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ďYouíve got to ac-cent..tchu-ate the positive,
E-lim..inate the negative
Latch on..to the affirmative
Donít mess with Mr. In-BetweenĒ
-ďAc-cent-tchu-ate the Positive (Mister In-Between)Ē
Lyrics written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, as sung by Bing Crosby
I find restaurant take-home food but not much else in dadís refrigerator. Each item has a label describing what it is and the date it arrived, as if it had its own itinerary guiding it to this spot. The writing is my sisterís. I also see praline pecan muffins, green grapes, chicken salad Ė lots and lots of chicken salad. Itís a spare diet but dad could do worse. I know itís hopeless trying to get him to include more variety.
Pepperidge Farm pretzel goldfish sit on the counter. Iím reminded that Iím the reason that dad and mom took to this snack. I bought a package at a grocery store during the Christmas holiday of 1972, when our family vacationed in Florida with my cousin Jim, visiting from Wyoming. I always remind dad about the provenance of the goldfish when I visit because he never remembers. Itís somehow important to me that he does.
Mary, dadís girlfriend of 15 years, has died suddenly. She had had heart problems for the last few years, but her passing is still unexpected. She dies in the tradition of our family: on one of the survivorsí birthdays. Mine. Iím 52. I feel partly responsible.
Four days later dad has a bad fall on the stairs to his second-floor condo. It leaves his entire left side black and blue, which, my sister tells me, he seems all too eager to show as witness to the trauma heís suffered. Iím here to care for him for three months. That, according to California State Law, is what Iím allowed. Itís technically called a leave of absence from work to care for an elderly family member. I need to focus not on what Iíve temporarily given up but what I can potentially gain in my relationship with dad. I keep telling myself that.
Iím also entirely aware that Iím here, like dad, to heal. Iíve had a life-changing shock at work, which makes me seriously question my ability to continue doing my job with any confidence and satisfaction. My boss, who sympathizes with my devastation, doesnít seem to want to right the situation. Itís not a big enough battle for him to take on. I understand this, and we never talk about it. So escaping to Florida seems like a good thing. I sign up for duty. Neither of my sisters volunteers. I feel lucky it turns out this way, though I look trepidatiously on the coming experience.
Middle sister Debbie, the person on the ground whoís stayed a few extra days from a coincidental vacation there, gives me an orientation. Dad still has a few days left in the nursing home. Then heís coming ďhomeĒ to Maryís because hers is a safer, ground-floor unit. The vague plan seems to be that dad will sell his condo and buy Maryís. I realize Dadís on a one-way ticket out of life as heís known it, so I need to be thinking ahead to all the implications this change will have. I feel lonelier than Iíve ever felt, even with my sister in the room. But then I wonder: What will it be like for dad to live in his dead girlfriendís home?
Odd things help when least expected: Like that Bing Crosby song. The words let me disappear temporarily into a goofy time when people supposedly knew the rules and things worked as they were meant to. Things just seemed simpler back then, from what Iíve heard, because I have no way of knowing. I take heart in that impression even though itís probably false.
Iíve plucked myself out of a life Iíd spent the last several decades crafting and dropped into another with no support other than calls from my boyfriend and sisters for a few minutes before they return to their regular stations. And little gratification.
I am IT.
My father is depending on me.
And I have to manage my own household and related responsibilities from afar.
Itís Day 1 of the 90-some days I expect to be here.
My sister has gone home. Iím looking around. Evaluating.
Wondering as to the priorities. How to figure them out in the best way for dad. I decide, tough-girl-style, to give up my needs, at least for a while. I donít realize thatís going to prove harder than I think.
Sit tall. Breathe deeply.
I get pulled out of myself by the first task at hand: Taking dad out for lunch at the club. From the nursing home. It seems like a simple, restorative thing to do for a fellow who loves company but whoís been out of circulation for more than two weeks.
Who would guess this might be a tough assignment.
The nursing home doesnít want me to do it: If heís healthy enough for that, heís healthy enough to leave their facility.
And Ė they Ė donít Ė want Ė that.
I quickly get it: Itís a money game. But dad having lunch at the club is the first step to getting him back into life. I like them at the nursing home but I decide itís easier and probably more effective to ignore them, rather than engage in battle. This is non-negotiable. This is an amazing place for me to get to so quickly, as one who avoids conflict at all costs. They must be able to tell by my body language. Itís my first implicit fuck-you statement in Florida.
They let me do what I want.
Dad gets released, and I get him ďhomeĒ to Maryís house. The definition of ďhomeĒ is in a state of becoming. Iím not sure what itís going to mean.
Each day is an exercise in attending to details Ė what medications to take, what appointments to attend to, what I need to buy, and, after dad starts feeling better, how to reactivate his social life. Iím good at this part because Iím really organized. And it keeps me busy, keeps me worrying less than I might about what I suspect are more important things.
A master calendar with lots of space to write becomes a must. I realize itís not going to be enough for me to use this calendar. Iíll need to train dad to adopt the regimen. While heíll appreciate the organization, will his memory comply?
First, dadís medications. Altase for hypertension, Betapace for irregular heartbeat, Flomax to encourage urination and reduce swelling in the legs, Lexapro, an antidepressant. I have to get prescriptions renewed, fill his pill box labeled by days of the week, and make sure he takes the right amount of each one each day.
I worry about forgetting to do this at night after a couple of glasses of wine. This is a legitimate worry since I know Iíve forgotten to give my cat his insulin shot for the same reason. But the cat has survived. I wonder if I need a calendar to monitor my monitoring.
The early part of the day is my favorite time. Before I wake dad up. Before I need to be attentive. Before I try to read and dad does everything in his power, subconsciously, to distract me, turning up the volume on the TV to a deafening level, making loud noises, coughing, humming. Iíve spent so much time alone in my life that Iíve come to take my solitude for granted.
Then there are the issues common to any kind of move Ė switching everything to the new location: dadís phone number, TV cable service (dad doesnít appreciate the need for Internet access), utilities, and the two newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and the Palm Beach ďPutz,Ē as he calls it. We laugh about that. But it is a good source of ďlocal news.Ē Thatís another name for gossip, which he wonít admit to liking. Mary used to keep him up-to-date.
Oldest sister Cindy has bought dad a cell phone, which I patiently try to teach him to use. This is a really tough sell for one whoís completely missed the electronic revolution. He barely has an answering machine, for godís sake. What was she thinking?
I think the key to getting dad to accept technology, if there is one, is making it a game. I do understand how stupid technology can make you feel. But Iíve learned to get the better of that feeling by wholesale submission to inadequacy and then being willing to experiment. Thatís a motivation that has mostly skipped dadís generation.
I come to learn that dadís lack of memory trumps any instinct toward fun. So I cancel the cell phone, now that the landline has been transferred. Thereís a $200 fee. I think ďfuck themĒ as they take advantage of our situation, which is probably remarkably common in southern Florida. Do I deal with it or wait for dad to get this bill that will piss him off because he wonít understand it? Likely I wonít be here when that happens. I decide to ignore that too. Ignoring things, I decide, gives me a strategic advantage.
Next I address dadís physical needs: Get grab bars installed in his shower so heís less likely to slip and a high-rise commode with handles to give him security on the toilet.
The entry to Maryís condo is set with paving stones presenting a problem to someone unsure on his feet, someone still on a walker, as dad is. So I call ďthe compoundĒ to address that, which they do in short order. Iím reminded that I was the one to name this gated community ďthe compound.Ē Because my sisters and parents thought it funny some 30 years ago, it stuck. To be as safe as possible, we buy dad new walking shoes.
We have unending appointments with doctors.
First thereís the cardiologist who seems to have missed his calling as a stand-up comic. Dad tells him he hears ringing in his ears. The cardiologist tells him to stop listening. The cardiologist thinks this is funnier than dad does. I feel left out.
My guess is that this guy jollies his elderly clientele into thinking theyíre feeling better; when that fails, he just listens. He knows thereís probably not a lot he can do for most of them. I wonder how he continues. Then I realize: Like the nursing home, itís all about the money.
My two sisters intensely dislike this guy. I decide Iím going to try to like him since dad likes him and I know Iíll be seeing him a lot. And he can be funny, in spite of what my sisters say. There must be some value in that.
Then there are all the others: gerontologist, psychiatrist, dermatologist. This is just the short list of ďistĒs. I want dad to go to a hearing specialist too. But since he has absolutely no intention of wearing a hearing aid, whatís the point? His vanity is going to stay healthy while he slowly dies.
The visit to the ophthalmologist comes with its own quiet drama. The waiting room features a girl with Downís Syndrome and a woman with a trach sitting in a wheelchair. Witnessing these two, whom dad doesnít notice, I metaphorically slap myself upside the head about how lucky I am.
Then there are the in-home visits: The physical and the occupational therapists, arranged for by the nursing home to complete the rehab from their point of view. Or the legal or, more likely, insurance point of view. Iím thinking those are the same thing.
The negative recursiveness of the health care system starts in with ďno, we donít pay for thatÖĒ Then there are the more insidious times when they stall because
They refuse to pay
Without telling you theyíre not going to pay
Because then you might sue them.
Theyíre banking on the goodwill of those that trust the system, people that can be strung along for as long as needed so the health care provider can avoid paying the bills theyíre obligated to pay.
What happens, I wonder, to the elderly who have no advocate?
Dad has hallucinations that he describes vividly. He seems fascinated by what heís experiencing as he relates it in real time. His attitude is so oddly normal, as if this is nothing to be afraid of, that I go with his flow. I admit Iím rather fascinated too. He periodically wonders where he is. I tell him, responding as if this is an everyday question. I wonder: Is this a normal part of aging? How long has this been going on? We bring in a neurologist for a time, the best of the team of experts. I consider him my medical anchor until dad informs me he sees no reason to continue seeing the guy.
All the doctors present various additional needs I must attend to, like special stretchy gadgets and handheld weights to work dadís muscles. Buying them is the easy part. Getting dad to use them proves much tougher. Drugs are much easier to administer.
I learn about the infamous Plan D, which makes me wonder what happened to plans A through C. What this means for me is simple: I need to take dadís insurance card to pick up his prescriptions. His insurance plan, mercifully, is already in place.
In securing all the needed supplies, I have my first formative experience at Wal-Mart, just up the street. I collect four things from wildly different departments, which, besides the prices, seems a compelling reason to shop there. I work my way through one of the 21 checkout counters, then experience a mini-panic attack because I cannot find my way out of the store. Iím convinced this is intentional to get me to buy more stuff. But this just pisses me off, and Iím not about to go there again, except under duress, a word I find is a frequent companion these days. Once I right myself and get outside, I call my next-door neighbor to tell her about how Iíve survived the experience. We laugh. I move on.
I go, almost daily, to the grocery. It gives me something to do. And Iím sick to death of chicken salad, which gives me motivation. Initially, I buy dad some new things, but we quickly revert to the set diet that he prefers. Luckily I can vary mine by eating out.
Dad complains that he canít reach his toes to trim his toenails. He says he needs a pedicure. So I take him to the place next to the grocery store. Wherever he needs to go, itís almost invariably next to the grocery store, the hub of his life. Mercifully, thatís right outside the compound gates.
This, for me, turns out to be an awful experience. The fumes in this joint feel toxic enough to cause long-term health problems in anyone that spends any time there. I feel sorry for the young Asian women who work there. I wonder if they wonder whether they can have it any better. I wonder if the people who frequent the place get the how appalling the conditions are -- for themselves, for the workers. Theyíre all at risk.
Dad and I are the odd couple in this place of women. I donít see another man, of any age. I drop dad off and go outside Ė to breathe. When I pick him up, he doesnít seem to have noticed how oppressive the environment is or how odd his presence is there. Heís just damn glad his toenails are short. Thereís something to be said for focus.
We go to the compound fitness center every afternoon at exactly 3:00 PM. I try the treadmill and bicycle. The atmosphere is quite welcoming as Iím the youngest person by far in the place. Very different than what Iíd expect to find in California, not that Iíd have the courage to find out. I even flirt with the older men. Women avoid the place. I like going there.
One day dad falls, and his best friend sitting on the bicycle just behind him doesnít even notice. Much less respond. Heís 95. But my dadís fucking face down on the treadmill. How can you miss that, I wonder. We get dad up and get him back to his car. I drive him home to Maryís. Heís OK physically. But, psychologically, heís taken another step in the direction he doesnít want to go. We donít talk about that.
I realize that I canít let dad out of my sight, even for a minute. When we go to the fitness center again, I need to position myself behind him so Iíll be alert to a developing problem. If weíre on the treadmill, I need to be right there at his side. Likewise on the bike. Even with this plan in my mind, which of course I donít tell dad about because it would just scare us both more, it takes us several days to work up the courage to go back. I wonder whether he notices that his friend completely ignored his fall and what he made of that. Did the friend not see it, feel helpless to help, or knew someone else would respond? Of course we donít talk about that either.
We have ďlittle episodesĒ that I canít anticipate, things like unexplained wounds on dadís leg that seem to bleed at no provocation because his skin is so sheer. Itís amazing what elderly people will tolerate without realizing their situation is serious. Before theyíll actually call any attention to the problem. Is it mental decline, denial, the feeling that they no longer have a right to call attention to themselves? Are they just not worth it?
At the other end of the importance spectrum is the mortality issue: Does dad have a power of attorney, a living will? The one thing I can be sure of is that the financial part of his house is well taken care of. The rest I need to check on, but I suspect thatís in the bag too.
Should I get a dog or cat to keep him company? Which? As they have different pros and consÖ He gives me a definitive NO either way. I think heís wrong about this. He never had to be responsible for the pets we had growing up, so he never developed the kind of relationship we had with them. He doesnít understand the charm they have over us. He doesnít understand how they can make us feel needed and validated when thereís no one else to fill that role. How do I begin to explain that to him?
Dad wants to go visit Maryís ashes. So we decide a date and time to do that. We go down to the mausoleum where Maryís ashes have a spot next to her husband Charles who died many years ago, someone I never met. Cindy and I have gone down there previously to scope out the place and make sure we know where Maryís crypt is. Itís a complicated place, and we want to ensure dadís visit is easy, just as heís likely to want it. When the time comes, we do the in and out. Just like going to a fast food restaurant but without the food. The experience brings me, momentito, back to California.
I end up wondering why we came. Isnít the point to sit there awhile in the presence of the deceased, think about the good times, mourn the loss? And to begin coming to terms with it?
Then I realize the point is that he doesnít want to do that, though he still has some need to visit.
I hope he has other ways of dealing with death that heís not sharing with me. This thought is supposed to give me comfort instead of frustration. We donít talk about this either.
Leveraging my momís training, I suggest writing thank you notes to the nursing home staff that dad especially enjoyed. Dad wants to ďtipĒ these folks, but, when I inquire about its appropriateness, the nursing home says no. So, honoring my dadís wishes (which suggest Fuck You), I write these notes, enjoying the chance, being a writer, to actually write something. I slip cash into each note (dadís unfailingly egalitarian in this regard, not one to single anyone out with more), hoping theyíll appreciate the gesture and just keep it to themselves. Iíll never know because I intentionally put no return address on the envelope. That will force them to keep the cash. I feel guilty about doing this. I donít like forcing anyone to do anything. But thatís what dad wants. And it will be easier for them, I tell themselves, not having the option to return the money. Iím hoping theyíll think: Hey, now I can have a nice dinner out with my spouse away from the kids!
Or use it toward a house payment.
Or send it to my family in Haiti.
Dadís always been social. But after heís on his feet, he seems unable or uninterested in picking up the phone to get together with his friends. I wonder: Is he now incapable of doing this, or is this part of his ďshutting downĒ process? Or is it as simple as Mom and Mary always having handled social engagements so he has no clue how to do it and expects it to be taken care of for him?
But how difficult can it be, I wonder, to just pick up the fucking phone? He can dial for godís sake. Is this a male/female thing?, I ask myself angrily, again feeling manipulated into that go-between position Iíve struggled long and hard to stay free of.
So I start figuring out who dadís best friends are. Best in the sense that, at this age, nearly anyone qualifies. Some I know by name, either because weíve met or heís mentioned them when weíve talked on the phone. These are the ones to stay in touch with while Iím in town, the ones I plan to count on to help dad after Iíve returned home. I start a list of names.
But I discover they have their own problems: One is blind, one couple is moving out of the compound into assisted living, and one 95-year-old whoís recently lost his spouse has begun what will become a sequence of mishaps, like bicycle accidents, that will cause him to hire a 24/7 caretaker while Iím there.
Still, I make the list and dial the phone to try to schedule at least one social outing a week. Dadís at his best during these outings, so my intention is rewarded.
Sometime later dad tells me Iíve ďtaken over in grand style.Ē Iím not sure whether heís thanking me or expressing his annoyance that heís no longer in charge. I decide to take it as a compliment, one of the few Iím getting these days.
Over time, I begin to clean out dadís condo, making decisions about what to save and what to throw out. I never talk to him about this. I just do it. Oddly, he doesnít question what Iím doing. He just sits in front of the TV, watching the stock market ticker tape running right to left across the bottom of the screen. Did I realize one of his favorite stocks is up a penny? No, I didnít. Now itís down a penny. Oh, thatís too bad.
Cleaning out dadís condo turns out to be a tougher experience than I anticipate. I find a prescription for Viagra, dated 1999 Ė long after my mother died Ė and a couple of vibrators. No use for either now, so out they go. Too much information.
Maryís nephew, her heir, doesnít seem to want any of her stuff. Neither do my sisters seem to think or care about it, so cleaning out her condo to make room for dadís stuff also falls to me. It seems taken for granted that Iíll assume this responsibility. I continue to put one foot in front of the other.
Everything I come across must have some value. Which I have no ability to assess. But I have to. So I sort through the stuff and figure out what might be given to the Bargain Box vs. what should just be thrown in the trash. Then I think maybe there are things I want to keep. I pull a few things aside (because Mary always did have wonderful taste). Then I gather up what seem like the most valuable things, stuff them inappropriately into garbage bags, and make a trip downtown. Even though itís March, I still work up a sweat going up and down the stairs, back and forth between the two apartments. My thighs may be complaining, but this is the best exercise Iím getting these days.
I get lots of advice, nearly all of it helpful. Iím surprised about that. Probably the most useful comes from one of dadís best friends from Michigan who also lives in Florida during the cold months, albeit on the other coast. Sheís long been my mentor as the one who loaned me my first pair of tall riding boots; they fit me because we share, oddly for riders, thick calves. She tells me that ďthe goal is to keep dad safe.Ē She knows more about this than I do. Her mother died of Alzheimerís and had the worst possible end, completely forgetting who her daughter was. Even "Aunt Anna.Ē who's not really my aunt, calls periodically to see how things are going, even though she has her own hands sadly full with my dadís cousin, diagnosed with Alzheimerís.
I get a Verizon wireless card for my laptop. Mary had no Internet access, and dad has no need for it. So this is the only way I can keep in touch with work. This is my bossí idea. The little work Iím called on to do feels like a welcome lifeline to the real world. Something to dig my teeth into within what feels like the vast nothingness of what Iím otherwise doing. I read a lot of e-mail, which takes on a fascination I never thought it could have.
I get a call from one of dadís friends in the compound who thinks Iím a computer expert. She wants me to come take a look at a problem sheís having. I advise her on the phone, especially the part about me being an ďexpert,Ē and make various suggestions. It turns out that she didnít realize you have to hit the RETURN button to move down a field in a spreadsheet. At this point, I do feel like an expert. This may be a small victory but one I can use. Later in our acquaintance, somehow in context, she asks me, ďCan you imagine being married to a Muslim?Ē Iím reminded of the white Christian environment Iím in, but I silently wonder about the answer to her question. Iím also reminded that Florida has Christian and Jewish compounds. Theyíre completely separate. I think thatís a shame and likely a sign of the larger problem of intolerance in the world.
Cell phone coverage in dadís neck of the woods is shitty. I have to lean my head on Maryís dining room window to get any kind of signal at all. Better yet, and for more privacy, I develop a habit of going outside and sitting on the stairs to the upstairs apartment. This is what I come to call ďmy phone booth.Ē I spend a lot of time there during daylight hours, watching ants wander aimlessly on the stone slats, spying a lizard with a bright orange and yellow tongue that darts in and out, and looking up as ďU R GodĒ is being written in the sky, I think for me alone.
After dinner, once darkness has fallen, my phone booth of choice becomes the front seat of dadís Cadillac. I sit there with a glass of wine on the glove box and call friends in San Diego. With one of them I share the Bing Crosby lyrics; amazingly, she knows the song and starts to sing it, making me feel not so far away after all. I feel as if Iíve entered a time warp. Maybe thatís a better place to be.
No one from work calls me except, oddly, a fellow whoís the chief scientist. Weíve shared a few lunches at Indian restaurants because heís one of the few I know who also loves the cuisine. Heís off-the-charts smart. He seems to carry on multiple streams of thought in his head at any one time; when weíre together, Iím on just one of those streams, but Iím grateful to share him with all the others because heís a really nice guy with a wonderfully gentle and giving spirit. I like hearing from him, even though we hardly know each other. It gives me hope in an unexpected sort of way. I never get a call from my boss Ė or even an e-mail asking how Iím doing. I realize we may not have as personal a relationship as I thought. I add that to the vague list of reasons Iím keeping to quit my job.
I anticipated a lot of what my ďdutyĒ in Florida would be like. But, inevitably, there are some things I havenít. Some help comes, surprisingly, from the movies. One playing in my early days in Florida is ďThe Boynton Beach Club.Ē Given that dad lives in Boynton Beach, it doesnít take a lot of imagination to know I have to see that movie. It turns out to be about the senior dating scene. It gives me a primer for the responsibility I didnít realize I have. And it doesnít come too soon.
Though in the early days dadís still on a walker, we find ourselves surrounded each night we go to the club by a bevy of elderly females. They are shockingly indiscriminate. And just as unsubtle. Dad has no idea what to do with all the attention, much less what any of their names are. Even I, in my early 50s, can only register so many before losing track. The funny part is that heís literally just a john to them (I enjoy the insider joke that his name is John), one of the few men available for the vast majority of women. You just have to sympathize with these women, there are so damn many of them. All single and lonely with relatively few options for companionship. Even dad, who is often downright lousy to women, appears desirable to this pack.
Dad has a woman friend in the compound whoís a very uptight New Englander, handsome in a masculine sort of way, and highly opinionated. She has a last name smacking of one of the law enforcement departments, which is reflected in her bearing. Dad says he knows he could date her in a minute (ďsheís that interestedĒ), but he has no interest. ďShe is just too damn aggressive,Ē he says with a snarl.
I agree. I donít like her either, even though there is much about her my generation should appreciate. Somehow the overall package is wrong for dad, which pleases him when I tell him that.
When we return from each of the many dinners we have at the club, I tell dad which women he can or cannot date and why. He thinks this is funny. But I consider this a serious responsibility. It also gives us another basis on which to interact. Itís certainly better than stocks moving up and down a penny.
My life, while on hold at home, still has demands that need to be met. I order various medications and supplemental food for my horse and arrange for packets to be properly configured and administered. I get e-mail from the barn manager that Princess Eva, an alpha female to the max and whoís notoriously fussy about moving even to a new location within the same barn, needs to do exactly that, so I arrange for that to happen on one of my trips home. It takes two days to calm her down.
I talk with my horse trainer, arrange to meet my shoer because Evaís fussy about that too, get my tax information compiled, renew pet prescriptions (as well as my own, which I realize are less important), buy syringes for my diabetic cat, and arrange payment for the house cleaner every couple of weeks. I try to keep current with my bills.
My sweetheart Greg takes care of the ďtreehouseĒ we share. He has a wonderful baritone that I find reassuring on the phone and helps me feel connected to what Iím trying very hard not to feel like Iím missing. I cope by thinking about waking up next to him in bed. I also think about touching Charlieís luxurious coat or him licking me with his sandpaper tongue to wake me up because he wants to be fed, having Scoops purr in my lap, and putting my arms around Miss Evaís neck and hugging her until she gets irritated and tries to nip me.
My sisters tell me about the sanctuary of the Saigon restaurant, conveniently located in the grocery store shopping center. The restaurant features Chinese and Thai cuisine in a quiet, dark atmosphere and uses those old-fashioned, hand-written green ďguest checksĒ for the bills. They also give you a full glass of wine, something our family considers important. This is where I experiment with the spiciness of my food. I must be making up for the boredom in my life with increasing levels of heat. I get all the way to a ď7Ē when I start experiencing digestive troubles that make me reconsider. But I like the fact that they take my 7 seriously.
Anxiety dreams recur. My worst dream has me with two friends from boarding school. Weíre driving to a movie in a small theater. Probably an arty movie. Itís dark, and the geography is hilly with short, steep streets, making it hard to know exactly where we are. Iím smoking and carelessly drop a lit cigarette butt out the back window of the car, which catches fire in straw littered along the street. It starts to burn several store fronts. A noticeable group of people start following our car because they know Iím responsible. I worry that this is some sort of vigilante squad. Still I donít dispute that they have a right to do this. I slink down in my seat. Our car gets away. Later I try to locate the area where the fire started so I can admit my guilt. But I canít find it.
Against this backdrop of anxiety, dad and I do have lots of good times: Monday night cookouts at the club, sharing ďThe LockhornsĒ comics from the paper.
We also watch endless rounds of professional golf on TV. This is more fun for him as I donít play golf whatsoever in spite of the junior golf lessons I took (and hated). But golf is dadís lifelong passion, and he was very good at the game. It almost killed him when he had to stop because of scoliosis. Being in any way in touch with the game always puts him in a good mood. He once suggested I join a country club; the big benefit of course was that I could then play golf. (I remember thinking at the time: Since when did he think I might actually like to do such a thing?) So I told him: But I already do belong to a club Ė itís called the barn. Amazingly, he got it because we havenít had that conversation since.
Absolutely against my rule about not supporting horse racing, I even watch the Kentucky Derby with dad, hoping like crazy that none of the horses will break down during the race. Iím reminded that if it werenít for all the money to be made, this sport would be shut down by the ASPCA. Iím glad that Miss Eva never became a race horse. She was hardly the gal to run her heart out. Her previous owner was right about that.
I amuse myself by escaping to dadís condo to watch TV. I say Iím going to take a walk. Instead, I hop across the street for an hour to watch the Jewelry Channel, which I decide is really a comedy show parading as a show to sell you stuff. I become fascinated by the lengths they go to convince you a particular ring will change your life. And it doesnít take a rocket scientist to figure out that you need to wait till the very end of the 10- or 15-minute sale to get the best price. I almost call several times because I get caught up in the drama of whether there will be any items left at the end of a given sale. During these times I also come to appreciate ďThe Daily ShowĒ and, my favorite, ďThe Colbert Report,Ē pronounced like ďrapport.Ē
Emotions over dadís situation and worries about his decline cause the inevitable ďfamily scene.Ē One of my sisters accuses me in e-mail of being self-righteous about coming to Florida to care for dad. Itís bad form doing this in e-mail, I think. I also find this offensive coming from her who never volunteered for duty. It would have been just too disruptive to her life, I tell myself. I understand why.
So we battle a bit over e-mail, and I break my 24-hour rule against sending flamers. But she deserves it, I justify to myself. I need some outlet for acting out. Then I send her, by way of apology, a paperback Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood by Suzanne Braun Levine, which Iíve just finished reading. She apologizes to me in her own way, and our apologies literally cross in the mail. So we get back on track.
I fluctuate about how I think about dad and his situation. Heís a two-year-old boy. Heís an asshole. Heís a selfish son of a bitch. Thatís on a Sunday.
How is he ever going to take care of himself when I leave? Thatís on Monday.
One night we have a bona fide fight. This is a big deal since, for as long as I can remember, our family has rarely had open conflict.
Iíve gone to the Saigon restaurant and take my luxurious time, reading e-mail, blessing again the wireless card for my connection outward. Iím gone two hours, and my need for ďescapeĒ (though of course we never call it that) is not in question. I walk in the door, and dad, in his typically politically incorrect way, bellows at me: ďIf you need two hours for dinner, then Iím a ChinamanÖĒ
Heís furious. I donít understand, thinking heís gone back on our implicit agreement to allow me ďtime offĒ when I need it. Unfortunately, I respond like the little girl heís just turned me into.
I escape and take my usual 45-minute nightly walk around the compound, dodging two snakes when Iíve never seen any before. I take them as a metaphorical warning to pay attention to whatís happening. I arrive back home feeling scared, once I realize how dependent dad has become on me. I realize that he was afraid too, thinking something bad must have happened to me to keep me away for what seemed an unreasonably long period of time. Not that he could admit to being afraid.
I wonder, for the nth time: Am I being tested? Is this a game? I donít remember signing up for a competition.
I periodically negotiate a ďweekend releaseĒ with my sisters. We agree that we cannot leave dad alone. So each time I leave, one or the other flies in the day before and we go through the same drill: I pick her up at the airport, we have a debrief, she drops me off the next day, then she picks me up when I return, we have a debrief, and I drop her off the following day. I wonder how many families have the luxury of doing this.
I take perverse pleasure in tracking the many reasons I hate Florida: course grass, surly service people, how long it takes to do the simplest errand, constant ambulance sirens, weed whackers outside my bedroom window at 7:00 AM, waiting, always waiting, not being able to plan anything, whiling away the day without accomplishing anything, single beds, athleteís foot, loneliness, the difference in time zones between there and the west coast, lime green, shell furniture, and dealing with dadís crazy/Alzheimerís friends and trying to make sense of them Ė for dad.
I have a much shorter list of what I like.
But one night, which makes this whole experience worth it, I talk with dad. Really talk. He tells me that mom was the love of his life, that he was fond of Mary but didnít love her. Our conversation is so open that I find myself asking him whether I should marry my boyfriend. To him itís simple: If you love him, you marry him. But itís so much more complicated than that now, I want to tell him. Plus I think, but donít say, that his marriage with mom was hardly a role model.
But maybe Iím being too hard on him. Maybe I donít understand the sacrifices he and mom made for us that created the difficulty between them.
I think I have an agreement with dad that I will stay only until heís back on his feet. But it doesnít seem to occur to him that that my time there could be less than the full 12 weeks I have. He doesnít seem to feel an obligation to get better more quickly in exchange for my ďtime out.Ē This ought to be something he can hurry along. Is he lazy, passive, beyond coping, simply forgetful?
As my time runs out, I start planning to leave Florida to get back to life as I used to know it. My oldest sister suggests contacting Eldercare to ďtake over.Ē But they prove overpriced and unable to deliver what we pay for. And dadís resistant to any kind of in-home care anyway. So I give up. I also give up trying to get some of dadís money back from Eldercare, figuring that dad wonít care that much about recouping the value of what he didnít realize he was supposed to be getting. This was my deal; heís just glad to be done with it.
My sisters and I discourage dad from driving. I find an alternative, two brothers who work as parking valets at the club. Dad is very fond of both. They seem reliable, and theyíre eager for the extra income to drive dad around. We try it once, the day Iím leaving, before dad insists on getting back behind the wheel. It feels like a final note of failure. I wonder what they make of it.
I come back to California and resume the life that was.
I start considering my own mortality and what I want to do between now and then. I realize Iíve been putting off a lot of things and wonder why Iíve been waiting so long.
The physical things at home seem the safest way to start. I start sprucing up my condo: I get my downstairs deck built out and arrange for new furniture coverings and curtains to replace those ugly, yellowing vertical blinds. Greg single-handedly redoes our kitchen in record time.
I spend some time checking into my finances.
I discover I can quit work altogether.
I think about this for a day or two and wonder why I didnít realize this before.
So I make up my mind: Itís time to do the kinds of things I really want to do. Which is not this. I can now do anything I want.
I worry about the responsibility that implies. It seems like it should be something worthwhile to society, a noble endeavor, rather than something as selfish as just what I feel like doing. Do those two things have to be different?
I start to write personal narrative and fiction, I take watercolor, drawing, and pastel classes, anything that will draw my creativity forward.
I start making an effort to cook better dinners. I pull out recipes Iíve collected for years, for reasons I canít explain but which make sense now, and decide to bake. I walk for an hour every day. I spend more time with my aging pets. I read a lot.
This slower pace has me living more presently in the world. I start to think about fundamental longer-range questions.
What will become of my sweetheart Greg, a lifelong smoker? I expect to care for him to his death because I expect him to die before me. But Iíve never told him that. This all sounds so academic. But I know it wonít be when we have to face these kinds of things head on.
What will my decline be like? I have no children. Who might care for me when Gregís gone? Home care workers in Florida advised signing up for long-term care insurance when I turn 70. Maybe I should do it now.
Life is such a crap shoot.
Will I be able to manage my death the way I want?
I want a contract with Jack Kevorkian, renown for publicly championing a terminal patient's right to die via suicide. I Google his name and learn that he was released from prison earlier this year after serving eight of his 10-to-25-year prison sentence. That sentence was based on a guilty verdict in a second-degree murder case. He may have been released for reasons of failing health due to diabetes and Hepatitus C.
Will he still be alive when I need him?