Confessions

The Sun In Flight – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 21

There is a Dylan Thomas poem that I first heard of in, of all places, a Rodney Dangerfield film called Back To School in which he accompanies his son to college and enrolls as a student himself.

The poem is called ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night‘. It reads as follows:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas’s poem is about living boldly, living fully, even as we age and reach the conclusion of our journey – to continue to burn with life.

I think Dylan Thomas was unfamiliar with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

On my daily call with Mom yesterday she mentioned that she’d been out earlier, gone to her brother Logan’s, and picked up a book. She noted this happily, as if it had lent an unexpected happiness to her day. She truly believed that’s what she’d done. Had it been ‘real’ I would have been happy for her.

Her brother Logan passed away more than a decade ago.

This morning she called me (before I could get to calling her) and asked me what time I would be over. In my typical fashion (calm, as if there’s nothing out of the ordinary and as if this is the first time I’m hearing whatever she’s saying), I replied, “Well, I’m at home in Massachusetts, so it won’t be today.” Mom carried on as if nothing were amiss about our exchange thus far and informed me that she was heading out shortly to ‘work’ in case I tried to call her. I said, “Okay, thanks, I would have wondered where you were.”

The decline in her cognitive abilities is more rapid these days it seems. She has begun asking me, nearly each day, who she was married to, who are the children that live with me, etc. She sometimes hesitates before speaking my name, or responds to me initially as if she’s suspicious that I’m a telemarketer or a bill collector. She asks me where I’m living now, and how old I am. Each question she asks she has known, in the past, the answer to without having to ask. Lately she’s needed more and more prompting.

For most of my life, I would have said that my mother would have ‘raged against the dying of the light’. That’s not to say that she travelled extensively or participated in numerous social functions and clubs and read classic literature and developed an appreciation for opera – she did none of those things. Mom’s favorite author (to this day) is Danielle Steele. She only ever left the country to cross the border into Canada, and the first time she attempted such a feat she (and her companions) chickened out as they feared they wouldn’t be let back into the U.S. upon return for some unknown reason. Mom wasn’t one to socialize readily (much preferring a one-on-on lunch or someone popping in to see her now and then), and most likely the closest she ever came to opera appreciation was watching ‘What’s Opera Doc’ with me on Looney Toons with Bugs Bunny in drag sitting atop a near morbidly obese cartoon horse and Elmer Fudd wailing about how lovely his Brunhilda was.

Mom lived in her own home, in retrospect, longer than she should have. The early warning signs of Dementia were there, certainly, but not significant enough to convince her to do anything about it any earlier than she did (or, more to the point, to accept what had to happen any earlier than it had to happen in which she realized, at some level, she had no other choice). She gave up cooking (saying her back bothered her too much to stand that long) and existed on store-bought quiche and cooked chicken breast. She drove anywhere she needed to go, even transporting others occasionally, until her license was taken from her when she could no longer identify road signs and their meaning. She stayed to the tried and true route to get anywhere rather than ever seek out a shortcut, becoming annoyed with me when I drove her somewhere and took another way that I knew was faster. When yard work and snow shoveling became too much for her, she hired out, constantly annoyed at the cost associated with that, but conceding that she could no longer do it herself (having fallen at the end of the driveway into the ditch that ran along the front edge of the property). She kept a calendar, a large one, handy to her favored living room recliner and made notes on it as to her day-to-day activities (such as ‘August 5 – saw Tammy, had lunch, great time, warm day’) which I realized had become her talking points in conversations with me (I found the calendar when cleaning out her house and imagine now that she would, as we talked on the phone, consult this calendar and improvise and embellish with just enough flourish to her tale to pass as her own unaided recollection of events).

For some time, she managed to not go gentle into that good night. Now, the darkness is overtaking her. I hear people describe Dementia as many things – a ‘fog’, a ‘memory thief’, a ‘slow disappearance of the mind’, etc.; many ways to say the same thing, as if your mind, your identity, your whole life is collapsing in on itself. The thoughts and remembrances you cling to of lost loved-ones and comforting conversations and passed on wisdom disintegrate until there’s not a trace left of them. Mom fought it off for a long time with her notes, her carefully worded explanations, and her assertion that she was ‘doing just fine’ no matter what new ailment or obstacle had befallen her.

Now, she can no longer mask the encroaching darkness that continues to invade her mind. She can’t find the words to describe a situation or an act. She speaks of deceased relatives as if they are still amongst the living. She scrambles for names of people she’s known her entire life, and she repeats herself ad infinitum (to which I learned to adapt months ago). She tries to still convince me that all is well and not to worry about her, to which I simply say, “I don’t mind worrying about you; you did that for me for so many years, let me return the favor.”

The child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child.

For all the imploring of Dylan Thomas – Mom cannot help but go gentle into that good night. She has not the presence of mind any longer to ‘rage’ against the dying of the light – to continue to burn with life as the candle shrivels and the flame flickers to an ebbing before it is finally extinguished. The ‘close of day’ finds her looking at the shadows on the walls and, as she has told me, realizing that she doesn’t know for sure if anyone is out there, outside her room, in case anything happens to her for what seems like hours (though it could be just half an hour) until someone pokes their head in and checks on her.

As Mom’s mind fades more and more, I find myself holding onto a belief that with the passing of her good memories, equal in number are the bad ones that disappear as well. That a life of regrets, which she conveyed to me over time, becomes more of simply a ‘life lived’, and the regrets are no longer ruminated upon, no longer a weight upon her, no longer an ever-present part of her day.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight – and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way

Mom was never a ‘wild’ person – like myself she was cautious and heedful of unexpected consequences, although often to her (self-admitted) discredit; whereas she has expressed to me (several years ago now) a wish that she’d not been so ‘afraid’ of life at times that it prevented her from living it more fully. What she truly meant by that, those things she allowed her fear to obstruct her from doing more of, taking more risks and allowing happy accidents to more fully illustrate her experiences in life – is now lost somewhere in the same vapor that once was her ‘raging’ against the dying of the light – her passion and determination to keep her precious independence, taking whatever steps necessary to fortify it against the thief of awareness that, more and more, was pillaging that very independence from her.

As Dylan Thomas wrote; blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay. Sadly, life seemed to have another happenstance in mind for  Mom. The blaze continues to fade, the night to settle in more fixedly, more securely, holding her in its grasp as the blaze dims, the meteor paling as it continues its migration into the abyss that claims us all, eventually – the past.

I tried, for a long time, to rage for her. To try to stave off the dying of the light. But that time has been displaced. Dementia wins, and the fool that  I was to try to stand up to it and conquer it must capitulate. There’s only one more thing that I can do for Mom.

I can make going into that good night as gentle as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Confessions

Acting – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 13

With everything I’ve seen and now know about my mother going through in the past six months, as her dementia has been worsening, some days I just want to pretend the word doesn’t exist.

While visiting my mother in Florida last month, to discuss assisted living with her together with my brother, I remarked to my brother that sometimes I think it might just be easier on Mom when she no longer remembers her life before the assisted living home…when that’s all she knows and all she remembers. Then the losses and the lack of independence and control might….*MIGHT* just be less frustrating for her because she won’t know anything else but that.

Mom has spent a couple of nights in the hospital following what appears to be another issue with her blood pressure or the regulation of it. I’ve long suspected internal bleeding is leading to what’s going on with the spikes and drops for her, but it is as yet an ‘undetermined’ thing. Hopefully testing will illuminate whatever the issue is. Hopefully she’ll have one less struggle to contend with and not have to be hospitalized over and over again.

Last night her physician agreed that a mild sedative might help her relax after a stressful realization that she was not being released yesterday. That was at six p.m. At ten-fifteen p.m. my brother received a call from mom saying they were insisting they were moving her to another room and she had refused and they told her it ‘didn’t matter’ that she was refusing, that it was ‘happening anyway’.

This escalated further and further to the point where when my brother arrived at the hospital at ten fifty-five, there were five nurses who had converged on Mom in her room and she was angry and lashing out at all of them. I’m not wishing to give nurses a bad name. I know plenty of them. They do a job that can be miserable to do…and my mother is certainly not the easiest patient in the world. So this does not pertain to all nurses…just the ones who were in Mom’s room last night….none of whom seemed to understand that Mom has dementia. None of whom could answer the simple question of ‘has she had a sedative yet’. None of whom seemed even remotely concerned with aggravating an elderly woman with repeated blood pressure issues instead of simply stepping back and letting her calm down and perhaps revisiting the move in the morning when she’s a bit more capable, cognitively, of understanding it and perhaps can have a discussion with my brother or even with me as to why it’s necessary, instead of having five persons who she doesn’t know and doesn’t trust shrouding her like a lynch mob. I have no medical training, but I really feel quite confident in my belief that that wasn’t good medicine.

I’m also more than a bit put out that it took five hours to administer a sedative to her. Mom is 84 years of age. No, she’s not the highest priority patient there…no she’s not the most congenial person there…yes there are circumstances that cause delays…but five hours? In that amount of time, I could have flown to Florida and given her the frigging injection myself.

This, the worsening of her dementia and the loss of independence and control over everything for her, is – based upon my mother’s personality and history, absolutely the worst possible way for her to end out her life.

I have seen, over time, many people posting on social media ‘Fucking Cancer – Cancer Sucks’…..and it does. So does dementia. Not only for those who have it…but for those of us who watch our loved ones go through it and know there’s just nothing we can do for them as we watch them continue to spiral down into a fog of uncertainty and fear. We stand by and watch someone who bases 99% of their identity on their strength and independence and everything they struggled with and overcame in life….and then along comes dementia and says ‘Guess what? I’ll have the last laugh…..I’ll work my dark magic on your mind, and no matter how strong and capable and independent you THINK you’ve been, you’ll wind up shaking in a corner because you won’t know who the fuck anyone or anything is…..you won’t even know where you are or how you got there…and when you try to figure that out, you’ll have forgotten exactly the steps you might take to HELP you figure that out, and there’s not a damned thing you nor anyone who cares about you can do about it…so take THAT, Ms. Independence….’

My mother has spent months in denial that she has dementia. At first that frustrated me because she was not treating herself for it and taking care of herself and it made trying to assist her all the more difficult because in her mind she didn’t need it…she was fine. I’m beginning to think she had something. I’m beginning to think I’d like to pretend it isn’t happening to her too. I just wish I could delude myself into believing it…even for a day….an hour…..a minute. Anything. I wish I could have that plausible deniability and behave as if none of this is happening to her, but I can’t because the worse it gets for her, the harder it gets to watch it, and it becomes near impossible to not think about it and worry about it and want to find someone to take it out on and to blame. To find anyone to scream at about it and make them feel even a fraction of the misery that she’s feeling. That I’m feeling for her. But I can’t. I can’t deny it. I can’t forget it. I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist and isn’t happening.

I guess I’m not that good an actor after all.

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Confessions

Unsolicited Advice – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 11

My brother and I started noticing ‘changes’ in our mother several years ago. Back then they were more subtle…repeating parts of conversations, having to think about names of people she didn’t encounter regularly, and other small ‘gaps’ in her cognitive process.

Mom is a very stubborn person – or as she puts it ‘independent’. She speaks of this trait as something she has had to be over time, raising three children without much help….but we all have been adults now for a long, long time. It goes deeper than that with her, which is something I’ve come to understand to a greater degree the older I get and the better acquainted with myself I become.

In the past nine months I have had much more direct insight into and involvement with my mother’s care, as has my brother for the past few months while she’s been staying with him in Florida – a trip that was initially supposed to be one month but has been extended now to just under three and with no real ‘end date’ in sight.

During this time, as it’s become necessary to ‘take over’ many portions of mom’s day to day care I’ve learned a great deal. I hope that my own experiences, if I pass on some unsolicited advice, will assist others in their own similar efforts with aging parents, and perhaps give some aging parents a little insight as to what those who try to assist you will face.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s a few tips I’d like to pass along. I am certainly no expert on any of this, and in the past nine months have made several mis-steps along the way. But I hope my experience helps others.

1. Power Of Attorney – this is a very, very valuable thing to have for those trying to assist aging parents. But don’t assume it’s the end all and be all of necessary documentation in and of itself. Even if you have power of attorney, have it notarized. Some transactions, irrespective of the P.O.A. are not completely ‘valid’ unless notarized. I recently sold my mother’s house in Maine, and found that even with power of attorney, because it was not notarized, the deed had to be signed and witnessed and notarized by my mother for my P.O.A. to be valid to sign the rest of the documents for the sale.

2. Medical Proxy – Again, a very useful document. However, should you reach a stage where your parent/loved one cannot make sound medical decisions for themselves, or should you need to have access to a full medical history to properly care for them and understand the foundation of certain challenges they may face, the medical proxy does not guarantee you will have it. Have your loved one sign a medical release with their primary care physician. This is not something you can retroactively have them sign if you have reached a stage where they cannot make sound decisions for themselves any longer whereas it could be challenged that they did not make a sound decision in signing it. As the world becomes more and more litigious in nature, and malpractice suits are filed at the drop of a hat, doctors are, understandably, exercising more and more caution in their efforts.

3. Utilities, insurance policies, and other accounts – It seems one of the easiest decisions to make to say to an aging parent or loved one ‘Let me take that over and handle it’ when you see your loved one, more and more, struggling to make sense of insurance coverages, utility bills, and the like. Don’t assume your power of attorney will grant you access to all the closed doors placed in front of you. Make a list of all the coverages your parent/loved one has, as well as all the utilities they have, and contact each and every one of them and have your parent/loved one authorize you to speak/act on their behalf. You will save yourself a lot of time and frustration this way instead of hearing repeatedly that they cannot assist you whereas you are not an authorized party on the account, and your power of attorney does not grant you this access.

4. Guardianship – One of the toughest decisions for a person to make is to appoint someone to act in their best interests if they are unable to do so themselves. It involves a level of trust with and knowledge of someone that can take a very long time to build. If you, like my mother, reach a stage/condition in life where you do not recognize the progression of dementia, alzheimer disease, or similar debilitating conditions and diseases, you also likely will not recognize the need for someone to step in on your behalf and provide for your well-being and your safety if you are not 100% able to do so for yourself. This can either be a relatively ‘routine’ process, or it can be a very long, difficult road to travel. My brother had guardianship of our father. He/we had to go to court to obtain it following Dad’s stroke and, in essence, prove him unable to care for himself any longer. We both knew it was necessary – Dad did not feel the same. Independence is one of the final remaining things that aging parents feel they still have when they find more and more being taken away from them and they will hold on to it as tightly as they can for as long as they can. Certain wording in a medical proxy or advanced healthcare directive can eliminate the need for a court hearing to determine fitness (unless a parent/loved one challenges it strongly enough), whereas a person’s primary care physician can make the determination that a person is unable to care for themselves and make sound decisions and a guardianship can be enacted upon that determination. It’s not a simple ‘sign and done’ deal, because a physician, if they have any integrity, will cautiously approach this decision with an informed view of a person’s overall condition – but in comparison with the idea of taking your parent to court and what that can feel like or what conflicts can arise from it – it’s the lesser of two evils. Certainly a guardianship can be challenged even if granted this way, but it also can take the ‘personalization’ out of it between a caregiver/loved one if it’s a doctor’s determination that it is necessary.

5. Support – I cannot express how valuable certain friends have become to me in the past several months. They are there with advice, understanding, compassion, or just ears to bend when I’ve needed them to be. I am beyond grateful to have this support in my life. I am not a person to reach out for help easily – I take on a lot, and then try to handle the ramifications of it all myself as well. BIG mistake….at least for me. While the day to day challenges of trying to assist an aging parent/loved one can be daunting enough, at any level of caregiving from occasional help to full-on 24 hour care, don’t forget that this is also your parent (in many cases) and thoughts and feelings and ‘old wounds’ can open up at any moment and come crashing in on you. Set your resources up before you need them. Make it so you don’t have to think about who to call and where to go for support. And to go a step further – if you know someone helping an aging parent/loved one – and they are anything like me (introvert, guarded, doesn’t reach out easily) – rather than ask them if they are okay and accept the answer of ‘yes I’m fine’…..or ask them ‘is there anything I can do’ and accept the answer of ‘nope, nothing I can think of’ – listen to what they are telling you are the biggest challenges they are facing with the caregiving, and suggest taking something off their plate now and again if you are able. Ask them more direct questions than ‘how are you’ – they might open up a bit more when prompted. I am a firm believer in taking responsibility for yourself and speaking your needs, but when it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, even the most ‘responsible’ people can forget how to for a while.

6. Be Kind To Yourself – Remind yourself you are doing the best you can. Remind yourself of this often. Every day.  And try to remember that you are not a machine, and sometimes, no matter how good your intentions are, you are going to make choices you will later wish you’d made differently. It happens…to everyone.

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Miscellaneous

What I Lost Last Week

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

On Monday, May 25th, 2015 my father passed away. He was 83 years of age.

Each day since then has been filled with tears and filled with sorrow. Each day that passes I’m strong when I need to be, and then not when I don’t. Some days I get bogged down with a task at hand, and the grief I feel shifts around to somewhere other than the forefront of my mind. But when the task ends, or when I sit down to allow myself to rest for a moment, or when the house is quiet and I’m the only one still up, or I awake in the middle of the night it comes crashing back over me. Grief is cruel that way. Cruel and unfair. It strikes when you least expect it, and then lingers to taunt you.

I must speak of my father in the past tense now. I can drive past a certain assisted living home in Maine, but I no longer will stop there. It’s not where he sleeps, it’s where he slept. I can look for grape nut ice cream in a list of available flavors. It’s not what he likes, it’s what he liked. I can mimic his words and tell his oft repeated stories, even in his voice. It’s not what he says, it’s what he said.

So many words seem infinite in their potential and their capacity. We can like many things. We can know many things. We can love many people. So many words in our language seem to encompass moments and hours and weeks and years. Live is one of those words. We live by breathing and eating and loving and feeling. We live in the miles that we travel and the disappointments that we face and rise above. We live in the moments that we create with others and for ourselves. We live in the knowledge we acquire and our relationships with others and the legacies we leave behind. We live from the moment we draw first breath to the moment we expel our last.

The word die is different. It is a present tense word that the use of only encompasses a brief moment in the span of eternity. It is the moment when we cease to breathe…we cease to feel…and we cease to live. There is before, which we participate in and leave our mark for later if we are lucky. There is also after, which is not ours to own. That belongs to those we leave behind to mourn us and honor us and miss us and remember us. But in the word die there is only the briefest flicker of time in the space between before and after. Our eyes, once open, close, and then before is done, and after has filled its place without us even noticing the transition.

At my father’s funeral, I spoke of him and of our relationship, and how it suffered over the years. Fortunately it ended in healing and in forgiveness some ten years ago. I am grateful for those ten years, and yet feel cheated out of the other 36 I might have had with him. For a period of time lasting more than a decade I cut my father out of my life and robbed myself in the process. I won’t take full responsibility for that separation, as we both had a hand in it. But for my part in what brought about our silence with one another for all those years I am sorry. For what I lost in those years, time with my father, I am filled with regret and told him so before he passed away. For what I have now lost with his death, I know there is no apology for, and no forgiveness to seek, and no substitute for.

When my father died last week, I lost many things. I lost more than eighty years of wisdom and experience. I lost answers to questions I never thought to ask. I lost arms that would wrap around me no matter what was wrong or what I had done and comfort me. I lost stories of my grandparents and their parents before them that he hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I lost laughs that we hadn’t yet shared, as well as tears that we might have cried together, safe and comforted in the presence of one another. I lost the hours of anticipation I’d feel knowing I was driving up to Maine to see him. I lost someone who cared about me enough to listen to what my favorite cookie was and hand me a bag full of them, lifted from the coffers of his assisted living home, to send me home with them and carry me through until our next visit. I lost someone who would pick up trinkets and toys found around the facility and send them home for my boys to put a smile on their faces. I lost insight into a time before I lived that no history book will ever offer me. I lost stories of myself that come from a time before my memories began to imprint themselves on my own mind.

I lost a friend. I couldn’t always say that he was my friend. Thankfully that changed before it was too late.

People say grief has five stages to it. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I believe I’ve skipped over the first three stages in an end run for the final two. I cannot deny that my father is gone. I cannot be angry for I know he was prepared for his death and that he had reached a place in his life when he no longer wished to fight a losing battle. I cannot bargain for his continued existence because I’ve already lost him. That leaves me with two stages. I won’t call what I feel depression. Many times people feel as though they have nothing to live for when someone passes, or they begin to think about their own mortality so strongly that it becomes a kind of paralysis to them for continuing to live. I have to go on. I have kids, and family, and friends and experiences to make with all of them. I have many things to teach the boys, memories to not only pass on to them but to make with them as well.

I think this stage is, for me, more aptly labeled sadness. Sad that I can’t listen to him telling me stories, no matter how many times he’d told them to me before. Sad that I can’t hug him anymore, or kiss him on the forehead when I’m leaving and feel him reach up and place his hand over my own that I lay on his shoulder. Sad that my boys won’t get to know him better, at least not directly, and will have to rely on my stories to teach them things about their grandfather. Sad that I have one less place to visit when I go to Maine. Sad that while I can still say ‘I love you, dad’, I can never again hear him reply, ‘I love you, too.’

I know that the stage after this is acceptance. I know that in time the hurt will change and the memories won’t bring so many tears, and I’ll be able to think about his passing and about going to his grave site without a feeling of panic sweeping over me. I’ll come across pictures of him and be able to look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling as though someone has knocked the wind out of me with repeated kicks to my stomach. I’ll take out the very few material things I have of his and hold them in my hand and imagine his hands upon them and perhaps feel that he’s really quite near, rather than feeling the incalculable void that seems before me now when I look at them. I’ll sift through memories of him and not feel like I just want to curl up in a ball and sob until I have no tears left. I know I’ll get there. It’s a journey I’ve taken many times before.

For now, I think I’ll just stick with sad for a while longer.

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Confessions

Acquiescence – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 8

My mother is in Florida visiting with my brother. She’s been there for three weeks. I have to admit that the ‘breather’ has been nice to have, but in trying to get her house ready for sale and for other reasons it’s not necessarily a complete ‘vacation’.

All my prior ‘Confessions’ have been about Mom, and about transitioning her to a new home near me due to her increasing physical challenges and encroaching dementia related issues. I don’t seek sympathy in writing about it, I seek release. Writing does that for me. However, right at the moment I’m not having day-to-day interaction with Mom while she’s away.

This ‘Confession’ relates to my Dad.

Last night my dad had his second cardiac episode in under a month. It wasn’t ‘significant’ enough to hospitalize him overnight, but the fact that it has now happened twice in recent weeks is troubling.

I spoke with Dad last night as he was refusing to go to the hospital and get checked out and treated. The assisted living facility he resides at contacted me and I asked to speak with him directly. He told me he wasn’t doing well, and I’d better get up to see him because he probably wouldn’t last the night. I said, ‘Dad you need to go to the hospital and get this checked out’. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t going to do it.

At first I felt myself wanting to yell. The fear of losing him was instantly in control of my mind and almost of my tongue. I told him again that I really wanted him to go to the hospital and get treated, and although I did my best to maintain control, I know some of my fear and frustration was evident in my tone of voice. He said no, that he wasn’t going to do it no matter what I said to him, and to not get ‘huffy’ with him. I took a deep breath and changed gears. I asked him, when I was not easily able to cajole him into going for treatment, what he thought would happen if it were a serious condition and he did not take care of himself. His response was, ‘Well, that’ll be it then….I’ll be gone.’

It was very matter of fact in the way he said it, and not at all unlike him to say it in this way.

Dad was born in 1931, during the Great Depression. He married at age 20, divorced at age 47, and married again. He and his second wife were then together until her death in 2005. Dad grew up in Brownfield, Maine. His parents were never even remotely ‘comfortable’ financially, but he hasn’t ever, to my knowledge, looked upon his upbringing as one of poverty and misery. When my parents split up he moved into what was his mother’s and step-father’s ‘camp’ in Windham, Maine and he lived there, first alone and then with his second wife. The camp was essentially two rooms, one open living space that was kitchen, living room, and bedroom and then another room that was used as a ‘bathroom’ and for wood storage to feed the monstrous cast iron stove in the kitchen. He lived there until he retired in his late fifties.

Dad was not in a financially sound place for retirement, but he scraped by and managed, just as he had for as long as my memory stretches. He made minor improvements and upgrades to the ‘camp’ when he could, and never seemed to be disappointed that the house wasn’t larger and more elegant. He had an old television set (no cable t.v.), a vintage washing machine (the old barrel type with the roller bars to wring out your clothing) and other equally vintage appliances, though they were scarce in number. After retiring Dad moved two hours north of Windham and put a used trailer on an inexpensive piece of land and resided there until his stroke in 2006. He never had a ‘new’ vehicle, but they were sound ones due to his being a mechanic. He dressed modestly, mostly in blue Dickies work clothes with the occasional flannel shirt or sweatshirt thrown in for good measure. He never seemed concerned with appearances, which in my eyes made him fortunate in never having to live up to anyone’s image of what he should be. He lived simply then, as he always had.

The way he lived was always a stark contrast to my mother’s wants and fears about having ‘nothing’. One of her siblings once remarked that she was not just reluctant to spend money…she was fearful of it. Over the years I’ve come to see that as being a very astute observation. Mom has said that she saw Dad’s ‘contentment’ with whatever he had as a weakness. I used to believe that as well. In the intervening years I’ve come to see it as an attribute in him. He isn’t educated. He isn’t refined. He is, and has lived as, just exactly who he is.

Dad seems to have always been content with whatever he had and wherever he was. Though he was likely not happy in his marriage to Mom for a long time before it ended, he did nothing himself to change it until she told him she wanted him to move out. He never tried to ‘move up’ at work, and as long as he brought home a paycheck, and he wasn’t starving, he was okay with it. He has had no ladder to climb, nor heights to aspire to. He’s a quiet man of quiet means. He always, in my lifetime, has been this way.

That said, and after my conversation with Dad last night about his reluctance to go to the hospital, I think my Dad is preparing to die. I think he’s reached a place in life where he realizes, despite his mild dementia, that it’s not going to get any ‘better’ really, or not significantly so, and so why try to prolong it? I think he has convinced himself that his ‘time’ is nearing, and decided to not fight it.

I can’t say that this puts me at ease really. It’s been difficult to watch my parents age and face the challenges, both physical and mental, that they are facing with their bodies aging and with dementia, but the thought of Dad being gone, is difficult for me. I feel like, due to all the years I bought into the one-sided concept of why the marriage of my parents failed and all the years of silence between Dad and me, I have only really had ten years of ‘Dad’, despite my being 46 years of age. We’ve had some wonderfully healing talks over time, and I’ve gotten to know him better than I ever imagined possible. Despite his seeming acquiescence about the stage of life he’s at, and the inevitability of his passing, I can’t say I’m at all ready for it.

I guess I’m selfish there. I don’t want to see him ‘suffering’ of course, but I also don’t want to lose him. Not yet.

I know that I cannot control any of this. I can’t force him to take care of himself…I can’t force him to want to live longer than he is prepared to live. I can’t influence his contentment with his lot in life, no matter what that is, because if I try to…I’m trying to change him to suit myself, and that’s not something I wish to do. I have to just prepare myself to handle whatever I have to handle. I have no other option. In the end the only one we have any control over is ourselves. I can beg and plead and cry and scream and reason and debate…none of it will make a difference…Dad will be Dad…and do what Dad wants to do. It took me 36 years to accept that about him and accept that that’s just who he is and how he lives and that he’s fine with it. Why would I try to change it now?

Thankfully Dad did, after we hung up, willingly go to the hospital and got checked out. They released him last night after determining that it was a cardiac event, but not at the moment life threatening.

As happy as I was to know that, the news from the hospital is not necessarily ‘great’ but not the worst case. Dad may need a procedure of some sort to treat whatever is going on with his heart presently. If it’s minor, he may agree to it. If not, I doubt he will get on board. That’s the reality of where he’s at presently. I can’t do anything about that.

There is, however, something I can do, for myself, and hopefully it will be of benefit to him as well. I already do this, out of habit, and will of course continue to practice it. When we finished speaking last night, and before he changed his mind and willingly went to the hospital, I made sure the last few words I said to him, in case anything serious happened, were the most important words to say.

I told him, ‘I love you.’

I believe that if these are the last words I ever speak to someone I care about, then no matter what, our journey is complete. There may be conversations we didn’t have, resolutions we never made, but when their time came, the last thing I said to them was that I loved them. It took me many years to say it to my Dad, and I think it took him just as long to say it back. It’s not that we didn’t feel it, it’s that we let our own baggage get in the way of saying it. Thankfully that is no longer the case.

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Miscellaneous

Nothing Says ‘I Love You’ Like A Package Of Fig Newtons (TM)

Today I visited my dad in the assisted living facility he has resided in since 2006. He was in good spirits, and it was nice to spend some time with him as I’ve not been able to with snow/snow days for the kids/being available for my mother.

The time we spend together is usually very pleasant and easy. We speak on a variety of subjects; we joke and laugh about things; and the time passes relatively quickly (to my disappointment). Sometimes Dad repeats stories I already know, which is a byproduct of his dementia, but for the most part the man is a wealth of information about Brownfield, Maine in the 1940’s and 1950’s. To drive Dad to Brownfield now he can navigate the area and direct you to various points of interest as if he was just there the day before. I enjoy the stories about his childhood, and even though he and Mom are long divorced, he even shares stories of their early years of marriage with no bitterness or resentment.

My time with Dad wasn’t always this easy. I chose not to have him in my life for many years; fifteen to be exact. I had no contact with him whatsoever for a long time. I was angry with him, and hurt by him, for his lack of understanding and tolerance in having a gay son. Truthfully he never outright rejected me. He never told me I wasn’t welcome in his home, or tried to ‘beat it out of me’ as I’ve known some fathers to do with gay sons. The hurt I felt came from him asking me, when I came out to him, what he did ‘wrong’….which translated, to me, as my father’s belief that there was something wrong with me…and it felt like my father, who was at the least ‘absentee’ as a parent during my childhood and following my parents’ separation, didn’t love me unconditionally. In fact it reinforced something I’d felt for many years – that my father just didn’t care about me.

I know this isn’t the truth. It took me many years to realize it, but my father has apologized for his choice of words when I came out, for being so distant in my childhood, and acting like, in his words, a ‘damned fool’. It healed so much for me, and was worth more than I can ever express to him. I apologized to him, in turn, for not trying to resolve it sooner – and for letting my wounded feelings keep us absent from one another for so long. I enjoy the rapport we have nowadays, as my dad is 83 now. It’s not as if we have decades left to us.

Every time I speak on the phone with him or see him in person, I always say ‘I love you’ to my Dad as I hug him goodbye. Sometimes he says it back; others he says, ‘Yup, okay, Dad will see you soon.’ It always feels good to have him say he loves me in return, but he doesn’t have to, really. I know he does. I know it in the way his eyes light up when I walk into his ward at the facility. I know it in the way he sits and looks at me as we visit. I know it in the way he hugs me with no reserve. I know it in the way that every time I visit he sends home a bag of crackers and candy and little toys he collects from parties in the facility and tells me to take them to the boys. But in truth the bag usually contains, in greater abundance than anything else, packages of Fig Newtons. They are my favorite cookie, and have been since childhood. I told him a couple of years ago how much I like them, and ever since then he’s never forgotten and stores them up in between visits from me.

I’ve learned to understand, via the repair and eventual enjoyment of my relationship with my dad, that there are people who are not fluent in their emotions – people who favor gestures over words – and people who you might think don’t give a damn who, if you look deeper, into their gestures, show you an abundance of love and caring in ways you just might not have noticed because it wasn’t the way you wanted it to be shown to you. Not everyone can be gifted with words. For some people the love itself is the gift they have for you, and you just have to learn to recognize it as it is given.

I know, without a doubt, that my dad loves me. I know that despite never having experienced a gay friend or (knowingly) a gay relative before me, he’s transcended that inexperience and anything he might have felt about it was long ago eradicated by the simple fact that I am his son, gay or straight, and that not being in my life was worse than being in my life, irrespective of what he felt about my life as I lead it.

I know that he cares, because my dad, who has almost nothing to give me now that he has ‘lost’ his home, his (second) wife, and his independence and shares a 10 x 12 room with another gentleman, an elderly Asian man whom dad refers to as ‘The Chinaman’ (and whom he likes more than past roommates), pays attention to the things I say and remembers well enough what my favorite cookie is, and makes an effort to supply me with plenty of them every time I see him.  Every package of them he gives me is an expression of his love, and I accept them as just that. For my dad, who does say the actual words every now and again, nothing says he loves me like a package of Fig Newtons.

This visit to dad also garnered the usual crackers and candy and small party favor toys for the boys. As I emptied the handled paper shopping bag of what I always call the ‘contraband’ Dad sends home with me, I came across what has to be (aside from the Fig Newtons) the absolute BEST thing he’s ever sent home to me. I don’t know if he was actually ‘given’ the item or just sort of found himself in possession of it by whatever means; but it gave me one of the best laughs I’ve had in a long time when I saw it. I am assuming it belongs or belonged to ‘The Chinaman’ (as Dad calls him). I’ll return it of course the next time I visit, as I can’t imagine someone parting with it. The picture is below.

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Thanks, Dad, for twenty individual packages of yellow foil wrapped fig filled love…and for the laugh about the probably stolen mug. You can’t imagine how they both brightened my day.

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