Hunting Memories

December 22, 2017

I guess I thought this first Christmas without Dad would be the same–just with him absent.  As if he were in another room, or perhaps away on the annual hunting trips he took with his father and uncles and cousin in the Adirondack mountains.

He took an entire week of his vacation every year to hunt, only a few times coming home with a deer.  The longer he hunted, the older he got, the less interested he seemed to be in the hunt and the more invested he became in just being in the woods.  He used to tell the story of unexpectedly coming upon his father one afternoon on the back of the mountain.  How he stood and watched my grandfather sitting with his back up against a Hemlock tree in the sun sleeping.  And how after that, hemlocks always made him think of his father, asleep there in the autumn woods.

He would come home changed.  He would have grown a beard, or the scratchy start of one.  He would be tousled and strange like an ascetic who could not communicate what it was that he had been seeking or had found.  He spoke of the dinners his cousin would make: huge (beef) steaks marinated for days and cooked outside.  A strange kind of asceticism, perhaps.  But the long days out of doors had worked something in him: gratitude, I think.  Gratitude for his silent father and the company of men.  And gratitude for the wonder of the woods: of moving for hours by compass and sun on the back of the mountain;  doing the work of  listening and watching, being part of the forest itself.

He would say in later years, that he was relieved when he did not see deer and have to decide whether or not to shoot.  And that after his father was gone, every year, he would look for a hemlock tree to sit beneath and sleep.  As if what he was hunting were not deer at all, but some communion with the memories the woods held.

These are my father’s memories.  –And, yes, my memories of his memories.  So I walk with him –or after him–in those woods.  Now it is my turn to look for a place to sit in the sun and commune both with what is gone and what is left.

It really had not occurred to me before this, that this would be a different holiday altogether.  That along with my father, and my parents’ home, that a time was gone, too.  And while some of the traditions of the holiday remained for us to enact, we were the ephemera now.  We were what was passing, while the forest of the holidays would remain.

Is this what it is like to age?  To see discrete lives within the times we live?  –Like a patch of sun beneath a great hemlock tree, a patch of brief ground illuminated, then gone?

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Paraphernalia

I was tired today.  I woke around 2am (my worry time) and worried about my parents and their getting enough care. Then I read awhile and finally fell asleep again. In the morning we got what the locals call “a soaker.”  Raining cats and dogs, we said when I was young.  The maple outside my 2nd floor room which has been a yellow torch against the lawn, was first dishevelled and is now completely undressed.  Another across the road has lost all of its leaves on top and from the waist down, still has a raggedy slip of yellow on.

Still, the air is not chilly. It is humid and warmish. I could sit out on the porch with a cup of coffee this morning and enjoy the fresh air. But no more walks.

Today was largely uneventful except that I was watching the clock and counting the hours until my sister came in after teaching (4pm) to relieve me.  I didn’t take a break away from the apartment because I expected the delivery of the wheelchair and other hospital paraphernalia and I didn’t want my mom alone there when it came. She is understandably confused and angry by all the sudden changes in their lives with the advent of hospice.

Of course, the wheelchair was delivered while my sister and I were downstairs in the dining room and Mom and Dad were alone in the apartment and by the time we got there I could already hear Mom’s voice in the hall. I set up the bedside commode and moved the bedside table into the dining room until we find a permanent place for it. The wheelchair, while not as big as I had feared, is still a presence, and my sister was unhappy with it.

In a totally unexpected turn, when I asked my father about placing the commode by his bed, he said that was “good.”  And in a strong voice I only rarely hear now, he addressed my mother directly when she asked what he needed that thing for.  He said, “It is a miracle that I haven’t fallen in the bathroom before this!”  And I thought I was the only one whose heart raced whenever he was in there alone among tile and sharp corners and holding on to the towel bar.

Tomorrow the hospice nurse comes back to talk to Nan and I together. I think that will not be a happy conversation. I think we see my father’s abilities differently and being the prodigal daughter who has taken no responsibility for my parents’ care during the last very hard year, I have little or no credibility.

The one thing we do agree on, though, is that we don’t want to lose each other in this.  To lose my dad and then my mom–and then each other?  That would be tragic. So we will be okay.

I have always been a worrier. If worrying were a triathlon, I would qualify for an Iron Man. But living with cancer has leant me some perspective.  I have learned–am learning–sometimes–to open my hands and let go.  To recognize when I can do nothing more than accept.

I have to trust that my sister and I will do the best we can by my parents. –And they will still die.  And all we have done–especially all my sister has done–in the name of love–will be enough. Simply because it is done in love.  We have no other gift to give them now.

Hospice and Change

The hospice people came today to see my parents. A chaplain, a nurse and a home health aide were all in the apartment at once. My mother who has short-term memory loss (different from Alzheimer’s or dementia) and is easily confused found it overwhelming. I found it extremely helpful though unsettling. And my father, for the most part, slept through it sitting in his chair.

My Mom, though she says she is confused, intuits that this is a big change. And I think she intuits that the change will mean loss–loss of my father. She tries to understand, but is easily suspicious when I am speaking with anyone out of her earshot. She has every right to be. None of the things we were talking about today were easy and all meant big changes, even for her.

The hospice people feel the days of Dad making his way painstakingly around the apartment with his “rollator” and around the facility with his scooter are numbered. They helped me understand what a strain it is for him to walk and encouraged us not to insist or encourage him to go to the dining room to eat. They have ordered him a wheelchair. So today we ate all our meals in their apartment which was way too much change for my mom.

Last night my dad had said to me, as he inched his way to the bed with his rollator, “You don’t know how painful this is for me.” And I said, “Walking? Is that what’s painful?”  “Yes,” he whispered.  That’s a lot for my dad to say.

The wheelchair which is to have a high back to support him is supposed to arrive tomorrow. I have a feeling it is not going to be an easy day. My mother lost it tonight when I brought in a box of adult pull-ups hospice had delivered. Who sent them?  Did Dad know they were being sent?  Who are these people? What is going on?

I have compassion for her–and I hope I have empathy most of the time. But I almost needed a Time-Out around dinner time. My dad handles it the way he always has, which is to put his head down and let the women duke it out.  Instead I offered to take all 3 dinner trays down to the kitchen–one at a time! This gave me the maximum time out of the apartment and also endeared me to the kitchen staff.

Then my mother sat down at the jigsaw puzzle which is too hard for her now, and we started working on it together like nothing had ever happened.

When she got into bed tonight, she thanked me, as she has every night, “for everything.”

As I finished adjusting the pillows behind my dad tonight, he said, “Wait.” I waited. “I love you,” he said.  “I love you too, Dad– always,” I answered.

He continued, “And I love Mom.”  I waited. “And I love Nancy.”

–“But you love me more (–than Nancy)!” I said.

He smiled and whispered, “I didn’t say that.”

“But you wanted to,” I said. And turned off the light.

 

 

 

 

 

Saying Goodbye

Last night it was my father’s turn. As he lay back in bed he said, “Are you staying?”

I was at a loss for context. “Well, I’m going to stay a few extra days, yes.”

“No,” he says hoarsely. “Are you staying here?”

“Here in the apartment? No. I am in the Guest Room down the hall.”

“Stay until…sleep?”

“Will I stay until you are asleep?”  He nods his head.  “Sure. I can do that.”  He smiles.

I kiss my mother goodnight and, like every night, she says “Thank you for everything.”

These are the parents I have distanced myself from for the last 30 years.  Not always for bad reasons, but time moves on and seems to change us all. As I was helping my dad into his pull-ups and pajamas last night he said, “I wish you could do this every night.”

I do not want to do it every night. But, if what I heard was what he meant, he seemed to be saying he needed me–or that at least he preferred me to the home health aide.

In thinking about this trip I thought I might say my goodbyes to my father and maybe try to make peace between us before he died.  But it seems our conflict ended awhile ago and a peace treaty has been in effect without my knowing it.  The sources of our conflict are now lost in the fog of my father’s physical decline. So the things I thought I had to say, and to accomplish here are lost too, as are thoughts and feelings of mine that I had thought would fall into place afterwards and give me some peace. Instead of peace, those thoughts and feelings are now simply irrelevant.

Instead, like my sister, I have become subsumed by the role of what hospice calls a “home health aide.” We get my parents up and dressed and to meals every lunch and evening–to make sure that they eat. In the evening we get them undressed and settled in bed. We bathe my parents, we make sure they take their pills, we take them outside, help them answer phone calls from their friends.  My sister then goes home, takes a nap, gets up at 10pm works on lectures and papers until 1am, then sleeps 4 hours before coming back to do it all again–before going to her job. This is what she does every day, I am only doing this for a week.

My role here, it turns out, is to help my sister get services in place so that she can continue to work a full-time job and care for her family knowing my parents have most of the increased care they need. I am not quite sure what will happen when my parents need more care than they can afford. I guess I will come out again.

It’s tempting to think that during this time I am working off any debt I owe to my father for the distance between us;  while he has been absolved of any debt to me by the stroke that left him unclear that there ever was a problem at all. For me there will be no reconciliation between our pasts: I can no longer make him understand my experience of him and its consequences for my adult life. I don’t know that our past even exists for him.

Let me say it plainly: I will get no satisfaction from him. That time and, maybe, both  those people are gone–lost to us both.  I simply have my life and my memories and he his, and his will pass away soon.  Like parallel lines–they and we will never meet.

I guess this is just another of life’s mysteries.  And I don’t say this glibly.  Over the course of the last 15 months I have encountered the deep mystery of a fundamentally good world created by a fundamentally good God that is also deeply broken.  Life is fundamentally good and at the same time tragically broken.  The goodness is not erased, the brokenness is undeniable. In fact, to me it seems, to drink Life deeply, to be awake to Life at all requires that I affirm the mystery of life’s goodness and also its terrible brokenness.

Maybe I thought writing a blog would help me solve that mystery. In the same way that every post has to conclude and bring to some closure a reflection on experience, in that same way I would stumble on a resolution to the mystery of life’s goodness and brokenness–by writing about it.

I must have thought writing a blog would be like saying goodbye to my father and reconciling our long misunderstanding of one another–that in such a process I would come to some resolution of our differences.  Turns out not.

Turns out our differences will be sustained. And I will continue to love him brokenly and will miss him when he is dead.

 

 

 

Looking Down

Last night as I put my mother to bed, she lay back awkwardly on her pillow and said to me, “Now where are you staying?”

“I’m staying here.”

“HERE?!”

“Well, not here in the apartment. But down the hall in the guest room.”

“You’ll hear me if I call?”  Her face brightened and she looked expectantly at me.

“Well, I don’t think I will be that close. But I am right down the hall. I will see you in the morning.”

I turned off my dad’s light then came back around to her and turned off her bedside light  “Thank you for everything,” she said and closed her eyes.

I hope I don’t forget the way she looked at me and said, “You’ll hear me if I call?”  In an instant I was back in my bedroom as a child with the yellow hall light. shining through the cracked door.  Asking her the same question.

She looked so trustingly up at me with eyes that are still clear and blue.  She has short-term memory loss which leaves her asking most of the day, “Now what am I supposed to be doing?”  Or, when she receives the answer she has heard already and struggled to remember, “I’m confused.”  Last night when she sat at the foot of the bed, with her pajamas and her pull-ups in her lap she said the same in a plaintive way, “Now what am I doing with these?”  She only needs a prompt and she knows, maybe in her body memory, what to do. And she will do it.

Yesterday Dad’s doctor approved the referral to Hospice and started that process. All four of us sat in a line in the doctor’s office, Mom at the head and Dad, thin and almost asleep next to her. The doctor talked about DNR and DNI and Dad agreed to both by speaking quietly.  Mom had a very concerned look on her face, an apprehensive look, focussing on whoever was speaking as if we spoke a language she was only just learning.

She understands a lot. When explaining the DNR to her, she looked up at my sister and said, “What if he changes his mind after he signs the paper?”

“He can tell the paramedics or the doctor, Mom, they will do what he says. The paper is to protect him–so no one can do anything to him that he doesn’t want done.”

“I am very confused.” But the look on her face showed she recognized loss when she heard it. The paper meant that he would die and leave her alone.

She is so gracious and attentive and concerned to understand what is going on around her. All my life she has kept journals in spiral bound notebooks when she was at their cabin in the Adirondacks. Now she keeps one all the time on the table. Wednesday’s entry is two words in tiny, shaky, but still legible, script “Linda arrives”

She has a calendar my sister has printed out on an 8 1/2 by 11″ sheet of paper, with small boxes for each day.  And in each day in small laser print are the things that will happen. Yesterday, read “Mom/Dad  Bank  11:00;” followed by “Mom Hair Appt 1:30” and finally “Dad Doctor 3:30pm.”  She reads the lines over and over sitting at the table under the lamp and then asks me to read them to her and explain.  But the asking serves a purpose. Every so often she will look up at me or my sister and say clearly, “We signed papers today.  What were they?”

Yes, she and Dad signed the Health Care Proxy papers and the Power of Attorney papers allowing my sister to make decisions for them. If there is a “crisis” my sister can act clearly on their behalf. I don’t think  my Mom is concerned that my sister will make decisions for them. I think that deep down she understands all too well what is going on. And that the current of their lives is moving faster and that she is heading toward loss.

All my young life I looked up to her face, into those eyes. And as I got older I thought I did not see what I wanted or what I needed to see in her. It’s only now as the current of my own life speeds up and carries me that I look down and see her again through the eyes of love.

“You’ll hear me if I call?”– and her face brightens.  She only needs what I need, what every human being ever needs–to know she will not be alone in the dark.