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Volume 2, Issue 4
Winter 2006:

Still My Dad

Joni B. Cole

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Winter; 2(4):a6

My dad has been in a nursing home four years now. He wound up there because of a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side and did a number on his brain. In the hospital during his long and rocky recuperation, the visiting psychiatrists weren't sure how much of his mind remained intact. When they asked him to name the Vice President of the United States, or what day Christmas fell on, often he'd stare into space. But after the psychiatrists left, I'd ask him for some five- or six-letter word I needed to complete my crossword puzzle, and plenty of times he'd give me the right answer. Then my mother would yell at him, "Myles, stop being so bullheaded."

My dad is an engineer. He designed farm equipment for New Holland Machine Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After he took early retirement, and before his stroke changed everything, he had about ten great years. In retirement, my dad's social life took off. Every Wednesday at six in the morning, he'd meet his buddies for breakfast at Friendly's, where they'd solve the world's problems from their regular booth. My dad competed in golf tournaments. He played Around the World with his sons and grandsons at the basketball court in the park. Occasionally, my dad would win — and gloat, as was his right as a short, pudgy, Jewish great-grandfather pushing seventy.

When I visited my parents from Vermont, my dad would take me and my family on road trips to the Philadelphia Zoo, Hershey Park, the Strasburg Railroad. He let my two little girls play horsey on his back. He chauffeured my mother and me to the mall because we both refused to drive on Route 30 with all the construction. While I tried on clothes at the Gap or Victoria's Secret, my dad loitered by the cash registers. He always insisted on paying for everything. One time we were at a drug store and I tried to sneak to the checkout to buy some tampons, but my dad intercepted me at the counter. He wouldn't let the clerk take my money.

My dad had a woodshop in his basement. He built nice things: TV cabinets, wooden trays with handles, conjoined dancing teddy bears, a sleigh bed with his grown-up grandson. "Myles," my mom would call down to him from the top of the basement stairs, "don't track up any sawdust."

My dad taught his youngest grandson to fish. He baked homemade bread two or three times a week in what had to be the world's first bread machine. He drove a friend's son to all his orthodontia appointments because the boy's mother had to work. He and my mom took bus trips to Atlantic City, to Dollywood, to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. My dad went to funerals, more and more with each passing year.

Every day, my dad walked his sweet-natured dog, Hannah, a mile to the park and back. Then he'd walk Sir Isaac, the lunging black lab that my mother insisted on adopting, even though my dad didn't want him. Every day, my dad made at least one, sometimes two trips to the grocery store to fetch a can of stewed tomatoes or low-fat whipped cream for some new recipe my parents wanted to try, or to pick up more laundry detergent because my mom believes in washing everything separately.

Every day, my dad worked the Jumble and the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Every day, he'd fall asleep sitting up on the couch with "Judge Judy" or "Law and Order" blaring from the TV. But then my mom would check up on him and ask, "Myles! Are you awake?" And if he didn't answer immediately, she'd get worried and call out, "Myles, are you all right? Wake up!"

After my dad's stroke, after weeks of ICUs and respirators, and after my mom told the hospital administrators to resuscitate if necessary, my dad's health stabilized. But he failed to show any signs that he would regain the use of his left side or much of his independence. So my mom put my dad in a nursing home. Then she bought a $35,000 wheelchair-accessible van.

The first year my dad was in the nursing home, he drove everyone nuts. "Let's go! Let's go!" he'd pound the armrest of his wheelchair with his good hand. At night, he'd beat on the bed rail, prompting the aides to ask, "What are we going to do with Myles? He's disturbing the other patients." My mom lived in fear that they'd kick him out, like the disruptive child in day care. She was the one who had first saved his life, but when he behaved this way she'd threaten to kill him and almost mean it, at least in the heat of the moment.

For a couple of years, my mom would try to bring my dad back to their house almost every day, or take him out shopping or to lunch. Sometimes these outings worked out nicely, but just as often they'd lead to the kind of fights between my parents that used to embarrass me as a kid. My dad's good leg would start bouncing on his footrest. The fist pounding would begin. He'd yell about real and imaginary pain. He'd obsess about having to go to the bathroom. "Myles, be still!" my mom would shout back, "You're in the middle of Home Depot for God sakes!"

On the thirty-minute drives back to the nursing home, my dad often would be seized by dusk anxiety or some other form of panic disorder. "I'm falling!" he'd cry out from the back of the van, even though he was strapped in tight. "Help me! Help me!" He'd smack his armrest. "Help me. Help me," he'd whimper.

Over the past four years, my dad's health has gone even further downhill. He used to push himself short distances in his wheelchair, but now he doesn't even try. His eyesight has deteriorated to shadows and forms. He can't feed himself. His face displays the sunken cheeks and doughy pallor of a nursing home resident. He doesn't have as many panic attacks, or complain so obsessively about pain, but when he does, one Oxycodone — and a word from my mom — usually sets him right. For some reason, my dad finds comfort in holding his toothbrush.

These days, my mom drives to the nursing home five mornings a week to be with my dad from seven until two in the afternoon. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she hires a caretaker to sit with him and feed him his meals. She instructs the woman to make sure his TV set is tuned to his favorite country music channel or the ball game, and to always press the call button right before she leaves. My mom doesn't want my dad ever to be alone.

When I visit from Vermont, I watch my dad nap in his leather recliner in the sunny corner of his room and I know, or at least I hope, that he is someplace else. Maybe the chicken farm where he grew up. Maybe playing drums in the jazz band he formed at the University of Illinois, which is what he was doing when he met my mom and stole her away from the fiancÚ she already had.

The stroke took away most of what my dad could do, and a lot of who he was. But he still can make me laugh. Recently, I was looking at old photos of my dad as a boy, and I mentioned a resemblance between him and my seven-year-old daughter. "Give her my apologies," he joked, and I felt a rush of gratitude, as I always do when I see these glimpses of the dad I knew before he got sick. My dad still loves country music. He still favors the Cubs over the Phillies. He still has a sweet tooth and enjoys a good cup of coffee, though it's hard for him to steady the cup. He still makes my mom furious, and he still loves her and remembers to tell her so. And he's still my dad.

During my last visit to Pennsylvania, I was sitting with him in his room at the nursing home. He was reclined in his chair, covered in a heavy, fleece blanket because he's always cold. Regis and Kelly were chattering away on the TV. "Mommy and I are going shopping this afternoon," I told him, by way of making conversation. "I think I'll buy a new pair of jeans." When my dad didn't answer, I started flipping through the channels. Then my dad's toothbrush tapped a few times on his armrest. "Mommy's got my wallet," he said, his eyes still closed, his face pallid in the sunlight. "You make sure she pays for everything when you go."

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