Category Archives: aging parents

Life is short

or long, depending on your perspective. I spoke with my sister Laurel yesterday and Bud is giving her a run for her money up in Oshkosh. My friend, Mary, has been going through the process of helping her parents transition into what will inevitably be one of the last chapters of their life and I follow along closely. Because she writes so very eloquently, walking the line between showing us her most intimate fears, controlled hysteria and outrageous good humor, I can’t read her blog posts without these literal little twinges in my chest, pings to my heart. It’s a hard road and I’m pretty sure that it’s a different road than the one many of our parents walked down- and different from much the rest of the world today. One of our most agonizing questions is, at bottom, “Where to put them when they can’t manage on their own any more?” as opposed to “Who sleeps on the floor to make room, who spoon feeds, who washes the dying or dead bodies in the end?”

I’ve been largely spared by distance and still it’s been tough. Back when the Bud and Jan Show was alive and sometimes well at Lost Loon Lodge I found, through writing here, the love and humor, connection and support that came with sharing stories about their old age. My mother never went anywhere gently, let alone into that good night; getting out the door for a Christmas Eve visit to my father’s parents involved yelling and screaming back in my earliest memories. In retirement, she found her angry voice in saving the environment and used it effectively, saving thousands of acres of Lake Superior shoreline from any possible development. Not before she got herself and my stepfather, Bud, sued by a mining company and not before they polarized the entire Keweenaw Peninsula and not before she somehow managed to trickle down her passion and love for Mother Earth to my daughter, who just now, this week, begins her PhD at the Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke University. I say somehow because she was never a very good mother to anyone but the earth, having essentially no interest in the ways of babies or children. She was a wonderful teacher, a compassionate and open-minded woman, an inspired writer, a wise and clever spirit and we, her children, benefited most directly. But mother? No. And she was difficult and stubborn, much like Mary’s mother- more pings and twinges. Bud, not unlike Mary’s father, was the one who made life manageable and the one who loved her so dearly and fed her, bathed her and carried her until her last week when she went to the regional hospital and died, in relatively short order. I say that in retrospect; it was the longest week ever. Some of you might recall that period in my life. I did some of my very best writing then.

Bud carried on, alone, on that distant Lake Superior shore in their humble cottage. In the first couple years we had him to visit each winter and we made offers to let him come live with us, although if I’m honest, each offer was fraught with anxiety that he would accept. But nothing was going to pry him loose from Lost Loon Lodge and it took a stroke and 17 hours through the night on the frozen ground before a neighbor found him and literally saved his life by carrying him into a warm bath, waiting for the ambulance, to finally get him to a place where he could be helped. It’s possible that at Bud’s funeral we will all laugh about that extreme event, finding the macabre humor in it. Who knows?

For now, Bud is living at the not so aptly named Evergreen assisted living home in Oshkosh near my sister (half, if you want to get technical and Bud’s only child by birth) and she is living out Mary’s life; not me. Bud went in under protest but within a couple months he began to find his way around and make new friends. He started young and worked his way up and his time there has been full of comic relief, in that exquisitely painful way that this stage of life can be. He proposed to his 20s-something physical therapist, he exposed himself in the swimming pool. He plotted his escape with a paraplegic. Then he got a job taking fellow patients to physical therapy and arranged a marriage between my son Daniel and a 23 year old PT student. When I say arranged, he went so far as to have a hotel room reserved for them and he had invited all the other residents in the dining hall to the ceremony, much to Daniel’s (and the young woman’s) chagrin when he innocently showed up for a visit. When Daniel humbly declined, Bud managed his disappointment by insisting that Dan play his saxophone at dinner for everyone. Most recently, a couple weeks ago, he insisted that my sister, Betsy, who 35 years ago aspired to go to music school, sing Amazing Grace in the dining hall. All verses.

Here’s the thing about old people worth their salt: when they insist on something it’s different than when you or I are insistent. It is with all the cleverness of decades of living and all of the energy of a wild and unreasoning tantrum-throwing three year old. Toss in lots of onlookers, sprinkle liberally with guilt and all those other emotions you have about losing your grasp on your parents as you knew them and wham! They prevail.

Bud has gotten something of a new leash on life (if I were accurate here, I would say “a new hard-on for life”): he’s fallen in love with Helen. Helen has somewhat advanced Alzheimers so although they spend every waking minute together and only get pried apart to their own rooms at bedtime, she loves him madly yet calls him “what’s his face” .

Laurel recently described a visit to the optometrist that had us laughing to tears on the phone; I know it was extremely taxing and frustrating for her as it unfolded. She had let him know repeatedly that she was squeezing the appointment between her work commitments and he had to be ready and waiting at 530 pm. She was clear that he should not go to dinner; she would get him a Subway sandwich (one of his favorites) right after his appointment. She arrived and he and Helen were in the middle of dinner and she only managed to drag him away with Helen in tow (he insisted) and that involved signing out and paperwork and so forth. When they arrived at the eye care office Helen began to take every single frame- dozens and dozens- off  the racks and set them down in various places around the office so Laurel was literally holding on to her and steadily replacing frames while Bud tried on potential new glasses for himself. By the time she caught up with him he had chosen some rapper designer frames from PhatFarm and he insisted those were the ones he was having. Arguments about cost, appearance and the large PhatFarm logo on the temple of the frame only made them more desirable. He refused to put his eyes against the optician’s machine; “I don’t know whose head has been on there!” Helen was back to wandering around displacing frames. When then finally left Bud announced that now they could go out for Chinese and when Laurel reminded him that was a Friday evening scheduled event but not now when she had a business meeting to get back to, he insisted. Bud now sports PhatFarm eyeglasses at Evergreen.

The most outrageous transgression was also the funniest. Laurel got a call to inform her that Bud was instigating trouble in the dining hall. He had convinced Helen that her breasts were so beautiful they should be shared with the world and Helen obligingly flashed all the octogenarians at dinner, with Bud exclaiming “Aren’t they beautiful! Aren’t those the most amazing casabas you’ve ever seen?!?” When Laurel asked the assisted living staff what they wanted her to do about it the administrator laughed and agreed there wasn’t much to be done after the fact but Laurel might want to do something about the wine country tour Bud had booked for himself and Helen. A travel agency had called the home trying to find out who they should charge for the slated Napa Valley extravaganza.

Bud’s good friend, Ray, recently made the long trip down from the Keweenaw to visit Bud and informed him that since his wife Donna died, he’s scheduled a trip to go to Japan to find a bride. I guess the pickings are still slim up in Calumet. In any case, this visit got Bud all riled up about his own lack of independence and Laurel says it’s been very difficult with him ever since then. Ray went over and started Bud’s car after almost two years (“Yup! Fired right up!”) so now Bud wants to retrieve it. That leads up to this weekend, which I fear will be sorrowful and exceedingly difficult for everyone.

Bud hasn’t been home to his beloved cottage on the lake since he was taken away by ambulance. My sisters went up at some point, got plastered on all the greasy dusty 15 year old partial bottles of cheap liquor and cleaned the place top to bottom. This basically involved stripping out all of the carpet and disposing of all the upholstered furniture, clearing out all the cupboards, closets and appliances. Decades of living: raising Keeshonds, adopting cats, canning and preserving, heating with woodstoves, huddled against winters with 300+ inches of snow, life on a lake. Most all remnants of that are gone. Lost Loon Lodge is now clean and closed up and on hold. Until this coming weekend, when Laurel and Ian will take Bud home for a visit to that most beautiful Lake Superior peninsula. Bud has been insisting, Laurel has been resistant and they have been arguing. Bud will want to stay. Bud has plans to put the dock and the boat in the water. Bud wants to get in his car and drive once again to the IGA for his own groceries. Laurel admonishes him like a child that he must agree to cooperate, that it is a short weekend visit only. They fight. Bud gets angry and loud and then sulky. Somewhere in there, Betsy was visiting and trying to bolster support for Laurel and then the only thing that would settle Bud down was for her to sing Amazing Grace at dinner. (In assisted living, it’s all happening in the dining room, which is quite the zoo.) And so she did and many sang along and Bud was briefly mollified. Laurel felt some relief because one of us had actually witnessed Bud at his most unmanageable. This weekend will be extremely tough, that I know. Laurie says it’s fine with her if Bud cries; she can help him with his emotions. She’s good and strong that way.

When I talk with Laurel, when I read Mary’s bits about life with aging parents who need to be parented, I feel their feelings to a certain extent. Partly I am spared because that is not my life right now. Partly I am sad, because that is not my life right now. When I was in the thick of it with my mother’s end of life I felt more connected to my family than at any other time. I felt more connected to my own emotions, as wild and painful and hysterical as they were.

Right now I think I will ring up Betsy and leave her a message insisting that she call back, singing Amazing Grace.