A couple of weeks ago the whole family went to Winnipeg for my niece's wedding. It was a lovely event, held under a rainbow Pride Flag at her parents' cottage on Lake Winnipeg.
At one point, I broke away from the crowd on the lawn and was just standing on the gravel road, batting at mosquitoes and having a drink. Along came a guy walking a chihuahua on a leash (never fails to amuse me, that), and he nodded politely. "Big wedding, huh?"
"Yeah," I said. "Should be going for a while."
"Yesterday I was down to the General Store and I met the mother of the bride," said the fellow.
"Which one?" I asked.
"What ... there's two weddings?"
"Uhh ... no."
A beat. Two beats. Then: "Ohhhhh."
Really, we'd only expected to see my Dad. About six weeks ago, a room had come free at the local assisted care facility, and my sister finally convinced Dad that Mom needed more help and supervision than the two of them could give her. Everybody - my Dad, my sister, the rest of the siblings - knew that there would be a period of adjustment, but that in the end, it was much safer and better for all concerned.
(A few words about my sister, Andrea: at one point in her life she had built a terrific career in real estate, but when her marriage disintegrated and with her kids grown, she opted for a full life change. She moved from Winnipeg to the tiny community of Gimli, bought a condo a few doors down from Mom and Dad, and as they've grown older and more infirm, she's taken an increasingly active role in their lives.
Andrea and I grew up almost as twins. She was 15 months younger than I, and the two of us were "the little kids" in a family of six children, set apart from the other four by a gap of three years. At my parents' 50th Anniversary party, the whole family was together and we all decided we wanted to go out somewhere for drinks. One of my older sisters saw a problem with logistics, so suggested we split up into two vehicles.
"The four of us can go in our car, and the little kids can go in Andy's car."
We were in our forties at the time.
Andrea has stepped up to the plate for my parents when the rest of us either couldn't or wouldn't. When Mom started to go into her fog, it was Andrea who would walk down in the morning, take her into the bathroom, and wrestle her into the shower. She would see that my Mom was clean and well dressed, would make sure that Mom was getting fed and the meds were being taken. She would sometimes butt heads with my Dad, and I'm not sure he always understood and appreciated what she was doing for Mom and for him and for the rest of us.
But I sure did.
Along the way, she discovered something that she did well and enjoyed doing. She now works in home care, visiting elderly people and doing for them and their families what she did for us. It's a job I sure couldn't do, but she enjoys it and it gives her time to golf and enjoy life and you may have to have an elderly parent or grandparent to understand that she's doing some of the most important work there is.)
Anyway, Andrea guessed that Dad was visiting Mom in the Betel Home where she lives, so we all hopped back in the cars and drove over. We met Dad at the front door of the home, coming out.
There were hugs all around, introductions to his future grandson-in-law, a re-introduction to his great grandson. But Dad can't stand around for long, so I helped him to the car as the rest of the family went in to see Mom. I leaned into the car as he was doing up his seat belt.
"We'll go up and see Mom for a bit, but I know she can't deal with much more than a short visit. Then we'll come back to your place and have a longer visit with you."
"Sounds good," said Dad. I closed the door for him and watched him drive off.
Alzheimer's is an odd disease in some ways. Its effects aren't predictable - Mom remembered me (although she had trouble with my name), but it was hard to tell who else she recognized. She delighted in Owen, but we're going to have to take it on faith that she knew he was her great- grandson and not just some random baby thrust into her arms.
She's forgotten that she smokes. She's forgotten that for the past ten years, most of her days were spent sitting in a chair, trying to read with failing eyesight or watching whatever was on TV because she didn't know how to work the remote or shut it off. In the home, instead of sitting around in her room (a nice enough room - somewhat austere and unadorned, but I'm told that's because Mom is concerned about getting her stuff stolen, so she carefully hides everything in her drawers. An irony, as you will soon see.), she will walk the halls of the home for hours on end, often in the wake of a younger man named Terry.
Terry seems nice enough, but within seconds you see that he's in the grip of the same misty innerspace that envelopes Mom. The two of them walk. And walk. And walk. Sometimes another patient (client? resident?) joins them - the three of them are the only ambulatory folks on their floor.
Which, according to the nurses, has caused a teensy problem. See, to Mom, this is now her home. And my mom's home is her castle. She owns it all. So if she comes across a pen, she'll pick it up. If she walks past an open door, she'll go in and look around, and if anything is left out, she will yoink it up and take it back to her room where it belongs.
According to the nurses, some of the other residents don't completely see eye to eye with Mom when it comes to her walking into their room with her two pals and purloining their stuff.
The nurses, who are delightful, simply go in at the end of the day, recover the stash from Mom's drawer, and return it to its rightful owners. But it must get exasperating, trying to keep tabs on three wandering kleptomaniacs.
That's right. My Mom is a gang leader.
We waited for a while, but Owen was getting fussy and after a day that started at 6AM, two plane rides, an hour in the car, a visit to the home, and all the accompanying excitement, it was clear he was at the limits of what you could expect from a nine month old baby. We turned to Andrea.
She shrugged. "I'm guessing he went to the hotel to play the video slots for a while," she said simply. It was matter-of-fact to her. She has lived with this for years. "He may be home in a while, or maybe he'll be longer. He does what he does on his own time."
Reluctantly - but what else could they do? - the kids left with the baby.
I stayed for a bit with my wife.
We hopped into the car and went down to the hotel, and into the bar where the video machines are.
We got back into the car.
"What are you going to do?" asked my wife. We can't just ... leave. Chances are ... I mean ..."
She didn't have to finish the thought. I knew that I would never see Dad again.
And that's when I thought of Dave Barry.
Dave Barry is one of my favourite writers. For years, his columns have been a model for me, something to aspire to. But of all his wonderfully funny columns, one has always stood out.
I'm going to reprint it here, without permission of any kind. I can't imagine he'd object - it's not like a quick Google search wouldn't turn up this column in milliseconds, in dozens of places around the Internet.
It's called A Million Words, and it captures exactly what I was feeling.
It was time to go have my last words with my father. He was dying, in the bedroom he built. He built our whole house, even dug the foundation himself, with a diaper tied around his head to keep the sweat out of his eyes. He was always working on the house, more than 35 years, and he never did finish it. He was first to admit that he really didn’t know how to build a house.
When I went in to see him, he was lying in the bedroom, listening to “The People’s Court.” I remember when he always would be on those Sunday-morning television talk shows, back in the fifties and sixties. Dr. Barry, they called him. He was a Presbyterian minister, and he worked in inner-city New York. They were always asking him to be on those shows to talk about Harlem and the South Bronx, because back then he was the only white man they could find who seemed to know anything about it. I remember when he was quotation of the day in the New York Times. The Rev. Dr. David W. Barry.
His friends called him Dave. “Is Dave there?” they’d ask, when they called to talk about their husbands or wives or sons or daughters who were acting crazy or drinking too much or running away. Or had died. “Dave,” they’d ask, “what can I do?” They never thought to call anybody but him. He’d sit there and listen, for hours, sometimes. He was always smoking.
The doctor told us he was dying, but we knew anyway. Almost all he said anymore was thank you, when somebody brought him shaved ice, which was mainly what he wanted, at the end. He had stopped putting his dentures in. He had stopped wearing his glasses. I remember when he yanked his glasses off and jumped into the Heymans’ pool to save me.
So I go in for my last words, because I have to go back home, and my mother and I agree I probably won’t see him again. I sit next to him on the bed, hoping he can’t see that I’m crying. “I love you, Dad,” I say. He says “I love you, too. I’d like some oatmeal.”
So I go back out to the living room, where my mother and my wife and my son are sitting on the sofa, in a line, waiting for the outcome and I say, “He wants some oatmeal.” I am laughing and crying about this. My mother thinks maybe I should go back in and try to have a more meaningful last talk, but I don’t.
Driving home, I’m glad I didn’t. I think: He and I have been talking ever since I learned how. A million words. All of them final, now. I don’t need to make him give me any more, like souvenirs. I think: Let me not define his death on my terms. Let him have his oatmeal. I can hardly see the road.© Dave Barry
We went back to my Dad's place.
Dad was in front of his house, sitting in his car, staring into space, having a cigarette. He does that, I guess.
Dad sits a lot in thought. I remember him as a man of action. I can still see him walking to work at the Air Force base (Dad was an instructor for jet pilots), strong, powerful, that military bearing you never quite lose.
I remember him teaching me how to golf. I'd hit the ball and slump along like a ... well, a teenager. "Come on," he would say. "For God's sake, walk with purpose!"
Dad walked everywhere with purpose.
Now, his body ravaged by a stroke, lung cancer, and age, Dad doesn't walk anywhere with purpose. He totters and shuffles - that old man walk where no step is longer than 6 inches. As he walks, he wheezes and gasps for air.
Dad is bent by age and by the mileage on his body. But he's also bent by the emotional toll that is exacted when someone you have lived with for six decades is taken away.
Mom and Dad got engaged after having known each other less than eight hours. In my entire life, I only knew them to be apart for six months - and that, unwillingly. Mom spent half a year in the hospital for tuberculosis when I was ... I don't know, five years old? That time aside, they were forever joined at the hip.
In my mind's eye, I cannot see my Dad without my Mom. And the thing is ... I don't think he can, either. And it's quite literally killing him.
I went over and tapped on the window of his car.
"Where were you?" I said. "We were going to meet you back here. The kids had to head back into the city."
He shrugged. "I went for a little gamble." That was it. No other explanation necessary, as far as he could see.
I helped him out of the car and into the house. We stood in his living room and talked a bit. I honestly can't remember if anything of substance was said. So - probably not, huh?
I hugged him, and told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me.
And we left.
My sister Barb found Dad last week on the floor of his bathroom. He thought he was in bed. He was taken to hospital - weak and confused. Tests showed he'd had some sort of "heart incident", and possibly a stroke. He's been in bed ever since.
The nurses say he'll probably never go home again. The process of working through the waiting list at some extended care facility - hopefully the same one as my Mom, but no guarantees - has begun. Andrea's keeping me posted.
Now and again, the thought of going back crosses my mind. But there's really not much to do. No idea how long things will stay the way they are.
I don't need more time with my Dad. I have no unresolved issues with him. We were friendly in the last 30 years of his life. We golfed together. Sat and talked. I drank with him and smoked with him and sat and listened as he patiently explained how the world was supposed to work if only they'd put him in charge.
I wish my girls had known him better when he was himself. They were too young to remember how vital and strong and smart and funny and mischievous he could be, how he filled a room just by walking into it.
They've seen parts of that in me, I guess. It'll have to do.
They can take my word on the rest.