My father enjoys sitting in the dark.
Sometimes he sits outside, but mostly he sits in the little TV and computer room that my parents made out of one of the spare bedrooms. It may be late at night, but he keeps all the lights off. I may see the glow of the television as I walk by; aside from the news shows, my Dad likes watching serials and movies about murders and gangsters and investigations, the bloodier the better. The ones where the wife kills the husband (or vice-versa) seem to be his favorite.
If my father is not watching TV, he’s on the computer. Also in the dark. He owns an old Model A that he’s restored, and he loves surfing classic car enthusiast websites and the parts sales on eBay using his painfully slow dial-up connection. If I call my parents and the line is busy, I know that Dad is online again.
Other times, my father just sits in the dark and stares off into space, lost in thoughts unknown to anyone but himself until he falls asleep in his chair.
In the daytime, my parents are often to be found outdoors. My mother, who fancies herself to be something of a farmer, loves gardening of any ilk. Meanwhile, unless my father’s talents are called upon to dig a hole or haul a heavy wheelbarrow full of debris, he is likely to be somewhere nearby, sitting in his chair, still as a stone. My mother confided that one of the neighbors, thinking that my father must be silently suffering from some sort of horrible disease or disability, asked what exactly is wrong with him. That’s just Dad, she explained.
My father turned 81 years old this past weekend, and we made the eight-hour round trip to the Central Valley to celebrate with him. I am pleased to say that both my parents are in rather good shape for octogenarians. Lately, however, my mother has begun admitting that it’s not as easy to get around anymore, that the old muscles just aren’t as flexible as they used to be, and that it is becoming more difficult to do the stooping and bending required to keep her trees and flowers and vegetables growing. Then she told me about all the hyacinth bulbs she just planted — purple, yellow and pink. So it’s hard to know how much concern is warranted, how much is genuine discomfort and how much is just kvetching. But one thing is pretty clear: My parents are slowing down.
Although my parents enjoy living out in the country, on the edge of the rangeland where the cows munch the tall grass contentedly (moo today, Big Mac tomorrow), we are worried about their isolation and what is likely to be their increasing inability to care for a huge house and acres of property. I have mentioned my concern in this space in the past, but as time goes by, I can tell that this is a snowball rolling downhill. It is just a matter of time before it collides with an immovable object and goes splat. I sense that this is the calm before the storm. As I related to my wife, I am holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Perhaps one of my parents will pass away suddenly, which will be hard enough to deal with. It is clear that the surviving parent will not be able to remain on that big spread alone. Arrangements will have to be made, and it will not be pretty.
What I truly fear, however, is that a rather different scenario will play out, rendering things a whole lot messier. For instance, if one of my parents takes a fall, breaks a hip and ends up first in a hospital and then in a convalescent facility, eventually returning home and being unable to get around or being cowed by the experience into a sedentary lifestyle. Dad would probably take it in stride; he likes sitting around in the dark anyway. Mom, however, would go stir crazy. I haven’t yet forgotten what it was like when she broke her shoulder and had to have emergency surgery sixteen years ago. I wasn’t around all that much, but I do remember the fit she threw in the kitchen one night when she was unable to serve herself and there was no one in the same room to assist her immediately. I can’t imagine having to deal with that on a regular basis.
One would think that I’d be able to simply sit down with my parents to discuss the subject of aging and future plans. I have, however, found that this is not the simplest thing to do. There is the “squirm factor;” it is an uncomfortable topic for all parties involved. Every adult child wants to think of his or her parents as young and spry forever, and what elderly person wants to delve into the prospect of incapacity, losing the people and things that are important to them and, yes, mortality? It’s far easier for everyone to just ignore the subject completely, allowing that particular white elephant the status of honored guest, here to stay and ignored by all.
My wife (God bless her wisdom and her finely honed sense of discernment) recently mentioned, during one of our early morning commutes, that I ought to consider mentioning to my parents the possibility of moving to the Sacramento area when they are finally ready to sell their house and property. That would place them close to shopping, medical care and all the services they need, and they would be only about 40 miles away rather than a four hour drive down the freeway (which, this time, we did in the pouring rain both ways). I promised her that I’d bring up the subject. The worst they could do would be to say no, I pondered.
Raindrops through the window. “Pray for rain,” read a roadside sign. California desperately needs the water, but the rain placed a decided damper on Thanksgiving weekend travel in the northern part of the state.
I followed through with this over the weekend and was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only did they not say no, but my mother actually seemed pleased that we wanted to have them near us. As I said, my wife’s sense of timing is impeccable, and one of the endless reasons that I love her so much. Not long ago, any mention of the subject would have just ticked off my parents, causing me to be characterized as an insensitive boor. But time does march on, now doesn’t it?
This is not to say that my parents are actually going to plan to do such a thing. They just thought it was nice that we asked. My mother reminded me that property values have dropped considerably since they had their home custom built some twenty years ago. Despite the fact that they have not kept up the place very well, they have sunk more than a little money into improving and repairing it over the years. My mother does not want to sell the house until the real estate market rallies sufficiently to allow my parents to get the price that they think the place merits. My wife and I roll our eyes, as we are well aware that this will never occur. My parents’ sense of what their home is worth bears no relation to what anyone would ever pay for a place in that condition.
All of which brings me back to what I mentioned earlier: Nothing is going to change until something drastic happens. And that, of course, could be any day. It could happen tomorrow or ten years from now. It is just a matter of when cruel fate decides to pull the rug out from under all of us. For it is then that our lives will be turned topsy-turvy, likely in a most dramatic fashion.
My mother told me that my sister from Texas agreed to come out and help her clean out the house, pack things up and donate or discard unneeded items, whenever my parents are ready to sell the house. This is good news, as it is a big job and my sister (like my wife) is good at such things. My parents, of course, hope that they do not have to take my sister up on her offer for many years to come.
Before we left, I asked my mother whether she thinks that she will still be able to maintain the house and the grounds and do her gardening when she is 90 years old. No, she admitted, whereupon I reminded her that my father will be 90 in just nine more years. “Nine years is a long time,” she replied. “But it goes really fast,” my wife chimed in.
My mother says that, if someone would be willing to come live with my parents and help them, they could stay in their home a lot longer. In-home health care is always available, of course, but as for someone being willing to live with them, it’s just not likely. There isn’t anyone in the extended family who would be inclined to move out to the country, away from everyone and everything. And my parents are, if I am to be honest, not easy people to get along with.
Still, my parents admit that they are in a precarious situation. Should one of them experience a sudden medical emergency that required immediate attention, calling 911 simply would not cut it. It would take bloody forever for an ambulance to get out there even from Madera, much less from Fresno. My parents are just rolling right along, humming a tune, hoping that somehow the worst never comes to pass. It is, I suspect, a foolish notion, but what else can I expect them to do? Move to a condo with nowhere for my mother to dig in the dirt beyond planting tomatoes and hydrangeas in little window boxes as she did in her childhood days?
All in all, it is clear to me that my parents fully understand the realities of the situation, but choose not to dwell upon it. I can’t say that I blame them there. After all, it could lead to morbid thoughts, and why shouldn’t they enjoy doing what they can do while they are still able to do it?
So my mother showed me her new sheets and slippers, pointed out with pride the new location of her cactus garden and insisted on giving us gas money. We drove into Fresno for a birthday dinner at a chain restaurant, splurging on two appetizers before the entrées and singing “Happy Birthday” when the server brought out a little ice cream sundae with two candles stuck in the top. Then we returned to my parents’ house for birthday cake and sang to my father again.
I can tell that Dad is aging. I don’t think I would be comfortable asking him to hit tennis balls with me anymore, even if there were any place to do such a thing locally. We still did that until after he turned sixty. But, of course, I was a lot younger then, too. In some respects, I am in a lot worse shape than my father, and who knows whether I could even manage to hit a backhand anymore.
On the way home, I told my wife that, at least to me, my Dad is finally starting to seem like an old grandpa. As my maternal grandfather aged, we began bringing him the same gift for every birthday and every Father’s Day. We knew exactly what he wanted: A bottle of whiskey (which he always referred to by its Yiddish name, schnapps). Although I was only a teenager, I seem to recall that he favored Canadian Club.
With my father, it’s beer. The hard stuff really doesn’t interest him, although he’s been known to make an amazing Tom Collins when the summertime heat climbs over a hundred degrees. For the past few years, my wife and I have gone looking for some sort of beer or ale to present him with on his birthday. Often, we go for one of those sampler packs that tend to hit the shelves for the holiday season with such corny names as “flags of the world.” This year, we ran out of time to shop for Dad’s beer properly and had to choose from the limited selection that was available at a store close to my parents’ house.
Now, I don’t know a thing about beer. Neither my wife nor I drink it. We are boring teetotalers. What I know is that my father likes light to medium beers and ales, and has somewhat of a preference for the imported varieties. I know he doesn’t like the dark stuff, but that’s about it. I couldn’t tell you the difference between hops and skips or between malt and salt.
Fortunately, my eye fell upon a 12-pack of a light ale that I had never heard of before. It was a wheat ale, the package reported, made with citrus peel and coriander. Well, that sounds interesting, I thought. I doubted that my father had ever tried it. This, of course, can cut both ways. He may very well enjoy the opportunity to try a variety of ale that is new to him, but then again, what if he hates this kind? Then he has a dozen bottles to get rid of. And although the ale was “Belgian style,” it was actually domestic. But it’s all Greek to me. Who ever heard of such a ludicrous thing as an alcoholic beverage called Shock Top in a bright orange case?
Well, we lucked out. We presented my father with the ale as soon as we arrived, and he immediately popped open a (still) cold one. He loved it! He oohed and aahed about how smooth it was, and what a delightful flavor. My wife and I gave each other the look that says “high five!”
But whether you’re an ale man, like my Dad, or a whiskey guy like my grandfather, the problem with reaching that age is that the number on the birthday cake cannot be ignored, much as we would like to. Each of my grandfathers only lived about one year more than the age that my father is now. Losing him would be very sad indeed, and I know I would have a terribly hard time with it.
But losing him or my mother to some sort of cruel life-in-death like a stroke or a fall would be even harder.
And so we sit and wait. Wait for that day when we receive the dreaded phone call, frantically throw clothes into a bag and take a screamer 200 miles down the freeway. This haunts my dreams. My wife reminds me that, to save our sanity, we can’t dwell upon it. We just have to take one day at a time and leave it in God’s hands.
Indeed, all we can do is pray. At least until that fateful day when I awake to find that the nightmare has become real.