My dad is bedrock. Despite my parents’ divorce, despite long and growing distances, despite my not liking golf, insurance, or jazz music – I’ve never had a minute’s doubt about Dad. He’s there.
Until the rock becomes 93 years old and blind. The bedrock is still there, and will stay. But the whole landscape changes. This month we have been moving him and my stepmom into assisted living. He needs help, for sure, and this is a good place. I’m still not sure it’s good enough for Dad, but that’s not really the point of my blog post. The point is, I suppose, that I’m having a rough time seeing him have a rough time. I need to share how bleedin’ hard this is, but also just be overtly, loudly grateful for my rock, however crumbly, because I was lucky enough to get this man for a father.
Also, I’m learning things. Because, as my dear beloved step-sister put it, this IS our first rodeo. Here are some things I now know that are helpful when your parent moves into assisted living, even if I’d rather not know them:
I don’t know how anyone puts up with such indignities as those involved in aging. But they do. We do. If I’m lucky, I will.
You can only do one thing at a time. I’ve never been a multitasker. I’m even less so now.
Don’t give him anything he doesn’t ask for. I have tried to get him this or that technological object or medical device or handy organizer. He didn’t ask for any of that, he can’t figure them out, and he leaves them where I lay them.
A piece of paper and pencil are essential at all times because there are so many nitpicky details that might possibly make his life one erg easier, but when you cross them off the list, cross them off your mind too, because he won’t remember he ever asked for them.
Self-care, yeah yeah yeah – I wish I would focus a bit better on this, but little tiny bits of it help and the rest feels like indulgence while he’s waiting for me and my sibs, or while he’s hurting… I’ll get a massage some other time.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, summer, 1987
I moved to Jackson Hole because my college friend did – but she had a job and a place to live. I had neither, but the Jackson Hole News want ads told me there would be no problem finding work. I ended up double-shifting it, with a day care center run in someone’s home in the mornings, and afternoons and evenings in the Wax Museum of Old Wyoming. Yes, I spent my evenings vacuuming around the feet of a wax Kit Carson, who frankly did not deserve such adulatory treatment.
I did not, however, find a place to live. As in many resort areas, Jackson had no housing for the hordes of low-level staffers required to make everything work – even in summer, which was the less-trafficked season. So, I lived in my car, a hand-me-down Ford Escort, in various parks and campgrounds, stealing showers where I could and checking the want ads daily. Something had to open up – a roommate set-up, a job with housing, something. In the meantime, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I knew they’d only tell me it was dangerous. Like I didn’t know! I was eating carrots dipped in peanut butter for most of my meals – dangerous enough right there. That cannot be healthy.
But something else appeared in the want ads before I found a place to live. It was an all-black want ad, with the following words in 24-point white block letters. It said:
Dad did not abide me lying low. I (of course) called him that very day. This past week I found he had saved the postcard I sent, which said I’m Sorry in gigantic inked in letters.
He was so always. Always there for graduations and for knee surgeries and for break-ups. Always called at 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning. Always had French toast together on Sundays. Always played games, always watched M*A*S*H. Each day at 3:45 we’d have a glass of merlot and some veggie straws. Always remembered everything he was supposed to remember, from birthdays to how my cat was doing to what country I was going to visit, or arriving home from. He was so interested in our lives, in being part of the day-to-day. And he was always on my side.
Recently he said something about the “Mama’s boy” who broke up with me after asking me to marry him – over two decades ago. I hadn’t realized that was the impression Dad had carried about that ex all these years – but his unequivocal on-my-side-ness really cheered me.
We have played, conservatively, over ten gazillion hands of cards. Poker, Oh Hell, Spades, Hearts, Cribbage, Uno, Blackjack, Canasta, Old Maid… whatever was in front of us. We trash talked in each and every one of these. It is who we are. We also played a board game called Lie, Cheat and Steal: The Game of Political Power which I am sure pointed me toward Washington DC from a young age. We skied, we played ping pong, we played putt-putt golf and par-3, we bowled, we ice skated. We trash talked a lot in many of those too, especially ping pong!
Dad and I are both language geeks. He has written and self-published two books, and when I say “self-published” I mean that he and my stepmom have their own imprint and a gigantic machine in the basement that prints and binds and covers their works. Dad wrote a glossary of Latin terms called “Et Tu, Et Cetera” (copies available for free from me) and a compendium of vignettes on little-known 20th-century movers and shakers, like the man who invented the matchstick, called Legends Don’t Have to Die. (Also available for free!) He wrote about his dad’s softball team in dustbowl-wracked southeastern Colorado.
We have both studied Spanish and Russian; he has also studied Italian, Portuguese, and Arabic. I have his copy of Arabic for Dummies, with his detailed notes on every page. I don’t feel worthy of even starting to study that book! Unlike his lucky daughters, his international travels have been pretty limited since he finished up with the Navy after the Korean War. His lucky daughters, though, took him to Florence, Italy, and got him drunk on Chianti. Or maybe he just got drunk himself, not needing our help – but we like to think it was our influence.
Dad has always focused on family, particularly siblings. He didn’t lecture much – he was a better arguer than speech-maker – but the one lecture I remember was about brother and sister. He stopped me and Kyle from fighting and told us: You’ll always come back to brother and sister. In other words, don’t screw that up. He also spent the next forty years insisting on get-togethers and being each other’s resources and supports and comforts, and it is as much his legacy as it is the joy of my life to have a sister and a brother I love to absolute distraction. Talk about bedrock.
Dad has also written long, long, long lists of insults. I find multiple versions of these lists as I go about the house, cleaning up. Some are just insults scribbled on pieces of paper and shoved in one of his carpentry projects. I’m starting to think Dad had a lot of insults to say, but kept them to himself because that was the right thing to do. They’re all funny insults, in the “his village is missing their idiot” vein.
And he keeps this fading piñata I gave him 30 years ago hanging over his desk. It’s full of little scrolls of paper on which I wrote good memories, and some confetti, and since I gave it to him, he has used it as a hold-all for fun little somethings that don’t go anywhere else. There are two free season ski passes he received as an over-80 skier. There are scorecards from our family outings to the par-3 golf course. There’s a pack of cards the family made for charades: St. Elmo’s Fire. Tale of Two Cities. Dumbo. There’s an origami box I might have made for him at summer camp. I also found a frightening caramel lollipop from a Spanish-speaking country, which no one should eat. There’s a warranty card and instruction manual for a little sander for his carpentry projects – the best gift I ever gave him. Except for maybe the piñata.
From time to time, Dad would pull out and read one of the little scrolls, some of which still wear the spangly ribbon I tied them with, having never been unfurled. That piñata. Mystery, history and fun. It is one of the many things that he has always done, that tells me I’m loved.
This blog post is not the Story of Dad
He is much more than I can summarize in a blog post. His constancy and the warmly insistent quality of his always-there-ness are what I want to convey here. They are part of what I feel changing as I tend to his needs alongside my siblings and stepsister. He is not forgetful; he is, instead, uncannily alert and attuned to conversations and history and linkages. He’s just blind, and old. And in his new environment, he can’t do for himself like he did for so long at home, while his eyesight clouded, one veil at a time.
Nearly a month later
I’ve spent nearly a month thinking I should post this post, and say all these good things about Dad. That it would feel good to put things on paper. But also I felt wary. Like I was eulogizing him, and he’s not gone. So I postponed it, and honestly I was pretty exhausted.
A lot has happened. It has felt like whack-a-mole – if it wasn’t one thing, it was two or four. The whole care home caught a horrible virus with many ending up in the hospital. The place is short-staffed so we started spending nights in Dad’s easy chair so we could get up to help him in the night. His meds got messed up three times – first because his doc hadn’t updated his chart, later by an earnest mistake, and most recently from a zealous care home overprescriber who decided he needed antidepressants. (NOTE: Blind people may well have very different reactions to antidepressants. I think it’s worth studying.) A new but seemingly necessary med caused a bunch of side effects.
Anyway, my sister, brother and I were dealing with those big health issues – including two trips to the emergency room – as well as the little ones like being out of eye drops or talking to insurance companies or getting Dad’s taxes done. Before the virus we were doing all kinds of physical therapy with him, along with copious Wordle and presidential trivia (he is frighteningly good at that) and reminiscing. Still, for as much as we would work with him to take those two steps forward, there were always three steps back. And the virus multiplied that.
Today Dad took a further turn for the worse. I’m super scared. For the worst thing in the world – losing someone you love – the only things that do help are family and friends, and I am so blessed on both fronts. We three kids are all crazy about him, we all want him to be comfortable and happy and have his wishes met. We don’t argue about which care he should have, or how the money should be spent (except fighting over who will pay a dinner bill.) We listen to him, because thankfully we’ve been able to up till this afternoon.
I don’t know where else to go with this post. I’m hoping he’ll rally tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. If you’ve got good vibes to send, we’ll channel them to Dad!