When I arrive on Sunday mornings to my father’s place, he’s usually sitting in his old chair in front of his heavy, worn wooden desk. It’s old enough that the drawers either droop or don’t open without herculean efforts. A small spiral notebook sits on the right side, his iPad in the front and the inbound mail on the left. The new in the middle, the old on the right and left.
This notebook contains the list of my tasks he’s stored up over the course of the week for me to address during our regular sessions. It’s a consistent set of technical issues, household annoyances, financial questions, and the occasional personal care request. Apparently one core skill you need as a Sandwich Generation son is the ability to give pedicures. Always these tasks are written in capital letters. My father has always preferred capital letters.
In his office in my childhood home, the one where the desk used to live, he mounted a posterboard on his wall to show upcoming projects. He was a one-man consulting engineer who would pile himself and his sophisticated electronic equipment into a faux-wood paneled station wagon and trudge off to faraway cities. He’d test television signal levels to help design or improve antenna or satellite towers; two of then loom to my right when I drive down Route 9 toward Newton.
The posters hung in landscape position with 3 columns and maybe 10 or so rows. He’d show the date, the city, and a few other tidbits about the job. All written in capital letters. I remember like it was on the wall of my house today. Over the years, those posters piled up behind him filing cabinets – those stayed behind when he left the house 2 ½ years ago – like a history of his career, his marriage, the life he created for my brother and me of a father on the road.
I’m remembering this now because last weekend an inbound direct mail piece from Carnival Cruises prompted me to suggest that Bermuda would be close enough to visit if he wanted. He shook his head and started recounting the many reasons he couldn’t. One piece of evidence he offered up about his decline was the trembling in his hands. And t’s true – they do tremble a little. Then he held up the notebook and said, “See – I can only write in capital letters.”
That’s true now – but it was sort of true then. Same for the unusual way he stands up, using his arms to lift himself up instead of his legs. He’s always done this and it drove my mother to distraction. Now he notices it. He’s never had good hearing. For years it was because “you all mumble!” Now he recognizes it.
So as middle age has overtaken me, I too have started to look for my signs of my own physical decline. When you look, they are everywhere. My vision up close isn’t the best anymore. On many nights, my energy runs out long before I think it used to. My powers of concentration are deteriorating. And my handwriting has become totally illegible. Or at least, that’s what I thought until the journals that I kept when I was 16 disabused me of this notion.
In the moment in front of the familiar old desk, I resisted the urge to talk my father out of his sentiment. That would have been unrealistic; he is almost 92 after all, and of course he’s declining physically. Or put another way, some of the tendencies that have been there all along are more pronounced in him. And in me.
His letters are in caps, while in my notebooks – new and old – they are in a weird middle area between caps and lower case. That’s not new though. It was there all along.
When my father first moved up here 2 years ago from my childhood home in New Jersey, one feature of his community that my brother and I loved was the scheduled dinners with the same people. The idea was: it would force him to substitute his worn bathrobe for actual clothing, get some minimal exercise by walking down the halls. He’d have to interact with people in the elevator on the way. He would sit at a table with the same people with whom he’d inevitably becomes friends. He’d have to engage in conversation to keep him sharp. Plus we’d know he was eating well. As an added bonus, if he didn’t show up to dinner, they’d know and quickly figure out why. It seemed like a dream.
Mostly that’s because it was. That’s a system designed for Sandwich Generation fathers like me, not the actual people involved.
My father escaped this system by accident. Literally – his incontinence is what broke him free. Once his community’s director started indirectly referencing that “others” were complaining about his smell at meals, even the ones he hadn’t attended, his response was to stop coming and order dinner to his place instead.
Here’s what this means. Now, my father calls down at whatever time of day he feels like and has lunch and/or dinner delivered to his room. He gets room service every day! Every day! When I described it to my kids, it blew their minds because I’ve described hotel room service as a treat for special occasions. Sometimes he finishes the whole meal, but often, he sort of snacks on it all day. Which itself is healthier. He’s not that hungry late in the day so he orders earlier. Also healthier.
Thanks to his incontinence problem and his DVR, for the first time in 50 years he is also freed from the constraints of the clock. He might love this most of all.
We ate my childhood dinners at 6pm on the nose, with the dinner bell (yes, a dinner bell) at 5:58. My mother always blamed this rigidity on my father who expected things a certain way. But now I am learning that this (too) wasn’t exactly true. She was always one to complain about something, and blame it on someone else while all the while she had wanted to do it in the first place. So it was with our 6pm dinners, it turns out, because she wanted to watch the 6:23pm weather from the local Philadelphia station, the 6:26pm weather from New York, and then World News Tonight (first with Frank Reynolds and then Peter Jennings).
They did this every day. Apparently my father hated it. So being freed from the 6pm dinner seating at his place is another revelation that in hindsight is obvious.
Now he has freedom of his own schedule and his own place and his own meal choices and the safety net of Sandwich Generation sons who can understand that their notion of meals was all wrong. Well meaning, but all wrong.