Dad sat low in his wheelchair as he whizzed down the slope in the hall and zipped around the corner to the elevator.
Although he showed no expression, I could tell by his intensity that he enjoyed zooming down the hall. At the other end would be a meal in the assisted living center’s dining room and then a cigarette outside.
Except on this day, I stood in the hall, my hand over my mouth as I watched this memory play out.
Then I reached down to the contractor-strength bag full of dad’s stuff that I had dropped next to my feet during yet another trip down that slope to the elevator and out the back door to the dumpster.
This was the last time I would appear in Dad’s life, for the epilogue. The previous four times since he had his stroke in 2009 were also to catalyze some kind of change.
After his stroke, we saw each other for the first time in more than 30 years. When I walked into his room at the rehab center on Sunset Boulevard just outside Hollywood, I saw my grandfather’s ghost hunched over a child’s alphabet book as he mouthed out the sounds of the letters.
But when he looked up, I saw my dad had morphed into the father he so hated. I could see he was trying to make sense of seeing a middle-age version of himself appearing before him.
The Apparition Returns
Although the stroke did not seem to affect him physically, his brain was substantially damaged. Ever since he regained consciousness from his coma, he had always seemed to be struggling to wake up.
During the 40 years since he left New York City for the West Coast, he had almost nothing to say to his immediate or extended families. He wanted to vanish from our lives. Now here was his son — or to him, a blended apparition of his family — reappearing to help him understand that not only could he no longer drive, but he also could not live on his own.
When I appeared a few years later, it was to move him to a cheaper assisted living facility after his facility jacked up the rates. Then a few years later when he ran out of money, I had to find an even cheaper place — only to be rescued by the Veterans Administration with a pension approval at the last minute.
This last time, Dad would not be there to make sense of who I was while I cleared out his room and relived his life as I went through his things.
The Heavy Lift
This is just one small story behind some of the themes in this month’s magazine.
One theme in particular is in the article “When Insurance And Caregiving Collide: A Sandwich Generation Story,” in which Kim Anderson describes how her mother’s dementia changed three generations of her family. And here is the important part: Even though she has been in the long-term care insurance business for 20 years, she has been struggling to find the right solutions for her parents.
Even an expert can’t save her parents from the financial disaster of long-term care expenses. Her mother is in a memory-care facility. Her parents lost their house. So, her father moved in with her as she tended to her school-age kids.
Anderson has a good job that allows her some flexibility, so she is one of the lucky ones. Although it is difficult describing the stressful life she leads as fortunate, many other Americans are simply going broke with no one able to help them. And that population is only growing.
I have no idea what would have happened to my father if his landlady did not happen to find my phone number in his apartment after his stroke. I had to fight the VA for two years to get his rightful benefits. Without that benefit, he would have lived in a tiny, shared room in one of the worst parts of Los Angeles. But he might not have even gotten that lousy room, much less the better, VA-subsidized one, without an advocate.
What about all the other people I saw adrift in those dingy halls that I toured? What about the elderly outside on the largest skid row in the country?
A good friend advised me not to leave anything unsaid as Dad’s health declined. I thought I had said all that I needed to say. But now I wish I had said just a little more and also had the opportunity to ask about many of the pictures and mementos I had found. Who was this person you have your arm around? What is the significance of this decades-old matchbook? Why didn’t you open any of these holiday cards?
But questions lead to more questions. At some point it has to be enough just to see them off, our loved ones and their answers trailing behind them.
Parents go to their peace. Our peace comes when we let them go.
Steven A. Morelli