A Second Look: My Dad As Caregiver

Sometimes we go looking for something and find something else entirely, which is what happened to me when I finally began to read my mother's journals that she left behind when Alzheimer's claimed her seven years ago.

I don't know what I expected to find in the journals but I avoided them for years as they sat on a shelf in a guest room closet. I suppose I was afraid my heart would break anew, seeing her handwriting as it struggled to record what she tried to remember. But I know I also longed for some deeper insight into my mother since she began this documentation long before we even suspected "something" was wrong.

By the time she began writing it all, her life had taken a very predictable arc, of church-based retirement life in Virginia, regular visits to her children in Michigan and New Mexico, and, always, the life-long pursuit of the perfect antique find. Reading her journals, written when she was still cogent, became mind-numbing after a point, of trips to the mall, to the grocery, dinner at 6, a favorite soap opera and, always, the bowl of frozen yogurt at 10 p.m. each night.

"Shoot me," I said to my husband not long ago, suddenly conscious of our own predictable routines.

But as the years passed, Mom's journal personality began to fade into the routine recordings of the dollars and cents spent at the grocery, whether or not they got a good parking place at church and, still, that bowl of frozen yogurt at 10 p.m.

And, that is when a new leading character began to emerge. My dad.

As her world became smaller -- years into the journal it's clear she rarely left the house -- his presence became enormous. He was her rudder from the early morning when she would record that he was always up before her to make the coffee, to the end of the day when, after sharing frozen yogurt, she would write before she turned out the lights that "Walt is beside me in the bed."

He helped her navigate the daily mail, which became an obsession that ate up whole swathes of the day. He drove her to her favorite mall, day after day, and stood by as she selected some item to take home which would ultimately not satisfy her so that they would retrace their steps the next day to return it. He took seriously her fascination with Publisher's Clearinghouse which had sunk its teeth into her gullibility, when she carefully returned all their queries and answered all their solicitations. He helped her overcome her disappointment when the two representatives who were to arrive on her doorstep with a windfall check on a particular day failed to show.

If he left to do an errand without her (the journal records an unseemly number of quick trips to have their car serviced) he always called her if he was gone more than 45 minutes or so. This is all carefully recorded in my mother's sad diary of her narrow day-to-day life. Her journals lead me to believe he was doing more and more of the cooking -- or rather, the purchase of prepared foods -- with the occasional notation that 'Walt made us a good dessert.' I think of him following the instructions on a Duncan Hines package and a lump rises in my throat.

And, he always told her she was beautiful, rouge circles and 90s shoulder pads notwithstanding.

But what of his life? In the years before my mother became dependent our father could have been an ad for AARP. He chaired this committee and that committee, spearheaded a building program for his church, led the local Retired Men's Association and went on two mission trips to Guatemala where the locals lovingly called him "El Viejo."

My siblings and I, with all the wisdom of three 40-somethings, urged him to reclaim his life. We advocated that our mother would be happier and safer in a nearby nursing facility where he could visit every day but still continue the activities that kept him vital. My sister, who lived in the same town, even toyed with the idea that she and her husband could add on an extra bedroom so that he could be near his grandchildren 24/7 and part of an active household. What more could he want?

Push came to shove, but not as we expected. Although my mother's demise was advancing -- she began dropping by the next door neighbor's kitchen in her bathrobe as they were having their morning coffee -- Dad wasn't buying into the nursing home idea. He couldn't imagine being separated from her.

But then, one day my sister got a call from the local hair salon where he had gone, with my mother, for their monthly haircuts. Walt wasn't acting himself, the stylist said. Which, it turned out, was code for an emotional breakdown that sent him to a psychiatric hospital for a few days and propelled the two of them to an apartment at said nursing facility.

The next three years were heartbreaking, as we watched both parents in the hands of dementia and they were moved to increasingly higher levels of care within the facility. The unthinkable happened when my mother's diminished functionality forced their separation so that she could have 24-hour care. And, the unthinkable happened again, when it was my father, not my mother, who passed first, a year and a half before my mother.

So I am at the age he was when perhaps he first began to notice his beloved partner was not quite up to her 'A' game. Did he resent the turn his life took, that the winter trips to Florida were history, that he gave up his regular poker game, that his social life evaporated?

It comes to me now that he once said the best thing a father could do for his children was to love their mother.

I know I will surely love him forever, for living out what could have been a pat platitude and for reminding his children and grandchildren what marriage should look like. Sometimes, I guess, that late night bowl of yogurt is more important than we know.

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