Gator's Blog

Staring Into The Sun


Sacramento, California,
February 01
Father of ultra cool daughter; husband of beautiful, infinitely patient wife; walker of goofy, good-natured dog; aspiring writer and journalist; advocate; traveler; proud Lefty; movie lover; average age-group triathlete; tinkerer; woodworker; knowledgeable in useless trivia; amateur historian; appreciative listener of seventies rock; admirer of Cheever, Boyle, McCarthy, Scorsese, Alexie, Coen Brothers, Styron, Ripley and many others great and lesser known. If you have the time or inclination please click on the "writerMann" link below to check out my website. Thanks


MAY 15, 2009 2:28AM

Dad, Death, His Spirituality, My Atheism – Part I

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The thing that has stayed with me the longest is the smell, the most vile mixture of bleach, geriatrics, and shit. That and the pleas for help as they lay in bed, their broken bodies so tiny beneath institutional blankets, narrow lips parting ever so, "Help me, please, help me," as they pathetically reach out bony hands, beckoning.  And their eyes Oh God! their eyes, truly windows into the soul, but now?  Empty, like their minds have checked out, now just waiting, waiting for the  corporeal to join them.  We were told, for obvious insurance purposes, never to help. I would never go into the rooms, but if they were out in the hallway in their wheelchair or scooter and needed help around some obstacle or another, sure, I lent a hand, what the hell.  What are rules for if not to be broken?

Those in a nutshell are my lasting memories of Dad’s nursing home. Not in totality, of course, but the sense of smell creates one hell of a connection to the past, more than any other sense, and as anyone who has been around nursing homes for any length of time can attest, that stench really stays with you. And the desperate pleas? Powerful emotional shit, to see an elderly person craning their neck and reaching out to you from the confines of their bed, their prison. I knew the ones that never had any visitors, they were the most needy. I didn’t know their stories, but boy, could I imagine, and I got some kind of pissed-off at the imaginary son/daughter/grandkids who couldn’t be bothered to visit Gammy even once a year. I also thought about the lives these folks once led, full of vigor and happenings and love and heartbreak and joy and sorrow.  Life.  Living.  That’s what I tried to focus on when I saw them.

My mother, Mary, sure as hell wasn’t one of those absentee spouses. Nope, she was there every day for three solid years making sure Dad was being taken care of, and she didn’t give a shit who she pissed off in the process. She was on the nurse’s asses like nobody’s business, with a verve and dedication borne of fifty plus years of marriage, and if the nurses or the staff weren’t doing their job, she would march right in to the director’s office to right the wrong. And it wasn’t only on behalf of my old man. On more than one occasion I walked into the dining room and there was Mom, taking the bull by the horns and passing out the trays of food to the assembled residents.

All the residents knew Mary, all the staff, everyone.  The staff and nurses had difficult jobs, no question, but sometimes things in a nursing home just don’t move as quickly as they should (or as well-meaning, loving family members think they should). No doubt there were plenty of bell-ringers, those patients who kept their thumbs pressed down on the call button 24-7. I can’t remember on any of my visits ever walking by the nurse’s station and not seeing the board lit up like a Christmas tree. The funny thing is, despite, or maybe because of Mom’s unflagging dedication to Dad’s well-being, the staff, pretty much to a person, respected Mom. Most of them liked her too, but even those who didn’t understand her singular dedicated focus did respect her.  Probably didn't hurt her cause that everyone thought Dad was the cat's pajamas.

After many years of marriage and several years of watching after him in the nursing home, Mom knew Dad like she knew the back of her hand. So when I got her call on an early August morning, I knew things were serious. "Honey, Dad’s taken a turn for the worse, and I think you need to come out here," she said.

They were in Florida and I lived in California.  "Right away?" I wondered aloud.

"Yes Honey, I think so."

My father Rocky was one of a kind.  The son of a New Hampshire state worker, he went through Cornell on a sports scholarship, graduated at the start of the depression, became a successful businessman, was drafted into the army at thirty-three, served in WW II, came back after his discharge and started in business again, got married, had five kids, became a scratch golfer who was able to regularly shoot his age in his late seventies, and retired to, where else, Florida, where he spent his days perfecting the landscape of his bay front home and of course, golfing.  And his sense of humor.  He had a great sense of humor.

Despite having left New Hampshire practically three-quarters of a century earlier, he still retained that New England toughness and independent spirit, old school to borrow a phrase, but his latest setback was something from which he was not going to recover.  The catalyst was a serious injury in which surgery was necessary, though at his advanced age of ninety-three the doctors warned against it. They recommended he be moved to the hospital where they could keep and eye on him, but Mom made the brave call to let Dad remain in his private room at the nursing home where he would be surrounded by photos of family, and, more importantly, it was a room that they both pretty much lived in, a room that, despite the institutional vibe, was intimate and familiar and comforting, a peaceful slice of place.  Home.  Their home.

A couple days later I was at Dad’s bedside along with my sister Linda and our Mom.  Dad was on some pretty serious drugs, including morphine for the pain, and he was pretty much out of it.  I like to think he knew we were there, and he did give indications of recognition, but these were mostly in the form of unintelligible grunts and moans.  Linda and I spelled our mother that first night I was back.  Mom had been keeping insane hours at Dad’s bedside, spending the nights in a Lazy-boy that was just playing hell with her back.  We insisted she go home and we would look after Dad.

Early in the evening it was obvious it was going to be a long night.  Dad’s pain was localized in his groin and it had been steadily getting worse.  By two in the morning his body was tensing up in horrid spasms, hands balled up in grotesque arthritic balls, legs drawn close to his chest, all these physical manifestations of hurt accompanied by nerve-wracking howls of pain that I never ever want to hear again in my life passing through the lips of someone I love so dearly.  We were begging the nurses to increase her morphine, but they were limited in what they could and could not do for my father.  Not what we wanted to hear.

After a harrowing night, we talked with Mom in the morning and faced the certainty that Dad was going to die, and it was only a matter of how that was going to happen.  We needed help.  It was then that we decided we had to bring in Hospice.  It was the best decision we made that long, arduous, crazy week.  (to be continued)  

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I'm sorry that your dad and your family suffered. Looking forward to Part 2.
Thank goodness you brought in Hospice. I don't know how it works where you are, but here, the hospice nurse has the authority to increase the morphine when it's needed, and by being close by, has the ability to get doctor's authorization for whatever is needed quickly. I sincerely hope it worked that way for your dad.

What you've written is well done. I hope you'll continue the story. I think it's important that people who don't understand what hospice care is are able to learn about it, before anyone they love needs it.
Death is life's bitterest fact, no doubt about that. No amount of sappy Hollywoold movies like "An Early Frost" can change that. Thanks for posting this.
From what I've known of hospices here (in Ontario), they apparently will up the morphine until it takes care of the pain...and if the patient's death is hastened thereby, no matter. Seems humane to me.
Exquisite tribute because I now feel I know both your Dad and Mom. And that is no small feat in a blog.

The heart that this was written with comes through in every phrase.
Thanks for the comments everyone.
Vonnia: yes to your questions, and the story will continue, and we think Hospice is the greatest thing ever.
I love your mom.
I love Hospice.
I love your courage to share.
Thanks Scupper, that's very sweet of you.
I am soooo glad you are writing about this. When my mom was in a facility for a month of live-in rehab, a facility which included long-term residents, I did exactly what your mother did. I couldn't help it. It became a joke among the CNAs and nurses, every time I grabbed a straw from the "notions" cart for a client who needed one, every time I raided the laundry closet in order the change the linens on either my mother's or another resident's bed because I knew they had needed to be changed for hours and there just wasn't enough staff, that yet the cost of another item was being deducted from my "paycheck". I was goodnatured about it, because not only did the residents appreciate the help, but so did the CNAs and nurses. "I guess that's why I never get paid," I'd say.
Oddly, in the facility my mother was in, relatives and friends of the clients were almost never scolded for helping out, nor cited rules about insurance liability...unless those few of us who were doing this got uppity, on occasion, as your Mom did, as I did, as a few other concerned, constant visitors did. Even then, none of us was barred from the floor. I think the facility realized that they needed the help too much to do that.
I'm also relieved that your family found Hospice for your dad. I hope it was a good experience for your dad and your family...sometimes, I hear, it's not, although for my mother and I it was. Your description of his pain is excruciating to read.
Sorry to run off at the fingers so experience of this is still fresh in my mind.
I'll be looking forward to further posts.
Gailrae: I hope your mom's rehab worked out. Thanks for the comments, and I'll finish this post soon, hope you read it.
Although I'm not an atheist, I can certainly relate to this story. It's a smell and a feeling you never forget.
I feel like I want to share some stuff with you, but I can't at the moment. I will. Meanwhile this is both painful and compelling to read and I empathize with you and your family.
I'm looking forward to the rest of the story. Written very well.