What was I thinking?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Where Do I Start?

I’ll pick a recent spot and hope it can make sense.

On December 11, 2005 my father had a stroke. Initially, his entire left side was paralyzed but, within a few days, he had pretty much everything back from the waist up. The hip, leg, knee, ankle, foot, everything on the left side below the waist is still pretty much useless.

I saw a side of my father that I’d heard about, but never witnessed first hand during that first week he was in the hospital. His young wife Le (pronounced “Lee”), 35 years his junior (and 16 years my junior) couldn’t do anything right as far as he was concerned. She was entering final exam week at the community college she was attending and, while home trying to study for exams, he would call her a dozen or so times throughout the night. He insisted that Le be with him at the hospital every minute that she wasn’t in school, not caring that her young daughter was home alone every night (Vanessa is 10). Le constantly fretted over the safety and security of her daughter home alone, and worried about her being lonely and without any human contact after school. Genuine concerns, real concerns, but concerns my father dismissed with a wave of his hand and a barely audible “harrumph.”

On December 19th, my father was transferred to a nursing home at the local VA center for rehabilitation and physical therapy. He wasn’t happy about it but, since his VA benefits are the only medical coverage he has, he really didn’t have much choice. If he checked himself out AMA, he’d lose those benefits as well. So, under duress, he allowed himself to be transferred to the nursing home.

The VA Nursing Home is, well, interesting. I suppose it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen the inside of a nursing home. The last time I recall having seen one, it was to visit my stepfather’s mother – and she passed away in 1968 when I was about 13. The ward my father resided on was full of old(er) folks, many with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Most incapable of any sort of self-care, including feeding themselves, and there’s a not-so-faint odor of feces that permeates the air. Because many of the patients are prone to wandering, anyone coming or going to the ward needs to be “buzzed” in electronically. This meant that my father couldn’t come and go without needing someone to buzz him out.

The day after he was transferred to the nursing home, I received word that he was threatening to leave because he felt that he didn’t belong there, and was convinced that Le had sent him there to be rid of him. So, that Thursday morning, through driving snow, sometimes whiteout conditions, and treacherous roads, I made the 90 mile trip down to see him.

I stopped on the way to pick up my Aunt Wanda. Poor Le had a Physics exam that day and apparently my father had called her all night long, making it impossible for her to really do any studying. Wanda had advised Le to just not answer the phone and stay home and study for her Psychology exam that night. When we arrived at the nursing home, my father was miserable, cursing and loudly proclaiming that he was worried about Le, unable to get hold of her.

He explained that, since she was from Brazil and had only been here for last winter and this winter, her winter driving skills were all but non-existent, and he was extremely worried that she might have been in an accident, laying dead in a ditch somewhere, maybe needing help, without anyone knowing where she was. Since he was so agitated, I went outside and called Le on my cell phone and told her she’d better check in with him. About 10 minutes later, she called my father to let him know she’d gotten home okay, and was not going to venture back out in the bad weather but would, instead, stay home and study for her final exam. This enraged him. He ordered her to make coffee and bring it over. When she argued with him, he screamed “Listen you stupid, f***in’ bitch, I told you to make coffee and bring it over so you’d better get your ass over here if you ever want to get your green card!” He didn’t want her out there driving in the bad weather when he didn’t know where she was, but didn’t think anything wrong with making her bring him coffee.

Through that evening, we heard him tell her “Eat shit and die,” “I ought to punch you right in the f***in’ mouth,” and “You’re just a stupid f***in’ bitch.” It infuriated me to hear him treat her that way. I came home with a severely bloodied tongue.

I managed to convince my father that staying at the nursing home was in everyone’s best interest, as Le was not capable of lifting him up and down out of the bed and out of a chair. How would he shower, use the bathroom, get into and out of bed? As much as he didn’t want to, he admitted that Le couldn’t care for him at home.

I arranged to have him released from the nursing home on a “pass” from Friday through Monday over the Christmas holiday. I picked him up on Friday, picked up Vanessa, and brought them both to my house. Le would follow the next night (Christmas Eve day), as she still had some Christmas shopping to do.

We had him up and walking using a walker the next day. He progressed very rapidly and was genuinely pleased with his new “stupid pet trick,” as I dubbed it. That evening, he began to get “cranky” again, because Le hadn’t yet arrived. About 6:00 Le called to say she’d missed a turn or something and didn’t know where she was. She’d been preoccupied with worrying about her low gas gauge and, in reality, was only about a mile off course and only a couple of miles from our house. My father was infuriated and screamed and cursed at her on the phone for getting lost, telling her “I oughta punch you right in the f***in’ mouth.” I fussed at him for saying that, and sent Lisa to go get Le. I told my father while Lisa was gone that, with it being Christmas, I’d like to get through the weekend without him talking like I’d just heard him talk to his wife.

The holiday weekend went well, all things considered. That is, right up until Christmas night when Le took him into the guest bedroom to retire for the night. My father began fussing and cussing about Vanessa’s knitting set that I’d gotten her, extremely annoyed that she’d opened it when he’d told her not to until we were ready to knit. I told him that an hour ago I’d told Vanessa to give me 10 minutes and we’d sit down and begin the instructions and I had gotten distracted and forgotten about it. “I ought to beat the shit out of that kid” my father growled. In an icy cold voice, I heard Le say “The worse thing you could ever do is hurt my kid.” I wanted to high five her right there on the spot! My father, surprisingly, remained quiet.

They left the next morning. At my insistence, Vanessa remained behind with me for the remainder of that week.

Vanessa is an exceptional child. At the age of 10, she has intelligence, maturity, and wisdom beyond her years. Yet, at the same time, she is still a child. In conversation with her, one would never know that up until two years ago, she only spoke Portuguese. She has absolutely no detectable accent, and has a broader vocabulary than most adults I know. At the end of the last school year, she stole the show in the school’s academic awards ceremony, taking every top honor for her grade. She also has a musical gift – she plays the flute in the school band, and has an uncanny ability to figure out songs and melodies on her new keyboard, without any formal training. Not just picking them out with one finger, but playing like a pro. She is sweet, perceptive, loving, and very personable. I adore this child – me, who doesn’t take well to other peoples’ kids. I taught her to knit and we both struck “the pose” on the sofa, one on each end where it reclines. We sat and knitted and ordered pay-per-view movies (Polar Express and March of the Penguins). We had a great time, chatting, knitting, and bonding. She said to me “I always wanted a little sister or brother, but I love having a big sister!” Vanessa said to me “Pat, you have the body of an adult, but the heart of a teenager.” That was quite an observation, as I’ve always called myself the biggest kid in the house.

I was surprised to find myself getting all choked up and teary-eyed when my father and Le came to pick Vanessa up the Friday after Christmas. I turned to Lisa and said "That child has an exceptionally bright light that my father could easily dim."

There’s the background. More to come…


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