June 10, 2010

The Paradox That is Bill

My father grows increasingly complex with age. He is a paradox.

A man of science, or a man of faith. When I was a small child, my father taught high school biology. I had no idea that evolution and Genesis could not co-exist as many fundamentalists believe. We didn't argue about the Creation story -- Dad said that God's seven days might not be what humans think of as days. End of story.

What he did object to was Kennedy's affirmation that we get to the moon by the end of the 1960s. That, he said, was ridiculous.

A cheap ass (his words), or his middle initial "G" stands for generosity (again his words). He gripes about the cost of everything. I swear he's had the same glasses for at least the last seven church directories.

He helped my aunt sell her farm, and mailed the enormous check to her out east with a regular postage stamp. When it took more than a week, she was worried. Not my Dad. He had faith the US Postal Service would deliver, and by God, that 37 cent stamp would get the check there.

Last week he needed a new band for the watch his mother gave him for college graduation nearly sixty years ago. He found one for $27 and complained about the cost of that strap for what is clearly his most treasured possession.

Still he and my mother have a named scholarship fund at his alma mater and have assisted more than 40 students over two decades. He is generous with his children and his grandchildren, although his son and son-in-law leave the tip. Dad usually puts the waitress through her paces and she deserves a little extra.

He regards all land with great stewardship, or he has little value for material things (even when other people do.) He has cared for my mother's farm since the death of her parents with love and respect, improving the tiling and drainage, walking the lanes and fields, keeping wonderful records.

Yet when my grandmother died, he threw away all the 8 mm. movies of Mom's childhood -- trips to Estes Park, Colorado, Florida, life on the farm. Saw absolutely no value in them, and didn't ask anyone.

When my parents moved out of their home of forty-plus years to a retirement village, Mom and Dad sorted through their treasures of a lifetime. By the move, Mom was already well into the second stage of dementia. Dad was in charge of "sorting."

One morning Dad called me and said, "You do have silverware, don't you?" I said, "yes," not really sure what he meant. About a half an hour later, it dawned on me why he was asking.

I called him back and indeed my mother's wedding silver was headed for the Goodwill Store had I not stopped him. The silver given my parents at their wedding should go to their only daughter, and be used for years to come. Once I pleaded my case, Dad agreed.

He is oblivious to the comfort of everyone around him, or he is providing 24/7 physical care for my mother at the risk of his own health.

When he visits my house, he plops down in front of our TV and demands that anyone near change the channel, adjust the lights, maintain the volume, get him a Diet Coke. He is hot. He is cold. He needs a blanket. Do we have any dental floss? Where's the newspaper? Will you type this for me?

I do my best to accommodate him when I ame not screaming at the top of our lungs. Then I take a deep breath, and then I do his typing. And get him a Diet Coke.

Yet at home he puts out my mother's clothes, bathes her, puts in her bridge, puts on her jewelry (now cubic zirconica, after some lost episodes), puts out pills and then hides them until her next dose, walks her to exercise class, hair salon, or vespers, and changes multiple adult diaper messes each day.

They will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary tomorrow, and he is taking her to an Indiana state park as they did for their honeymoon. (My grandmother put in the newspaper article about the wedding that they were going on a "western trip." She never got over that my mother married a poor schoolteacher, not a prospering businessman.)

How can this man, who sometimes slices corns off his foot with his old pocketknife, appreciate the beauty in a Diego Rivera mural, as he did when he took our family to the Detroit Institute of the Arts in the sixties? How could he be so stubborn that he wouldn't rent a tuxedo for his own wedding, but wore one when his daughter asked him for her wedding?

How can this be the same man?