Over a year ago, Life with Ricky was written by Judy Coon and published on Uniting Caregivers. At that time, her friend and co-worker shared with me a story he wrote for a school assignment in August 2010. With his permission I share parts of his story with you.
Written by, Tim Gray
At 1:00 p.m. Monday, Ricky Cromar picked up his worn, green Coleman cooler and heads for lunch. By the time he arrives, 25 or so warehouse workers have packed the break room. To reach his final destination, Ricky had to walk down a long narrow hallway past the conference room and call center, bend around two corners, a couple of restrooms and a flight of stairs. Along the way he had to open two closed doors and limp through one that was already opened.
Ricky can’t count the 150-yard trek or compare it to the miles he often walked alone as a kid. But now as a 61-year-old man with Down syndrome, Autism, and Alzheimer’s, it’s quite a trip. Especially when one leg is a few inches shorter than the other and you’re going blind.
“Here you go buddy,” Janelle says, as she places Ricky’s oversized red University of Utah jacket around his shivering shoulders and rocking body. Ricky doesn’t say a word as he flashes an exaggerated grin of gratitude at the twenty-three-year-old shipping supervisor. She’s accustomed to making her way around the 125,000 square foot warehouse and doesn’t mind the 300-yard round trip back to get his jacket.
For those that come in contact with Ricky, it’s a reminder to be thankful for the ability to do the things he struggles with daily. For many, his accomplishments are an inspiration. For Ricky, who often displays pride in the things he does, the walk just gets him where he’s going. Today, like most days, Ricky eats quietly alone. When he needs assistance, or an extra snack, there are plenty of helping hands. But the ones he depends on most are attached to Judy Coon, his sister and primary caregiver for the past 15 years. Judy is the bookkeeper for Pro Star Fulfillment, a shipping and handling firm for infomercials. She shares a 480-square-foot rectangular office with Ricky and he sits at a black metal desk next her.
While Ricky eats, Judy usually shares lunch with Layne, her husband, who is also the V.P. of Pro Star Fulfillment. They generally eat in his office, which is just around the corner from the break room. While they are both involved in Ricky’s care, Judy clearly has the lion’s share.
In a lineup of seven siblings, Ricky is the second oldest, Judy is third. She took the job as full-time caregiver about a year before their dad died in 1996 and eight years after their mom passed away. Growing up, Judy never thought much about Ricky’s condition. “He was my older brother and has just always been there,” she says. Judy would pay him to do her chores, including the dishes. She would then drive him to buy hamburgers, a major passion of his, which started their bond together. As an adult, Ricky still cleans up the kitchen all the time for Judy.
Before work Judy rides a bicycle 30 minutes, which is about the time it takes Ricky to choose a shirt from his closet. As he has developed Alzheimer’s, most things take longer and are often clouded with confusion. He is wearing gray jeans, rolled up the same six to eight inches his mother rolled them up for him as a child and as an adult. That’s Judy’s job now, along with helping Ricky perform other personal care activities most people take for granted, including electric shaving.
Before Alzheimer’s, Ricky was incredibly organized, especially how he placed pants in his drawers and how he hung shirts in his closets. They were all color coordinated. Now Ricky’s drawers are in chaos.
Earlier today, Judy and Ricky made lunch at home together. It’s something they do on days they don’t have to be at work early. “Rick, do you want one sandwich or two?” Judy asks. “Two,” he says, unaware he is flashing a peace sign. Judy gently hands him four pieces of bread she baked, which Ricky carefully lays out on the oval wooden kitchen table. Sitting down, a careful exercise itself, he spreads peanut butter slowly on one piece, going well over the edges. Unhurried, he spreads Welch’s Grape Jelly on two pieces and puts the bread together, but not very straight. Judy lets him eat them however he makes them. Ricky deliberately places the sandwiches into a plastic container and then into “Box,” the nickname he gave his Coleman cooler. Next, he methodically puts a Yoplait chocolate raspberry yogurt into the cooler. Pop-tarts, one chocolate and one blueberry, are today’s dessert and a Minute Maid drink completes the meal.
At 1:49 p.m. Monday, most of the break room has cleared as the warehouse employees have returned to their work stations. As Ricky finishes the walk back to his office, he stands bent over his desk with a clouded look of concern. Ricky’s chair is missing. Jared borrowed it while he was gone, but Ricky finds it in good hands, sitting next to Judy. Ricky has an hour for lunch. He made it back before his time was up.
“Good lunch,” he mouths, with a wide-grin and raised eyebrows, like he just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. It’s an expression he displays often at Pro Star. Judy understands what he is struggling to say and smiles back.
Judy gives Ricky daily jobs at work, including stuffing DVD’s into small white containers that will ship to customers looking for long-term healthy weight loss. Ricky is also in charge of shredding files, one of his favorite assignments, but he spends much of his days coloring with the same steadfast concentration he displays making his lunch. Jared Starling, CEO of Pro Star, personally delivers a $15.00 check to Ricky every two weeks for his hard work and Ricky lights up.
Ricky takes tremendous pride in his work. Craig Faux, corporate sales manager for Pro Star , wrote, “When I have something going on that is causing me stress or an issue I need to think through for a minute, I go see Ricky. He stops, but only for a moment, shakes my hand, shows me what he is working on, smiles at me, then says he needs to go back to work. I always feel better when I leave.”
On Tuesday I will share more from Tim Gray’s story.