Fences [first posted April 5, 2011]
New life was hardly my mindset. Despite unanimous medical professionals’ recommendations for nursing care now, this move felt more like it might be Dad’s anguishing death by loneliness. To be separated from his wife of 63 years, whom he deeply loved and depended completely on for his care, and not understanding why—not even capable of understanding why … I could hardly bear the thought of doing this to him. Actually, neither could Mom. That is why we arranged to be at the nursing home shortly after he’d been admitted and taken to his new room, the 10-by-10 walls that would define his new life.
I’m surprised my anxiety-narrowed eyes saw anything on my country drive. When my eye rested on an albino tree trunk shorn by lightning, I thought about Dad’s white-stubbled skin and dementia-stricken brain. A reddish flaking river birch trunk reminded me of odd-colored scales on Dad’s sun-spotted arms. I should remember to take lotion with me to the nursing home, I thought. Rolling horse pastures bordered by low, wide-posted, white fences did not affect me emotionally, but when I passed one farm with a small area, maybe 10-by-20, surrounded by a tall white fence with slats really close together, I could just feel my Dad suffocating after 89 years of having free run of a spacious home.
Round gray clouds sat heavily above me like herds of brooding elephants. Praise music on my car CD player comforted me, though I struggled to concentrate. One plaintive lyric, “You are my Father,” jarred me, because all I could think about was my earthly dad. But it was the reminder I needed at that time to reconnect with my heavenly Dad.
My parents’ house sat eerily silent and empty. I couldn’t see Mom, though she was there, but Dad was in the hospital, never to return here. Dad’s empty easy chair napped without him. The TV slept. His CD player and stacks of jewel cases were just shadowy shapes on a table. I wished I’d entered a toy store whose toys would come to life if I but flipped a light switch. Near the front door was the gym bag my mom and sister had packed up for Dad. It contained pajamas, toiletries, and a few things like M&Ms and a section of the Sunday paper for him to enjoy. Mom didn’t want to take personal, homey, décor items his first day there, because she didn’t want to tell him yet that he’s not coming home, he’s staying home—there. No tennis trophies, no vacation photos, no model classic cars, no joke books or jigsaw puzzles—yet. I had to trust her judgment about how much truth he could handle in a routine-change, but I still felt complicit in some sort of trickery. Plus, I dreaded seeing Dad’s puzzled expressions, or saying too much. Mom’s words and timing would have to be the gentle bridge Dad would cross to adapt to his new surroundings.
As Mom and I puttered in different parts of the house, we heard something clatter to the floor. I poked around various rooms looking for what might have fallen, but didn’t see anything. As we were about to leave for the nursing home, I spotted the fallen item. It was one of the leaded-glass sun-catchers hanging from suction cups on the window next to the door. Why couldn’t it have been the blue bird with the red berry? Why couldn’t it have been the brown and black and white raccoon? Why did it have to be the red and yellow classic car—the only sun-catcher that would remind me of my father?
Our nursing home visit was tense. Crammed into a tiny nurses’ office, Mom answered questions and signed forms with the memorable, dreaded date 4-4-11. If his heart stops, do we want him resuscitated? Yes. Can they put bed rails up at night? Yes. Right outside the nurses’ station sat my bright-eyed dad in a wheelchair. I didn’t remember ever seeing him in a wheelchair. He was surrounded by other residents in wheelchairs. His face broadened into a big smile to see us. I heard him ask someone what was going on and when would he see his wife. I popped out to hold his hand, caress his crew-cut, and assure him Mom would be out in a few minutes. During our visit in his new confines, every time he asked Mom, “Yes, but when can I go home?” his slow, ongoing death by diminishment clutched at my heart. At 4:30 I wheeled my brave dad into the dining room to dine with strangers and drove Mom to her empty home.
I couldn’t wait to get home. My home was all I wanted. But it was an oxymoron of a slow rush hour and I was agitated. Scrolling through the day, my brain’s cursor eventually fell on the fallen sun-catcher, and I lost control of any calm or pseudo-calm I had had. I called to tell my sister about the sun-catcher; together we cried at the tear-triggering symbolism. When I got home, I discovered walking the dog to be a healthy release of pent-up anxiety and profound grief. The thought that my sweet father might in any way feel abandoned brought gut-wrenching and wailing sobs that I hope none of my neighbors witnessed. But I needn’t have worried about my neighbors thinking me a lunatic, because today it was neighbors who consoled me and persuaded me—from their personal, similar experiences—to focus on the comfort of knowing how safe my dad now is. His tall fence with closely spaced slats protects him in ways his two-story rambling rooms can no longer. This perspective gives me hope that my dad can enjoy his last days and that I can put 4-4’s fence fears behind me to enjoy and comfort him again.
4-4-11 grief isn’t over by 4-5-11; I will no doubt sob again as I lose more and more of my dad. But I’m grateful to friends for guiding me by the elbow into a new room where a ray of sunlight glints yellow on a fallen sun-catcher. Dad will be safe and well cared for.