[1976 or so]
There was a real familial/fraternal tipping point sometime in my early teens. It was when my younger brother Paul and I both decided we were better off as a two-man team organized against the perceived oligarchy of our parents than we were battling each other in sibling rivalry.
We rode that partnership through a lot of teenage hijinks, and, thanks to cunning, planning and a solid bond with each other, we spent most of our time back then trying hard to do two things: enjoy ourselves, and not be like our father.
And that’s probably just two versions of the same thing.
Make no mistake: our father was a good guy underneath it all. He loved his family, and did his best to provide for us, but he was not, in any sense of the word, fun. He was very Catholic, in, yes, an über-religious sense, but even more so in a dutiful way. When I was a kid, my dad went to Catholic mass every day. And let’s put it this way -- and, really, I shit you not: I heard a lot more references as a child to “offering up suffering for the souls in Purgatory” than I ever heard any emphasis on, say, having a good time, or enjoying life. We would joke in later years that “the pope has Dad on speed-dial.”
A teenage friend, who was terrified of my stern-faced father, dubbed him “Party Bill” -- a nickname that stuck for years, through a lot of laughter, although Bill never knew about it. There could not have been a less appropriate -- and, thus, irony being what it is, more appropriate -- moniker for him.
Not long after his hospitalization in March 2010 -- after falling and spending three days on the floor before he crawled to a phone and called me, in a whisper, to tell me that he was “having some trouble” -- it became clear that, this time, the party had nearly ended abruptly. My dad had come perilously close to dying. When a living human body lies in one spot for that long, toxins build up so fast in the muscles that the kidneys become overwhelmed and can’t clear them all, leading to a potentially fatal condition called rhabdomyalysis. His rhabdo was advanced, and I was told that he wouldn’t have survived a fourth day on the floor of his house.
But he was tough. Good Christ, he was tough. A few years earlier, around 2007, he had fallen, alone, in his basement, causing a fracture of the tibia that was so close to “compound’ -- i.e., the bone breaking free of its corporeal prison to find daylight -- that the skin in the area was stretched from the pressure of the jagged, broken leg bone against it. His response to that accident was not to somehow crawl or scoot on his butt up the stairs to the phone and dial for help. No, he walked up those steps -- 13 of them -- and then sat in a kitchen chair until the next morning, waiting to summon help until he was “absolutely sure that it wasn’t just sprained.” The surgeon told me back then, “Your father must have a pain tolerance that is superhuman. I get squeamish thinking about taking one step on that leg and he took 15 to 20. And he damn near turned some of the bone into powder doing it. I have no doubt that he walked on it, as he says he did, because it is damaged in a way that matches that kind of behavior.”
By the way, my father later admitted that the real reason he didn’t call for help sooner when he broke his leg in 2007: he was afraid I would (again) bring up how maybe, just maybe, this time it was time to move.
So rhabdo a few years later, after a few days on the floor? That was just a bump in the road for Bill. He bounced back enough within a week or so that he was transferred from the hospital to a nursing-care wing at local place we will call the Q. He fought me hard on that one, but acceded when he still couldn’t stand up without assistance. Then, within another couple weeks, he was able to shuffle along slowly using a walker, and he was shifted to the next step down, so-called “assisted living.” The notion is that residents in that section of the Q can perform the basic tasks of life -- dressing, bathing, bathroom issues, etc. -- but need to have their meals prepped for them, and just generally get checked in on by staff a few times a day. Assisted living at the Q was apartment living, but with community meals that commingled everyone. So in one dining hall there would be folks with very moderate memory/dementia issues and others, like my father, who were there solely for orthopedic/physical problems.
Again, he battled me -- “If I can walk, why am I not going home?!” he yelled -- but the switch from nursing to assisted living was so seamless, from one building of the Q to another, that he hardly had time to complain. In fact, I think staff told him they were just taking him for a “short ride in a wheelchair.” He was mighty pissed off when I said, “OK, so this is your new apartment for now.” His first question, “What do I have to do to get out of here and go home?”
Those were his second and third questions too.
In 2010, my dad was not yet showing any outward signs of dementia. He was nearly blind, couldn’t walk without a walker -- and even then, did so with great difficulty -- and he was not a good candidate to return home, but, as a doctor put it to me back then, “His MRI shows a prior stroke and a normal, aging 80-something-year-old brain. He is old, stubborn and cranky. He even qualifies as miserable. But he isn’t incompetent. There is no doubt that he shouldn’t go home because he can’t get around. But....”
The doc trailed off. The unstated conclusion to his summary: we can’t legally keep your dad here against his will. We can make it seem as if he “needs to stay,” but if it comes down to it and he calls a cab, we can’t stop him from leaving.
But, almost immediately, the staff at the Q tried to incorporate my father into their daily routine. Maybe he’d like to join a group activity? There were many of those!
He refused every offer.
He sat in his room all day long listening to classical music on the radio, or occasionally turning the television to basketball or baseball. The only out-of-apartment adventures were for meals, and, he told me that he hated those “because the food is terrible and there’s nothing here but crazy people.”
Toward the end of April 2010 there was a standard monthly “care conference” held about my father at the Q. He had only one question -- repeated so many times that it became painful: “How do I get out of here?” When staff and I dodged his first few stabs at that interrogatory, he began yelling it. So the director of the Q tried to distract Bill with another subject: “Hey, let’s turn the floor over to Karen for a moment. She is the activity director, and, William [she said his name somewhat schoolmarm-ishly, somewhat singsong-ishly, in a way that made me cringe because I knew what he would think of that], Karen says that you haven’t agreed to participate in a single activity since you arrived here a few weeks ago.”
Karen (a lovely, polite, well-mannered young woman, speaking in a truly earnest and caring tone) stepped in: ”William, we really want you to enjoy yourself while you are here. But I need to know what it is you like to do. What do you do for FUN?” (She put heavy emphasis on that last word).
My dad looked at her incredulously, then contemptuously. Then he squinted a little, as was his habit at the time, peering through the fog of his awful vision, to glare one-by-one at each of the four other people in the room, including me. He paused, put his head down for a moment, then reared up a bit in his wheelchair, slamming the palms of his hands down on his thighs, and bellowed, louder than I had ever heard him speak: “FUN?! [Profoundly long pause for effect]. I’M NOT INTERESTED IN FUN!!!”
The care conference ended.