January 9, 2011

Diminishing Daylight

This piece was an Editor's Pick on opensalon.com on Friday, January 7, 2011. All rights belong to the author.

My mother is the one who has dementia, but I sense my father slipping away.

Mother started getting lost while driving about ten years ago. By 2005 when my parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, she was having serious word-finding problems. Now she cannot be alone for more than a few minutes. Dad takes care of her twenty-four hours a day, with few breaks.

The situation could be much worse. My parents live in an independent living facility in the town where my father attended college. Many of his fraternity brothers live in the same facility, many lifelong friends. The facility offers two meals a day, interesting programming, and a built-in social life. A bus takes my parents to the symphony, college sports, medical appointments, or out-of-town trips. There is always a euchre game, dance bands and fox-trotting, and Monday movie days with popcorn.

For a man with a leaky heart valve and six stints, he is remarkably engaged in the life of the mind, body, and spirit. He gets up before my mother does so he can walk the treadmill in the facility’s gym. He devours books, histories and mysteries. He listens to NPR and religiously reads every white paper Kiplinger publishes. He and mother pick up a ninety-three-year old woman for church before 8 a.m. every Sunday morning. The former teacher volunteers on the board of his fraternity, fund raises for his university, advises the children and grandchildren of former students who frequently call, and supports his college sports teams. If there is a committee at the facility, he is on it, and soon he is chairperson of it.

He and my mother are featured in the facility’s newspaper advertising, which shows them working in the gardens on the property.

My brother lives two miles away and does a super job of supporting our parents. He travels for his job, and make extraordinary effort on his time off to share meals with them, entertain them at his home, run errands, or drop in to bring an ice cream treat.

In December, I spent a long weekend with them to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. I live five hours away.

He asked me to drive them to the mall. I helped Mom select a camel-colored blazer and a blue vest at Macy’s. Dad asked me to stay with her when he went on an errand. With his distinctive limp from being born with a clubfoot, Dad walked past four jewelry stores until he got to Kay's. He had a coupon. He selected a beautiful set of multi-colored pearls for Mom as a Christmas gift.

Mom and I wanted through several stores. He was gone a long time – the clerk figured out what I did not know. He needed a necklace for her that he could slip over her head as he dressed her. His hands are now too stiff and arthritic to handle the tiny gold clasps on most of her necklaces.

We learned from Dad. My nephew gave her two broaches for Christmas, and he put them on her jackets so Dad does not have to take them off. Does it matter that she wears the same pin with the same jacket? No.

Mom loved the necklace from Dad, and joyfully opened the wrapped black velvet box. She has worn it almost every day since the holiday. With the multi-colors, the pearls go with just about anything. Does it matter if she is perfectly color coordinated? No. She is happy. He is happy. Thank God for small moments.

He is so proud of her. While she often does not know who he is, he still wants her to look beautiful. One of the things he always says is, “A man is judged by how well his wife dresses.”

Oh, Lord, let’s hope that isn’t true (writing this in a decade old Komen shirt and Tweety pajama bottoms).

After bathing her, brushing her teeth, combing her hair each morning, he meticulously chooses her clothes and jewelry. Somehow she always looks like a million bucks, often better than she did when she was younger, balancing her children, a house, her husband, and aging parents.

Now the holidays are over. His birthday is passed. His grandsons go back to their colleges this weekend, and all the Christmas decorations are tucked away in their wire storage cage a floor below.

More each day, I hear the loss in his voice. Growing loss casts a shadow over him, like night crawling across an open field.

When I was a young adult, I could barely summon the strength to talk to my parents on the telephone once a week. They called me, often on Sunday evenings. Now I call my Dad every day. He is always eager to talk to me. Before I can hello he launches into a list of items he wants to talk about.

It might be something from Brian Williams Nightly News or a story in Time magazine about the economy. Or he might have news from my aunt in Boston. This morning he had another death to report.

“Do you remember Mr. XXX who went to Ireland with us?
I did, they had a lovely time.

“Mr. XXX died yesterday. He was eighty-five, a college professor who lived a long and fulfilling life.”

This is another loss, stacked in a pile like the seventy birthday cards he received in December. And each time he tells me of another loss, he is a diminished a little.

I feel his frailness beneath his resolve to care for my mother. She has been his companion for more than fifty-five years and she often does not know his name. He has more verbal angst, upset about the new Congress, angry his car needs a heat pump, frantic that a letter he sent me took a week.

This is all happening quickly, and yet I understand. He deserves eternal rest. When I look at the two of them, I think “no greater love.” This is the true meaning of love, not the clinking of champagne classes by young lovers on New Year’s Eve.

He may not see another New Year’s Eve. He is weary. He does not want to be apart from her -- and yet the night comes.

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." –
John Donne