. The most basic explanation is that I inherited Marlene when Jeff passed away in 2018. I met her roughly three weeks before Jeff died. I rarely say the words "Jeff died" in part probably because I don't want to fully accept it, but also because someone that vibrant and so much larger than life never really does. Anyhow, a couple of us went to see her to share the news that her son's condition was worsening and would not be getting better. She was then promptly brought to the hospital to visit him.

I did not see Marlene much over the next few weeks, as we were typically on different visitation shifts. The day after Jeff's passing, I found myself across from Marlene at the funeral home planning his services. I had spent so much of the prior year planning, or at least hoping, for his recovery. Our trips to Dana Farber had brought us so incredibly close together, but it felt like I was a complete stranger to pretty much the rest of Jeff's life. People from various parts of Jeff's circle were incredibly kind to me and expressed such gratitude for all I had done. I felt uncomfortable, like some kind of fraud, because no matter what I had done, Jeff was gone. At the services, Marlene addressed my husband and children with lovely words about me, echoing them again when I introduced her to my mother. I figured those closest to me would recognize her grief talking and pay no mind. 

Jeff's "Boston Boys" doted on her at the luncheon following the services...

...and as kind and welcoming as they had all been to me, I felt I owed it to them as well to look after her. I knew Marlene could be needy and had a tendency to lean towards dramatic, but I also recognized that she was a grieving mother, who had lost her husband earlier that year, and found herself living in a nursing home (medically compromised enough by Parkinson's Disease to be there, but with a mind not ready to have so many liberties taken away). As far as "inheriting" Marlene? I found myself in her room with three other people who had various motives, some of them slightly more nefarious ones I was too much of a sucker to recognize. When we dispersed, I was on my way to becoming Marlene's power of attorney, health care proxy and overall primary contact person...for someone I had known for a month, who rarely if ever had my name correct. In case you are pondering whether there were more likely candidates, yes, she has three other sons - two of which live locally. They are not who she chose, even when suggested. It was all said to be so simple, these new responsibilities I literally signed up for.

Some days it made me laugh how this situation played out as it was just so incredulous. Some days I kicked  myself for letting my grief and need to feel like I saved something, did something, fixed something get me involved. In the moments of nonsense and madness though, I fear I find myself thriving most of the time, even when it feels like things are falling apart. I visited with her, and tried to be patient as we rehashed Jeff's illness, what she thought he didn't tell her and what she simply did not recall. I went to care planning meetings, brought my paperwork to the banks, signed the checks, wrote out the birthday and holiday cards sprinkled with some heavy sighs, eyerolls and facepalms. I took the phonecalls for every slip, fall and confiscation of wine coolers and cleaning products she bought when a friend took her to the store. I went with the funeral director to bury her mother's ashes that had been boxed up for over thirty years,

(I felt compelled to dress the part on her behalf.)

messed around with her wig collection,

went out to dinner with some of Jeff's oldest friends who were now my dear friends,

and basically just tried to love on her as if she was my own...because basically she was.

When the pandemic hit, state mandates kept me away from both my grandmother and Marlene. In their own ways, and for their own reasons, neither of them understood the gravity and implications of the situation. One of the first phonecalls I got in the spring was Marlene "needing" some snacks to supplement the terrible food at her facility. Then there were complaints about the phone in her room and the answering machine that she was having trouble mastering before the lockdown. I had to keep in mind that she had no true idea of what those of us on the "outside" were having to do to cope with trying to keep ourselves and our families safe.

I was finally able to visit Marlene in early August, and admit that I turned my head and cried upon spotting her waiting at the table.

Her eyes looked so happy, and she was healthy! The hairstyle and color were incredible! (The new wig, a hand me down from one of the aides who didn't like it for herself.) We talked about the usual things, and she handed me an empty foundation bottle and lipstick tube that she needed replaced-because a pandemic is apparently no excuse to not put your face on! We got a couple more visits in before everything closed down again. 

Once again, Marlene had her own agenda and priorities and I received phonecalls expressing concern over getting holiday gifts for her loved ones, as well as lottery tickets for her to hand out to staff. I tried to explain that people's expectations were a bit different in these crazy times, but she was not to be dissuaded. The nursing home would not accept any dropoffs, so she wanted the lottery tickets mailed to her. As I put forty lottery tickets in the mail addressed to her at the nursing home, I said a little prayer that they would not be forwarded back to me -  where all of her other mail goes! The next crisis was making sure I took care of ordering her son some Hickory Farms for his birthday. All I can do is shake my head. I know that she has far too much time to sit with far too many thoughts all day, every day. I know that I brought this storm on myself, but weathering it has taught me much about myself, Jeff, love and expectations.

I struggle with my thoughts and beliefs about how those who have passed on may communicate with us. I got a piece of mail addressed to Jeff at my address last week that stopped me in my tracks, despite knowing it was just an autorenewal of sorts. Do I just look for signs? Today we are the Venuti Household?! Yes, I changed her address probably two years ago, and yes maybe filing her Medicaid application somehow made it more official somehow. But also? Jeff's birthday is next weekend and maybe he wants me to have pizza and cookies to celebrate...

Wednesday, March 17, 2021


I was going to write a post to regale you all with the wonders of my new life as an Instacart shopper. I just kept trying to figure out what key points I wanted to touch upon. Certainly the purpose would not be to make you envious of my glamorous life. Mainly it was intended to be a proclamation of finding something that worked for me, as well as a nod of gratitude to the person who nudged me along. Grocery shopping? It's like I had been training my entire adult life for this! 

How to put a spin on this adventure where I live vicariously through people's grocery store lists. If only I knew who Brenda was having over for dinner and whether they know that she combines four kinds of jarred tomato sauce to make it her own. Stacy's house is obviously very clean as there is no way all of that tofu and organic produce is to feed her dust bunnies. Look at Danielle getting all of the ingredients to make a recipe; I doubt she has gray roots showing while she decides the fate of her hair color. Bill? Don't even tell me you rotated the laundry after placing your order; but also don't tell me those Lunchables are for you.

Are there groceries at my house? Well, when I was cleaning houses, how brightly did mine shine? Believe what you want, I don't want to spoil the image you've conjured either way. So how was I going to tell this tale in a way consistent with my point of view? Sometimes you have to just wait a minute, and sometimes you shouldn't ask the question if you aren't quite ready for when the answer runs into the back of your foot with a grocery cart.

There I was trying to load an order onto the conveyor belt at Aldis. If you are not familiar with Aldis, it is a money saving grocery store based on a self service sort of setup. You put a quarter deposit on your cart, open cases of product are on the shelves, your groceries do not get bagged, but rather returned to a cart in the reverse heap of how you shopped them. I am not doing the experience justice, but while I truly appreciate shopping there, it makes me feel a bit frazzled and rushed because I know that all of the employees are timed for whatever they are doing so I don't want to hold anybody up. Okay, back to the checkout I placed a bottle of salad dressing on the conveyor belt, it started to move and the dressing smashed to the ground. I had to run to look for a replacement, which was not available, and come back to the scornful glances of the cashier and other customers. I packed up the full cart of groceries and headed off to deliver them. I neglected to plug my phone into the charger. (Spoiler alert!)

After the delivery was complete, I saw another at the same store, so I claimed it. I also saw that my phone had about 18% battery and hoped the quick trip back would give it sufficient charge. I headed back into the store and saw that the order was huge...tick tock. I proceeded to the registers that were excessively crowded...tick tock. The guy behind me as I finally started to put groceries on the conveyor really wanted to talk to me about how many groceries I had (as he clearly thought I was the modern together gal using all of Ashley's products), but all I wanted to discuss was the 2% battery level of my phone...and then the tall skinny bottle of olive oil I was frantically unloading smashed to the ground. I looked at the cashier in my lane, while noticing the cashier one lane over (scene of mishap number one) glancing my way. I sheepishly announced "Yes, I just broke a bottle of salad dressing in that aisle on my last trip in" to which my current cashier responded "Well don't you suck?" "Yes, yes I do." I went running back to get a new bottle of oil, then skated back on the slippery floor to the register just in time to see the container of blueberries the cashier had just scanned flinging open and starting to sprinkle all over the groceries in the cart! "That is NOT on me!" I said to no one, but everyone, in particular. She agreed. I had to go running back to the produce department for more berries.

I wish I could have felt as though I was being spoiled as not one, but two people had to simultaneously clean up after me. I still had 1% battery, which was just enough to photograph the receipt and tell the app I was moving along. I was breaking a sweat bagging that full load of groceries, and as I got midway through, all of those scattered blueberries started to shift and fall through the cart to the floor. I am not sure how many I stepped on, but enough to add insult to an already messy injury. 

THAT was the story, a very on brand sort of way for me to tell you what kind of Instacart shopper I can be. As far as living vicariously goes, this afternoon I had to message with a customer over what strength stool softeners I could find available, then throw them in the cart with her mild laxative, antacid and heavy flow Kotex. The party size bags of Cheetos and almond milk were not enough to make me envious.