Everybody got to walk that lonesome valley
They got to walk it by themselves
Ain’t nobody here can walk it for them
They got to walk it by themselvesMississippi John Hurt, and others
I’m laying on the couch trying to find the strength to get up and do something with my life.
Maybe I could start with moving that stack of clean laundry that sits on the armchair, just a foot or two from my head. My father’s white Hanes t-shirts, white socks and pairs of Jockey shorts, folded into a tidy pile.
Part of the problem is – I just don’t know where to put them. My dad doesn’t actually live anywhere at the moment. He’s in a hospital bed in Queens. What’s left of his stuff sits in me and Eric’s garage.
The other part of the problem is – and don’t think I’m weird – I kind of like having my dad’s laundry right here, staring me in the face. There’s something oddly comforting about it. Maybe it reminds me of being a kid, how I used to have the job of putting the laundry away in my parents’ room, which for me meant license to snoop and find out more about them than they’d ever feel comfortable telling me.
Nothing has really changed about my dad since then. I swear he wears the exact same size t-shirts and shorts. Everything is plain cotton, just as it’s always been. The t-shirts are frayed around the neckband. A child of the depression, he has always been careful to not waste. I can’t help thinking some of these shirts might actually be the same ones I put away back in 1975 or 76, before I left home forever.
Nothing has changed and of course everything has changed. I’m the parent now and he’s the child. It happens to us all doesn’t it – if our parents last long enough for that magic switch to flip, gradually, slowly and all at once, all at the same time.
Every day of the last few weeks had been harder than the day before. Trying to find a place that would accept my dad with his agitation and aggressive behavior. All dementia-related, everyone acknowledged, but nothing most Memory Care places really want to deal with.
By the day after the hardest day last week, where my dad was discharged from the ER yet again and only allowed back into his Memory Care facility because we’d arranged the 24/7 services of a home care aide (named “Prince”, a small bright spot in a terrible day) I was waiting to hear what the hospital had done with his clothes and trying to schedule a nursing home assessment. Then I was in the chat for a Gimme Country radio show I’d put together, subbing for Chuck Prophet. Surely my dad would be okay with Prince to look after him? My brother Michael had spent the night, waiting for the ambulance to drop my dad back at the place he is no longer allowed to live after this week. How does it come to this?
I was in the radio show chat when there was a disturbance in my family’s Facebook Messenger thread – dad was heading back to the ER again, this time in the back of a police car. I jumped in my car to drive to Queens. I’d begged them the day before not to discharge him and look he was right back in the same place again. A nurse had told me how oftentimes the elderly with extreme behavioral problems won’t exhibit them in the ER – they are awed, they’re scared. They’re on their best behavior. This was the eleventh time for my dad.
Blame Covid. Blame his wife dying suddenly from it back in December 2020, and quarantining a 93 year old man, and virtual psychiatric visits and masks and just nothing preparing anyone for how things can break down.
I called my friend Amy Allison as I drove to the hospital, knowing she was a social worker. She told me what to say in the ER, so that my dad could get a psychiatric evaluation. I asked my brother to track down the incident report from the police precinct that had been called as a result of my dad’s behavior. I entered the psych ER at 9:30 PM, pleading with a nurse that my father was “dangerous, please believe me he is dangerous to himself and others.” I turned to see my father sitting calmly in a chair, wrapped in a white cotton blanket. “Amy!” he said. “How did you end up in the same place as me?” He was gentle and not agitated at all. I think the nurse wanted to admit me instead.
They put my dad in a bed. Did all the tests they do. They told me to sit tight and wait to speak to the psych team.
Is there a HIPAA law or unspoken code of honor that forbids me from sharing what I saw in that Queens ER psych unit on an August night 2022? I sat and stood in the general vicinity of my father in his ER hospital bed as the hours went by, the big red digital numerals on the wall switching from 9:38 to 11:22 to 12:35 to – well, you get the idea. I was there until nearly four AM. I was there long enough to go from fear and awe of the health care workers to simply awe. Maybe some black humor too. There were all different colored scrubs to decode – I’m still not sure if any of it meant anything. Grey seemed to confer gravitas, black a general hardness and efficiency. Only one wore white – a classic doctor type circled the proceedings at random times as if he was a ghost from a long ago medical past – maybe it goes without saying he was the only white male who wasn’t wearing a police or FDNY uniform. The workers were every color, from every possible place on earth. They wore forest green, hot pink, chic beige scrubs. The footwear was incredible. Unimaginable technological strides have been made in clogs, crocs and sneakers.
And what of my dad? He needed help and I needed to make sure he got the help he needed. Dementia takes all forms and in my Dad’s case – a very straight, law-abiding man had turned into…Junior Soprano. “How old am I? I’m nine…thousand years old!” he said perkily and I joked around with him to keep from hating him. I joked to keep from crying. When he needed to put on a show, well wasn’t it just like him to charm everyone and act so sweet. I wanted to wring his neck. He was oh so very reasonable on the surface.
Unlike…the chic French woman in the next bed over, with an impeccable manicure, red bob, lavender eyeglass frames, calmly reading a magazine one second and kicking, screaming and fighting so fiercely the next that it took two men and two women to sedate her. Or the rail thin self-professed gangster in torn and slashed skinny jeans, red ballcap and tiny braids, who threatened to take one of the guys in black scrubs “DOWN…cause I’m EIGHTIES-MADE MFer, don’t MESS with me you fake gangster bitch!”
Or the poor fellow who got himself dressed twice in his own street clothes, only to be coaxed back into his gold and red patterned hospital gown; or the sad guy who trudged towards the door, discharged from the ER with his hospital-issued Metro card and Target shopping bag, asking if anyone could give him $20 cause he had to get back up to the Bronx. He ended up trudging back in from the outside world in mere minutes, defeated, submitting to the hospital gown and spending the night.
No, my dad was placid as a lamb. He asked after my health, whether I’d had “a decent lunch”, how was my daughter doing. All questions he’s been incapable or uninterested in formulating as his eroding brain has made that kind of effort impossible.
EXCEPT when it kicks in as some kind of survival mechanism, a fight or flight response. Can’t run from under layers of hospital blanket, without your clothes or shoes, so insist to everyone who asks that you are quite reasonable and very much ready to return home thankyouvery much. As had just happened the very day before, in this very same room. By now my dad had become familiar to some of the staff.
“Oh he has so much spirit! So much energy, he’s amazing!” they said. “Ninety five is a BLESSING!”
“PLEASE DON’T DISCHARGE HIM,” I said, speaking for my entire family, and the population of and staff of his assisted living facility in Kew Gardens. “HE NEEDS HELP. PLEASE HELP US.” I was not so different from the Bronx guy who couldn’t face the subway. When you can’t cope on your own, you have to ask for assistance.
I felt guilty for using even one minute of this busy facility’s resources but had no choice – had begged for help from my dad’s doctors, his facility, yesterday’s social worker. In his bed now, under the white blanket, his face a mask, my dad didn’t present as anything but a sweet, confused old man. Was there a manual about caring for an old person I was supposed to have read? Hadn’t I been through something a little bit similar with Eric’s mum? But she’d never been violent, except for the odd water jug thrown across a room. And that was in England where in spite of the flaws in the NHS, you’re not completely on your own with this stuff.
Why was I shocked when I heard patients in the psych ER being asked how they intended to pay for their care? But I was. It felt unthinkable – there you are melting down and on top of it you have to worry about paying a bill to help you keep yourself together? It chilled me. It enraged me. Why was I surprised? I’ve been there myself, with a raging UTI I thought would kill me, or when the nurse came down to tell me Eric had suffered a heart attack and needed to be transported to a higher level facility forty miles away – I’d asked if I could maybe drive him there myself? Partly wanting to see him be alright and partly fear of what it was all going to cost, and was insurance going to pay for it?
“I’m lucky to have a daughter like yoooouuu!” my dad crowed in the ER.
“Dad you are so full of shit.” The nurse and aide laughed. “See,” I told them -“ I’m becoming just like you guys.” They nodded knowingly. It all started to seem kind of normal.
So he was admitted. I visited him the next day and though his room was nice with a beautiful view and the nurses were nice too, calling him Papi, it felt awful to see him so distressed. All his charm was gone. Where did it come from, and where does it go?
My brother Michael and I met up at my dad’s Memory Care studio a few days later. When I arrived Michael had found takers for pretty much all the furniture we had no more use for. The aides my dad had been most abusive to got some of the best stuff and were so sweet, saying they didn’t blame him, they knew it was his disease. Michael finally took a hammer to a hideous big-eyed painting of a boy my stepmother had insisted was some kind of fine artwork. “I need to do something fun today,” Michael said.
Our father’s whole life fit in the back of my Subaru. I visited the hospital again and my dad had gone further downhill. Maybe the stress of this all was going to kill him. Some days it felt like it would take me down, and I’m thirty years younger. I drove home through the worst rain I’ve ever seen, praying dear God please don’t let me die on the New York State Thruway with my dad’s suitcase and the stained glass hanging lamp and rustic red milk can from the house I grew up in – two lone remaining childhood treasures – in the back of my car. When I finally got back home, I wondered if this was it, if I’d ever see the man again.
My dad’s hanging in there at the hospital and it looks like we’ll move him somewhere after the Labor Day weekend. In the meanwhile, I lay on the couch, next to his laundry. I used to think I didn’t really know him that well. That may be true. Or maybe there’s not a whole lot to know that wasn’t there all along. The tidy clothing. Polished business shoes lined up on the floor. A Playboy magazine in his drawer and a cross over his dresser. Coins and a wallet equidistant from a wooden handled brush and black plastic comb. It all said home, and family to me. It doesn’t have to be a lot deeper than that, to be love.