Approaching the not-so golden years

Well, I see that five people have viewed my blog today already, perhaps thinking I might post something on my birthday, and I thank those five loyal people, whoever you are, first, for giving me the benefit of the doubt, and secondly, for inspiring me to actually post something.

It is my birthday, and I am spending it in Colorado in the company of my son and his family, which includes a new grandchild, Timothy, only two-and-a-half weeks old and his big brother, two-year-old Willie. They are handsome, healthy, active little sleep-bandits, and I am delighted to be spending my birthday with them and their parents, sleep deprivation or no. Nothing beats the unrestrained hugs and kisses of a two-year-old, the foot races down the sidewalk, or nosing a newborn’s soft head and watching him surrender to sleep in your arms. These are the experiences whose remembrance I hope will sweeten my “golden” years, a subject that is often on my mind these days, especially after I have visited my parents. Because, frankly, based on my observations of them, the golden years appear to suck big-time.

Dad has yet to come to terms emotionally with the fact that Mom can’t live at home with him, let alone cook his meals, do his laundry and be the foil for his acerbic wit. This has made him even more morose and negative than usual. And, as he has always said about his own mother, “you can tell her [him] from a mile away, but you can’t tell her [him] much.” Every time I see my dad he tells me how much it breaks his heart when he visits Mom at the assisted-living home and sees that she can’t carry on a conversation or understand much of what he tells her. (“Poor Mom, she’s just kind of out in space. I told her about her brother dying, but that just bounced off of her.  It just tears me up. But, what are you going to do? At least she’s comfortable.”) She has been there for 15 months now, and she has dementia (a word Dad can hardly bring himself to pronounce). What does he expect? I gently suggest that accepting her reality and trying to meet her there could make it less painful for him. Yet, he continues to try to interact with her the way he always has and ask her to respond to questions that involve remembering (how she slept, what she ate, etc.) He also tells me how depressing the place is (it is quite cheery, actually) and how much he admires the ladies that work there (“that’s tough duty; I couldn’t do it–it would drive me nuts”). I point out that Mom is doing well there, she’s well taken care of, she’s content–that’s all we can hope for at this point. He agrees, and then tells me again how awful it makes him feel. He’s a broken record, and the needle has worn a groove so deep it can’t be jolted out. I’m afraid the only fix will come when the record player winds down completely, and he seems to be readying himself for that moment, if not courting it.

“There are worse things than dying,” Dad told my mom’s doctor the other day, after she suggested we might want to start getting Hospice involved with my mom’s care. Not sure if he was referring to his own agony, Mom’s impaired state, both, or the recent sad demise of friends and family members. Living long enough to witness the decline of and bury the people you love is certainly one of the least appealing aspects of aging.

On the other hand, my dad does take delight in his great-grandchildren and relishes receiving news and photos of them, although visits are few and far between, and he’s never even met the Colorado kids. My mom responds almost lucidly and coherently to photos of “those very cute little kids,” but has no idea who they are or who they belong to. Seeing their photos and hearing me talk about them (as if she understood) seems to relax her and release natural and appropriate verbal responses in her. I’m not at all sure she even knows who I am anymore (another notion that sends my dad into the depths of sadness and denial whenever I honestly answer his post-visit inquiry, “But, she knew who you were, didn’t she?”). But, she likes me, and happily rode in my car to her doctor’s appointment, chatting nonsensically the whole way. When I told her my name is Lynn, she perked up as if that name actually rang a bell somewhere in the recesses of her fractured memory. I take solace in that glimmer of recognition, while for Dad it’s just another reason to despair.

So, on my birthday, I’m thankful to turn 61 instead of 84 or 85 (Dad and Mom’s next respective birthdays) and still be able to cope with life’s vicissitudes fairly well and thoroughly enjoy its gifts in the form of dear friends, healthy grandchildren, loving and successful children, siblings that are also my best friends, a spouse that is still the love of my life and my rock, and (knock on wood) my own good health. The so-called golden years can take their sweet time, thank you very much.

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.