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Sunday, April 26, 2015

This Journey With Dad

Dad never wanted to grow old enough to "become a burden", and by that I think he meant  a few things.  He wanted to remain independent, mobile, mentally sharp, able to manage his own body, finances, yard work, and decisions.  And until past the age of ninety, my dad did just that.  He defied his family history of illness and poverty by becoming a successful farmer who barely so much as caught a cold.  My dad, with only a grade six education, served on many boards, gave huge amounts of himself to the church and community, and raised eight children who all had the opportunity to further their educations, should they so choose.  My dad lived to be an old man, in his own home, cutting his own grass, and managing his own affairs.

I never knew how much these things meant to my dad until the very thing he never wanted to happen began to happen.  My dad's brain started to slip a few cogs.

And then my normally very quiet father began to repeat himself.  He said the same things over and over so many times that all the muscles in my body from baby toe to furrowed brown tensed in sheer boredom and frustration.

The story of him being a sickly child, sharing his home with his grandfather who considered my dad his favourite.  Great grandfather would hold my dad on his knee and say-  "Abey, Abey.  What will ever become of you.  You'll never make a farmer.  Perhaps a fiddle player".

I'm not kidding when I tell you now that I've heard this story so many times that I want to break out into angry, resentful, guilt-fueled hives each and every time I sense that dad is about to offer it to me again as though it were the first time the tale had been told.

But dad came from a line of sick people.  His dad wasn't well and died as a poor farmer just into his fifties.  My dad grew up with the impression that once you get married and begin to procreate, you heap upon yourself and your loved ones pain and agony in the forms of inescapable illness and poverty.

So when his eyes light up and he begins anew... "I was a sickly child"...  I have some idea of the depth of his tale.  He beat the odds.  His grandfather's gravestone sits on the very land that my father farmed up to the day he sold the farm and moved to town.  Every fall, dad would navigate his massive machinery around the prairie gravesite and imagine his grandpa sit up tall in that grave to behold tiny Abey armed with not a fiddle, but a ginormous New Holland combine.  And my dad's grin matches the sense of accomplishment he must have felt.

Although I know and appreciate this as my dad's story and part of his legacy, this painful dance of loving and sitting with my elderly father still finds me as a  horribly flawed, irritable human being.

I understand that my dad never had the opportunities for learning that my children now have.  And that its his one regret in life to have never "finished" a formal education.  But it truly doesn't stop my rage when he asks me more than a zillion times what my oldest daughter (I can't remember her name, he says) is doing?  What are her goals?  Is she taking university courses?  What is her ultimate goal?  I don't act out my anger by throwing plates or walkers or dentures.  I manage to suppress my rage.  And it troubles me that although I know he can't help it, and that he asks as a reflection of his own hopes and dreams, I just really want him to stop asking.

None of this is storybook, but it is my truth.

There's just enough self-awareness in me to know that his preoccupation with education hits my nerve of never having finished my own degree, and of never having a true sense of direction for my calling in this life.  It feels like an accusation.  Even though I know its not.

My dad is a good man.  A kind man.  A man with a heap of integrity.  It feels awful to be mad at him for being repetitive.  It feels selfish and unkind.

During the three months that dad has spent in hospital, his body has become stronger.  Sometimes he scoffs at the offer of his walker, as though we were being ridiculous to offer him something a weak person might need.  He doesn't remember that for the five weeks of his hospitalization, he couldn't walk, or even sit up unaided.  Often he is incredulous that he's in hospital at all, and even more so when we explain it has been three months already.  Sometimes he gets angry when we knock on the bathroom door to check if he's all right.  He doesn't remember all the times I have walked in with him and stayed.  Sometimes he gets mad at me when I ask him repeatedly not to take his shoes off before he has gotten into bed because I don't want him to fall because of the slippery TED stockings he wears on his legs now.  He thinks I'm being ridiculous- that  I don't know what I'm talking about.

Sometimes I just have to leave the room.

My dad is a good and kind man.  Its soul crushing to find myself so short on patience at times.  His processing and reasoning no longer work at capacity, and although I know this, he's my dad and it's hard for me to tell him what to do, and its even harder when he balks at reason and safety.  My dad wasn't one to yell or say things in anger, unless he was loading pigs for market.  That's a whole other story.

So when I remind him about his dentures, and he yells at me, I want to yell too.

So this seems like the perfect time to talk about my family, of which I am the eighth, and last born.

I am part of an amazing family.  Where elderly parents and the care they require is more than enough to splinter many families, mine has become closer.  Every day we group text, deciding who will care for dad, and mom, and when.  When one of us is reduced to tears and emptiness, someone else will be strong in that very moment.   Or we will all be sad in the safety of each other's comfort.   There's always someone to say; "Me too".  "I know".  "It's ok."

Everyone brings another skill set to the table.  We all have distinct personalities, different things that we love and hate, and a variety of comfort zones.

My sisters love puzzles and games.  I would rather impale myself with plastic hospital forks.  My brother is administrative and weekly designs a well balanced schedule of hospital visits.  He takes my dad for car rides and even to Tim Hortons to see his OLD pals.

My mom shares her journey with us.  She sits with my dad endlessly, playing Skip-Bo when he is able, reading to him from My Daily Bread, trimming his hair, brushing his dentures, teasing him about how long they've been married when he's not sure she's his wife and not his sister.

It's not all sunshine and roses for her either.

But my mama sets her example, as she always has.  She's deeply appreciative of her children's time and attention, never taking anyone's time for granted.  She explains and reexplains to dad about where he is and why.  And when dad starts telling "Abey, Abey" again, mom gently kicks my ankle and we share a look.  Most of the time, my mom is optimistic and resilient.  She adapted quickly to living in the house alone, still baking her own bread, caring for the yard, her plants, the house, and the car.  I think its the first time ever in her life that she has lived alone.  Not bad for eighty-eight.  She still takes time to exercise every day.  Her stubborn pride prevents her from using a walker within sight of the neighbours, so she has taken to doing laps around the dining room table.  She always makes me laugh.

Sometimes, though,  the last place on earth I want to be is in room 101.  Sometimes mom's breath smells like fish, and dad wants to buy a new lawnmower and start volunteering again.  Of dad's two roommates, one is breathing heavy and smells awful and the other is talking endlessly on the phone about his bowel movements, open sores, and how much weight he lost on weight watchers eating raw carrots.  I'm chewing my cuticles to bloody stumps, worrying about my children, and sick to death of sitting in a cramped hospital room.  I miss empty time.  Time to think, to write, to stare off into space without being eaten up by guilt or worry.

Here's what I'm learning:
Love isn't necessarily pretty, and it certainly isn't comfortable.  Human love is terribly flawed, inadequate, and complicated.

Show up anyway.

Look after yourself and the people you care about so that you don't go completely bat shit crazy and actually have nothing left to give except rage and irritability.  This is soooo much easier said than done.  I have to work full-time.  It's my commitment.  There are no sick days, no vacation pay, and no spares in my career.  That's all I'm going to say about that.

I am, and continue to be the mother to four and the wife to one.  (Only one.  weird, right?)
Fortunately, my children aren't small any more.  But still I am their mother.
Fortunate too that Brian and I are both introverts.  We both don't need fifteen hours of conversation at the end of the day.  And because Brian is a home body, there's almost always someone here for whatever offspring happen to be around.

And this again is where I can give a huge shout out to my brothers and sisters, who will double up when they are feeling balanced so that one of us can take a little time to stare into space.  Who don't bother trying to guilt anyone about their time and energy.  Who have so much insider knowledge on the importance of pursuing mental health, that we should likely be a poster family at a psych clinic somewhere on the outskirts of crazy town.

Life as a human sucks lemon balls sometimes.  Inadequacy is real, people.  Many days I don't even like myself a little.  I want to be a deep, clear pool of love and compassion and life-defying patience but more often feel like Kathy Bateman  in "Misery".

So, sometimes the answer becomes-  "Don't Show Up Anyway".
Don't show up to some of the stuff you actually would like to but know will require energy.  Just don't.  It's ok, the world will continue to spin.  

Or sometimes-  "Show up all ugly and honest".  Apologize if you need to.
(Sorry mom.  I'm having a sad day.  Crying about all the things.  Worried about the kids.  Sick of the smell of fish and poop.  I love you, I love dad, and I'm grumpy.  Sorry.)

For the love of Pete, try to be nice to yourself too.  (I've got very close to nothing here.  I'm just barely trying to learn).  One of the unbelievable things that is true about these past three months, is that I decided early on that exercise was something I shouldn't let slide.  So I state my hospital availability around my twice weekly gym appointments.  Twice weekly might not sound like much, but after a ten hour workday with twelve hours of housework attached to it, hauling my impressive butt to the gym from 6-7 twice a week is actually kind of a big deal.  And a commitment.

It hasn't been easy.  Most of the time, I'm really glad I went.  My blood is pumping, my muscles feel taut, my laugher got exercised, and I got the heck out of the house to a place that wasn't Bethesda Hospital.  Sometimes I hate it.  Sometimes I feel like the Biggest Loser in the world, and not in the celebrity sense.  More like the girl with four left feet kind of way.  I know that its because my tank is low and demands are stretching my idealisms to ugly little scrappy bits.  

So its a case of show up anyway.  My gym people are amazing.  So kind and real and funny.  And STRONG!  Good grief, so strong.

This journey with dad isn't over.
When people ask-  "How's your dad?", I hear myself sigh and say- he's getting stronger.

And then get hit with a floodgate of soul crushing guilt.  

I love my dad.  I'll miss him when he's gone. I want to spend every minute of every time I've driven to Steinbach to sit in that cramped and smelly room.  It's exactly what I want to do.  I'll never regret it.

Life is more full of contradictory truths than I'd fully appreciated.

This is exactly what my dad never wanted.  And so we never wanted it for him either.  But there's been some sweetness in dad's life shifting this way- the smell of his bald head when I kiss it good night.  The kisses between my stoic and excessively private parents when mom goes home to bed.  The pleasure I find in rubbing lemon oil into dad's calves, massaging the bump where his leg broke in 1965.  Arranging the pillows under his head until they are just so.  Lacing up his shoes, stirring cream into his coffee, helping him find his glasses.

Maybe you've gone through this already, and you know all these things.
Maybe your dad died young and you never had the chance.
Maybe your family hates each other.

I have to believe its ok, somehow.
These are our stories, and they are sacred.
Beautiful, ugly, precious, boring, profound.

Sacred.  This journey with dad.


Brenda Sawatzky said...

Why is it that, as parents grow old, their early childhood memories come flooding back like they happened yesterday. My dad used to have recurring, astoundingly vivid dreams in his later years of things that happened in his childhood (mostly bad things). But my dad was a story teller too. Stories we'd heard a million or more times. It makes me think of the native Indian tribes where the seniors would share their legends with the young, regaling them time and again. They had to. Those children needed to remember the details of those legends without ever writing them down, so that they could tell their children. And that was how a legend carried from one generation to another. I think that's kind of what are parents are doing before they die. Keeping the memory of themselves alive through us by repeating stories.
Take care, Joyce. Don't be afraid to "check out" for a while and do what's most important. Your kids are taking mental notes about respect and treatment of our aging. They understand. Everything else can wait. You only have one dad.

Susan Humeston said...

My incredibly handsome and wonderful father became ill in 2005 with neuropathy and dementia. He had been a teacher, golfer, reader, lawn mowing man, avid walker, athletic, smart, kind, loving and irascible all his life. He too dreaded old age - don't we all? When it began to hit him and he realized what was happening, he tried at first to force himself to walk - which just made him hit the floor. Later he'd repeat, "I don't understand why this is happening to me" because he had exercised all his life and watched what he ate - and was always healthy and vigorous. Then he began to get wet macular degeneration in one eye. It was all falling apart. This went on progressively until 2012 when he passed away in October. During those 7 years my mother cared for him like a child, a man much bigger and taller than herself, until he could no longer stand on his own. Then he had to go into a home. He hated it, but the people loved him there because he couldn't help but be himself - making jokes, flirting with the nurses, being funny and self deprecating. To this day I think about the last Christmas he had with us. A car brought him to his old house where my mother still lived. He was dropped off and picked up later at night on the same day by a van with a wheelchair lift. He was deposited in his wheelchair for the day and that was how he stayed because none of us could lift his dead weight. He didn't talk much at all anymore - certainly not full sentences. He couldn't form them. He opened a few presents, one of which was a painting my sister did of his childhood home - we could tell by the way he looked at it that he had no clue what he was looking at, but he smiled anyway. Habits of good behavior last long after we can reason why. Later that night while my mother and I cleaned up the dishes, my father waited in the living room in his wheelchair, the front door open (we live in Florida) so we could see through the screen when the van came. I peeked in on him and saw him rhythmically beating his thigh with his balled up fist as if to punish himself for being alive in this limited way; to vent his frustration that he couldn't verbalize and could do nothing to change. It broke my heart and still does.

You are doing things that some day you will be SO glad you did. Taking care of and watching one's parent degenerate and die is like torture that goes on and on. I know. My heart goes out to you and the incredible thing you are doing by just continuing to plug on.

Anonymous said...

Good words Joyce. I have been down the path and did not always walk it graciously. I always hated it when perfectly healthy people who were 60+ would ask about my dad. I always felt like they were silently saying "thank goodness I am not Henry"-my rational brain understood their concern, but my emotional brain was sdreaming of the unfairness of it all. Wishing you peace, strength, and continuing patience and love.
Carolyn "haven't seen you in superstore" Kornelsen

Brenda said...

So good. So true.

janice said...

Joyce, I wish you well in this journey. I can share some of your sentiments, having survived the painful cruelly slow demise of my parents. There were 5 of us to share this.

I can only hope that my single child will not have to go through this with me.

Judy said...

Beautiful, beautiful Joyce.