Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to Grow Old

With big holidays a few months down the road, thoughts of my widowed mom lead to thoughts of last Christmas, when Dad was still living. Looking back at my last visit with him, there were clues that Dad was going to die--sooner rather than later. At that point, however, we all believed he was just going to keep on going indefinitely. We were all in denial, including Mom. Tough-broad-aging-actress Bette Davis is credited with saying: getting old is not for sissies. True words. Mom and Dad have set an example for their kids and grandkids. They are/were Not Sissies.

Dad stopped me one day during that Christmas visit as I walked by him, ensconced in his favorite recliner-in-front-of-the-tv chair. He said my name, and as I paused, he craned his neck to see into the kitchen if the road was clear. Then he whispered, sotto voce: "I think your Mom needs to get out more. She spends too much time at home." I thought about that a minute, and said, "Well, she doesn't want to get out. She likes to be here with you. " And he shook his head in irritation at not communicating what he really meant. His hearing was quite poor, had been for years. I realized it was an effort for him to reach out to people, that the effort of communication was more difficult than it had been for most of his eloquent and verbally acute life. I consoled us both that Dad shouldn't worry about Mom, who was undoubtedly happily making her tenth batch of cookies for us, even as he spoke. And I walked on by.

Later that same ( too short) visit, Dad once again stopped me, nearly planting himself between me and the door towards which I was headed--no mean task for a guy who was a bit wobbly on his feet and refused to use a cane, out of vanity. I was startled at his assertiveness, and stopped to stare--really look this time--into his face. He said again, with increased urgency, "She needs to get out more." I thought maybe Dad was having some kind of confusion attack, which was totally unfair, because he was never confused at all, not even in the final months of his life. But I said well, I'll talk to her about it, and maybe we can encourage her to join some group or something. Like, in Steeleville pop. 2100 there are groups to join--right. But I figured the Senior Site was good for a meal out a week, although we both knew Mom wouldn't leave to go eat dinner at the Senior Site and leave Dad alone. The Library offered Senior computer classes, and she was actually pretty good with keyboarding and limited internet. I made a mental note to snag her for a library trip ASAP.

Dad actually did pretty well on the getting-out-and-about scene, himself. Every morning, he got up at 7 a.m., had coffee and oatmeal, and went to his gym. I kid you not, at age 87, when he and Mom moved to Steeleville, pop. 2100 (aka, the city) and left the isolation of the farm, he joined the local teensy-tiny gym a few blocks from their senior condo. I don't know what he did there, and didn't like the picture when it loomed before me--any muscle-building machine is good for hurting someone with heart/prostrate/age issues. He was frail the last few years, but despite all his increasing health deficits, he kept walking without a cane, kept driving. Well . . . he did, the last month or so of his life, start using a cane now and then. We all threatened him that no one would visit him in the nursing home if he got busted up by falling at walking, with no attempt to bolster himself. The threats were not what ultimately decided him, but I believe when someone said that Mom would suffer if he got laid up, that did it.

Anyway, he'd go to the gym faithfully, then head over to the Steeleville American Legion for the coffee they kept brewed--just for him--at 10 a.m. God bless the members of the Steeleville American Legion. They all respected the old Marine who couldn't hear too well. They gave him dignity and a sense of belonging to the end of his life. His social life was intact to the week before his death. I love and cherish and will donate financially and physically and whatever to the AmL whereever, whenever.

So Dad was set with his social life, and it was really about all he could handle, a couple hours a day. Then he'd sit home the rest of the day, and read. Reading was, right after Mom, the love of his life. Well, that and St. Louis Cardinal baseball games, which he and Mom watched nearly every night in summer. Mom still does. I hope the Cardinals realize what they contribute to the lives of so many.

Dad died the following February 15th. I believe he waited as long as he could to breathe his last, to not-leave Mom alone, and to not-die on Valentine's Day. And after a while, I realized that he knew his death was growing close when he pulled me aside during Christmas and urged me to help Mom get out more--so she wouldn't be alone.

Dad was brave. He fought at Iwo Jima and Saipan and Tinian, historic Central Pacific arenas of WW2, as a Marine. The farm boy from Southern Illinois fought on Central Pacific islands against Japanese forces who were fierce. Both sides suffered horrible losses. He was able to say, after his 60's, that "both sides did what they had to do." He didn't talk a lot about battle, but said that "there are some things that you do not talk about." I.e., don't tell kids and womenfolk the gory details that war brings, and don't tell anyone what they don't have to know.

But he was brave from the time he was a child. His mom was put into a psychiatric hospital when he was 7, and his 5 brothers ranged from 3-yr-old twins to 11-yrs-old. Grandpa couldn't take care of the whole brood, because he was a superintendent at a coal mine. So he sent them to a Methodist Children's home, which cost a bit in those days. However, the boys weren't together, their mom was gone, they were alone and people weren't always kind. Sometimes people / caretakers were just mean. As Dad got older, he was fostered out to homes, where a boy was needed for compaionship and labor. Again, not always the best place to be. Eventually, he was fostered to a home which was near to my Mom's family. Her brothers and sisters sort of adopted Dad, and the rest was a 75 year+ passionate (not always in a good way, but unflaggingly passionate nevertheless) relationship.

But war, orphan homes, and not-belonging aside, the bravest thing Dad ever did was keep-on-living. When he was around 70, again sittting in the favorite chair, again he waylaid me as I walked by. My family isn't a chatty-touchy bunch at all. We were raised, as one of my sisters said at Dad's funeral, "to be little Marines." Those of you who are children of Marines will attest to the fact that once a Marine, its in the blood and seems to seep into the DNA, too. So, he halted my skitting-past any emotional encounters and said you know, I'm tired. At that time, Dad was supporting an enlarged prostate ( for which he never underwent surgery, but it stayed manageable without it thank-God), nasal polyps which mercilessly returned every time he underwent painful surgery to remove them so he could breathe, and had just completed healing from a pre-heart attack operation on some damaged arteries. He was understandably discouraged at the physical hurdles he had to face every day. His whole life he was active and physical, a constrution worker and a farmer. He said, "Sometimes I just want to go off into the woods and never come back, and run away from all this." But he didn't.

As I get older, I realize what the price is for surviving into old age. You lose a little here, a little there. Your eyesight goes, your hearing diminishes, your bones and muscles ache. You don't heal as quickly from anything like you once did. You just don't have the energy you used to. And all of that doesn't take into account any extra added illnesses or injuries you pick up. So I understand what Dad meant that day when he said that he just wanted to run off and leave it all behind. And I'm proud that he didn't.

He stuck it out as long as he could. Down to the last wire, he did not wimp out for one minute, until his heart just gave out. He had been laying in bed for a week, and Mom must have been in denial. My brother noticed that they hadn't been to the weekly Wednesday lunch at the V.F.W., but they didn't call and he didn't think about it much. Like me, he probably felt Dad would go on and on. Death was really drawing up on Dad, but only he recognized it, back at Christmas. So Mom had been trying to get Dad to eat, and fussed over him, and finally called Kenneth to say she was taking him to the doctor. When my brother went over to help her, he told me later, he could hardly look at Dad. He looked dead already, very gray and very fragile. But when Mom said okay, lets get in the car, Dad got up. He took two steps and then just dropped. My brother and my mom rushed to him, and he died. As dying goes, we all think that it was as good as anyone can ask for. At home with people who loved him, and in control of his faculties and his body up to the last heartbeat. And moving forward, never turning away.

I agree with Bette Davis. It hurts to get old, its a lot of work, and why the hell bother. I'm proud of Dad for living till the very last minute of his life. I'm proud that my Mom does go out to the Senior Site, the VFW Wednesday lunches, the Sunday School class which her younger (82 yr. old) sister teaches, to funeral home showings of friends who die, and, recently, to out-of-state weddings of two of her grandchildren. I"m proud that she said, a few months after the funeral, "Some people want to die when they lose their husband. But I don't. I want to keep going." And she has.