“I’m cold,” I heard Dad protest to Mom, who suggested he put on something warm. I retrieved his sweatshirt from his office/bedroom and helped him find the arms. Mom draped a crocheted blanket over him. Normally, Dad, when cold, would ask the leading rhetorical question, “Should we turn on the fireplace?” But the fireplace quit, despite the pilot light still burning—I was glad I smelled no gas—so we guessed a bad switch. Out of fear of dying unpleasantly, I do not tinker with gas plumbing or electrical wiring, so we called Adam’s HVAC, who can come in two weeks. Warmed up and growing hot, Dad cast off his blanket and shuffled to his office to write an email to a grandchild. Sitting in his office chair, it suddenly sank on failed hydraulics to its lowest setting, and he could not get up from the chair without help, and I could not repair the chair. While I baked cored apples filled with brown sugar, Splenda, and butter last week, I noticed the oven not heating well, and saw a molten metal bubble forming on the element. When the box from Amazon came, I switched the breaker to “off” (that I will do) and installed the new element, though the old wiring needed coaxing to fit the new leads. And I twisted and bent my glasses, because I put them on my bed and sat on them squarely. Things break. Sometimes they can be fixed. Dad’s new physical therapist, Jerry, came one evening with his New Zealand speak to do therapy, and I learned why therapists order, “Up up up!” when having Dad stand, so that he engages his hip flexors and quadriceps so he can stand tall and take full steps and not a mere forward-leaning controlled-fall shuffle. Jerry was gentle and patient and caring—I am always grateful for gentle, patient, caring people, in any profession. But later Dad complained to me about how weak he was, that this was his worst day since he left the rehab center a month ago. Such pronouncements sag my spirits, and I fret over any number of imagined impending crises. Yeah, things break. I pushed Dad in his wheelchair into the chapel Sunday morning—we were late, and I felt unhappy about being late—and Dad waved like teen royalty on a parade float as many congregants waved and smiled at him as we rolled down the aisle to the front handicapped pew. If his legs will not work, the wheelchair works wonderfully well. But I did not wave or smile—I was just the driver. My mayor’s mother passed away unexpectedly from a random blood clot lodged in her heart, and I expressed my genuine condolences with a little ornamental pepper plant looking like a bonsai Christmas tree with tiny red lights. I had known my boss’ mother, enjoyed meals and jokes, and I liked her and felt sad she was gone. Old people go, frequently, and I came home that night with renewed gratitude for my parents, an increased measure of tenderness and patience, for they are sweet and loving and generous, and I have them still. Things break, and we fix them, when we can, and continue onward.
Eleven o’clock at night, and Dad’s reading light burned above his recliner, with Dad comfortably settled in, intently focused on a book. I felt very tired and wanted to be in bed an hour before, what with my 6:00 a.m. wake time routine. Voiced echoes of “back to normal” and “climb the stairs” raced chaotically in my brain. Daring to interrupt his reading, I asked carefully if we could have a conversation. “Of course,” he said pleasantly, plainly happy to be home. I explained to him how frightened I felt of him attempting to climb the stairs in the middle of the night, and how traumatized I felt from weeks of pre-hospital hauling him up the stairs with a gate belt and easing him down the stairs with the gate belt (he does not remember this), and I asked him, please, for his commitment to not climb the stairs tonight, and suggested now would be an excellent time to go to sleep, when Mom and I were going to sleep, being both so tired, so we did not need to worry about him moving safely around in the night. He had come home just that day, after all. “I am going to climb the stairs,” he asserted with confidence, “but I will not do it tonight. I know my limits, and I am not going to be stupid.” “Stupid” is a word that simply could never ever describe Dad. “Super-intelligent,” yes. “Super-determined,” absolutely. But I have watched Dad dozens of times push himself beyond his capacity, with the predictable collapses that followed, and wondered if he really did know his limits, or rather knew what his limits used to be, or what he wanted them to be. Still, physical therapists had been working him hard, and the idea of him being newly cognizant of his current limits was plausible. With no further argument, Dad shuffled to his downstairs bedroom with a “good-night,” his book and a bag of mixed nuts in hand, while I stepped up the stairs. The next morning, a Sunday, with the new CNA’s arrival, Dad expressed his understandable desire for a shower, which meant, of course, climbing the stairs. I sat down with him again and practically yelled at him out of my fear of his falling down the stairs. He deferred (after the CNA demurred), and accepted a sponge bath instead. But on Monday, day three at home, after I left for work, the CNA helped him up the stairs to the shower—how wonderful and liberating that shower must have felt—and back down again, without incident, and I was glad I had not been there, and I was glad the CNA had felt sufficiently comfortable helping him, and that the story for that day had a happy ending. True to his word, he indicated to the caregiver on Tuesday that he felt too weak to attempt the stairs. And with all this my tension eased somewhat. But I knew, as I have not known before, that now was the time to install the obscenely-expensive stair lift, and that only with the stair lift could we eliminate the issue of stair climbing and substitute constant dread and risk with comfort and ease and safety and freedom and independence, if not accomplishment. As I myself plopped down the steps to discuss stair lifts with Mom and Dad, grasping the wood handrail, my hand suddenly slipped where the housecleaner had oiled the wood, and I caught myself without falling, and I pictured Mom grasping the railing and leaning out over the stairs to let her arthritic legs follow after, and I pictured Mom’s hand slipping on the greasy handrail and Mom going down, down, the stairs with nothing to stop her, and I knew the stair lift was her safe solution as well. Straightaway, I ran for a spray bottle of kitchen degreaser and wiped the handrail squeaky grippy clean.
For a second time, United Health Care served a termination notice, ending Dad’s care the next day. Sarah scrambled to assemble her second appeal, bolstered by Dad’s nurse and physical therapist who averred he “would benefit from continued skilled therapy to maximize patient’s independence at home and reduce rehospitalization risk.” And for the second time the appeal was granted only after Dad was to have been expelled. But we only need two more days, and then he will be coming home. Not to his own bed, sadly, but to a hospital bed on the main floor, in the office and library we transformed into a bedroom, still finding room for a computer—Mom’s wedding portrait sits framed on the desk these 60 years later—and a shelf full of his favorite books, with paintings of Jesus on the walls. The bed will come in two days, and I will assemble the commode tomorrow. In the meantime, Dad has worked hard pushing the walker down the hall and climbing up and down two railed stairs, after which he is exhausted for hours. Still, he makes incremental progress every day. With new hope, lost for a time, he has been hinting stubbornly that he anticipates settling back into his old-friend habits of reading late into the night and climbing the stairs alone at 3:00 a.m. to fall into bed, and arising at 10:00 a.m. to shower and dress and to brave the stairs and eat breakfast at noon. And my mind shudders from the memories of pulling him up the stairs with a belt and lifting him off the toilet and hoisting him into bed, repeatedly, and his trembling and groaning and collapsing under me, and the thought of continuing fills me with dread and frustration and my own trembling, and I want to scream that I’m not doing this anymore!!! In my mind I have been rehearsing speeches to him about how his unhealthy night-owl habits not only weaken him but frighten and exhaust Mom and me, and how the thought of picking up where we left off the day of the ambulance ride, as if that ride had never happened, and thinking absurdly that I’m all better now when he almost died and he still barely can move and each step alone on the stairs is a tooth-clenching death dare. The extent of Dad’s recovery is remarkable; I had felt the reaper breathing foully on me from too close. Still, the thought of Dad’s homecoming has brought me no joy, only stress and anxiety and the phantom smell of raw onions, and visions of mayonnaise smeared on the kitchen counter, and the awful wait as Dad somehow pulls himself slowly up 16 stairs at 3:00 in the morning when I should be sleeping soundly but cannot for knowing how impossibly difficult each stair is to step up, and how easily he could misstep and tumble to the landing in a crumpled pile, mooting in three seconds the so-long month of pains and efforts, setbacks and struggles, fears and tearful longings, and the small but hard-won victories during four weeks of hospitalization and convalescence—all that for nothing, all that for the pride of doing it my way.
(Pictured above, Dad’s office-turned-bedroom awaiting his hospital bed, and him.)
“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!
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 packed 30 boxes in one night. Packing boxes is such an odd life experience. Into each box I put my books, my genealogical records, my decorations, my journals. I seem to have more books and binders than any other type of possession. I cannot bear to part with the good books I have read, so into the boxes they go, with the label “Books: Read.” My latest favorites: The Plover by Brian Doyle, about a scarred sailor on a small sailboat who takes on several characters and through them heals his wounds; and, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, about the pervasive systematic racist policies of U.S. Government agencies that caused African Americans to suffer gross inequities in housing availability and affordability, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, adequate incomes, quality schools, clean environments, loan and mortgage equity, wealth generation, and military benefits. Each book has walked me in the shoes of great men and women, has taken me to new realms of science, has filled me with joy and sadness and that sick feeling that comes from reading about human cruelty. And when my bookshelves are empty and the boxes are full, I feel empty and bereft, as if my compartmentalized personality has been divided into boxes with labels, packed away to be loaded onto a truck and driven to my knew home and stacked in a corner of the basement until this new chapter, of which I have barely turned the first page, has ended (and I hope it is a long chapter). Then, I will carry the boxes again, still unopened, to some other domicile, where they will be unpacked and their contents organized on shelves and tables until my children come to care for me.
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.
With the plan in place, and the miracles having come about, the time to get to work had arrived. Boxing. Cleaning. Moving. Adjusting. Saying good-byes. And with that work came the second guessing. What was I thinking to invite this change? I am moving from my home, where I am comfortable and safe. I will be lengthening my commute from 3 miles to 53, from ten minutes to an hour, each way. I will be working day and night, six days a week. I will be living in someone else’s space. I will be giving up my solitary time for reading, writing, and film. Did I do the right thing? And yet, I know with a conviction, as powerful as any I ever received before, that this is the right thing to do. This is missionary work, and I have been called to this mission. I am holding on to that sure knowledge as I enter into a time of transition, a time of belonging neither in the old place nor in the new. I am holding onto that conviction and moving forward with faith, however weak.
I work as a municipal attorney for a small Utah town, advising the elected Mayor and City Council, the Planning Commission, and City department heads. This has been my work for 28 years. I rarely plan my days, which unfold in a never-ending series of problems and challenges, demands and crises. (I disfavor the word “crisis,” which takes a mere situation and elevates it to a crisis, with all the increased stress of a crisis, instead of making the same situation simply something to solve.) Working 50 hours a week in Tooele, plus ten hours of commuting, would hardly be conducive to fulfilling my primary purpose to care for my parents. For the plan to work, I would need permission to work a flexible, non-traditional schedule. Again, I solicited family prayers. I presented my plan and my proposed schedule to my boss, the Mayor. She enthusiastically approved, and even thanked me for choosing to help my parents at this point in their lives. I will work four partial days a week in Tooele, plus remote hours from home on those days, plus working remotely from home on Fridays, and when needed on Saturdays. I will still attend City Council meetings on Wednesday nights—after a career of some 5,000 Wednesday-night meetings, I see my week as Wednesday to Tuesday instead of Sunday to Saturday. Anyway, this schedule, hopefully, will allow me both to work full-time and to be home enough to make a difference for Mom and Dad. To my eye, this is another miracle. If the schedule itself is not, the kindness certainly is.
For me to implement the plan, I would need at least two miracles. I consider a miracle to be a desirable occurrence which is beyond human ability to create, brought about by some benevolent force, providential or universal. In my belief system, miracles have a divine origin, manifesting a loving Divinity. The first miracle I would need involved my apartment lease, which I had just renewed for another year. Should I vacate early, my landlords could accelerate the remaining lease payments and demand the forbidding sum of $12,000. An absolute impossibility. I asked my siblings and children to join me in prayer to soften my landlords’ hearts, to allow me to vacate early. I wrote to my landlords about my situation, and my reasons for moving. They responded quickly, agreeing to let me leave without penalty. Coincidentally, my son Brian and his wife Avery and their darling daughter Lila (my first grandchild) had decided to move from Kentucky back to Utah, to be closer to family. But they had not succeeded in finding a place to live. Utah is experiencing a persistent housing gap, with about 50,000 more families looking for housing than there are houses to buy or rent, and with soaring prices. Not only did my landlords agree to let me terminate my lease early, they agreed to allow Brian and Avery to sign a lease for my apartment. And because I will not need my furnishings at Mom’s and Dad’s house, Brian and Avery will step into a fully-furnished and decorated apartment at no additional cost. As these two critical pieces of the puzzle fell into place, I gave thanks in prayer for the blessings. An elegant, perfect, miraculous turn of events. Only one more major miracle was needed.
#4. Despite my conviction of needing to help Mom and Dad, I had to make sure my siblings agreed with the plan. I wrote to my four sisters and only brother to express my concerns for Mom’s and Dad’s health and safety (concerns they all shared), and to seek their blessing for me to move in. As a career municipal attorney, I have seen too many instances of children and grandchildren moving in with their parents and grandparents, manipulating them, taking advantage of them, and taking their money and property. Though my siblings know I am not such a person, still I felt it necessary to have their consent for me to assume such a trusted position with their parents. All five wrote back to me with love and gratitude and support. Megan wrote, “I support you 110%.” Carolyn wrote, “We are behind you.” Sarah, Jeanette, and Steven also gave their enthusiastic support. I knew that with their love and trust, perhaps I could do this. Their blessing in hand, now it was time to consult with Mom and Dad.
#3. The need is now. I am pondering the circumstances of my availability to leave my own home and to live with my parents in theirs. I find myself divorced and living alone. My seven children are mostly raised, with the youngest learning to drive. Five years have been sufficient to transition out of the trauma of exile and isolation. In those years I focused on healing, and too much, perhaps, on my own life, my little knick knacks, my art on the walls, my books, my mountain bike, my blog, my baking, my time, my my my . . . . It is time, perhaps, to look more outward, more toward the welfare of someone other than myself. And it is time for me to be available to do what I can do. My siblings are dedicated, loving persons, and could do so much better at caregiving than me. They already do so much. But they are not available to do some of what requires doing. I am available. So, the privilege and the responsibility are mine, and I cheerfully accept.
#2. I had planned to move in with Mom and Dad, if need be, in about a year, after my lease expired. But the evil lawn mower incident convinced me to move immediately. Dad loves his lawn: a source of pride and joy and exercise. Monthly fertilizer has yielded a deep emerald green turf, which Dad cuts twice a week on his riding mower. Plus: string trimming, driveway edging, shrub shaping, limb pruning, and dandelion digging—spread throughout the week in manageable increments. The push mower is for the corners the riding mower won’t reach. When Dad was pushing the mower downhill toward the garage one day, it ran away from him and dumped him on the concrete driveway. Providentially, Dad broke no bones. I knew that a broken hip or leg, or a blow to the head, could have been the beginning of the end, with long-term convalescence away from home. When they told me what had happened, I received a sudden conviction: now was the time—immediately—to move in with Mom and Dad and do what I could to keep them in their home for the remainder of their days (may they be long).
Courage at Twilight: An Introduction
Day #1. I knew the day would come. The day when my vibrant marathon-running violin-playing father and mother would grow old, grow feeble, stumble and fall. And I wondered how I could feebly stumble in my filial role to give them care. I am older than I thought parents could get, and certainly not me: a near-60 divorced lawyer writer mountain biker. One day it became clear the solution to the problem was to move in with my parents and provide for them the best care I knew how. And I knew writing would help me understand the experience. Join me as I travel this unfamiliar road, through short daily vignettes, to contribute to the quality of life of my aging parents, and to make sense of my life as they journey toward their life’s end and beyond.
August 1, 2021