So This Is Where We Are, Now - When Medical Advances Fix The Body But Not The Mind

08/09/2016 08:46 am ET

Late night phone calls are the worst.

Everyone knows this. They don’t call you in the middle of the night to tell you you’ve gotten that big promotion or won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. It’s rarely ever a friend calling just to chat, or if it is, you should stab that friend immediately. So, right. Late night phone calls are never good.

Late night phone calls from my dad’s nursing home are even worse than that, and not because I’m worried something bad might happen to him. Quite the opposite. I mean, I worry about him in a general sense, but never once has it occurred to me that something might happen to my dad that would result in a late-night phone call. If you knew my dad, you’d know this is not how he rolls. Even at the age of 80 and in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s Disease.

It turns out, that’s still not how he rolls. Though I didn’t know it when the phone rang. Or vibrated. Either way.

So the phone rang or I guess vibrated, and I woke up. Opened my eyes, feeling slightly disoriented. You know how it is. What? You think. What time is it? Where is this? Who?

Dad’s Nursing Home, said the screen, and these are the moments where you learn that panic trumps disorientation, every time.

I picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Is this Melissa?”

“Yeah,” I said. “This is Melissa. What – ”

“This is So-And-So, from Pretend-Name-Of-Your-Dad’s-Nursing-Home,” said the person on the other end. “We’re sorry to call you so late. But we needed to let you know, your dad was found – ”

WHAT?? Found how? Found unconscious?  Found dead???

“ – eating crayons.”

“Wait,” I said. “What?”

“Your dad was found eating crayons,” she repeated.

“Oh,” I said. “Wow.”

STOP. A break in the narrative, here.

Rewind to earlier that day.

“Hey.” This was me, to my dad. He was sitting in the nursing home’s TV room when I arrived, gathered around a large central table with several other residents. Each had a coloring page in front of him. My dad’s picture was of a cartoonish puppy with polka-dots on its fur. Another guy had a butterfly. There was a cookie tin full of crayons in the middle of the table.

“Oh! Hey,” my dad said back to me, chuckling. He always chuckles when someone shows up to visit. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it’s because he finds it comically coincidental to see someone he recognizes, at this place. The same way you might kind of chuckle if you ran into a work colleague at a rib festival, or something. Oh, hey…it’s you! Haha.

“You’re coloring!” I said now. So observant of me! And if you ask me, he was doing a pretty good job, especially for a man who has probably not picked up a crayon once in his entire life. I mean this. In all of his 80 years, my father has never been the type of guy to get out the Crayolas and color a polka-dotted puppy dog.

I mean, until now.

Here’s the finished product:

Full disclosure: I helped with some of the brown part.
Author's personal collection
Full disclosure: I helped with some of the brown part.

It’s hard to know what to say to a grown man, in this situation. Were I dealing with a very small child, it’d be easy. “Good job!” I might say, maybe even clapping to add a little excitement. “I like all the colors you picked! And look how careful you were to keep it neat!”

These are not things one can say to one’s father without wanting to bash one’s face off a brick wall immediately after.

I think I handled it fairly decently, all things considered. “Well, that’s done,” I said briskly, brushing my hands together as if we’d just finished a complicated Pinterest project. “Looks good, right? It’s a cute puppy.”

My dad didn’t answer; he was already looking out the window at the trees. But at least, I told myself, I’d treated him like an adult. With dignity. I would be able to sleep that night without thinking too much about what my dad has been reduced to.

Fast forward to the phone call. And just like that, maybe not.

I finished up the conversation and put the phone down, wide awake. The crayons were non-toxic, they’d told me. He wasn’t sick and in fact seemed perfectly fine. I’m pretty sure the speaker did not understand that this was TOTALLY NOT THE POINT AT ALL.

I’d thought my dad had been reduced to coloring polka-dotted puppy dogs. It turns out, this was the optimistic view of things.

Here are some of the thoughts that were in my head:

o   What kind of asshole calls in the middle of the night to tell someone their dad has eaten crayons?

o   What kind of asshole considers 10:22pm “the middle of the night?”

o   Are there other, more compassionate daughters out there who care more about their father’s well-being than they do about their own interrupted REM sleep?

o   Why had no one put the crayons away, anyway?

o   But wait, of course I care about my father’s well-being. It’s just that this was hardly an emergency, right? Babies eat crayons all the time.

o   Babies eat crayons all the time.

o   Babies eat crayons all the time.

o   Babies eat crayons all the time.

I have often engaged in the very futile exercise known as “comparing parental end-of-life scenarios.” It is stupid but sometimes hard to avoid. You think, hmmm – is it better to have a slow and potentially torturous death, where at least you get to say what you want to say? Or should we hope for a quick and painless if shocking end? Maybe the best way to go is to alarm your children with late-night phone calls regarding crayon consumption? I don’t know, because there’s no good answer to this. As I said, it’s a pointless line of thinking. So here’s a different one.

Medical advances have brought us to a time where we’re living longer than ever, which is nice. We have drugs and surgeries and Slim-Fast shakes. We can take one person’s kidney and give it to another person and they can both go on to sign up for yoga classes or sing in a choir. It’s all very miraculous and amazing and I’m not saying it’s not good. I myself am hoping to live a very long time, and I fully expect that in my lifetime, we’ll find more drugs and surgeries and shakes to extend lifespans even longer.

I guess I just hope that we also find a way to make those extra years, well. You know. Worth it.

This post originally appeared on Goodness Madness.

The 2016 Walk to End Alzheimer’s – Pittsburgh, PA is on October 15, 2016. Click here to donate to my family’s team. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website for more information about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

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