After my father passed away, Jamie went through a very natural process of grieving. Without the filters or editors we all know so well, her grief was genuine and heartfelt at any moment it struck. It was an honor to behold. Without warning the tears would flow and without much command of language, the simple words. “I miss him. I loved him,” told her story of deepest sorrow as well as any sonnet.
She gave poignant expression to mourning the loss of a lifestyle she had truly enjoyed: “Who will take me out? I want to go out. I want to go dancing.” My father was on a scooter for the entire time he knew Jamie, but he was the third husband she had lost. Her last husband, Eric, died of cancer around 2008, and she missed him as well. She wanted to go dancing again. She wanted to be doted on by a man in love with her, wined and dined and carried across a dance floor. She grieved the loss of this romantic side of life very deeply.
My dad (I usually call him Richard when speaking to Jamie) had a military ceremony at his funeral and Jamie clutched the flag afterward saying, “I have three of these.” I’ve seen one in her cedar chest, but I don’t where the other one is. There may not be a third flag. She handed me Dad’s and it’s in my closet.
One of Jamie’s habitual behaviors was what I’ll call “the long cough.” My father was very frustrated with it and took her to an asthma doctor who told him she does not have asthma, but gave her an inhaler to appease her. He took her to their family doctor who said she did not have a lingering cough, walking pneumonia, any chest congestion or any reason to cough. But several times a week she would have a coughing fit that ended in complete misery with her sitting on the floor, nose running, bawling her eyes out because no one cared that she couldn’t breathe.
I was unaware of this behavior, but when I started living with her I was told that every morning Dad used to give her a cough drop to help her not cough that day and it worked pretty well. There was a bowl of them in the kitchen drawer. I faithfully dispensed the cough drop when she staggered out of her bedroom every morning coughing and clutching her throat very dramatically. The cough drop cured that morning episode instantly. Every time. As soon as it hit her tongue the coughing stopped.
Hmmm. As someone who’s had six kids, and one with anxiety, I recognized very early that I was dealing with a psychosomatic situation. What was the trigger? She had been sound asleep. On bad days, days when the house was confusing with people stopping by to give their condolences, my family staying for a few days for the funeral, then we’d have the full blown effect. It was wild.
She’d start with the same little cough as in the morning, clutching her throat. But the cough drop would not do its magic trick, so we’d try water. Water would not help so we’d ask her to sit down, or we’d say, “breathe slowly,” or “calm down.” This would only make her mad. “NO!” she’d insist, “Call him! I need meds!” I really didn’t want to call a doctor, what an ordeal!
So she’d end up on the floor, which was her ultimate rebellion. Coughing, spitting saliva everywhere, nose running, eyes blinking rivers of tears, in a classic “Woe is me” scenario. If we left her alone she’d say something to the effect of, “you don’t care if I die.” So we coddled and soothed and gave her a placebo – a calcium pill, and told her it was her meds, and she’d calm down after a little while.
The fear of this incident kept us from going out on any day when she seemed iffy. Iffy means agitated. When she was stressed or agitated, the long cough wasn’t far off.
Frequent episodes seemed the result of my father’s passing, the chaos that followed, the grief of his absence, and adjusting to the new paradigm with me in my little bedroom and her alone in hers, and women coming every day to care for her. She wanted the old lifestyle back in the worst way, but it was not happening.
I’ll skip all of the psychology and cut to the chase: she was acting like a spoiled child who wanted attention. Having not spoiled my children I didn’t want to give in to this manipulation. If she didn’t get her way she started coughing. If she was mad about anything, or you left her out of a conversation, or you didn’t do something and had no idea what it was because she couldn’t express herself and tell you what she wanted, she’d start coughing. It was not a sustainable situation.
It was exhausting to live on pins and needles dreading the long cough.
We tried tough love. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Stop coughing. You can do it. You’ve got this! Just breathe slowly.” Backfired big time.
We tried the placebo. As soon as it started we’d go to the cabinet and ceremoniously give her the little calcium pill to cure her. That worked like magic, except that now she was addicted to this new behavior. As soon as she’d have a little tiny tickle in her throat and cough once – something that a cough drop used to help, she was clutching her throat and choking out, “I need meds! Get me my meds!”
Today she never coughs. If she starts to cough a little bit, we fix it quickly with a drink of water and the occasional cough drop. We’ve found the cure. And the cure fixes her hallucinations (I’ll enjoy telling you that story later!) and her temper tantrums as well. They come up every now and then, but I think it’s been about nine days now since we’ve had any negative behavior and, although I don’t expect that run to last forever, I have to say that life is good and it’s wonderful not living on pins and needles.
We’ve stopped the long cough with two things:
One was a cure for any possible physical reality to her behavior. We thought it might be a little phlegm that she found in her throat and didn’t know what to do with. So we took her seriously and started giving her, unknown to her, an allergy pill at night with her other pills. Now, if her cough was caused by post nasal drip from pollen or her cat, we’d head it off at the pass before it could start. This worked. She had less of a cough in the morning. She continued to stagger out of her bedroom asking for a cough drop – but she wasn’t really coughing or clutching her throat! She was just sort of clearing her throat like it was a little dry. Eventually that even stopped and I only give her a morning cough drop a couple of times a week now. Plenty of water, of course and always.
Number two was a cure for her need for attention. I began noticing that not getting attention was the main trigger for the long cough. So I began to hug her more. A lot more. Hugs all day long. Guess what? No more long coughs.
For about nine days now we have had a blissful existence. Good days every day with little hiccups that we overcome by dinnertime. For example, on Sunday I was exhausted and, since she often takes a nap, I suggested one. She gladly complied and I laid her down in bed and went to my room where I slept like a log for an hour and a half. When I woke up on my own I rejoiced that she had also had a good, long nap. But when I came out of my room, there she was, sitting on a chair crying! She said she had not slept at all. She was apparently just waiting for me to wake up. This was surprising because she never hesitates to come into my room at 4 in the morning if she needs more water or hears a strange sound.
I dried her tears with many apologies and tried to get on with our Sunday, making her a snack to eat while I worked on dinner. But in her little passive aggressive way she decided to ignore everything I said to her for the next few hours. It was comical. It reminded me of a child’s behavior, but I try to constantly remind myself that she is a brilliant adult with brain damage, not a child.
I made her a snack and put it on the kitchen island, but she walked past it and started moving chairs at the dining table. I made her a drink and put it by her favorite chair and put the snack on the table next to it, inviting her to sit down and have her snack. She headed toward the chair, then took a right turn and started moving the books around on the coffee table. Anything I suggested that she do, she would start to act like she was about to do it, then do something else. It was comical. But I didn’t mind. I got it. I had left her alone for an hour and a half. A little payback was in order.
Anything is better than the long cough.