From that point on, my main job was taking care of my father. We lived in a construction site as we rebuilt the basement to make it safe and comfortable for him.
So focused had we been on my mother’s frailties that we hadn’t realized just how far my dad had deteriorated. He was a physically powerful man with a great sense of humor. Although he was stooped and shuffled, he still had a strong grip and a twinkle in his eye. We had overestimated his abilities, however, both physical and cognitive.
Suffice it to say that taking care of him was physically and emotionally exhausting.
After my father had been living with us for three months, I ran away from home for 24 hours. With Michael’s blessing, I got in my car and drove four hours to the home of close friends in Chapel Hill, N.C. During the drive I listened to a book on tape, sang along with the radio and, once, pulled onto the shoulder of the road, where I started crying uncontrollably. Out of nowhere. For my mother? My father? My life, interrupted?
My dad began a gentle but inexorable decline. His memory, his health and his judgment all worsened. When his geriatrician suggested home hospice care, we lucked out and got the nurse from heaven. Through the Veterans Administration, we got a second lovely aide who helped my dad bathe and dress. Yet a third aide had to be hired to fill in the gaps; thankfully she was an angel.
One morning, the house alarm went off at 3 a.m. We jumped out of bed to find my father standing in the open front door, staring down the street. “Richard Nixon was just in my room,” he told me. “I’m trying to see where he went.”
Urinary tract infections are an insidious accompaniment to old age. They play cruel tricks on the brain. In my father’s case, they caused hallucinations. For the last year of his life, he almost always had a UTI.
Then he started to fall. As with a toddler, you can’t take your eyes off an elderly person who falls. I had to arrange for 24-hour care. To climb the stairs to the kitchen for dinner, he needed oxygen and someone behind him holding his belt. As he got weaker, he came upstairs less often.
With hot and cold running aides in the house, we had little privacy. Although we were grateful for the help, my work was disrupted constantly, my career derailed.
Then my father had a series of unusual and increasingly serious ailments. In the midst of each one, the hospice nurse gave me the prepare-yourself-for-the-end speech. Each time, he bounced back, reminding me of Art Buchwald checking himself out of hospice. The nurse finally gave up her speech after he recovered from a flesh-eating staph infection.
One Friday afternoon, my dad collapsed. He opened his eyes and assured us he was “OK.” Michael, the aides and I lifted him onto his bed. He took two deep breaths and was gone. He was 99½ years old. I felt deeply sad. I also felt relief. It had been a long haul.
I am neither a saint nor a martyr. I did not suffer in silence, and I did suffer. For all the difficulties of caregiving, it had enriched my life and made me a more patient, less selfish person. It had allowed me to set an example for my son. I left nothing on the table with parents with whom I had not always had an easy relationship. I would make the same choices all over again.
Regular NPR contributor Bonny Wolf is the author of Talking With My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories.
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