October 2009

Of course, parents and their children have a connection. Conception, birth, diaper changing – these all build ties between progeny and their progenitors. But there is still something between my father and I that makes me feel like there is something deeper, something beyond a generation and the generated. When I think of all the forces pulling us apart, it makes me reconsider, even more, the forces that brought us together.

My father walked out of the house in which I first knew him when I was 4-1/2 years old. It was a second marriage for both my father and my mother – a tad atypical for solid-middle-class in 1963. But, both had had badly ending first marriages, involving infidelity and alcoholism, and both just wanted their own happy endings. They got me, instead – and I think that was enough, for awhile. But personalities have a way of asserting themselves, and neither of my parents had any shortage of personality.

So, Dad leaves. Mom, my two brothers (sons from her first marriage) and I move 1,200 miles away, to Duxbury, a gorgeous little waterfront town about 35 miles south of Boston. For two years, life was grand. Imagine the town Wally and the Beav lived in, with a harbor a half-block away and a barrier beach upon which you could spend an entire summer – accessed by, I kid you not, the longest wooden bridge in the U.S. It was heaven, entirely navigable by an 8-year-old on bicycle, and as imagined without fathers.

Almost a month after I turned 8, on the day my brother Jeff turned 15, my mother died of breast cancer that mestastasized into lung cancer and killed her 2 months shy of her 45th birthday. Her devastated parents became my surrogates. An extraordinary couple, they had met in 1910, when she was 12 and he was 14; and my grandmother always said that, at the moment she met Earle Clark, she knew – that man would be her husband.

And that’s when my father re-entered the picture, because, when she knew she was dying, my mother told my father he’d have to step back up to the plate – injured reserve, no longer, he’d have to be a Dad.

To take a step out of this picture – if my mother hadn’t gone through a pack and a half of Parliaments every day, if some little cell in her breast had just stopped reproducing, if the 1967 surgeons had somehow, surprisingly for that time, gotten it right, it might have been high school graduation before I’d seen my father again.

It’s hard for people now, in 2009, to remember what divorce, old-school-style, was like, but, back then – dads just went away. They paid child support when they could, they drank like fishes, they remarried, and they figured moms were just the ones who were supposed to take care of the kids. From the time we moved away from St. Louis, in the summer of 1965, until my mother died in October 1967, I received no phone calls, no birthday cards, no Christmas presents, no reminders of a biological – at least – relationship from my father. And then in late October/early November 1967, a month after my mother had died, two weeks after I’d moved to live with my grandparents in a rural, Mississippi River community 20 miles south of St. Louis, I met my father, again, along with his third wife.

So, that’s one karmic reconnection.

I end up getting transferred again, to live with him and my new stepmother. We live our life. He travels for his sales business. I become the albatross around my stepmother’s neck. As an adult, I even worked for him as an employee for a couple years. At age 45, I’m visiting St. Louis from Chicago for a brief weekend, before a Thanksgiving trip to Ireland for a trip to visit dear friends. Dad’s moved into an apartment. My stepmother is in a nursing home. Dad and I are at the old homestead picking up a few things, when he grabs his arm, then his chest, falls onto the sofa and passes out. The phone’s already been disconnected and the nearest neighbor is a quarter-mile away. My cellphone’s 9-1-1 works! The dispatcher talks me through getting him flat, massaging his chest, keeping converation going even though he’s passed out, as the EMTs make their way to the house.

A six-way bypass later, and he’s back on his feet.

Another step out of the picture. If I hadn’t decided to be a mensch and help with the last odds and ends that weekend, and stayed home to pack for my trip, and if I hadn’t had my cellphone with me – I still really don’t like carrying the things – he’d have been on his own, passed out in an unheated house. The doctors later said the event had not been a heart attack, but I don’t know how he ever would have had the strength to make it to the car if he’d ever come around again.

Flash forward 3-1/2 years. Dad has seemed to do alright on his own, in his little Chesterfield, Mo., apartment – until I get a phone call at 10 a.m. one Friday morning in February 2008 from a St. Luke’s Hospital ER nurse. He’s fallen getting out of bed, is severely dehydrated, seems to be bleeding internally – and there’s no way he should be living on his own. A few serious conversations with my sisters and with him later, it’s decided – he’s going to live with me. The man who walked out of the house in the fall of 1963 walked into my house in March 2008 – a circle of sorts.

I don’t believe in “purposes” or predestination. But I do find a personal truth in the idea of connections that exist for reasons out of our understanding. Kurt Vonnegut developed a religion called Bokononism is his book Cat’s Cradle, which had as a central premise the notion of a group of people called a “karass”, who, often unknowingly, work together to do God’s will. It’s sort of like that notion that the movement of a butterfly’s wings can change the weather half a world away. Yes, this is a satirical novel intended to poke fun at religion and its dictates, but the idea of the karass still resonates with me. What will Dad and I might be working to fulfill is way beyond my comprehension, but there certainly does seem to be some sort of binding tie – or rubber band – that keeps pulling us together.


So, I don’t know what it is that draws me to British TV, but, there it is. Whether we’re talking Masterpiece Theater period dramas or the latest Dr. Who, I’m on it. I’ve already milked Netflix for the best old period serials. I’ve made it through all 4 seasons of the original Forsyte Saga (and read all the original books – the t.v. series only covers the first of 4 volumes) and all the original Upstairs Downstairs. And then there’s been Gemma Jones in the Duchess of Duke Street – you haven’t seen real television acting if you haven’t seen her take on the truly original character of Louisa Trotter. But it’s not just the amazing acting and reverence for text – and humor. I just love the escapism – and I love the British Isles.

I’ve been to London at least four times. To Dublin three times. And I’ve been once to Edinburgh. And I can’t wait to get back to all of them. So, especially now, I’ve begun enjoying a particularly 21st Century indulgence. I’ve signed up for a VPN – or, virtual private network – service that, to British and Canadian TV companies makes my computer look like it’s based in either the UK or Canada (Canada has some GREAT sci-fi shows, another partiality for me). If you’re a 24 fan, you may have heard the character Chloe talking about the need to connect through a VPN to track down some particular ne’er do well or another. But, in this case, it allows me to stream British video like any other UK, BBC-subscription-paying, chippie-shop patron. For the last couple nights I’ve been watching City of Vice on Channel 4, which is a really seamy look at the founding of London’s first police force, and the latest BBC adaptation of Emma, which is bound for Masterpiece Theatre, Season 2010, I’m sure. I’ve also been catching up on missed Dr. Who episodes and periodically indulging in the Coronation Street habit I’ve picked up on my trips across the pond.

It’s amazing the power of streaming video has to take us miles away. I trudge up the stairs to my bedroom, haul the laptop in from my office and hook the VGA cable up to my little bedroom flat screen, and it’s like I’ve just gotten off a 6-hour Virgin Air flight and settled into my Russel Square B&B. While, sadly, Old Compton Street – and my favorite gay pub – is not just around the corner, I can still feel transported and free. Because that’s one of the great things for an American travelling in the UK – you’re in a completely different place, but you still (mostly) speak the same language. Yes, everything costs 50% more, but it’s really more like a pleasure tax if you’re on vacation.

So, even after a day when I’ve seen my father’s left big toe in technicolor several times, had to track down doctors’ orders and hash it out with their receptionists over referrals, and when I’ve had to politely ask clients about promised jobs and late paychecks or figure out what semi-healthy dinner I can put together after a day of the previous two events happening within an hour of each other – I can climb the stairs, hook up a cord, and be 3,000 miles away.

Private VPN service – $10/month. The illusion of being 3,000 miles away …. priceless.

For the last five weeks or so since Dad has been out of the rehab hospital, he’s been getting nursing and physical therapy care at home, through the visiting nurse association. A nurse has come a couple times a week to change the dressing on his toe wound, and the physical therapist has come a couple times a week to work with Dad on mobility issues. Additionally, we’ve had an electronic health station, complete with scale, blood-pressure cuff and that little finger doohickey that checks heart rate and blood oxygen – it’s connected to a cell-phone modem and sends the daily vital-sign readings to a telemedicine monitoring office, staffed with nurses who review the readings as they come in.

When it first started it was a bit overwhelming to me, having all these people calling, coming into the house, and dealing with the daily exercise of taking Dad’s vital signs. But the value of this added medical attention soon became apparent, as Dad’s blood pressure started to go a little wacky. Blood pressure is, as they say, a silent killer – you don’t feel all jittery like you do when your blood sugar is too high, and you don’t get any minor chest pains, as with angina. You only know your blood pressure is high by measuring it regularly. Whenever Dad’s readings would get much above 160 (for the high number), we’d get a call from the telemedicine nurse asking us to retest. And the physical therapist generally took it before and after any exercise – the times it was 180 or higher after just a 20-foot walk to the bedroom where the machine was, she’d be on the phone to telemedicine or to the nurse at Dad’s doctor’s office. It was through such calls that the doctor knew Dad’s blood-pressure-medicine prescription needed to be increased.

Well, all that is over now. Once Dad got his license and began driving again, the VNA had to discharge him – the services, which are covered by Medicaid, are intended only for homebound patients. So, Cindy the physical therapist came by for her last session last week, the nurse had her last visit a couple days ago (during which she checked out my dressing technique for Dad’s toe), and a technician came by this morning to pick up the telemedicine monitor.

In preparation for losing the monitor, Dad stopped by CVS yesterday to get a digital blood-pressure cuff, and already I see how this will play out now that the professionals are out of the daily picture. He measured himself yesterday afternoon and got a reading of 188/65. Of course this meant the machine was “all screwed up.” Later that evening I learned that he’d taken himself to lunch and had a full order of beer-battered Polish sausage – individual slices of salt-laded sausage, dipped in a salty beer batter and then deep fried. Who knew you could get a meal like this anyplace but at a Midwestern state fair?

In the past, I might have gone ballistic at hearing that – all “What the hell were you thinking?”, “Do you know how many days’ worth of salt you ate?” and “Why do I even bother with all this work reading labels and trying to find decent low-sodium recipes?” – but knowing that the day would come when I wouldn’t have a medical professional to rat him out to within a day or so, I’ve tried to teach myself the five-deep-breaths method of confrontation avoidance (it is helpful if one has a freshly shaken gimlet nearby to occupy oneself between those five breaths). I took my breaths (between gimlet sips) out in the kitchen, noted that we can probably be sure the new machine is not “all screwed up,” and let it go.

When I tested the machine out on myself this morning, I got the lowest reading I’ve had since the telemedicine monitor was first installed. I used to use that machine on myself when Dad was out at poker, to see how my own blood pressure doing. The first few times it was as high as the 130/80, which was kind of scary, especially seeing as it had been 112/60 at my physical last year. But this morning it was back down to a much more acceptable 115/60, a good sign that, just maybe, I’m getting better at not letting Dad’s inability to manage his own blood pressure drag mine along with his, up through the stratosphere.

So today started out full of foggy gloom. Not rainy, but with the air full of moisture and gray as damp felt. Church was somewhat less than inspiring and I thought the afternoon would be not much more than laundry, the gym and grocery shopping – none of which was stirring any kind of positive energy in my soul. At least the house was quiet, because Dad had taken himself out to lunch.

Then, just as I was getting through load number two of laundry, the sun started to break through. I was still trying to figure out how to work a dog walk into my afternoon plans when the sky turned bright blue, and I thought, hell with the gym – I need to find a cool place to walk the beasts.

I’d heard of a state conservation area the next town over – Harwich – called Hawksnest State Park, but I’d never been there before. I piled the dogs into the car and headed out. On the way, for a lark, I pulled into a little inexpensive antique shop just down the road from my house, thinking I’d check to see if they had a dining table to replace the about-to-collapse table in my living room where dad and I eat dinner. I was just about to walk back out again when a little gate-leg number caught my eye. The finish is a little beaten up, but it’s structurally very sound, with nice little turned legs. I took some measurements, but left pretty sure it would fit in just fine.

After a little exploring, I finally found the trailhead to Hawksnest and drove the Subaru in a bit, before the potholes began looking deeper than the car’s roofline. I found a place to pull over, called the dogs out and proceded to have one of the nicest hour-or-so hikes I’ve had in a while. It was almost deserted and it was like we had acres and acres to ourselves. One of the little trails led down to a really beautiful pond, and I spent 15 minutes or so tossing sticks for Bart into the water – I only wished I’d had a suit on under my jeans, because the water was awfully enticing to me, as well. We wandered on for another 45 minutes or so, before heading back to the car, knowing that we’d be back to do more exploring soon.

Then it was back to reality and on to the Stop & Shop. As I was unloading the three stuffed grocery bags in the kitchen, I called out to Dad to ask him how his lunch had been, he said “Great. But I had an accident.” Apparently it had been a Sunday buffet brunch he’d found, which can bring out the worst in him. He’d had a cheese and onion omelet, with sides of bacon, ham and sausage. This was followed up by multiple trips to the dessert table to pick up a piece of lemon meringue pie, two brownies, a couple eclairs and who know what else. (Did I mention that he’s diabetic?) The result could be found in the bathtub, with the boxers, socks and washcloth he’d left to soak, and in the stains all over the bathroom floor tile. Out came the bucket and mop and amonia, down went the dirty clothing to the washer. Dinner-menu plans changed in my mind from chicken cacciatore to broiled salmon. And, of course, there was the toe bandage to change.

But, I’d still had a wonderful afternoon, and that helped me just sigh instead of slump. And I’d learned a good lesson, to boot: the shit will always be with us, so it’s up to us to look up and appreciate the sun and blue sky when we can.

I had a visit today from a social worker/therapist who has a grant to spend three sessions with caregivers of elderly family members. Lucky me. She’s a nice woman, and I’m sure I’ll gain some good information from her over the next two sessions, for which her grant pays her to spend time with me. But, really, I don’t need a therapist to tell me this is hard work, to validate my experience and let me know that, really, it’s understandable if sometimes, late at night, I sit on the toilet in my upstairs bathroom and just sob. Maybe an anti-depressant is in order, she says, and maybe she’s right. But, if it’s understandable that one would sob in such a situation, then, maybe the sobbing’s o.k., too.

Here’s the dilemma, in my mind – life is beautiful, but sometimes the appreciation of that beauty is tempered/put into relief by its pain. I am watching a beautiful man (seriously, if you saw pictures of this guy from the early 50s, you might not be gasping, but you’d at least be thinking B-movie supporting-actor potential; and if you’d heard him sing back then, you’d think you’d heard a serious Sinatra wannabe) decompress into just another one of those old men hanging out in the Dunkin’ Donuts. He talks back to TV commercials and is winded walking up the driveway from his car to the front door. I fear my 70-lb. golden retriever is just going to tip him over someday.

And when he’s gone to bed, and all I hear is the quiet I once heard all the time, before he came to live with me, I think – this is what it will be like, again.

And, really, I appreciate quiet. I’m a quiet person, unlike my father. I really am at peace hearing nothing but the ticking of my great-grandmother’s mantle clock and the periodic snorting of my sleeping dogs. But that quiet will mean that his presence is gone. That this man who spent his life worshiping St. Louis baseball and Benny Goodman and Scottish golf courses has passed. That’s when I cry. I don’t think I need a pill to make that go away. I just need to know there’s another side, after this is over.

My mother died when I was eight. I know what it is to lose a parent. But from that experience, I also know the time it takes to get past, go on, regain life. It’s like I see two tasks in front of me: the getting through and the getting over, maybe like soldiers in a trench see the reflection of artillery fire in the clouds, knowing their captain soon will be calling them forward, knowing their survival – emotional or physical – soon will be on the line. Even if they make it through, their comrades won’t, and they’ll have to live with that knowledge, wondering why. Keeping that anticipation at bay requires a willpower every bit as strong as the sense of duty that carries those soldiers into battle, in the face of enemy artillery and their own fears of death.

So, I get up every morning, make coffee and change wound dressings and breathe deeply, thinking of the quiet I’ll someday, again, enjoy. But not the reason why.

One of the lessons I’m learning while living with and caring for my father is how even the simplest activity can get more complicated when you get to be his age. For example, since Dad now has trouble bending over, putting on socks requires the use of a “Sock-Aid” – a plastic, chute-shaped gizmo with a rope attached onto which you slide the sock. Then you pull on the rope to slide the chute up your foot and calf. Taking off a cardigan sweater can take a full minute, and watching him do it standing up makes me steel myself to catch him, because he often sways and has to catch his step. And doctor appointments often offer unexpected surprises that can just re-emphasize the chronic health issues catching up with him, even as his vital signs show some improvement.

The visiting nurses who have been tending to the wound on Dad’s left big toe had been urging him to see a podiatrist – they said a foot doctor could prescribe shoes that might rub less against the toe to help encourage the wound (a little smaller in diameter than a pencil eraser) to heal. So I got him a referral, and yesterday we headed for what both of us thought would be a simple 45-minute visit to order a new pair of shoes. But, when you’re 87, nothing is that simple.

After doing a thorough examination of Dad’s toe, the doctor suggested we needed to initiate a new wound-treatment procedure. Now three times a day, the wound needs to be cleaned out with a saline wash, dried with a piece of gauze, dabbed with a prescription antibiotic ointment and covered with a bandage. Oh, and we needed to drive over to the X-ray lab to get pictures taken of the toe to make sure no infection had gotten into the bone – a 15-minute drive, plus a 30-minute wait. All in all, the simple 45-minute appointment turned into a 2-hour event.

Plus, as you might surmise, given the difficulty with socks mentioned above, Dad can’t carry out this new treatment regimen on his own. So now, in addition to the once-per-day vital signs reading I have to help him with, I now need to take time out three times a day to clean his toe.

However, on many days, when he’s out in the afternoon, it may just be a twice-a-day treatment – he’s only really out of bed 12 hours a day, so mid-afternoon is the logical time for the second cleaning. But on his poker days, he’s gone from noon until 5 or 5:30 p.m., and it just doesn’t make sense to me to change the dressing at that time, and then again at 9 or 9:30 when he goes to bed.

One issue I’ve come to peace with over the last couple months is that I’m not a bad caregiver if I allow our personal reality to supersede the doctor’s suggestions. It was almost easier when I followed the doctors’ orders to a T – I could just say, “because the doctor says so,” when Dad asked “Why?”, and leave it at that. But that absolutism made for standoffs and resentments, and I’ve decided that’s just not how I want to be interacting with my father in what could be the last year or so of his life. He’s laid the underlying causes of his eventual death in place over a lifetime of eating and drinking habits, so I’m accepting that, while my actions may help him stay healthier than he otherwise would be, I can’t single-handedly keep him alive. It hasn’t been an easy acceptance, but it certainly does make things, well, simpler.

There’s an aggravating question that’s become a regular presence in my life since Dad moved in with me, and it’s an even bigger part of my life these days: When is something really something, and when is it really nothing at all?

Does this sound confusing? Let me give you an example. I’ve been noticing little memory glitches since Dad’s last hospital visit a couple months ago. First, during the middle of a large family reunion last month, Dad for a few moments talked to me as though I were his twin brother (one of the reunion guests), but we were in the car, which was filled with cousins, so I paused and passed it off as fatigue, since he was only two weeks out of the rehab center. It was really nothing at all.

A couple weeks ago, I made kind of a big deal of moving the antique mantle clock I inherited from my mother’s parents from its usual spot on the living room table where Dad and I usually eat dinner. The table is slowly collapsing on itself, and I had discovered that a crack in one of the legs was growing, so I moved the clock to safer ground one night after dinner and explained the reason to Dad, who agreed with the move. Then, five days later, he looked at the table and asked, “Where’d the big clock go?” When I reminded him of our earlier conversation, just five days previous, he had no recollection. I mentioned the incident to my stepsister, who went on to tell me all the ways her overstressed and aging memory played tricks on her – it was really nothing at all.

Last night, as I was fixing dinner, Dad asked if we were going to be having dinner by candlelight. I asked him what he meant, and he pointed to the two large candlesticks – really, just repurposed spindles from an old knitting mill – on the same living room dinner table. “Well, you’ve got candles on the table,” he said. “Dad, those candlesticks have been sitting on the table in the same spot ever since you moved here a year and a half ago.” He did one of those goofy V-8 commercial forehead slaps and said, “Really, I never noticed them before.” Really, it was nothing at all.

Also last night, while watching TV in my bedroom I heard Dad talking on his phone down in the living room. He was talking to a hotel reservation clerk, about a trip he’s taking a few weeks from now (against my advice), flying to St. Louis and then driving 90 miles to his 60th college reunion in the little town of Rolla, Mo. He’ll be spending the first night in St. Louis before making the drive, spending the next night in Rolla for the reunion dinner, then driving back to St. Louis for a last night before catching the plane back first thing in the morning. The conversation I heard was with the St. Louis hotel, about the two, non-consecutive nights he’d be spending there. After that call, he spoke with his lady-friend in St. Louis, with whom he’ll be having dinner both nights he’s in the Gateway City. A few minutes after he hung up from that call, he called the hotel back and must have gotten the same desk clerk – he wanted to make a reservation for one of the nights he’d already reserved, not 30 minutes earlier. “Oh, I already did that?” I heard him ask. “Yes, I’m fine, I’m alright,” I then heard him respond to the clerk, who was apparently concerned that something might be wrong, but it was really nothing at all.

So, now I’m wondering if all these nothing-at-all’s are, maybe, adding up to something. But, short of some sort of brain scan – if that would even pick anything up – or other kinds of diagnostic testing, there may not be any way to find an answer. My gut tells me there’s something going on, and I’ve learned over time that my gut is often right. However, the thought of what it could be is pretty darned scary, so I guess until I find out something is really wrong, I’ll keep watching for new signs but keep hoping that it’s really nothing at all.