"All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost."

Sunday, January 31, 2010

TABLE FOR FIVE

My dad lives in room 514 at Bickford Memory Care, which is right across the street from the middle school where I teach. I visit him every afternoon around 3:30 and stay through dinner. It's brutal. Ten residents hobble and wobble down to the dining room at suppertime to repeat the same conversation from the previous meal and eat food too slippery to get from spoon to mouth. Even my father, the most far gone of the bunch, shakes his head and gives me a look that no doubt shouts HOW THE HELL DID I WIND UP HERE?

I ponder the absurdity of the situation myself. My beautiful, genius father, a war hero - the guy with the PhD and three masters degrees - who once was my world, my hero really, sitting silently with virtual strangers, folding and refolding his napkin, waiting to be fed. The vital element of a family dinner is missing, and we all ache for it, though no one says a word. Everyone knows, at some level, that they are not home and this is not their table.

My mind whirls back to the house on Harleigh Drive, the cabin in Lake Tahoe, Grama's house on Sunday's, where dinnertime often lasted two hours. We held hands as grace was said before the meal, our plates were stacked at my father's place, and we each took turns asking for a small portion of disgusting mushrooms and, yes please, gravy on the mashed potatoes. Wine flowed, milk spilt, salt and pepper passed. Conversations were learning experiences, and my brothers and I grew to be relentless, highly-skilled debaters, as well as obnoxiously opinionated adults later in life. It was glorious.

I will myself not to cry as I bolster my father up in his chair and cover him with napkins. I've considered buying him a bib, but I just can't face it. I love him so much and hope, like mother bird to chick, I can deposit food into his open mouth. It would mean so much to me if we could talk, maybe debate Obama's health care proposal, but those days are gone and my father no longer remembers that he is a raging Republican who nourished a liberal Independent over a bread basket during spaghetti dinners at Grama's.

At last, the first course arrives. It's vegetable soup with disgusting mushrooms that will soon dribble down my father's mouth and land on the neck of his shirt. Luckily, there are two ladies with enviable language skills who share our table for five and, while we begin the meal, the conversation inevitably goes like this:

MARIE: I'm leaving tomorrow.
IRENE: Oh, that's nice.
MARIE: I don't know how to go.
IRENE: Where ya goin'?
MARIE: Texas.
IRENE: Oh say, that's far.
MARIE: I can't drive ya know.
IRENE: Oh dear, at least it's not snowing.
MARIE: I'll have to walk.
IRENE: Oh my, that's a long walk.

And, occasionally, at the end of the meal, the two exchange phone numbers, scribbled on small pieces of paper, which they tuck away in the pockets of their sweaters for safe keeping.

I wheel my father back to his room, brush his teeth, settle him in the recliner and cover him with a blanket. I turn on the history channel, kiss him goodnight, and button on my coat. I'm hungry and looking forward to the dinner I'll share with my husband when I get home. I know I'll be back at Bickford tomorrow, and I'll sit at that table. I'm sad and I'm sorry. This is hard, and I don't know how to go. I must stay with him on this journey. I have to go the distance, and, oh my, that's a long walk.

Monday, January 18, 2010

FIRST, YOU FEEL GUILTY

In the small California town where I grew up, there was a Catholic nursing home called Our Lady of Fatima. I was familiar with it because, as a member of the elementary school orchestra, I played Christmas carols on my viola for the residents every December. Then, as I teenager, I racked up volunteer hours for church, working as a candy striper.

I was never comfortable being there. Aside from the sharp odors and dusty decor, I did not like being around old people who needed me to feed them, or old men, mostly, who screamed at me to get out of their rooms. I detested seeing shrunken bodies under sheets and teeth laid out on metal nightstands.

I remember telling my parents, when I was ten, that I would never send them to a place like Our Lady of Fatima. Ever. I proudly announced they would live with me when the time came. They laughed and smiled at me, so young, such a baby. The inevitability of my parents growing THAT old was as feasible to me as walking with dinosaurs or flying to the moon.

Five years after his diagnosis of AD, my dad lives in a memory care facility ten miles from my house. It didn't play out as I thought it might - as I hoped it would - when I was a child. My dad sleeps in a wheelchair most of the day, waits for someone to change his diaper, and doesn't eat much unless someone feeds him. He screams at the young CNA's to get out of his room.

He smiles at me when I show up and looks disappointed when I leave. In between, I tidy his closet, wipe his face, clean his glasses. I wonder what I could have done differently. I sometimes cry to the point of hyperventilating and give frequent Karate chops to the universe. Mostly, I feel mighty guilty about my promise forty three years ago, and that I'd much rather walk with dinosaurs or fly to the moon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

WHERE'S THE VILLAGE?

"This is not a tragedy. People get old; they die." That's what my 28 year-old son told me the day after Christmas, because I could not quit crying. He said I was using my dad's Alzheimer's as an excuse to be miserable. So, I thought, maybe he's right. It's true - my father has AD and I AM MISERABLE.

But, also true, I have been caring for my father these past five years, often times completely on my own. In the beginning, after the diagnosis and the death of my mother, family members came and went; each doing their best to live with Dad, cook for him, and keep him safe, but nothing worked for long. My brothers moved out of state, my kids moved on with their young lives, and, eventually, I had complete responsibility for the aging, ailing man who had, at one time or another, taken care of all of us.

My father and I have been on a long, hard journey into the world of AD together. We are in the final stage; yesterday, he tried to bite me. I started this blog because I need to decompress. I don't want to use AD as an excuse to be miserable, and I have a lot to say. I am in search of a village.