Baby Walter — that’s what everyone called him since his dad was also named Walter and no one much liked the sound of “junior” — spent most of his single-digit years tethered to one heavy object or another.
His older sister Tina was one of my closest friends. We grew up in the 1970s and 1980s at different ends of the same rural road in Ohio, an unlined swath of blacktop connecting old farmhouses to the fields of green soybeans and sweet corn planted in between.
Baby Walter and Tina lived in the last house on the right before our road crossed over Interstate 71, the busy freeway connecting Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati.
And Tina’s mom — not overly protective of Tina or her older brother — worried constantly that Baby Walter would run down the slope of their side yard and onto I-71 where he would almost certainly be smashed by a semi-truck hauling automobiles or steel or some other heavy thing manufactured in Cleveland and destined for points south unknown.
Today, a doctor would likely diagnose Baby Walter with ADD and scribble out a prescription for a medication to calm him. But at that time, our patch of Ohio was stuck somewhere between “Hee Haw” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
We rarely questioned our fate and, if we did, we asked God via Jesus to help us, not some stranger in a lab coat. On rare occasions — like those Sundays when our preacher wrapped up his sermon in time to catch Browns kickoff — we knew God kicked in. But mostly, we fended for ourselves and worked with what we had.
That meant it was Tina’s job — and my job, too, when I was at her house — to keep Baby Walter safe by following instructions from Tina’s mom:
Tie Baby Walter to his bed for his nap.
Tie Baby Walter to the barn ladder while you’re in the loft so he doesn’t fall.
Tie Baby Walter to the tree so you all can play outside.
I know it sounds wretched now and certainly there were many what-ifs — like what if the house caught fire and Baby Walter was trapped, unable to leave his bed. But nothing bad ever happened.
Baby Walter would inevitably wrap himself around the tree like a tether ball to a pole, but it was fun — for him and for us — to unwind him until he wrapped himself around again.
He was happy, well-loved and well-fed and seemed to grow accustomed to the ritual, often waiting for someone to tie him, as if he, too, didn’t trust himself not to run into I-71’s siren song.
I’ve been thinking about Baby Walter — who must be 40 by now — all day.
This morning, before sunrise, before anyone else in our house was awake, when the temperature hovered at -16 degrees, my 83-year-old mother crept outside with her walker — wearing only a t-shirt, tennis shoes and a coat — and smoked a cigarette.
She made it back to the couch safely and we only discovered her crime when my father, who has cancer, went out for his first cigarette of the day and found an overturned coffee cup and a half pack of red Pall Malls scattered on the snow.
It frightened me, but it enraged me just as much.
How long does it take a 104-pound woman to freeze to death if she falls in the snow when its 16-below? Or how about our dog or two cats that always hover around the front door?
My mother has a combination of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia (caused by smoking). She also has spinal stenosis and scoliosis that leaves her bent at a 50-degree angle, unable to straighten, unsteady on her feet and challenged to hobble on a walker more than a dozen feet without sitting down.
Her physical frailty has in some ways made her mental frailty easier to deal with. I can almost always catch her before she runs amok. But it’s done nothing to temper her bullheadedness or nicotine craving (yes, I’ve tried and failed to convert her to patches and gum and e-cigarettes).
From the first week mom and dad moved in, there has been a single rule that has dominated our lives: Mom must never go outside — or even open the door — unless someone is at her side.
Her dementia has stolen much of her left brain, always her weakest side. She doesn’t know $5,000 from $5. But even now she knows the door rule and knowingly broke it for a cigarette.
Nursing home was my first thought. I’m nearing the end of my caregiver rope.
Standing by my dad as he negotiates cancer — an oncologist today decided to end his radiation a week early so he can go on chemo because the tumors in his lungs are leaving him short of breath — is exhausting. And it’s sad.
Lassoing my mother’s wants and needs at the same time is nearly impossible.
But here’s the thing: My dad’s final chapter is closing.
And even though my mom isn’t the woman she was — and both OG mom and dementia mom make dad bats — I know he’d rather have her close as he fades away.
So I’ve got myself a Baby Walter dilemma: How do you prevent someone you love from running into traffic and getting killed?
I have a tree, but I’m unwilling to use a tether.
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