Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dad Duty by P. J. Coldren

P. J has been reading mystery (and other genres) since before she can remember. She started with, as so many of us did, Nancy Drew and moved on to Agatha Christie when her mother got tired of listening to her raving about (as she phrased it) "that nosy little witch" and told her to read something worthwhile. She read Agatha Christie and Rex Stout until she met Luci Zahray, "The Poison Lady" who broadened and deepened her mystery reading. She and P.J. used to teach Community Education classes on "The Mystery Novel" when they both lived in Holland MI. P.J. has been a preliminary judge for the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Press Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Contest for over a decade and picked the 2003 winner. She used to review for Ann Williams' fanzine The Criminal Record and several other small fanzines none of which are still in existence. When she is at the top of her game she has a book-a-day habit not all of it mystery.

I spent 7 hours yesterday on "Dad Duty".

My father is 85 years old. He lives about 20 miles from me, in an assisted living facility. There is nothing radically wrong with Dad: no diabetes, heart disease, lung problems, cancer, nothing specific that will kill him. Still, he is losing mobility, and cognitive function.

Yesterday was, as these days go, a good day. It only took an hour or so to get him from flat in bed to dressed and wheeling out the door. When he first moved out here, a year and a half ago, it took closer to half an hour. Some days, he never does get vertical.

About the only thing that motivates Dad to get up these days is a "cigar ride". He is not allowed to smoke in his apartment. He understands the reasons for this, but he doesn't much like them. So, for the last year and a half, the only time he can smoke a cigar is when I'm driving someplace or when he comes out and sits on my deck. I live in northern Michigan; deck days are limited by weather and my work schedule. Yesterday was a two-cigar day. He smokes Churchill TeAmos, so one cigar is about an hour of driving. I had errands to run in town, and then I just drove around the countryside for a while.

He decided that pizza sounded good for supper. Fine by me. So we went to a local, non-chain, pizza place that we like and he had 2 glasses of Chianti; he rated them slightly higher in quality than the Gallo Paisano he used to buy in gallon jugs when I was a kid, the wine I still use when I make lasagna. And he ate almost all his pizza, which was wonderful. His appetite has been shrinking; all his appetites have been shrinking. He doesn't eat much, he has all but stopped drinking (which stuns the rest of the family), and he's pretty content with one cigar ride a week.

We got back to his place just as a thunderstorm hit. The rain started just as I wheeled him into his room. Lots of lightning and thunder, rain in buckets. Still, he wanted to go to bed. There was a time when he'd have wanted to sit out under the canopy and watch the storm. Not any more. So I helped him get ready, which consisted of taking off his slippers and his shirt. And I headed for home.

What, if anything, does this have to do with mysteries? The only books Dad has any interest at all in reading are the Nero Wolfe Rex Stouts. Not the Inspector Cramer. Not the Dol Bonner. Just the Wolfes. And he's worked his way through most of them since he's been here. I can't get him interested in anyone else. Reading is difficult for him because he has some macular degeneration. I grew up reading Rex Stout because they were around the house, along with lots of other books. I don't remember a time when Dad didn't read. It's hard for me to see Dad lose his interest in reading. It's hard for me to watch Dad give up.

He's never been a give-up kind of guy. When my mother killed herself, they had five kids. The oldest was 14 and mentally retarded. The youngest was a little over 2. He had a family meeting, and we all decided that we could do what needed to be done to stay together. And we did. I'm still amazed that the man is anything resembling sane. He met a woman who was smart enough not to marry him until we were all pretty much grown and gone; they were together at least twenty-five years. He did whatever needed to be done while she was dying from lung cancer. He was an engineer; he does what he calls "my sorts" to prioritize. Then he does what has to be done. Giving up just isn't on his list. Until now.

We have conversations about what the professionals so cautiously and delicately, euphemistically, refer to as "end of life" issues. He's made it very clear what he does want (not much) and what he doesn't want (pretty much any intervention). He's given me the paperwork to make sure he gets what he wants. And he's just waiting, as he puts it, to "wake up dead".

So yesterday was a good day. I could tell you about bad days. The day I spent with Dad and my sister Billy, the developmentally disabled oldest child. She's not comfortable in strange places, and for her, Dad's place is still strange. So she doesn't talk much. When she does talk, she doesn't speak loudly. Dad's totally deaf in one ear and probably significantly impaired in the other ear. Dad asks Billy a question. She shrugs her shoulders. He repeats the question. She answers him, softly. He asks her again, loudly. She answers, loudly. He gets upset because she's yelling at him. I sit in my chair, nudging Billy to answer.

Or the day I spent forty-five minutes listening to Dad tell me his concerns about breakfast. And I quote. First of all, they don't always bring it. (Yes, they do.). Secondly, there is no correlation between the toast and the jam: Sometimes it's two pieces of toast which is one slice of bread sliced in two, and two packets of jelly, never butter although the toast is buttered. Sometimes it's three pieces of toast and only one jelly, still no butter. Sometimes it's four pieces of toast and 3 jellies. And it's hard to tell if the eggs are done. Sometimes the yolk drips out when I bite into the sandwich. (Yes, I know, because I can see the egg drips on the carpet by your table.) And there's no rhyme nor reason to the bacon, when it comes or how many pieces there are. Forty-five minutes.

In my head, I can hear Trace Atkins' song, "You're Gonna Miss This". I know I will. Even on days when I dread "Dad Duty", I know I won't have it too much longer. So days like yesterday are wonderful. He said, just before I left, that he'd had a good day. Me, too.


Meredith Cole said...

I'm glad the Malice photo I took came in handy!

So interesting to read a day in your life... Everyone I know seems to be dealing with aging parent issues--it's so difficult to see them get old. I'm glad your dad still enjoys Rex Stout--it would be terrible if he gave up reading altogether.

-Meredith Cole

Vicki Lane said...

Blessings on you, PJ. Dealing with end of life issues is never fun but always rewarding.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

PJ, that's got to be so hard watching your dad lose interest in all the things he used to enjoy so much. It looks like he still loves spending his days with you--that must be very gratifying.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Julia Buckley said...

PJ, we are going through the same things with my husband's father. He has pretty much lost the will to do everything, and yet his body is defiantly strong, despite his refusal to exercise. Ever since his wife died of Alzheimer's he has become depressed--and this was a man who was a renowned Jazz announcer on Chicago radio.

It's great, though, that your dad can still read. My mother-in-law loved mysteries but said she never had the time to read, and would do it in her retirement, and then she got sick.

You're a good daughter and sister.

Sandi L. said...

Both my parents are gone now but I remember so well my days to go to the nursing home to see them. It was hard to talk with Mom because of Alzheimer's but I really enjoyed talking with Dad. He always had so many interests. But as his eyes got continually worse, I needed to read the sports pages to him from the local paper. He enjoyed that so much and I felt so bad that he couldn't read on his own anymore. Just continue to love being with him--even on the bad days.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

PJ, what a good daughter you are. AND sister. You, my gracious friend, are earning your wings and doing it with a smile and irrepressible sense of humor and pragmatism that is enviable.

Unknown said...

PJ. Sorry, something happened with my keyboard. So, as I was saying, Rachel told us about this post. Turns out, she Googled you during her medical timeout from school. Thanks for taking the time to write this. Your descriptions are spot on. Thanks for doing what you do. Loves and Hugs from the Northwest. Your bro-in-law.