The rest of the story

So, I alluded to there being a “rest of the story” in my last post, so I don’t want to keep all two of my readers hanging.

The rest of the story is that Dad’s fears about taking the trip were not unfounded. After arriving at Liz’s house, Dad fell almost immediately on the one step down into the living room. He simply didn’t see it, missed it, and fell into a wire basket full of magazines. Ben was right there watching him, as he is fascinated by everything Grandpa Bill does, and couldn’t understand why he had fallen or that it was an accident. Dad tore a fingernail and banged up an elbow. Since he takes blood thinners, he bleeds easily, so there was blood and Band Aids were provided. Dad wasn’t hurt badly, but his pride was hurt, and he soon disappeared into the guest room for a long overdue nap. To his credit, he rallied and enjoyed the cocktail hour sitting out on the patio, watching his great-grandsons run around the backyard and talking politics with Liz’s husband, nicknamed “The Emperor Justinian,” whom Dad later declared a “hell of a nice kid.” So, the evening ended well with no further mishaps; everyone slept through the night, except me–I stayed awake worrying about Dad getting up in the middle of the night to smoke outside, which would involve navigating several sets of steps. In the morning, Dad was chomping at the bit to get going for home, which was no surprise. I remember my mother-in-law being that way whenever she would come from Iowa to visit us–drive five hours to get there, spend the night, and be anxious to head home first thing in the morning. At the time I didn’t understand that for the elderly, being away from home can be extremely stressful, and in Dad’s case, dangerous, as it turns out.

We ate a simple breakfast, and Dad went out the front door to sit on the bench and have a smoke before getting in the car. Son-of-a-gun if he didn’t miss the step from the front stoop down to the sidewalk and fall down again. This time he fell on both knees and  onto concrete. More blood, more embarrassment, more ministrations with Band Aids–to the knees this time. Finally, we got Grandpa Bill and his two great-grandsons, Ben and Jamie, situated on the bench on front of the house for a final photo, said our good-byes and hit the road.

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Dad and I didn’t talk much on the way home. He muttered several times about being “a clumsy old fart,” and was clearly disgusted with himself and embarrassed. There wasn’t much I could say to make him feel better, so we were both relieved when I delivered him home in one piece, minus a little skin. The next day he was pretty stiff and sore, but we agreed that it had been a successful trip, and we were both glad we had undertaken it. Again, I felt relieved and that I had helped him fulfill a wish that he had been harboring for a long time.

Now, two months later, I realize that the reason Dad finally agreed to take the trip in July is because his health is failing and he knew it might be his last chance. His feet and ankles are so swollen now that most days that he can hardly get his shoes on, and he shuffles around in his slippers. His balance is terrible, just standing up from his chair makes him huff and puff, and where before he had very little “umph,” now his umph has completely deserted him. I’m worried about how he will make it through the winter in northern Wisconsin all on his own, but I think he’s not at all sure he will even see the winter. As Dad would say, “It’s hell to get old and have the shits besides.” But, he has his affairs in order, and he’s adamant about how he wants my sibs and me to continue to see to Mom’s care and not fight over their stuff. Even though he has always said that if he couldn’t take it with him, he wasn’t going, we do our best to assure him that we will do that for him.

Small joys

Two evenings ago Dad and I experienced an unexpected interlude of quiet joy after what had been a harrowing day. He had found Mom early that morning unconscious and naked at the end of a trail of blood and excrement that led from her bed to the bathroom floor. After calling the ambulance, Dad had called me in a state of extreme agitation and worry. He was afraid she would die, and he had no idea how on earth to clean up the mess. The ambulance came and took Mom to the hospital where they revived her with lots of fluids and blood products. Turns out she had an upper GI bleed due to taking blood thinners for the past couple of months to prevent the formation of more blood clots in her leg and lungs. By the time I saw her in the hospital shortly after noon, she was alert and comfortable, and completely unaware of what had transpired, where she was or why she was there. In the end, I do not think that is a blessing. It would be much better for someone to understand why she can’t pull out the IVs or just toddle on over to the bathroom. Watching her lie there and have to defecate in the bed despite her strong desire not to do so was heart-breaking. The doctor, a lovely young man that looked like he had just graduated from the eighth grade, but who spoke authoritatively and clearly about Mom’s condition, explained that she was very ill and he enumerated a long list of her problems, some of which were news to us. It sounded dire. After listening to Dad goddamn medicine and the doctor that had put Mom on blood thinners, and explaining to him once again about the blood clots, my brother, Dad and I started talking about options like palliative care, comfort care and hospice for the first time. It was premature to make any decision in that regard, but we all left with heavy hearts and a lot to think about. We had to give Mom a day or two to see how she responded to conservative treatment and bedrest. We did agree there should not be any heroic efforts made to save her if she took a turn for the worse.

Dad and I drove back to his house, poured ourselves a drink, talked things over some more, spinning our wheels round and round. His eternal optimism would bubble up to the surface from time to time, and he would talk about bringing Mom home and things returning to “normal.” I would gently try to encourage him to accept that her quality of life is poor already, and if she didn’t recover well from this incident, the kindest thing we could do for her is to let her go as peacefully and as comfortably as possible. He’s not quite ready to accept that, except as an abstract theory.

We took ourselves to the local tavern for supper, where our entrance was greeted with warm handshakes and inquiries from a couple of guys at the bar as to the state of Dad’s collar bone. One of the guys had been at the dump the day Dad fell and had helped him to his feet and packed him off to home in his car, or as Dad put it, “picked his sorry ass up off the ground.” I was introduced to the dump guy, greeted equally warmly, and Dad and I settled at the other end of the bar to order. Our drinks came, courtesy of the dump guy, and we ordered our food. Pretty soon we heard soft singing coming from the other end of the bar, and it sounded really good. Dad chuckled, and jerked his head toward the other guys. “Ah, they’re singing, just like the old days. That’s nice.” I said they sounded pretty good, and Dad said, “Oh, yeah, those Kentucks got a lot of music in ’em.” So, these were some of the “Kentucks” I had been hearing about my whole life–moonshiners from Appalachia that had moved to northern Wisconsin during Prohibition. According to Dad, you can still find old stills out in the woods. They finished their song, and I heard someone say, “You know who has the best voice around is Doc here.” Dad didn’t hear that, but I nudged him and told him. He just laughed. “Hey, Doc, you should sing a song.” I thought he would demur, but before I knew it, Dad had gotten up from his bar stool and was walking over to them. I jumped up to join him as I heard him start to sing an old Jimmy Driftwood tune that I knew from my childhood. Dad was always playing Burl Ives’ and Jimmy Driftwood’s folk songs on the stereo, in addition to lots of classical music, Barbra Streisand, and Della Reese. You can listen to the original recording of the song “Fi Di Diddle Um A-Dazey” here if you’re interested:

I was amazed that Dad remembered most of the verses. He does have a beautiful baritone voice, and always liked to sing to us kids. When we finished our ditty, the other guys clapped and told us it was fine. They reminisced about the old days for a few minutes, told my dad why they had always liked him, and I finally made the connection about who the second guy was. I had been hearing his name my whole life, but had never met him. He now plows and spreads sand on Dad’s driveway so he can get up the little rise at the end. He assured me he considers my dad “kin” and would never let him get stranded. I thanked him, shook his big rough hand, and Dad and I went back to our stools.

Every now and then I get a glimpse into my dad’s world and the reason he finds living where he does so desirable.  There’s something about singing a silly, happy song amongst sympathetic folks that makes life’s tribulations rest a little lighter on your shoulders.