Like Father, Like Husband

Photo by Laura Vinck on Unsplash

Growing Up

In the 1940s to mid-60s, my father grew nectarines, cherries, apricots, walnuts, corn, and tomatoes in Northern California. When I was a child, my bedroom window looked out on the nectarine trees, and I came to know and love the seasonal changes: the cyclical rhythm of dormancy, blossoming, and the bearing of fruit.              

My father was always busy at work, often sitting on his dust covered tractor with its pealing crimson paint, the four corners of a red bandana knotted to form a hat to protect his head from the sun and dust, a pack of Lucky Strikes in the left breast pocket of his sweat-stained blue work shirt. “Take me for a ride on the tractor,” I’d plead. Oh how I loved those rare times when he’d let me climb up on the toolbox to sit by his side and ride with him—just for a bit. For him that old tractor was all about work, but for me it was an alluring adventure and a brief glimpse into another world.

Sometimes on a summer afternoon, I’d climb into the passenger seat of his Ford pickup and ride with him into town. First might be a visit to the lumber yard for some wood and next a quick stop at Ranch Supply for a chat with his friend, the owner, and to pick up a bag of Purina Chow for my dog. Then across the railroad tracks to say “Hi” to my uncle and aunt who owned the local hardware store. Right next door was the ice creamery, so of course we had to stop there too. I don’t know who enjoyed those sundaes more, him or me. In the evening, after another of my mother’s delicious dinners, I would climb in the pickup again, this time with my dog, and off we’d go to check the water that irrigated the cherry orchard. I loved those warm evenings, the stillness of the land, and the soft gurgle of water as it filled the ditchers and replenished the soil.

Gifts From My Father

My father taught me many things, mostly by example. First there was love, no matter how far I stayed from who he thought I was or should be. He had been an athlete in college, so he shared his love of sports by building me a tennis backboard in one of the sheds and setting up a hoop for playing basketball. The value of companionship, too, was a lesson I learned from my father. He also taught me to value life, in all it’s many forms. For instance, he loved animals and encouraged my care of the many pets I had over the years of my childhood. His dedication to tending and nurturing the crops he raised was a testament to his love of nature and all living things, from soil to plants, animals, and people. He valued family and took my mother and me on many excursions to visit distant relatives. Above all, he cared for me with love and compassion, undeterred by the stumbles and many bad decisions I made growing up and in appreciation of my triumphs, large and small.

There came a time when my strong, hard-working father could no longer put in the long hours that running a farm demanded. The long, pre-dawn times of drenching crops with deadly spray took its toll and neurological problems sapped his strength. Most often it was parathion in the tank, a vile, insidious stuff, now no longer in use. I can still remember the acrid, choking smell of the spray material that was stored in one of our white-washed sheds. I didn’t go in there often or for long: I was cautioned to stay out. 

Perhaps it was that stuff he sprayed with, or a combination of things, that led to his slowly creeping dementia. It became pronounced after a vascular problem required the amputation of one his legs. Never able to master walking with a prothesis, he became resigned to using a wheelchair. Sometimes his behavior was erratic and angry, so unlike the loving father he always had been. I remember one time when I, now an adult, came home for a visit. After one of his angry outbursts I said, “It’s all right, Daddy, you weren’t yourself.” Looking up at me, confused, he asked, “Who was I?”

When my father became ill, the tables were turned, now it was my turn to care for him. That took many forms: from handling the bills and assorted paperwork to spending quiet time, being together and sharing memories. The hardest part was called “spending down” when I paid for home health care for him until he qualified for Medical—as Medicaid is called in California—and he entered a nursing home. This was an unhappy time for us both, but I was one of the lucky ones, for a smile of recognition never failed to appear on his face when I visited. He passed away quietly in a hospital, his work done but his love enduring.

My Husband

My husband and I were an active couple. We loved to go on backpack and hiking adventures along the Stanislaus River and when we got into mountain biking we excelled – biking the many trails in the SF Bay Area where we lived and mastering the challenging Flume Trail above Lake Tahoe. 

All too soon those adventures came to an end when Michael was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His decline was gradual, from dragging one leg on our frequent hikes to becoming wheelchair bound. 

My husband hadn’t always been sympathetic to my father’s condition, but as time went on, the similarities between my father’s condition and Michael’s became apparent to us. While we were visiting my parents at their house one day, my father came back from the grocery store and, embarrassed and discouraged, told us he had fallen down in the aisle. Michael had seen my father maneuver around his own house very well, and later Michael confided in me that he didn’t believe my father had fallen in the store. Now, years later and dependent on his hiking poles, Michael has fallen down many times and is afraid he might seriously hurt himself. Now he tells me that he knows there’s a big difference between getting around familiar surroundings and trying to maneuver in public places. “I wish I had gotten to know Bob better,” he says, referring to my father. “I understand what he was going through.” Situations like this have taught my husband compassion, for others and, more and more, for himself.

Also, like my father, my husband’s memory and cognitive function declined. At first it was paperwork that I took on, filling out disability forms and paying the bills, but soon I had to become his second memory, recounting his symptoms and remembering instructions when we went to our many doctor’s appointments. The hardest part for me to watch was the memory test that a doctor had to administer for Michael to qualify for disability status. At the beginning of the exam, the doctor gave Michael three items to remember. At the end of the exam, Michael could remember only two. I squirmed inside as I watched him grope for the answer and, finally, realize that he just couldn’t remember.

Over the 10 years that Michael suffered from MS, up until his untimely death, he was in and out of the hospital many times. Often experiencing hallucinations and memory loss. In one instance he asked me many questions, trying to find out what’s acceptable behavior in this strange new world he found himself in. On one occasion he asked me, “Is it all right to talk to the nurses? Is it all right to ask them to do things for me?

“Yes, of course,” I reassure him.

“Is it all right to ask one to get in bed with me?” This question was asked seriously, in the same innocent voice.

“No,” I had to inform him, and I tried not to laugh. He nodded, calmly absorbing this important information. He really didn’t know what was acceptable behavior and what wasn’t.

About this time, I discovered that he was concerned about the welfare of the people caring for him. Referring to a nurse’s aide who has just left the room, he ask me, “Is she from a country the US exploits?”

“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

“Because if she comes from an exploited country,” he explained, “she might be angry and take it out on me.” I see his real concern and, suppressing a smile, I assure him she wouldn’t, which he seems to accept. In fact, he seems to accept all of my answers, as if I’m the most knowledgeable person in the world. He even tells me I’m very smart. He seems to be completely devoid of social memory, and, apparently, he sees me as the person who can enlighten him.

A little later, out of the blue, he asks me if mentally retarded people are taken care of; he’s concerned they might be left to fend for themselves. Another time, he asks if we’re free.

“What do you mean?”

“Can we go wherever we want? Can we do whatever we want to do?”

“Pretty much.”

“Do we have to work?”

“Yes.”

“Then we aren’t really free,” he concludes.

I have to admit that I guess we aren’t. He nods sagaciously, taking this in.

Lessons Learned

Among the many lessons I learned from my father was how to become his caregiver, and during the years my husband had MS, my caregiving tasks increased a hundred-fold. Besides becoming his back-up memory, I learned to accomplish many tasks I never thought possible, like changing a Foley catheter while maintaining a sterile environment and administering IV medications. Throughout it all, the most important lesson for me was learning compassion, for without that I would have been doing things for my father and my husband, but not truly caring for them.                                                                                                                                                

Perhaps I was destined to become caregiver; perhaps we all are as those we love need care. At any rate, I’m glad I was there for my father and my husband, and that they, too, where there for me. My hope now is that my story might bring inspiration and companionship to other caregivers as they find their way on their own caregiving journeys.

Solace

photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

These are times when much is taken away. As caregivers we are all too familiar with loss, and now is an especially difficult time. I’d like to share an essay written by the Irish-English poet, David Whyte, that speaks to loss and to solace.  

Solace is the art of asking the beautiful question, of ourselves, of our world or of one another, often in fiercely difficult and un-beautiful moments. Solace is what we must look for when the mind cannot bear the pain, the loss or the suffering that eventually touches every life and every endeavor; when longing does not come to fruition in a form we can recognize, when people we know and love disappear, when hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.

Solace is the spacious, imaginative home we make where disappointment goes to be welcomed and rehabilitated. When life does not in any way add up, we must turn to the part of us that has never wanted a life of simple calculation. 

Solace is found in allowing the body’s innate foundational wisdom to come to the fore, a part of us that already knows it is mortal and must take its leave like everything else, and leads us, when the mind cannot bear what it is seeing or hearing, to the birdsong in the tree above our heads, even as we are being told of a death, each note an essence of morning and of mourning; of the current of a life moving on, but somehow, also, and most beautifully, carrying, bearing, and even celebrating the life we have just lost. – A life we could not see or appreciate until it was taken from us –

To be consoled is to be invited onto the terrible ground of beauty upon which our inevitable disappearance stands, to a voice that does not soothe falsely, but touches the epicenter of our pain or articulates the essence of our loss, and then emancipates us into the privilege of both life and death as an equal birthright.

Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of. 

To look for solace is to learn to ask fiercer and more exquisitely pointed questions, questions that reshape our identities and our bodies and our relation to others. Standing in loss but not overwhelmed by it, we become useful and generous and compassionate and even more amusing companions for others. But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable loss that will accompany you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then just as you were beginning to understand it, take you away?

More from David Whyte can be found at https://www.davidwhyte.com.