85: The Three-Year Gift

85: The Three-Year Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Three-Year Gift

Humor is an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of man’s superiority to all that befalls him.

~Roman Gary

When I asked my boss for a week’s vacation to move my 85-year-old dad the 100 miles from Vista to my home in Torrance, California, he said, “Don’t do it. You will be miserable.”

Widowed at 75, my independent, proud dad lived alone. He learned to clean, do laundry, and cook wholesome, nourishing meals. He called the contents of packaged foods “chemical equations.” It seemed incongruous then when he asked to come live with us.

“I could help you,” he said.

We soon learned that it was Dad who needed help, and in his oblique way he was asking. In the process of moving him, we discovered his life was unraveling. Some bills were unpaid, others paid twice. His clothes hung neatly in the closet, but hadn’t been laundered. His car had numerous dings and dents from “those careless people driving too fast.” I felt chills when the bank teller in Vista said, “I wish there were more children taking care of their parents like you are.” Guiltily, I realized she was more aware of my dad’s decline than I was.

Dad came to live with us just as our lives changed radically. Bob, my husband, had just been laid off after 33 years in an engineering position. Although he was looking for employment, he became Dad’s caregiver. We settled into a new rhythm—I went to work and Bob took care of Dad. As predicted, my boss was partially right. I was miserable at times and frightened as I watched Dad disintegrating in front of me.

At the dinner table, he’d ask randomly, “Where did the little boy go?” or “Did you see where I left my tool chest?”

We learned that when Dad said, “I never touched it” or “I didn’t see it,” they weren’t lies, but the results of dementia.

Dad’s desire to help resulted in some hilarious but upsetting times. He “helped,” all right. For example, when our refrigerator was making weird noises, he thought the noises were coming from the telephone. When Bob came home, he found a very puzzled telephone repairman talking to Dad. The next day, Bob left Dad home for a short time, and this time Dad solved the problem. He now knew the refrigerator was the problem and stopped the noise by opening the freezer door and wrapping it in blankets. It became apparent that leaving Dad home alone was not an option.

When he “helped” in the garden, an area of former expertise, he cut down the dead-looking center of my tomato vine, carefully cutting up the dead leaves and vine to make mulch. However, he left the eight-foot living part of the vine, loaded with green and red tomatoes, detached and hanging on its stakes. I was furious and yelled at him. He looked like a whipped puppy. Shame and guilt washed over me as I realized that Dad’s dignity and self-esteem had to be preserved despite the dementia and its effect on his behavior.

There were great moments when the dementia took a back seat and my funny, sweet dad was with us. When he came in from the garden one day with blood running down his sleeve, I asked, “Dad, why are you bleeding like that?”

“It’s the only way I know how.”

He had always been funny, extremely intelligent, and loved to play with words. When I showed him how to de-bud the fuchsias, he said, “You only have to show me once.”

“Yes, Dad, I know. You catch on fast.”

“Right, now I’m bud wiser.”

In the evenings after dinner, rather than watch what he considered the “sordid” programs on television, he would take out his violin and beautifully serenade us with all the old songs. He could play anything he heard. Knowing what an impoverished childhood he had had, I asked, “Dad, where did you learn to play so well?”

“There was always a fiddle on the farm,” he said, as if they were as common as the overalls he wore.

One night when he seemed bored, I asked, “Why don’t you play your fiddle?”

“Because my shoulder hurts.”

Thinking he might need a doctor’s appointment, I asked, “Why does it hurt?”

“Because it’s 87 years old” was his matter-of-fact reply.

When he regressed, I would panic, wondering how long we would be able to keep him with us. What adjustments would we have to make?

Bob was a blessing. As Dad’s caregiver, he engineered features to preserve Dad’s safety without impugning his dignity, watched over his personal hygiene, and found his ever-disappearing hearing aids.

When we found Dad sitting outside in the cold, damp morning air at 3:00 AM, waiting for the newspaper, Bob installed an alarm on the door. After Dad wandered away, we purchased an identification bracelet.

Bob secured a position teaching seminars that required his absence for two to three days at a time. Knowing we couldn’t leave Dad alone, we discovered the Salvation Army Senior Day Care Center. The staff was excellent, and there were activities all day long. We thought we convinced Dad that he was there to help, just as he used to help at the senior center in Vista, but he wasn’t fooled. The sad and wistful look on his face as he stood staring at the locked gate when I came to pick him up each evening broke my heart.

At 88, Dad suffered a heart attack, so a temporary pacemaker was installed. Somehow, it became disconnected. At the hospital, a crash team rushed in to keep Dad alive until the surgeon arrived. When I saw them pounding on him, I cried, “Stop! I promised never to do this to him. He has a do-not-resuscitate on file.”

The irate doctor yelled, “This is not a heroic measure, and you are asking me to violate serious medical and legal ethics.”

The permanent pacemaker was inserted, and Dad was in great pain from the broken ribs. I was concerned, watching him vacillate in and out of reality, saying, “Oh, Joy, look at those beautiful white clouds and sailboats.”

When I expressed my fear, the doctor told me Dad would be fine and probably go home the next day. He said, “Go home and let the nurses do their job.”

When the call came at 6:30 the next morning, I was stunned. I yelled into the phone, “You told me he was going to be okay, and he died alone!”

I was heartbroken and angry. There was so much left unsaid.

Despite everything, the three years that Dad lived with us were a gift. If I could return to the first day Dad came to live with us and exchange anything, it wouldn’t be him, but the anxiety and fear that I always felt that kept me from enjoying his presence. We miss him, but his love, sweet spirit, “help,” and puns live on in our minds and hearts.

~Joy Feldman

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