Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Answering dad’s questions

Robert Steinberg, at home in Colorado in February.

     “This is a beautiful house,” my father says, sitting in our living room, looking around. “Everything is so perfect.”
     Our house is 115 years old and not at all perfect. More like a tottering jumble. The aluminum siding is dinged and piebald. Paint peels off the radiator in front of him. There are gaps in the scarred floorboards at his feet. The window panes are loose. One stairway banister snapped in half and is inexpertly repaired.
     “Thank you Dad,” I say. “We like it.”
     I don’t argue with my father, don’t correct him. He can observe the same thing, or ask the same question, over and over, and I reply in a steady, patient voice.
     “Thanks Dad. It’s home.”
     I first noticed him doing it 10 years ago, when we were visiting my parents in Colorado. Dad got stuck on a book coming out.
     “This book, how long is it?” he’d say.
     “Two hundred and fifty-six pages,” I’d answer.
     Ten minutes later.
     “And this book you’ve written. How long is it?”
     “Two hundred and fifty-six pages, Dad,” I’d answer.
     In February, we moved him and mom here. He started in on a new question.
     “When do you think you’ll retire?”
     “Never, Dad. They froze our pension in 2009.”
     “Are you retired?”
     “No Dad, not in the usual sense of the word.”
     One benefit of this repetition is that I can play with my responses.
     “Do you think you’ll retire soon?”
     “... maybe in a couple years.”
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  1. "Touching" "Honoring You Dad" "Time Marches On" We read this article and kudos to you. We both lost our fathers within a single year but able to "care" for our Moms for many years thereafter. We see some of our Dad's qualities & talents in our sons & grandsons and dare I say, our granddaughter. Well done again Neil and Happy Father's Day to you & your Dad.

  2. The reference to the one-way corridor struck me as incredibly sad.

  3. When my Father was slipping away from his memory, instead of repeating the same answer, I would tell him a family story we all shared, or ones he had told me about the farm, the war or the cars he'd driven. Eventually he went mostly silent but I told the stories anyway.

  4. We went through that with Dad and now Mom. It's not easy.

  5. "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz once delivered a gut-punch of a Sunday strip back in 1972 (last reprinted on August 11, 2002), in which Peppermint Patty asks Charlie Brown what he thinks "security" means.

    Charlie says, "Security is sleeping in the back seat of the car...When you're a little kid, and you've been somewhere with your Mom and Dad, and it's night, and you're riding home in the car, you can sleep in the back seat.. You don't have to worry about anything... Your Mom and Dad are in the front seat, and they do all the worrying... They take care of everything..."
    "But it doesn't last! Suddenly, you're grown up, and it can never be that way again! Suddenly, it's over, and you'll never get to sleep in the back seat again!"

    Left unsaid is the complete role-reversal at the end. Suddenly I have Power of Attorney for my father's estate. I am the one who visits him every Thursday in his assisted-living residence on the North Shore. I am the one who thinks of something to do during my visit each week, whether it's a ride in the car, or a Zoom call with his sister, or just babbling about the latest news at home, even if it's the same story as last week. I don't know how long this will continue, but I am driving the car now.

  6. Toward the end of her life, my mother introduced me to her roommate at the nursing home as her nephew. It was painful.

    1. My aunt, at 95, repeatedly asked my cousin: "You're Julie? Where's the OTHER Julie?" She thought she had twin youngest daughters, instead of just one.Both named Julie.

  7. My wife's older brother turned 83 last month...and he is much the same way. He can remember being given sips of beer at his uncle's bar,(at age five, during WWII), but he cannot recall what he did and said ten minutes ago. His wife's life has become a living hell.

    He has reverted back to childhood, in a big way. My wife, and her sister-in-law, find various ways to keep him occupied. Lately, they have been giving him different patterns and shapes, mostly taken from old wallpaper rolls. He matches them up and makes placemats out of them.

    I live on a short street, one that dead-ends at the railroad tracks. If I end up like my brother-in-law, I hope someone points me in the right direction, so I can pacify my mind..

  8. Beautiful column. You play it right. Just answer the questions politely. My parents didn't make it that far, but I had a next door neighbor like that.

  9. My mother didn't know any of her five children for about the last four years of her life, but she'd sometimes have a sudden glimpse of recognition of some other relative, none as close as her children. It was hard on all of us. What purpose is life when you lose your memory of everyone you valued throughout your days?

    Grizz, I'm a retired railroader, I had the experience of hitting one suicidal individual and I still see him huddled up on the tracks, jacket over his head, waiting for his approaching demise. Don't leave some other unexpecting railroader with that memory, please.

  10. Debra Garica RettigJune 15, 2022 at 8:25 PM

    Thank you, Neil, what beautiful column. That long last paragraph “to furl your sails in some snug harbor” in particular left me shaking my head at the wonder and perspective of your words.
    Happy Father’s Day. My Dad died many years ago, and still think and miss him every day..


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