Bed Bugs, Boston, and Beyond

This is how you apply Clobetasol to the area of your lower back that you cannot reach because your arms aren't long enough, or you don't have a partner willing to pave the ointment across the bed bug bites:

You tug a portion of Saran Wrap from its carton -- a square about the size of the infected area -- and scotch tape it to a wall. Then, you apply the topical to the wrap -- gently, as if you are buttering a slice of freshly baked bread -- until it is covered corner to corner.

Next, you remove clothing from your upper body and smoosh your back against the creamy wrap.  You may add music to accompany the swaying you will do to transfer medicine to the dots that have spread across your back like stars in a night sky.

Over all, I handled the recent plague of my person quite calmly because I was certain it hadn't originated in my apartment. The outbreak occurred just after I returned from a weekend at a Kansas City hotel. I know that hotels -- no matter the number of awarded stars -- are vulnerable to bed bugs.

But, my composure threatened to crack when I considered the trip I would be taking in two days to Boston. What if the critters had decided to travel home with me from K.C.? Could they have hitched a ride in my carry-on? Had they weaved themselves into the threads of the clothing I wore on the trip? Did I bring the terror troop into my sweet apartment where they would soon finish the job on other parts of my body?

"Is it possible you brought them back?" asked my Boston daughter Faith, who was echoing my unease. "Is there a way you can check it out so you, um, don't bring them to my place?"

"Do you want me to stay home?" I said in my perfected passive aggressive voice.

"No, Mom, I didn't say that. Just, is there a way you can be sure they haven't adopted you and won't accompany you to Boston?"

Because I admitted the same concern, I sought advice from Karen, my interior designer friend. "Call your building's management office," she said. "They likely have a protocol for dealing with bed bugs."

Protocol, I loved the sound of that because it meant I was not a pariah. If there was a protocol, that denoted something they teach in building maintenance school.

I called Kendra at the concierge desk. "Uh, I have a problem," I said, as if I were confessing a dead body that needed disposing. "I have a bed bug rash, which I'm certain I got at a hotel. But, I want to be sure I didn't transport any back to my apartment."

The knock on my door came as soon as I hit "End" on my mobile. Roberto and Edward, each bearing a powerful specialty flashlight, trailed Dzenan, our chief engineer. I stood to the side, as the trio flipped my mattress, removed cushions from the couch, poked into bookshelves and floorboards, scanned my carry-on, and combed through closets.

"No, nothing, no," were their findings, words as dulcet as a favored song. "Just to be sure, though, we'll get an exterminator to double check."

"I'm traveling again," I said. "If bugs are here, what can I do to be sure I don't carry them with?" (My daughter's worried voice had infested my brain.)

"Do you have another suitcase you can take?" Dzenan asked. I pointed to a new one I purchased after my dermatologist made the bed bug diagnosis and replacement suggestion. "Let's put the old one in a plastic bag just to be sure," he said, as serious as if he were plotting a military maneuver. "Buy encasements for your mattress and box spring; that'll kill any surviving bugs. We'll put them on for you. Toss the clothes you're taking with in a hot dryer, then, pack them in plastic. Bugs can't survive in heat."

Resisting an impulse to salute, I thanked the staff for their aid and absence of judgment. "No, we thank you," Dzenan said. "If the bugs are in an apartment, and the tenant doesn't let us know, it can turn into a much bigger problem. You were smart."

This was smarter: "Dear Sir," I wrote to the hotel's management. "I spent $487.32, including the two nights, to heal the bed bug rash from my stay in Room 211, Nov. 14-16, 2013." I included the phone numbers of my dermatologist and engineer, along with receipts from Target and Bed, Bath, & Beyond.

Will the check be in the mail? Stay tuned.

Flights of Fancy

I knew it had to be Tommy playing tricks. It happened as I was preparing for a visit to Los Angeles -- the first travel from my new rental apartment. On the day before my trip, I opened my wallet to take out my drivers license. My plan was to clip the license to my boarding pass, which, in my obsessively-organized mind, would ease my passage through security.

Gadzooks, the license was gone!  With my heart racing, I dropped to the couch and retraced my steps. Where was the last place I had used the license? Was there an establishment that required this extra identification in order to make a credit card purchase?

Then I remembered: one day, feeling nostalgic about all of the changes in my life, and pining for my deceased husband, I had switched the driver’s license, which was under the clear plastic slot,  to another spot in my wallet. Now, instead of my government-issued face greeting me, it was a color photo of our wedding portrait.

But the driver’s license edge wasn’t peeking out from any other slot like those of my credit cards. Where had I put it? Then, I jabbed my fingers behind the photo and voila. I was certain I had put it in its own niche where it could be easily noticed and extracted, but somehow, someone -- and I am now pointing fingers -- had hidden it tightly behind the 2-x-3.

In my flight of fancy, prior to the actual airplane I was to board the next day, I decided Tommy was having a bit of fun with me. When he was alive, he often scoffed at my habit of hyper-preparation. As example, two weeks before any takeoff, I’d lay everything out in stacks next to my open suitcase. This way, I could add or delete as departure day neared. 

When he’d walk past the room and spot the gaping luggage, he’d say, “We’re not going for two weeks. What’s the rush?”

“This makes it easier,” I’d say, which made sense to me, but to my casual husband, who refused to pack until the night before, or morning of, my regime deserved ridicule. 

After further daydreaming, though, I decided Tommy was also trying to remind me of the trips we had taken together. He wanted to be certain I wouldn’t allow those memories to fade.

With my departed husband prodding my subconscious, I paused preparations to conjure up those long ago vacations. As if I were assembling a jigsaw puzzle, I positioned images, expressions, and other mementos side-by-side until I could see a fuller picture.

First it was words that came to mind, likely because I was grateful for the years Tommy still had speech. “Mind the gap,” I could hear him saying. We were standing on a London platform awaiting public transit. On that trip, we visited Buckingham Palace, Harrods, and other typical tourist spots. And in my revery, I also remembered,  “punting on the Cam,” held over from a visit with friends in Cambridge that he enjoyed repeating for weeks after we returned home.

We toured Italy -- the Spanish Steps in Rome, the destroyed city of Pompeii, the hillside villages of the Amalfi Coast -- and dined in restaurants the guides promised were frequented by locals. I was able to capture bits and pieces, but so much of those travel memories had been slipping away with each passing year.

“Yes, those were wonderful,” I told Tommy aloud. “I’m so happy we were able to take them together. I noted that my husband, in this celestial cameo, hadn’t brought up our last mutual trip to Boston. I assumed he didn’t want to remind me of the difficulties after he had lost speech and his brain suggested to him a false bravado.

“You can’t go alone,” I remember pleading when he insisted on taking a walk from our bed-and-breakfast to nearby Jamaica Pond. I couldn’t join him for one reason or another, but he just smiled at my warning and pushed past me.

I started to cry. “Please, honey,” I said. “I’ll worry about you crossing that busy street and being late for our date. Please stay here with me.” And gratefully, he did.

Had Tommy held onto some resentment from that episode? Would that explain his current trick? No, I prefer to think my first notion was on target: my dear husband was just sending me a message, “Have a safe trip,” he was saying, “and don’t forget me.” As if...

Ma's Home!

If I were clever, I would've recorded Tommy's voice declaring, "Ma's home!" and then jerry-rigged the machine to start as soon as the front door opened. If I had done that, my homecoming might have been easier. As it was, following a return flight from Boston, when I placed my carry-on in the front hall, I was greeted by silence.

Of course, in order to get my husband's happy welcoming, I'd have to go back to 2011 when he still had speech. But, lacking a crystal ball, how could I have predicted that by 2012, his aphasia would have robbed him of all words?  And, how would I have known that by Thanksgiving, not only his voice, but Tommy himself, would be gone?

The November trip to the East Coast this year, for the feast-filled celebration, was to be the first major holiday I had spent with either of my daughters in likely 14-1/2 years, the length of my marriage to Tommy.

Initially, my husband and I declined their invitations because travel on those special days were too expensive, and there were the crowds to deal with. My daughters accepted this as reasonable. And since a long-time group of friends, who gathered annually for Thanksgiving and Christmas, was part of the package that accompanied my second marriage, I could tell my kids, "Don't worry about us, we'll be with Tommy's gang."

But when the longing to see them erupted, I'd ask Tommy if he'd like to join me on a short trip. His response was always, "No, you go ahead and enjoy your family. I'll stay home and take care of the Pooker." ("Pooker" was our nickname for Buddy, our 14-year-old Golden Retriever who died in June of this year.)

With my husband's blessings, I'd do a four-day, non-holiday, trip to Boston or Los Angeles. I'd be sure to call him three times a day: upon arrival, first thing in the morning, and last thing in the evening. "Get your butt home," he'd tease. "I miss you, too," I'd say.

And, upon re-entry from those solo trips, I could hear a lusty, "Ma's home!" the minute my key turned in the latch.

When Tommy lost his ability to speak, I ended those visits. I feared for his safety on his own, and wasn't willing to diminish his independence by hiring a round-the-clock companion.

But, in May of this year, with my 10-year-old Boston granddaughter cast in a musical, I decided to try something different. I figured it would be easier to have him with me then worry about him left at home, "Come, too," I urged. Surprisingly, he agreed.

We hired a dog-sitter for Buddy, and off we went. Unfortunately, the four days proved to be challenging. My husband's brain degeneration -- the culprit in his aphasia -- had me watching his every move. With his reasoning kaput, I had to bar him from jaunts on his own. "Never again," I said when people asked how the travel experiment worked.

Thanksgiving 2012, just spent in Boston, was picture-card perfect. I relished walks along pastoral Jamaica Pond with my daughter, catching up on our lives. I stood back-to-back with my beautiful granddaughter, who had grown in height and maturity since I had last seen her. With lucky timing, I joined in on birthday celebrations for my daughter's partner. And, I was blessed to be a guest at the bountiful table hosted by more of my daughter's loving family.

Without an ailing husband at my side, or waiting for me at home, there was nothing to pull my thoughts and concern back to Chicago, I felt at peace; I relaxed. On the other hand, there were no arrival, first-thing-in-the-morning, and last-thing-in-the-evening phone calls to be made. No one awaited my voice.

When I landed back at O'Hare, rode the Blue Line to my stop, then walked the few blocks towards our house. I stopped at the foot of the stairs to extract keys from my backpack, then hoisted my carry-on to the porch. I took a breath and steeled myself.

If only I had thought to record, to set-up, to be greeted by Tommy's joyful "Ma's Home!" it might have eased my homecoming. But, then again...