Before diving into this blog post, I wanted to step outside the blog, so to speak, and write about writing it. Very meta, I know.
My dad passed away about 4 weeks ago. Only now is it really starting to hit me. This makes sense if I step back, which is hard to do when you don’t really feel the ground beneath your feet in the first place. First of all, denial is one of the stages of grief, and true to the cliche, I have been in denial about my father passing away and the impact it’s going to have on me. I’ve also been somewhat in denial about the impact of having been a caregiver, and especially the intensity of last couple of months. There were days that the phone rang 20 times. In a way, you sort of have to be.
Second, truth be told, there is a part of me that wants to stop writing. Just be done grieving and processing and reach the end state, whatever that is going to be. It has to be better than this. As if declaring that I was done would make it so. I am a check the box person and sometimes I like to check the box even if something isn’t 100% complete. However, with processing trauma, it doesn’t work that way. Plus, I still have a few stories left to tell. If anything, they mean more now and I realize that I need to get them out.
Right now, I am in the phase of grieving called “dealing with the stuff”. It is different than when my mom died more than 6 years ago. Back then, my brother and I had to deal with both clearing out the clutter from her life and setting my father up to live his. I don’t have that problem this time. What I do have is all of my father’s things left in the world now in my garage. There is no distance. Every time the garage door opens, there is his scooter, his power lift chair, his desk, his walkers, his dining room table and chairs. Even our outdoor fridge has some of the beer that I used to keep in his old apartment.
But what really grabbed me recently was his robe. That stupid robe that he’s had since well before he moved to Massachusetts in 2013. One of the first things of his that I unpacked was his ugly purple suitcase; my father only had cheap luggage that came courtesy of casinos who in the 1990s gave cheap Made-in-China gifts to him and my mother in their roles as perpetually unlucky medium rollers. I had packed it for him when he checked into the rehab center. I stuffed in multiple pairs of pajamas, pants, shirts, handkerchiefs, his slippers, iPad and case, hearing aids and batteries, his headphones, reading and distance glasses, power supplies, and the framed letter he had received from the Commander of the US Navy Pacific fleet (a whole other blog post). And his robe.
So when I unpacked the robe, I flashed back instantly to how much it had said to me over the years. As a caregiver, you learn to look for signals. When he first arrived, he wore the robe constantly, even to his community’s dinners, which of course you are not supposed to do. I had to save him from that, and insist that he would wear clothes. Then he tried to wear the robe when I visited to prove his independence to me – so I would leave. I think I felt guilty at first and eventually learned not to. My father was a man with whom you had to set strict boundaries.
Over time, he stopped doing this. I would arrive on Sunday afternoons and he would be dressed, and showered, and shaved, and drowning in cologne to cover the smell that he knew his incontinence would create. After a while, I came to appreciate this gesture. For him, putting on a button-down shirt was torture, but he did it anyway. He would ask me if he looked all right. Those were the good days.
Then there would be days when I would arrive and he’d be wearing the robe, and immediately I would know that he wasn’t feeling well. I just knew. If you have cared for an elderly parent before, you know the importance of non-verbal tells, and you know not to give them away.
There were the days that he would wear clothes, and the robe, because it was cold in his apartment. So I’d quietly re-adjust the thermostat.
There were the days that because he wasn’t wearing the robe, I could tell that he’d worn it most of the week by the smell it gave off. My dad would have draped it over the chairs around the kitchen table because hanging it up was too difficult for him. Then I would put it in the laundry when he wasn’t looking and hope he wouldn’t pull it back out.
There was the day in late June, somehow only two months, when I checked him into the hospital. That was the day when everything changed, or at least where the change became obvious to me. I arrived to his apartment to find him in his desk chair wearing that robe and pajamas, with two caregivers on either side of him. They were at their wits’ end. He had refused showers and bathing for days. He had been wearing the same soiled briefs for 3 days. My father was unrecognizable, unshaven, with a dazed look and a barely coherent understanding of where he was and what was happening. His robe told that story too.
There were the final days in his assisted living apartment, which just never worked. I would put him to bed in that robe at 10am because my 9am visits would be over by then – he was just too tired. Then I would cover him with the new cover sheets that fit his new single hospital bed. That never really worked either.
I extracted these memories from just pulling the robe out of that awful purple suitcase. All of this flashed through my mind in about a half second. Maybe less as time loses meaning when one in this state. Like I said, I still have a lot of grieving and work to do.
Back to the meta — I also have a lot of stories left to write. Mostly I am writing that for me. Also I am continuing to write for the many people – which in my world, is like 20 – I’ve spoken to over the past month who have been caregivers, or are caregivers, or know they will be someday. So as with the robe, I am going to keep writing about being a sandwich generation father and son for a while. I hope there are still a few readers left who will follow along.