So, last night I watched a documentary, called “A Piece of Work,” that follows a year in the life of Joan Rivers. Now, granted, the woman is a bit of an easy target, with the plastic surgeries and cheesy jewelry, and her humor can be just plain awful sometimes, but I watched the final credits with a real appreciation of the power of plain, old will power (or do you say, “stubbornness”?) to help us keep one foot moving in front of the other. And, because I can’t help relating just about everything back to my father these days, the movie also opened my eyes a bit more to his own more-than-adequate supply of that precious commodity.
For better or worse, I seem to have inherited that same willfulness, which doesn’t always make for peaceful coexistence under the roof we now share. One of my favorite, new self-penned (I think) phrases, when I have the humor to see the humor in it, is, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way; where there are two wills, there’s trouble.” Dad and I were both making our own ways before he moved in; since then, there’s often been battle between the two wills that made those ways possible. While I generally maintain the upper hand these days, it’s only because I long ago ceded way on all but what I view to be the most important issues. And, though I’m sure he knows I won’t cave on those last few points of contention, it doesn’t stop him from taking up arms every three or four months in yet another effort to keep that will alive.
I’m convinced that willfulness is a leading factor in the fact that Dad is still alive. Several times over the last few appointments with his primary care physician, the doc has expressed how surprised he would have been, say, a year or so ago to learn that Dad would still be alive and (metaphorically) kicking today. The last six months have pretty much been gravy, according to the doctor. With that in mind, I’ve just stopped paying any attention to what he eats. I don’t leave the salt shaker on the dining table, but I also don’t object when he asks for it, and if he wants beef three times a week, so be it (I’ll be having the fish, thank you). Similarly, I’ve stopped making myself crazy monitoring his fluid intake – there are days when it amounts to the water he takes with his morning and bedtime pills, coffee and the milk in his breakfast cereal, and his evening Scotch, but it was maddening to have to keep bitching about the water level in the glass I was putting in front of him each morning.
One of the biggest battles over the last six months, as Dad’s been feeling healthier, has been over my insistence on bringing in home health aides to help him with his showers. His bathroom has a standard tub, with a 2-ft.’ish-high ledge he has to cross over. There are bars everywhere, on the wall and on the ledge, and a shower seat in the tub, itself, but I’m still nervous about that ledge – especially since he fell twice in the bathroom last spring. He’s adamant that the aides don’t do anything but watch him make the transition in and out, but I’m just as convinced that simply having someone there watching and coaching leads him to be safer in his movements. If that’s so, he’s said, playing the trump card of guilt, then I, as his son, should be the one to help him in this twice-a-week effort. I’ve got a royal flush of that suit, and don’t shy away from fanning it in front of him: Do you think I don’t do enough already, with the cooking and cleaning and doctors and pills? As I’ve said – two wills, combined, can make for a messy equation.
The thing is, it’s very easy for me to understand his point of view. The aide situation can be very frustrating. We work with an agency that I’ve stuck with, primarily, because they work closely with the local hospital. Right now, we’re on private pay, but if Dad ends up in the hospital again, this is the same agency we’d work with for Medicare coverage on his return home, with the same aides. But the schedule can be turned on its head at the drop of a hat – a new admission to the agency’s service, a holiday, an aide calling in sick, all can result in a phone call from the scheduler a half hour before a planned visit. All the sudden the mid-morning shower will be re-scheduled for 2:30 in the afternoon, with someone neither of us has ever seen, oftentimes a woman, now being sent to escort my naked father from his bedroom to the bath. I’d probably rage just as loudly in his situation.
So, it’s brutal to have to fight will-to-will with him over this, especially when I know I’ll win. In the doctor’s office, where this argument came to a head a month or so ago, I laid down the winning ace. The aides were the price of admission. If I’m willing to be the one to manage the consequences of his failing health, then I get to have some serious say in how the risk of those consequences is managed. And it’s unfair to expect me to do shower care, on top of everything else. Bottom line: the aides are staying or you’re leaving. If you’ve seen how a balloon deflates when you un-pinch the open end, then you know exactly how my father appeared to sink into himself when the doctor looked over to him for a response with a shrug.
Like Joan would, I think (and, boy, just how crude would her shower-aide jokes be?), Dad has managed to puff his will almost all the way back up to its often over-inflated state. One foot in front of the other, with an eye on the next senior-center poker game and a continuing taste for the next 5 p.m. Scotch on the rocks and perfectly grilled steak, he just keeps going. In the last five minutes of the documentary, 75-year-old Joan compared herself – and was compared – to a couple other long-time comics, Phyllis Diller, who kept going until she was 92, and Don Rickles, now in his late 80s and for whom Rivers still opens. “I’m going to beat ‘em both,” Rivers says. “I really think I am.” I hear the same conviction in Dad’s 2011 New Year’s resolution to make this a year of good health. Despite the fact that he’s likely to be washing down a steak with a Scotch when he says it, I’m beginning to believe that it’s that conviction, more than his diet, that’s keeping him on his admittedly unsteady feet.