It is one thing to talk the big talk about taking care of your parents but it is a whole other thing to invade their privacy and dismantle their lives.
There had been so many signs. But he hid the creeping darkness well.
Military men are often called warriors but I never thought of my father that way. Even though he was in the service 40 years, Dad never had that hard military edge. He wasn’t one of those veterans who talked about his World War Two experiences or spoke in military jargon. He was a husband and father first. His priorities made it easy to forget that he had any connection to the service.
That was, until September 11, 2001.
It was a horrible day nationwide and I knew that my elderly parents would be upset. My mother went to a prayer service at church so I stopped by the house expecting to find Dad in front of the television.
I was greeted by the warrior I didn’t know and a man whose mind was so befuddled it was terrifying.
Daddy had gone to the storage closet, found his uniforms and had them and a suitcase on his bed. He was packing for war, headed for Baghdad. He was frightened but he had a steel resolve and in his confused state of mind there was nothing I could say to calm him. Up until that day I had never known him to be anything except contained and intelligent. He kept telling me that those terrorist had knives in their britches. That must have been terrifying.
It took hours of calm words to assure him that he would not be going to war. My explanation that he was too old made him furious. But when I explained that he was needed on the home front to protect women like Mother, he was finally soothed.
And it was all downhill from there.
It became painfully obvious after many concerned people contacted me, something was seriously wrong with Dad.
And so, Dad and I started our dance. It was a year of doctor, lawyer, bank, courthouse and psychiatrist visits. He was fuddled, contentious and getting worse every day. The Colonel in him came out to bite me on the butt at least weekly.
I was forced to move them into a senior residence with a caregiver in an attempt to keep him corralled. He carried out a series of escape attempts that could have been used on Mission Impossible. At one point he ended up in some little old ladies’ apartment and couldn’t find his way back to his own.
And I wondered if I was wrong, if I had made bad decisions, if I forced my parents into something I thought was right, but really wasn’t.
Shortly after those break-out attempts Mom had surgery. Dad was alone in their new apartment so I went to stay with him. I knew he would be extra confused with Mother gone.
After dinner that evening Dad sat with me in the dining room and held my hand like he was my boyfriend. He had such a charming smile and he used it on me. I was totally unprepared for what he said.
“Virginia, do you want me to push you in the swing?”
My throat completely closed and tears spurted uncontrolled as I realized that Daddy thought I was his playmate.
His hand touched my tears as he said, “Did you fall? Are you hurt? Do you want to play something else?”
And, then I knew I had been right all along, but it didn’t make me feel any better because my heart was still broken.
Even though my parents’ lives were falling apart, those few years that I cared for them were good times. I had a special closeness with them that you feel only for your very small children when they are absolutely dependent on you.
Dad was always a total hoot and never knew a stranger. Senility only seemed to intensify his humor. One Sunday after church he and I went to the grocery. I was busy filling the cart and he was roaming. When I looked across the store, I saw he was staring at a burly, tattooed, motorcycle guy with a big beard and a long pony tail. I must admit, even before Dad’s lapse into senility, this fellow would have been the butt of one of Dad’s jokes. But to my great horror I saw Daddy stroll over to the Harley-rider, reach out and rub his pony tail.
My high heels couldn’t get me there fast enough. I just knew there was going to be a murder in Kroger. I arrived as Dad asked the guy if his long hair didn’t just “bug the crap” out of him? That rough old motorcycle guy laughed with Daddy and winked at me and said that he just grew it out to make his family mad. Then he asked if Dad could go riding with him. Daddy rubbed his own head and said he thought his two hairs might get messed up.
Before too many months went by Dad had to move to the place where people go to lose the rest of their mind.
No matter how wonderful the people that work there are, no matter how clean it is… it is the worst place on earth. There is no hope or joy for an Alzheimer’s patient.
Every week when I took Mom to see Dad, there would be less of him…
All around in that Alzheimer’s facility there were people who were non-verbal, in fetal positions, spitting, swearing, fighting, staring and incontinent. And on their bedrooms doors were shadow boxes full of mementos of their lives before, many warriors just like Dad… but before meant nothing to them because they had no notion of anything except this second of their life, primal feelings... no memory of loved ones…
The Colonel in him fought it as long as he could. He was finally unable to speak and only able to eat with help. When he fell and broke his hip they took him to the hospital where he had a stroke.
All of our family was gathered in Dad’s room at the hospital. I was standing by his side just stroking his cheek and chatting with all of the people in the room. Absent mindedly I leaned over and kissed his cheek and patted him. His eyes fluttered open and he looked at me as if he recognized me. “Did you kiss me?” And the room was silent while everyone just looked at the Colonel that one last time. “Yes, Daddy, I did.”
“Well, I’m just an old rascal. Aren’t I?”
Yes,sir! That you were.