Preparing for the Journey

I drove home to Wisconsin last weekend to celebrate Easter with my family. It’s a bit of hike for just a weekend, about an eight or nine hour drive each way. But, it was important. I needed both to get away to relax and to go see family especially my dad.

Dad turned 91 last month. He’s had a good journey through this life, seen a lot of both sorrow and joys, but largely I think joys have won out, six kids, twelve grandkids, and seven great-grandchildren all surrounded in love.

Things are changing with him now. They have been for several years at least, but now it’s moving faster. Dad is walking away, heading toward the next journey. Dad has dementia. No big surprise these days at 91, still it’s strange to watch, to see him go, and to feel the feelings that go with it.

I went home last weekend knowing it might be the last visit when Dad would know me. What a strange thing to wonder if one’s own father will recognize them. This time he did, though I think for a moment he may have confused me and one of my sisters. She and I look a lot alike so that made sense. Others, with healthy, functioning brains, confuse us as well.

There are a lot of sad stories out there about elderly people left alone in nursing homes with no one to visit them. I never understood that. How could someone leave an elder to die alone? I think I have some perspective now. It’s not necessarily a lack of love, but too much. It takes a lot of strength to be with the person you love when they are no longer there.

This became clear to me when my sister JoAnn, who is the primary caretaker for Dad, got a message from his care facility letting her know that he was having a rough day. We decided to stop by and check things out in person rather than just calling back.

We got there to find Dad confused and frustrated and as is becoming typical, not wearing his hearing aids. He thought some of his belongings were missing and he’d gone into other people’s rooms to find them. He’d come out with other people’s belongings and still believing his things were gone. He argued with us and the staff person, telling us if we didn’t find his missing clothing he’d just go find it himself.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to feel that unsafe in my home even more bizarre to think that without his hearing aids Dad just saw mouths moving, but couldn’t hear enough to understand the words being said. What would that be like to be in this place where nothing makes sense anymore?

I don’t know, but I can tell you that seeing Dad in that place tore my heart out. I can see why people stop visiting their aging parents when each visit acknowledges the pain and confusion and the reality that there is nothing we can do to make it better other than maybe just being there.

JoAnn was able to put his hearing aids in and work with staff to put away the belongings he’d taken while I just sat with him for a bit to help him calm. Then JoAnn and the staff reassured him by taking a look through his closet and assuring him that everything was there. Dad was calm and maybe a little reassured by the time we left. I came back later in the day to find him still confused and concerned about his belongings, but in a better mood and able to carry on conversation, albeit a strange conversation. At least he trusted me as I assured him that both he and his belongings were safe and cared for.

On Easter we had a family party. Dad was able to join us and proudly shared his little paper bunny basket full of candies with everyone. Most of the afternoon he just smiled at everyone. He did, at one point, introduce a granddaughter to her own father, but at least he knew who both of them were on some level. He just didn’t know they knew each other.

We were all glad that he could join us, but I think we all recognized with sadness that this was probably his last family party. He may live for more years, but he is, at the same time, leaving us. I don’t think any of us know quite what to do with that. I know that each moment of recognition, every hug and kiss means more to me than ever before.

Minnesota now feels a million miles away from home in Wisconsin. Dad can’t hold conversations on the phone anymore. He needs to see faces to be able to connect the sounds and have it make sense. I told him when we parted that I’d write to him. He thanked me and let me know that he wouldn’t write back. Dementia does sometimes encourage honesty, I guess.

I don’t know if I will ever get to really talk with him again. Even if we are someday in the same place together, will he be there?

I don’t know what all this means other than hold your elders close, honor them, love them, comfort them. The journey in this world is hard. Hopefully the spirit world gives comfort someday.

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Visiting Home

It was probably over twenty years ago that I had the idea of collecting stories from my father of his youth.  My plan was to write a book.

Now, two decades later the story is changing.  I never recorded those stories and the time has gone by.  My Dad turned 90 this past March.  His memories are leaving him.  I got to see him this weekend.  I made the trip home, almost 500 miles, for our family reunion and just to spend a little father-daughter time.

It’s a new time.  I remember when I was a little girl watching Dad tossing the seed corn bags over his shoulder, throwing hay bales, working on farm machines, doing all the work that needed to be done.  I remember him sitting in the recliner reading his Sunday paper, sitting in the hospital room watching Mom die, taking up his place in the kitchen after she was gone.

My Dad never graduated from high school.  He wasn’t meant for the classroom.  He’s always thought that because he struggled in school that he failed, that he was somehow dumb.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dad’s journey started on a farm in Port Washington, Wisconsin the second of four children.  His father died when Dad was seven.  Within a few years the family had to move to town and Dad was working for neighboring farmers to make a little money and follow his passion as it became clear that school would never be the place for him.

When he grew up he joined the Navy where he served for several years before marrying my mom and starting a family.  He eventually started farming with his father-in-law and went on to continue farming for over forty years while he also worked full time at a power plant and, for many years, sold seed corn.

He knew the fields like the back of his hand.  He knew every road in the county.  This weekend he and I went out for a ride.  We went to visiting and stopped at a couple cemeteries.  We talked about the fields.  He confused the soybeans and the corn.  We drove the roads he’s ridden for nearly a century.  He told me that he didn’t recognize where we were.

But still, we traveled and we talked.  When it was time for me to leave to return to my current home, he held my hand and looked my eyes and smiled.  It was a smile I remembered.  I saw it before.  I saw it on his aunt’s face.  Sr. Christine was in her 90’s when she held my hands for the last time and smiled with such sweetness and love, that combination of wisdom and childlike beauty that age creates.

My being is divided. I would both love to see my Dad again, to hold his hands, to hug him, to take another drive, to talk some more and I am mostly ready to say goodbye.  He’s been and continues to be my hero.  That never changes.  The question remains what to do about that book?