Dad loathes his walker. His walker is a royal blue, heavy-duty model, quite nice looking, I think. I kept it for weeks in the back of the faithful Suburban, then moved it to a corner of the garage, and finally retired it to the basement. Dad simply refuses to use it, and scowls at even a hint of a suggestion that he ought to use it. Hatred is not too strong a word for his feelings for that walker. On the other hand, Dad loves his garden tools, of which he has dozens of all shapes and varieties. I have tried to cast his walker as simply another tool for him to use for specific tasks, when only that tool will do. He was not persuaded. And I have not pressed the point. I think he feels embarrassed that even the simple act of walking is almost too hard for him, when he once ran marathons (yes, the 26.2-mile kind, 13 of them). He did remark to me recently, “I know a wheelchair is in my not-too-distant future, Rog.” I thought admitting that eventuality was remarkably brave of him. I hope before then the dreaded walker will become his fast and long-term friend.
“I don’t want you to pamper me!” Dad barked. I thought I was just being courteous, delivering his dinner, carting off his dirty dishes. “I can do it myself.” Watching him do it himself is painful for me because it is painful for him. The effort to do the simplest things is enormous and exhausting. But I respect his desire to not want paternalistic pampering. I respect that he does not want to feel old and feeble, that he does want to feel strong and capable, despite knowing that “I’m going downhill fast, Rog.” My opportunity is to affirm him discreetly, to help him with subtlety, to step quietly in without implying my help is needed. So, when Dad is ready for seconds, I get up from the dinner table for an ice cube or the salt, and say with nonchalance, “I’m already up, so can I bring you something?”
When I awoke from foot surgery—removing neuromas in both feet, again—I heard a pump and felt a squeeze, first on one calf and then the other. Unbeknownst to me, the surgical center staff had strapped me in leg squeezers (aka air compression leg massagers), to assist blood circulation and minimize the risk of blood clots. I was surprised at the need for leg massagers, because the operation lasted only 45 minutes, and people sleep much longer every day without anything squeezing their legs. When Dad’s feet started to swell, I thought maybe my leg squeezers might help his circulation as he sits reading in his chair until 3:00 or so in the morning. But having one more thing to strap on to one’s hard-to-reach extremities and to keep track of and to not trip over is a hassle. When he permits, I strap on the compressors and push the blue start buttons, setting the devices to inflating and squeezing and deflating and starting again. He often straps them on without my aid, and says the leg squeezers help.
“Mom,” I whispered to the cute lady napping in the plush recliner. Would you like to come get the mail with me?” “Sure,” she nodded groggily, such a good sport. We small-stepped arm-in-arm out the front door, past the pumpkins and mums, and toward the brick mailbox. Almost there, I suggested, “What do you say we first walk to the corner?” She would rather have not, but came along without protest. At the corner, I ventured, “Should we walk to the next corner, or turn around?” We had done what we both knew was helpful and enough, so we turned around, my arm crooked to fit hers, and tottered together to get the Church News, the bills, and the junk mail. Having exercised, we were ready for a French soup of pureed potatoes, carrots, and onions, mixed with chopped spinach and mushrooms sautéed in butter and salt, enriched with heavy cream, rosemary, salt, pepper, and a bit more butter. Très délicieux!
During gym class, playing volleyball—that’s when it happened. My heart started to flutter and I became weak and light-headed. Sitting on the sidelines with my fingers pressed to my jugular, I managed to count 300 beats in a minute. Then it stopped, and I was fine. I was 17. My doctor trained me to stop the runaway heart-beat using vagal maneuvers, bearing down while holding my breath. Normally, lying on my back was all it took to slow the beat. Fully 40 years later, the vagals would not work, and my friend took me to the emergency room after two hours at 180 bpm. My cardiologist explained SVT—supraventricular tachycardia—a condition in which the electric circuitry of the heart becomes confused momentarily and takes an unintended and incorrect short cut, sending the heart racing. He thought low-dose Metoprolol would do the trick, and it did.
The roofing inspector had come to examine the 25-year-old shingles, and Mom watched from the back yard, seated on the rock wall. She began to feel funny in her eyes and head, stood up, became dizzy, and collapsed. The mortified inspector helped Mom to a chair. Her lip had glanced on a rock and was swollen and red. A brain MRI showed no stroke, no tumor, no inflammation, nothing but a very healthy brain. But the halter heart monitor revealed repeated episodes of rapid heart rate. Mom’s doctor, a neighbor, called me to explain the test results, the textbook symptoms, and the treatment. Knowing all about SVT, I jumped in to inform him of my condition and treatment. We chuckled in astonishment and excitement at the genetic coincidence. “Looks we know now where you got it from,” he said, amused. Chuckling felt appropriate, because Mom’s condition is not a heart defect, just a minor electrical short, and easily treatable, and because after four weeks of tests and consultations and worry, we both felt so relieved to have the answer, and such a positive one. Mom took her first dose tonight, and is already back on the stationary bicycle, albeit slowly and carefully, her fear ebbing, on her way to renewed strength.
Dad rode off on his mower as I began my gut-tightening planks. (Thank you, planks.) At rep 5, I heard a muffled clang and noticed the lawn mower engine was not running. Outside the window sat the mower without its rider. I knew instantly what had happened. Bounding out the back door, I found Dad on the ground, one leg and half his pelvis in the six-foot-deep window well, where the welded-rebar cover had collapsed from under him. He could not move, despite body-shaking effort. All he could clutch was bark chips, which had shredded his forearms. This notorious window had previously swallowed my sister Sarah and her three-year-old son Gabe (see my story Angel Gabriel). An extrication procedure quickly became apparent. 1) Grab sweat pants behind hamstring and pull, lifting leg and shifting pelvis out of window well. 2) Grab sweat pants behind hamstrings and haul straight legs into kneeling position. 3) Embrace back and chest, and hoist body to hands and knees. 4) Grip under armpits and pull to a standing position. Thank God it worked. The nearest seat was the lawn mower, which Dad shakily resumed, turning the ignition key. “Do you promise me you are safe to ride?” I yelled above the roar, careful not to further bruise his already battered pride. He nodded and sped off. It occurred to me then: this story had a multitude of bad endings, and only one good ending. Mom’s first fall taught me never to minimize a noise or an impression. As a result of learning that lesson, I was at Dad’s side in seconds—but only because I was home early from work and was exercising in the only part of the house from which I could have heard the well cover collapse. How grateful I felt for circumstances to have aligned in such a way to allow my presence and awareness. I would never debase the occurrence with the words coincidence or luck. Miracle will do nicely, thank you.
I am wallowing in self-reproach. Mom fell in the shower. She does not remember falling. She remembers only waking up on the floor, the water sprinkling down on her, the door flung open. And I did not know. And Dad did not know. I asked her at breakfast about the scratch on the bridge of her nose, but she did not know where it came from. As she sat in her Sunday dress, ready to go to church, Dad asked her how she felt. “Not so good,” she said, seeming very tired. I passed it off as a symptom of the sinus infection she is getting over. She told me later about her slumping from her chair. That morning I had awoken with a start when I thought I heard a bang. I could hear water tinkling. Remembering how the shower door clangs when it closes, I thought nothing more of it. We went to church like normal, moving a little slower. I cooked all afternoon to give Mom and Dad a nice Sunday dinner: tilapia poached in white wine with green onions, sauced with creamy mushroom-clam sauce. For dessert I made crepes stuffed with vanilla-cream sauced apples. It all tasted divine. But all I could think about as I cooked and ate and washed dishes was not being there when Mom needed me. I was there, in the same house, on the same floor, in the room next door, with Mom lying unconscious on the shower floor, being drizzled with warm water. But I was not there for her. I could have revived her, helped her up, given her care and attention. But I was not there. All this fancy French food and the effort it took and the palatable pleasure it brought meant nothing. What would have meant something was following through on the waking start and investigating assertively and helping my mother when she needed me. The bruise on her cheek bone is starting to show.
I didn’t go to Wal-Mart for boxes. I went there for snacks, including cheddar fish crackers, for a day trip to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Hannah at Tuacahn. But there was the cheerful Pepperidge Farms lady collapsing boxes by the dozen, happy to give them to me when I asked. Packing is always a daunting task, and it starts with building boxes. With Ken Burns’ 20-hour Jazz playing b-bop and avant-garde, I started folding and taping flaps, and tossing the boxes in a heap. I feel so sad for genius Charlie Parker, playing sax music from heaven while drugs dragged him down to a living hell, with death at 34. At DVD’s end, the living room was a heap of empty cracker boxes, about to be filled with books I may never read but yet carry around by the decade. My life feels about to be reduced to a stack of heavy boxes marked “books.” But mine is a good life: I will have a safe, loving place to live with, and care for, my generous parents. Safe places—that is what we should be building. I guess it starts with building boxes. Forty down; so many to go.
#5. My sister Sarah bought Mom and Dad a Facebook Portal, although they struggle with technology and do not want “a Facebook.” The Portal sits like a small TV screen on their kitchen table. Having my siblings’ blessing, I felt an urgency to talk with Mom and Dad immediately about my proposal to move in with them—so many puzzle pieces would need to fall into place in the right order—but I did not want to have such an important conversation on the phone, and right then I could not drive the hour each way to visit them in person. Why not use the Portal? When Mom and Dad answered, I saw them sitting big as life at their kitchen table. They lifted their heads slightly from looking through scalloped bifocals. They could see me at my desk in Tooele with my law certificates, plants, books, family photos, and Van Gogh paintings around me. For me, too, the bifocal tilt. I explained my concerns about their welfare and my proposal to move from my home to theirs, to help them live comfortably and safely in their home for as long as they wished. I mustered my most persuasive presentation, anxious about how they might react. Happily, Mom seemed relieved, and said simply, “Thank you, son. That would be wonderful.” Dad seemed grateful, but concerned—for me. We talked things through—my move, my commute, my work, my parenting with Hannah—and they agreed to the proposal. The plan was now in motion.