“SHHH! Be quiet, they might hear us,” I whispered to Timmy as we huddled in my closet, hiding from our parents.
It was about 6 p.m. Sunday on a fall evening in Old Metairie circa 1961 and I had talked my new friend into pulling a prank on our parents. Mine had put our home up for sale and Timmy’s parents had come by to look at the house. While they were walking around, I had stupidly cooked up this idea it would be fun to hide and then come out after some indeterminate amount of time.
It seemed like a funny idea to an eight-year-old kid at the time and it was years later before I realized how cruel and mean it actually was.
“Jay, I don’t think this is such a good idea,” Timmy said. “I’m gonna get in trouble.”
“Oh, it’ll be okay, we won’t be in here long,” I said.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally heard voices “Jay, Timmy are you in here?” “Be quiet” I said, “it’s too soon to come out. We need to stay a little longer.”
“Jimmy, I hope they did not go down to the railroad tracks. Jay knows better than that. But maybe we need to walk down there and look for them.” I could hear the fear in my mother’s voice as she and Timmy’s parents continued to walk around the house.
We lived only a block away from the railroad tracks that went through the heart of Old Metairie and there had been myths about little kids kidnapped by the bums riding the rail cars and other such nonsense that parents used to scare their kids to keep them away from the tracks.
So Timmy and I continued to play checkers in my closet. My closet was like my little fort. It was a walk-in with plenty of space, drawers, and cabinets, and I had games, books, and a flashlight so we were all set.
After another 15 minutes or so we heard voices again, “Timmy, Jay, where are you? Are you here?” We could hear footsteps in my room and at one point the closet door almost opened and we were so scared because we KNEW we were really in trouble now and I knew this prank was going to earn me a whipping with the belt.
But suddenly the footsteps turned and retreated and we could hear my father tell my mother that since it was getting dark it was time now to call the Sheriff’s Office.
Well, that was it. As soon as Timmy heard Sheriff’s Office, he said: “I’m scared and I want to get outta here.” He flung open the door and screamed: “Mommy, Daddy, here we are!”
Everyone came running and we met in the den. Timmy’s parents were crying, mine were hopping mad and relieved at the same time.
“Do you know how frightened we were? Whatever possessed you to do such a thing? When I get through with you young man, you won’t be able to sit down for a week!”
And I didn’t!
I never did find out what happened to Timmy, but we didn’t sell the house and I sure hope he did not get in trouble on account of me. After all, it was my fault, my suggestion, and my house.
This incident truly haunted me over the years but it particularly hit home after I was blessed with the birth of my own daughter and realized just how frightened our parents felt that evening.
Most people accuse me now of overthinking things and I would like to believe that stupid choices like this when I was younger influenced me and helped me become wiser as I grew older.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”—Exodus 20:12 NKJV
“Mr. Culotta, your mother is non-responsive and I need to know if you want me to perform CPR?”
“No doctor, I don’t want you pounding on her chest, she has suffered enough and it is time for her to finally have some peace.”
And with those few words, I had to prepare myself to do the hardest thing I have ever done, to tell my father that his bride of 61+ years was gone and would not be coming home.
I got down on my knees and actually thanked God for finally ending my mother’s suffering that she had endured since a stroke two years prior in 2001 had paralyzed her on one side of her body. She had been unable to take any solid food or drink for over two years and had been kept alive by a feeding tube in her stomach. I could write an entire article about what I learned about feeding tubes and how they can be misused (and were).
It was about 9:00 on Friday morning, June 20, 2003, and my mother had been in the hospital for about a week. Ironically she was supposed to be discharged later that day.
The doctor called me to tell me that while the nurses were preparing the paperwork to discharge my mother, they turned around and just that quickly, she was gone. He wanted to know if I wanted them to try and resuscitate her, but she had a DNR order and she was already so frail and weak that I could not bear the images of them pounding on her chest, breaking ribs to force blood circulation and try and get her heart to start again. Even now, I can’t bear the images in my mind of what she had wasted away to become, from the beautiful, vibrant woman who loved life and enjoyed people and socializing to an invalid who could barely speak and whose main method of communication was by banging her wedding band on the railing of the hospital bed that we had bought for her.
Thankfully my parents had the resources to afford the 24/7 care that she needed with nursing assistants, the electrical pump for the feeding tube that was inserted in her stomach and other numerous medical supplies, including that hospital bed.
The master suite of my parents home was large enough to accommodate the hospital bed and the medical supplies and a sitting area for the caregivers who so lovingly took care of my mother over those two years.
I don’t remember how many times she had been in and out of the hospital over those two years because of pneumonia, infections or her heart problems (she also had atrial fibrillation) but it was hard transporting her because she needed a wheelchair and we had only recently bought a mini-van that was fitted for a handicap ramp and chair-lift. She never got to use that van.
I also prayed that God would give me the strength to say the right words to my dad and to be able to comfort him because he had Alzheimer’s and although he still was physically strong and healthy at 89, his mental faculties were not what they used to be. The nurse assistants/caregivers that we had for my mother at home were doing double duty helping to take care of my dad in helping prepare his meals, driving him around and making sure he took his meds.
I called my sister, Richelle, and we agreed to meet at our dad’s home to deliver the news around 11:00. It was almost an hour drive from my apartment in Kenner to Treasure Isle and almost 40 minutes from my sister’s home in Metairie to Treasure Isle.
Next, I called my dad’s house to inform Staci, the nursing assistant, of the news of my mother’s passing and to make sure she did not tell my dad or drive him to Northshore Regional Medical Center until Richelle and I got there and told him the news ourselves.
As I drove over the I-10 twin span over Lake Pontchartrain, I could just picture my dad breaking down when he heard the news and that would be harder than anything to witness. My parents had grown much closer later in life since they sold the house in Old Metairie and moved permanently to the summer home at 45 Treasure Isle and then later built the dream home at 27 Treasure Isle, my parents’ pride and joy. My dad was a workaholic for most of his life until he “retired” in the mid-90s and stopped commuting every day to the office in Metairie.
Richelle and I drove up at just about the same time and as I put my key in the heavy, leaded-glass door and opened it, I was filled with dread once again. I stepped onto the marble floor and closed the door behind me and we began to walk up the winding stairs. The foyer almost always had this musty smell to it because there was not much circulation and that day was no exception. Even though it has been almost 15 years, I can still feel the sights and smells as if they were happening right now.
I stepped off the last step onto the wooden floor and there was my dad in what seemed an unusually good mood. “Good morning, son. What are you and Richelle doing here? I was just about to leave to go visit your mama at the hospital. She’s supposed to come home today.”
“Daddy, Richelle and I need to talk to you. Let’s go sit on the sofa.”
“Can’t it wait? I slept late today and I want to get to the hospital before it gets any later.”
“Let’s go sit down and talk first.” So we all went over to the large sofa and I sat on one side and Richelle on the other side of him.
I took some deep breaths and prayed I would not break down before getting out what I needed to say. “Daddy, we have some bad news. The doctor called me earlier to tell me that Mother passed away this morning. She just did not have any more strength in her to keep fighting these infections.”
“Oh no, what am I going to do without my mama! My mama!”
My mother’s name was Jeanne but in the later years, my dad had called her “my mama” and it was not because of his Alzheimer’s. It was his term of endearment for her.
Richelle and I just held him while we all wept and I don’t remember for how long, but surprisingly he recovered rather quickly. I think he knew it was her time to go and that she was resting peacefully now.
I was praying silently and thanking God that it had not turned out as badly as I had imagined it would and that she was no longer suffering from the stroke that had reduced her to a pale, frail, bed-ridden invalid two years earlier and that now she was free.
We sat and talked, reminisced and occasionally broke down for about a half hour after that and then we all drove to the hospital to see my mother for the final time before the funeral four days later.
I can’t imagine what it was like to suddenly know that you would never again see someone you had loved for over 61 years. I couldn’t bear to let my dad be alone with his memories in that big house either at night, so I stayed with him for almost two weeks, sleeping on the sofa in the great room, which was right next to the master suite.
Even though there were plenty of beds on the third floor, I didn’t want to be too far away from his bedroom if he needed me in the middle of the night. The house was so big that I might never hear him while I was sleeping in one of the 3½ bedrooms on the third floor. Even though he slept like a log once he went to sleep, I was also nervous that he might hear a noise in the middle of the night and go downstairs to investigate and possibly fall down the stairs.
Your mind can play all kinds of nasty tricks on you at times like this, so I felt it better to play it safe and I was glad I did. It gave us time to spend together, to talk, and even though I don’t remember many specifics about our conversations, I do remember that they were enjoyable and that I learned things I didn’t know before about how my parents met, more about how many times my dad had asked my mother to marry him before she finally said yes (over a dozen!) and the story about the meatballs, that I had heard dozens of times and still never got tired of hearing.
Mother did not know how to cook when they first got married and my dad did. After all, he was an Italian with a Sicilian mama and three sisters. So he did his best to teach her how to cook and one of the first things he taught her, naturally, was to cook meatballs.
One weekend they went on a picnic in City Park and my mother was thrilled to show off her new cooking skills. They spread out the blanket, sat down and my dad couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into one of those tasty meatballs.
The garlic, onions and anise aroma was so inviting, so he grabbed one and pulled it up to his mouth to take a bite. But when he did, it was so tough that he couldn’t bite into it and that’s when his Italian temper took over. He took that meatball and threw it like a baseball and when it hit the ground instead of exploding into a bunch of little meaty pieces, it just bounced and bounced and bounced …
But the lessons were not in vain as my mother did turn out to be a fantastic cook and the hundreds of people who attended my parents’ annual 4th of July party on Treasure Isle over the years will attest to that.
I was so glad to have had that time with him because shortly afterward, my dad’s Alzheimer’s began progressing at an increased rate and he had some behavioral changes that were not pleasant.
But maybe that is for a future installment of The Joyful Christian’s Journey.
About five minutes later, my Dad looked at me and asked “do I have any children?”
It had finally arrived, the dreaded question, a variant of “who are you?” I had just made 55 and my dad asked me if he has any children. I explained that I was his son and that he had a daughter also. That same question, with slight variations, came up another 3 or 4 times in our two-hour conversation.
Imagine your father or mother looking at you and not knowing who you are. Even worse, he can’t easily remember his late wife of 61 years, who had passed away 5 years earlier.
This is the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. It gets worse over time and it is fatal. There is no cure at the present time, although there are some current medications that can lessen the symptoms and slow down its progression.
• As many as 5.3 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s.
• Alzheimer’s and dementia triple healthcare costs for Americans age 65 and older.
• Every 70 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer’s.
• The direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer’s and other dementias to Medicare, Medicaid, and businesses amount to more than $148 billion each year.
Please visit the Alzheimer’s Association website and find out valuable information that can help you or a loved-one that is at-risk for this stealth killer. There is a wealth of information here about new treatments that are available, how to spot signs of the disease, tips for caregivers and other valuable information. Please consider donating to help further scientific research that could make this disease one that no one remembers.
That conversation occurred April 2009 and happened only a few more times, thank God. I don’t know what happened, but my dad somehow recovered his ability to recognize me after we were able to move him closer to us when a new assisted living facility opened up in Metairie, LA a few years later. (I first wrote this in April 2009, but it is just as vivid now to me as it was then.)
Treasure the moments you have with your loved ones, especially your parents, because you never know when something will happen that changes the opportunity to communicate with them or even that they are suddenly gone from this earth.
My father passed away from Alzheimer’s Disease in January 2013 after suffering the effects as early as the late 1990s. The effects were subtle and no one in my family really noticed but me, because I worked with him every day. Those of you who have relatives or friends that suffer from this insidious disease know that some people get very good at covering up their dementia, at least in the beginning.
He was a tremendously vibrant man who was self-taught and self-made, not knowing how to slow down except on the weekends when he would suddenly become Jimmy the fisherman. I have some amazing, funny and slightly embarrassing stories about his fishing escapades. But one thing he didn’t do was tell tall tales about the one that got away!
Anyway, after suffering for two years from the effects of a devastating stroke that left her paralyzed on one side of her body and requiring care 24/7, my mother passed away in June 2003 and my dad went downhill really fast. Thank the Lord that my father had been able to build an amazing family business with income that allowed us to have nursing assistants to care for her in her own home where she felt as comfortable as she could be under the circumstances.
I think the hardest thing I ever had to do was to tell my dad that my mother had passed away. She had been in the hospital at the time and it was the first morning that he had not gone to visit her. I will write about that story another time because it is compelling.
He and my mother had been married for over 61 years and she had been his primary caregiver. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed their home two years later in August 2005.