The problems with my dad started last Spring.
To set this up, actually, there were troubles way before then. The dynamic my brother, sister and I had with mom and dad was the sort of thing that would’ve inspired George Carlin. I remember he wrote a bit that went something like this…
When you’re a kid you brag about how old you are. You’ll say something like, “I’m 6 and I’ll be 7 next month!” Then when you’re middle-aged, you try to hide how old you are. (Someone who’s over 50 jokes that they’re still 49). But when you get elderly, you become like a child again and boast about your age; “I’m 91 and I’ll be 92 next month!”
Like kids, my parents would brag a little about their age. They said things like; “We’re doing extremely well for people our age.“ Like kids, my parents were stubborn, just shy of pouting with their arms folded. They didn’t like being told what to do so they resisted doing anything that came across to them as lecturing, even if it came from a place of compassion, concern or just common sense. Their inability to deal rationally and compassionately with their mortality was a denial of epic proportions and a source of great frustration for myself and my brother and sister, who are 12 and 14 years older than me.
It became hard to talk to them.
Both children of the Great Depression, my parents were both extremely resourceful and independent, wonderfully bright, very loving and giving people; having devoted much of their lives to community service and their church. They’ve done a lot for others. As much as they could’ve. I would argue that they haven’t done as much for themselves as they should have. They’re real straight arrows. When I see a Norman Rockwell painting, I can imagine zippering-in my folks (there they are, in a Protestant sanctuary worshiping along with all the other white people… there’s dad, sitting by the cop and kid at the soda shoppe… there‘s dad in his crisp Boy Scout uniform). Dad was a proud Scouter. He was a brilliant machine engineer, designer, craftsman. He had a great memory for songs, speeches and poetry, plus perfect penmanship, which I tried to emulate when I was a kid. He also had a kind of hokey, homespun sense of humor, from which I mostly rebelled (he would prefer Garrison Keillor or Andy Rooney to George Carlin).
This was a picture of 1950’s bliss; the post-War boom that spawned the middle class, bedroom, nuclear family and spawned me, along with all the other Baby Boomers. I was born at the very tail end of this generation. Of the three Boomers in our family, I’m the baby. I love my parents beyond expression. It’s hard not to love them. They did pretty much everything right. But things didn’t quite FIT right. My parents embodied the “a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place” spirit in their creed but they didn’t live by it when it came to their homemaking and personal affairs. That was always a problem. As my parents got older and their health became more of an issue, it became more of a problem.
Add to that, the fact that my dad had been very hard-of-hearing through much of his adult life (he wore hearing aids ever since I can remember) and then you might realize how difficult it was to get through to him. Sometimes you’d think he was hearing you and he wasn’t. Other times he’d try to be a part of the conversation but invariably the topic would shift into what he wanted to discuss, not what we wanted to discuss. Then we’d get frustrated. Then he would get frustrated. Sometimes he would disengage himself. He’d just tune out, give up. More recently, he became isolated. He slept a lot, mostly in the daytime (and was up at night by himself). He never went to bed, he just slept in his chair in the living room. He seemed depressed.
It’s this isolation that may or may not have been a significant clue to what was going on with his health.
I have only these leads…. The previous Fall, all within the course of a week, he’d marched in a Veteran’s Day parade with other WW2 vets and been presented with this important (to him) lifetime Scouting award. He was flying high. Then he got into a car accident. We kids feared this was going to happen. He’d had some close calls in the car before. He’d driven through stop signs, missed turns, almost backed into people in a parking lot. We’d warn him that he shouldn’t be driving. We said; “Dad, you can’t drive! You’re being selfish. How would you feel if you hurt someone else?” He agreed but kept on driving; a 90-year old man with trifocals and bad hearing. He didn’t like to be told what to do. If I’d had any sense of courage I would’ve taken away his license and stolen his car. But I’m a “good son” (or am I?). The accident happened. It wasn’t a major one and I don’t think it was entirely his fault but that’s not the point. No one was physically hurt but it broke him emotionally. He told me he just sat there in his car sobbing like a baby. It’s as if an imaginary pillar of grandiosity had crumbled. It shattered something inside him. There was a shift. His isolation and depression really started to set in.
Fast forward to his 91st birthday. I called him and he said something peculiar to me. He was rambling a bit on the phone. This was not so unusual since our conversations weren’t always a clear connection, especially on the phone. But out of the blue, he said; “I’m afraid that the next time you see me, you’re going to think I belong in a nursing home.“ I’m not sure what I said back to him. I probably asked why he thought that and got nothing substantive in a reply. I probably shrugged it off. Maybe I just thought he was feeling sorry for himself because he’d added another year to his age. Maybe he was giving me a clue. Should I have seen a sign? Would that be overreacting? I mentioned it to my mom and siblings. We didn’t know what to make of it. We asked mom if we should say something to their GP. “No, don’t bother,” was the reply. That was usually the reply. I’ve kicked myself over this. Could we somehow have prevented what was going to happen from happening? But how can you help someone if they don’t want to help themselves?
One evening last Spring, my mother called me to say that dad had fallen in the middle of the night. She had woken up and he was screaming at her. He called her names. He told her that he was a great man and she was nothing. She’d done nothing in her life. He was verbally abusive to her. Mom was beside herself. This was totally uncharacteristic of him. She called for an ambulance and he went screaming and complaining to the hospital. She was completely confused. She’d found little notes lying around the living room with cryptic messages like; “3 am Lucid…4 am Not Lucid.” “Call Doctor…I Die To-Day.” and “Happy with Jesus.” Much of it was indecipherable. The notes were written on containers, shreds of paper, the pages of magazines. The penmanship was scraggly, off-kilter from normal, especially for him.
Needless to say, this was scary, mysterious, unchartered territory.
We didn’t know what was going on. He’d told mom he’d fallen but mom didn’t believe it. There was no evidence. Had he made it up? That wasn’t like him. He could’ve easily tripped over some of the junk lying around. Had he had a stroke? He’d been treated for stomach lymphoma, was that it? Had he mixed meds? Was it a bladder infection? What was causing this delirium, if it was that? There was a puzzle but not all the pieces were in the box.
Thoughts raced through my head. My dad was in trouble, that was the most important thing. But there was also my mom’s well-being. She‘s only 2 years younger than him, had triple-bypass surgery, wears a pacemaker, had a hip replacement, is diabetic and had various lymphomas herself. Plus there was a house cluttered with crap and no clear-cut idea of what to do should either of them pass away. No will, no living will, no clue.
What happened over the course of the year was a roller coaster.
This was just the beginning. I’ll continue to take you through my journey. Maybe we can figure it out. Please feel free to comment.