September 2010


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The Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with its companion, The Hobbit, always will hold a special place in my heart. One of the most poignant elements to me is the way the character Bilbo Baggins appears to be slowly fading away at the end of the final volume, as he accompanies his elven hosts on their final journey from the Gray Havens to the eternal lands. He isn’t actively dying, it just seems as though his edges are becoming less defined, his presence less, well, present.

This image of Bilbo often comes to me now when I look at my father, especially during those times when he doesn’t know I’m observing him. This winter and early spring, it seemed as though he really was in the process of dying. And his primary care doctor has, not quite so explicitly, said he thought the same thing during that period when Dad’s big red taxi was making regular trips between my house, the hospital and the rehab center. He somehow bounced back, balanced on the right mix of medications and sheer will, and had a decent summer. Now, though, it seems he’s becoming just slightly less in focus as summer changes into fall.

What does that mean? His walking, which had picked up in June and July, is slowing down, and getting up from the sofa is requiring extra effort. His breathing is becoming labored again with any exertion, as much as he fights admitting it. He’s peeing less and sleeping longer at night. So, he’s still walking, still breathing, still ambulating himself from place to place, but with more work and less ease. And, at times, it seems like there’s a little more confusion creeping into his thought processes.

I would have been all over this situation last year, quizzing him constantly about the breathing, calling the kidney doctor about the reduced urine output, pushing him to drink more water. Now, though, I ask myself, “is he comfortable?” When the answer is yes, I leave him alone.

This isn’t just a matter of picking the right battles – though, that’s certainly been a lesson I’ve learned during the last two-plus years. It’s more like a state of acceptance that the underlying issues with Dad’s heart and kidneys are still there. Given where he’s at now, he’s likely to be a mess by the time he gets back from his Halloween weekend in St. Louis. As I’ve said before, winter is a hard time for him here, and with the cold dampness coming into season just when he gets back, he’ll be especially vulnerable to any stray viruses (did I mention he’s convinced that flu and pneumonia vaccines can actually give you those diseases?). So, no matter how hard I might want to run up the hill of escalating concern, I know the reality of his physical condition would only push me that much harder back down again.

So, where last fall began with active concern, this one begins with a greater sense of acceptance. Dad’s ship to the eternal lands is still waiting for him – he has a few more senior-center poker games in him before he starts his journey to the Gray Havens. But, when the shipmaster calls, I feel I’ll now have an easier time waving from the shore.

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Yes, it’s that time of year. Thermostat wars have begun.

Some look to Labor Day and its back-to-school deadline to mark the end of summer and beginning of fall. Others are more literal and exacting, using astronomical data to pinpoint that moment sometime between Sept. 21 and 22, when daylight is 12 hours across the globe. In my house, though, I know fall has begun on the day Dad starts grumbling about the temperature in the house.

I suppose it happens in other parts of the planet, but it seems here in New England there is a single day in late August or early September when something subtle yet unmistakable shifts in the air. Whether it’s a humidity drop or wind shift or, even, a new pollen hitting the sinuses, you can recognize that the seasonal change has begun. It may be 72 degrees and brightly sunny, but, yet, it’s there. And on that day – which, again, can be a glorious beach-day candidate – Dad starts eying the thermostat.

This year, that day happened about a week and a half ago. As usual, I was in shorts and a polo shirt, barefoot. By the end of the day, Dad was in long pants, with a t-shirt under his long-sleeved polo. When I came home after being out, he’d added a windbreaker to the outfit. It was, maybe, Sept. 10. The thermostat showed the house interior temperature to be hanging somewhere between 68 and 70 degrees.

“Are you really that cold, Dad?”

“I’m fine with the windbreaker.”

“Dad, it’s, like, 70 degrees in here”

“So, you’re not turning on the furnace?”

“Dad, it’s 70 degrees. I’m not cranking up the furnace if it’s 70 degrees inside.”

“Alright, I guess I’ll just put on a sweater, then.”

I shrugged, rolled my eyes and padded my bare feet up the stairs to my room. But the image of that little old man, bundled into three layers of clothes, arms wrapped around himself for added heat, ate at me. I padded back down. He’d added a baseball cap to the ensemble – you know you lose most of your body heat through the top of your head, right?

“Dad, do you want me to bring the space heater up?”

“No, I’ll get by.”

I’ve made it a point to try to not respond to guilt or drama, so I just said, “All you have to do is ask, I’m happy to get it,” and returned up the stairs.

The next morning, before he got up, I hauled the space heater – one of those electric, oil-filled radiators on casters – up from the basement and turned it on near his seat on the sofa. It’s been operating 10-12 hours a day since, whenever he’s been sitting in the living room. The Woolrich shirt my sister gave him for Christmas last year has become his favorite piece of clothing (though, thankfully, he’s getting by without the windbreaker or ball cap inside). And the temperature has yet to drop below 65 in the house, at least when he’s not in bed.

The scenario is pretty funny from a Grumpy Old Men/Odd Couple point of view. But, like many such sitcom-worthy situations in our life together, it carries with it a more bittersweet undertone. In some ways, Cape Cod has one of the worst possible climates for older folks. Winters don’t get terribly cold from a Midwestern perspective, and we don’t get anywhere near the snow the folks in western Massachusetts can see, but there’s a dampness here from mid-October to early May that can take a chill straight to your bones – and lungs. And then there are the nor’easters, which can knock out the power for several days at a time. That’s what happened the November before Dad moved out, when nighttime temps were down into the mid- to upper-30s. I got through that event in candlelight, wrapped in layers of shirts and sweaters. I’d have to move Dad to a hotel for the duration should something like that occur again.

This summer’s spell of heat and humidity was like a visit from an old St. Louis friend for Dad. The rest of us sweltered and moaned, but he was happy to exercise the gills most St. Louisans have in place of lungs, as the humidity level hovered in the upper 80 percent range for three weeks or more. But the cooler temperatures coming our way will soon just beat that energy out of him.

I’m planning some improvements over the next six weeks that should help keep the house, itself, more comfortable. New thermal-pane windows in the basement, a whole-house air-sealing project courtesy of stimulus funds and utility incentives, along with sealing and insulating ductwork in the basement and adding some insulation to the second floor. It has seemed in the past as though the house started feeling cold as soon as the furnace fan shut off, and these efforts should lessen the impact of that kind of draftiness.

However, he still has to get around outside if he’s going to maintain even the somewhat reduced energy level he has these days. Late fall and winter create perfect conditions for a nasty cycle to kick in for him. The reduced daylight and greater energy required just get off his butt means he starts going to bed earlier and sleeping later, a pattern that’s already beginning – he’s had three or four 11-hour sleeps in the last week or so. More time on the back means more time for fluid to begin accumulating around his heart and lungs, which leads to harder breathing and even less energy, and more time in bed. Throw in the energy-sapping impact added fluid can have on his impaired kidneys and the fact that he refuses flu or pneumonia shots, and you’ve got the ingredients for even more serious problems.

In the meantime, I’ve got a call into the furnace-repair guy – I tried firing the furnace up a couple days ago while Dad was out and the blasted thing refused to turn on. It could be the air sensor I had replace a couple years ago when the furnace was still under warranty has crapped out. At least, that would be a good metaphor for the current situation – one sniff of autumn and the furnace has refused to wake itself up.

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According to my astrology-following sister, I was born under an air sign (Libra), but I seem to be drawn more naturally to water, especially the ocean. And, while I certainly find peace watching the surf from the beach, I’m really most at home when almost completely immersed. The experience takes over all the senses. Hearing and seeing the waves swell toward me, then under – or over – me, smelling the briny saltiness, feeling the cool slap of a wave’s open palm against my body and tasting those splashes that catch me open-mouthed with surprise. Physiologists also now often speak of a sixth kinesthetic sense, the sense of one’s body in space, and that is the sense that is, perhaps, most exercised in the sea, as I bob on my back like a member of one of the many flocks of sea ducks floating in Cape Cod waters this time of year.

So, it’s sad that one of the very few negatives I can list about the little Cape Cod town in which I live is that it faces Cape Cod Bay and not the Atlantic Ocean. The bay is a lovely place, but to me it is at its most magical at low tide, when the waters can retreat out to the horizon, exposing what seem to be miles of flats no more than ankle deep in water. Parents and dog owners love the flats, knowing they can turn their two- or four-legged charges loose to run at will on the sandy expanse without fear of cars or nefarious characters, and all within clear sight, because the flats are just so darned, well, flat.

The beauties of the flats, to me, are subtle ones. The shifting light and shadow that can create fluidic waves from dry undulations of sand, the spectrum shift from marsh-grass green to the water’s sky-reflecting blue, the signs of the many tiny life forms who get their start in this comparatively protected environment.

In short, the bay’s shallow waters lack the drama of the ocean. I know this statement will draw some catcalls – the bay does have amazing sunsets, and several times I’ve watched entire weather systems pass through from a safe distance, complete with miles-high clouds, flashing lightning and rain pouring in sheets. But, for a good 12 hours a day, the water may be no more than waist deep, making for an only moderately satisfying swim (in my opinion). And, with most of the Cape’s curving inner coastline visible from the local bayside beaches, the imagination can be stopped short of the musings enabled by the Atlantic coast, where the next closest landing would be Portugal’s rocky shore.

It’s the sense-surrounding, imagination-inspiring experience of an ocean setting I need to really step out of my current reality, so earlier this summer I forked over $150 for a non-resident permit to Nauset Beach in Orleans. Though the cost grated me – after all, since Orleans is the closest town with decent stores, they already get 90 percent of my shopping revenue – it has been an investment in sanity. With fall now close upon us, and the number of decent swimming days now falling into the low single digits, I’m wondering how I’ll find the out-of-body satisfaction bobbing/diving/body-surfing in the waves gives me once summer leaves for good.

I suppose memory and faith will be my buoys during the coming months, when even the seals will have fled for warmer waters. Memories of the sun’s warmth, of entire afternoons spent circulating from chair to water to blanket and then chair again, of the kind of nap one only can have when the mind is lulled into blankness by the recurring crash-whoosh of ocean waves hitting and retreating. And faith that those warm days will return, that I’ll have the funds for another season’s pass and the freedom to break away as often as I was able this year.

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