An elderly gentleman was standing near me in the canned meat aisle. I was trying to guess which can of tuna might be less than half water; he was reminiscing about Spam.
“Spam,” he said. “Your mother used to fry it with sliced potatoes and onions. I think they were the little sweet white onions. Not the kind you get now. I think she used to put a little butter in the pan.”
The woman next to him, whom I took to be his daughter, was probably old enough to have some gray hair and teenagers, but young enough to be still climbing the corporate ladder. From her crisp language and haircut, I took her to be a business or professional woman, someone used to slinging around a little authority.
“Do you want some, Dad?” she asked, shifting her weight.
“No, I don’t. I was just remembering what it used to taste like. We got used to it after Korea. I think the Brits liked it. I think they got it started in the US army during the war. There was a guy in my office named Tommy Mulroon - or maybe it was Mulrony – no Mulroon – he loved Spam. Used to bring in Spam sandwiches with pickles and mayonnaise.”
“Dad,” she interrupted in a brusque tone, “let’s get to the cereal.” His enthusiasm and smile dropped into a cloud of gloom. She started moving the cart, which he dutifully took over and shuffled along. I frowned after them, wishing she had been more patient with him and interested in his stories. Then I had to remember that a couple decades ago, I had been a whole lot less patient and caring with my own mother in similar circumstances.
Odds are good the daughter had heard the Spam and pickles story many times before. People who lose short-term memory naturally focus on long-term memories, and there are only so many of them. This was a Saturday morning and she probably had a ton of other things to get done over the weekend, and she probably needed a little down time for herself. She was the sandwich generation in a bit of a pickle herself.
I continue to read the advice for caregivers on all the websites: take care of yourself, be patient, don’t expect too much, be flexible, maintain your sense of humor, keep things simple – all very good advice. But when you’re feeling totally drained of energy and spirit to the point where you’re all hollow inside, it doesn’t do much good. I wish there were a better solution for the family caregivers who give until they are empty inside.
I wish there was a national awakening about Alzheimers so that more people would care for caregivers, share the burden, donate to research, support local programs. But then I wish there were a national awakening about autism, climate change, and a lot of other things too.
What makes things feel right again when you're really low? What makes bad things bearable? For me it’s always sharing the feelings and thoughts with other people. On a recent day, I had been down in the dumps about several things that collided and threatened some bases of stability in my life. In my case it was a health worry combined with sleep deprivation and people I depended on not meeting deadlines. In my friend’s case, it was having a basement flooded after the sump pump failed and losing some old family photos. After a half hour of commiserating on the phone, we ended up laughing together for a long time. I ended that day with a smile on my face in spite of the real difficulties.
I hope both the dad and the daughter I eavesdropped on in the canned meat aisle have someone with whom to share a treasured laugh. I hope they are not letting the predicaments of their lives overwhelm their need for friends and fun so they are more isolated from social companionship just at the moment they need it most.
And I hope I’ll be a little more compassionate the next time I have to listen to an old Spam story.