That’s how he rolls.

What a difference a week makes.

The other day, as I made my way down the hall to my dad’s room at The Inn (my dad’s term for his nursing home), I was greeted by one of his nurses who I’ve become quite friendly with. (One of the perks of having a family member who has been a resident for several years is that many of his caregivers have become like extended family.)

This particular nurse is a pal. When she saw me walk towards my dad’s room, she smiled brightly at me and said, “Guess what? He’s doing GREAT!” She then reported that much of his flu-like illness had resolved and he was feeling much better. His fever was gone. His appetite had bounced back. Vitals were all good. I thanked her and breathed a sigh of relief. Buoyed by the good news, I made my way toward his room.

The lights were off and I found him lying down in his bed. When he heard me walk in, he propped open his eyes in surprise. Then I heard his familiar booming voice exclaim, “Well, HONEY! What a surprise! I’m so glad to see you!” He struggled to sit up on his own. “Hi, Dad! You look like you’re feeling better!” I said. He nodded and said, “Oh, YES! I’m feeling much better!”

I walked over to him and offered my hand to help him sit up a bit, and instead he grabbed it, brought it up to his lips and gave it his signature kiss. “You look just beautiful, today!” he proclaimed, beaming at me. At that moment, one of his aides breezed into the room to drop something off. As she turned around to leave, he stopped her and said proudly, “Do you know my youngest daughter? She’s #7! Isn’t she a beauty?” The aide who has known me for over 5 years, nodded and smiled patiently, then said, “Oh yes, Ed. I know your daughter very well!” She and I exchanged good-natured eye-rolls and she walked out.

Great to have you back, Dad.

Next month my dad turns 88. He once told me, “I’m not old, I’m chronologically gifted.” Well, anyone who is “chronologically gifted” combined with a rather complicated health history can sometimes be rendered incapacitated by a brief illness. Add to that the challenge of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, and one shouldn’t be surprised to see a period of decline. We are fortunate he has started the slow process of bouncing back after a few weeks under the weather.

I know better than to count him out just yet. It wouldn’t be the first time he pulled a fast one on us.

Six years ago, when my siblings and I made the heart-wrenching decision to bring him to The Inn, we struggled with the idea that we were “putting him out to pasture.” But he had become too ill for my mother to continue to care for him. Like many spouses who desperately try to manage the care of a partner when they become ill, my mother put my father’s health needs before her own. She became very ill as a consequence, requiring temporary hospitalization. It was then that we realized we had to step in and find a long-term solution when we discovered how my dad’s memory impairment and physical problems required around-the-clock care. My mother hadn’t wanted to alarm us, and so she had been caring for him quietly and with dignity, as best as she could. But the time had come.

When we brought him to The Inn, it was the hardest day of my life. I couldn’t do it. My oldest sister, a nurse, bravely took him over while I spent most of the day wracked with guilt and feeling like I was in mourning.

But when he arrived at The Inn, he began to thrive. He started to exercise and participate in group activities. Being around people reinvigorated him. His memory even improved. He regained his love of woodworking through taking classes and even authored a column in The Inn’s newsletter entitled, “Ed’s Famous Last Words,” where he would interview residents and staff on various topics he chose.

(The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

As my dad rebounds from this illness, he has an incredible army of aides and physical therapists by his side whose main responsibility is to help residents reclaim and maintain their independence. The only problem now seems to be that he has gotten way too used to his shiny new companion: his wheelchair.

In fact, I do believe he’s smitten!

No longer does he have to labor with trying to navigate his walker, which exerts great energy and exhausts him fairly easily. The wheelchair makes his life very easy. Too easy.

We want that thing GONE. 

The other day when I was with him, he rhapsodized about how great his wheelchair was. It was as if he were talking about a new lover. “It’s just so convenient!” he told me. “I just get pushed wherever I need to go. It’s really great!”

Delicately, I said, “That’s nice, dad, but you know the wheelchair is just temporary. We really want you to go back to your walker when you get your strength back.”

He looked at me with confusion. “Why would I want to do THAT?” I went on to explain that the more he sits in a wheelchair, the more deconditioned he becomes. I went into great detail about how important it is to remain active and “upright.” His walker gives him much-needed exercise. It keeps him young! (Throwing him a bone about retaining his youth is always a crowd-pleaser!)

He thought about it for a minute, nodded and then said, “But it’s really great! I get pushed wherever I want to go!”

This may be harder than I thought.

Well, what can I say? My dad always did have a knack for finding the shortcut.

But then again, he’s “chronologically gifted.”

So for now, that’s how he rolls.

The Silent Warrior

My dad has fallen ill the last few weeks. He has developed a flu-like illness that has depleted much of his energy and drained his typical charm and charisma. It’s not unusual this time of year in nursing homes. Lots of bugs go around and it’s something we’ve learned to navigate around. ‘Tis the season. Like everything else, you just adjust. And you wash your hands.

A lot.

When I have visited him this week, I have found him listless and in bed with a new companion by his side. A wheelchair. He has been too unsteady to stand, so for his own safety, he has been transported here and there with these new wheels. I noticed his walker was folded and leaning against a wall in the background. Times seem to be changing.

His typical bright greeting to me has been replaced with a groggy and sleep-filled smile. My attempts at breaking out in cheerleader-mode to get him out of bed, (“Hey, DAD! Let’s get up and go for a walk!”) have been met with heavy sighs and “Oh, honey, not today.”

I really shouldn’t complain. My dad turns 88 next month so I guess I should give the guy a break. I would be knocked out, too, if the flu came calling at that age. But easier said than done.

I’ve spent a lot of time at The Inn (his term for his nursing home) lately because I’ve got my eye on him. I know that at his age and debilitated condition, a simple flu-like illness can wreak unexpected havoc. People his age don’t bounce back so easily. So I’ve been creeping around, hanging out with his nurses and aides (who I’ve come to know and have become quite friendly with) and hovering around The Inn as I negotiate visits inbetween carpool pick-ups and kid playdates. 

We’ve dutifully added the “God bless, Grandpa” phrase to our nightly prayers and I’ve been emailing my six brothers and sisters – several who live in the midwest – to give them updates and funny anecdotes, so they can feel part of the process, even though we all know they sometimes feel helplessly out of the loop when my dad becomes ill.

I’ve tried to be a good daughter, fun-loving mother, engaging wife, and available friend, but truth be told, when an illness or problem strikes with a parent, things can get a little topsy-turvey. I try to figure out where I am needed most and race there accordingly. It’s a juggling act that I am sure is not unique to my family. It can be stressful, but I do not like pity parties, so I will not be inviting myself to this one.

But surprisingly, this story doesn’t belong to my dad. Not today. For I’ve discovered there is a power-player far more important right now. This person remains largely in the background, yet wields great strength and influence.

This person has been my father’s companion, best friend, partner in crime, caregiver, and steadfast supporter for the last 62 years. It is my mother that I tip my hat to for her bravery and unwavering love for my dad.

For the last 6 years since my dad has been at The Inn (where he struggles with the slow-motion thief that they call Alzheimer’s,) my mother has quietly and without fanfare, visited him almost daily. She often joins him for their lunch date in the Inn’s “restaurant” (dining room) and walks with him afterward upstairs to the third floor when his afternoon nap calls his name.

My mother lives in town, a short 5 minutes from The Inn, in a single-story home directly behind her church. She patiently answers her phone when my dad calls her repeatedly, asking when she will be coming over to visit. When I have been at her house and the phone rings, I hear her cheerfully answer the phone as if it is the first time she heard his voice that day, instead of the seventh.

Now, that’s love.

A few weeks ago, I popped over to visit my dad after lunch and found my mother in his room “tucking him in” for his afternoon siesta. I don’t know why, but I stood there in the doorway for a while without letting her know I was there. I just stood and watched.

I saw my mother lovingly and gracefully pull his covers up around his neck as he lay motionless in bed. She smiled sweetly as he began to softly snore. I watched her pat his shoulder gently and stand there staring at him, satisfied that he was safely launched into sleep-ville. It wasn’t unlike a mother checking on her child. It was pure sweetness.

With my dad’s present illness, my mother was discouraged from visiting him for a few days so that she didn’t  get sick herself. She complied, though it was hard for her. I kept up my daily visits so he wouldn’t get lonely and every day he would ask me where she was and why she wasn’t visiting him anymore. When I explained it was because he had been sick, he couldn’t understand. He’d think about it and then say, “But she always comes to see me every day.” I replied reassuringly, “Maybe she’ll come tomorrow, Dad.” He’d nod and drift away.

After 5 or so days, I could see that both my parents were really missing each other. I spoke with my dad’s nurse who mentioned that perhaps they could visit in a “common area” like in the living area downstairs in the lobby. It was a large, ventilated area that would be much safer than her spending her visit up on a closed floor.

So I called my mother and told her she could come over that day to see him. I decided not to tell my dad. I thought it would be a nice surprise.

Yesterday was the day. I went to see my dad right after I dropped my daughter off at school. He had just finished breakfast. I wheeled him over to the couch in the lobby and pulled up a chair next to him. The first thing he said to me was, “Have you heard from your mother?” I said, “Yes, dad. I talked to her a little while ago. I’m sure she’ll visit you soon.” He looked at me pensively and said, “I sure hope so. She used to visit me every day. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel like myself when she’s away.”

I bit the inside of my cheek to chase away the tears welling in my eyes.

15 minutes later, I glanced out the window to see my mom’s 2001 white Honda Accord slowly creep into the parking lot. I watched as she took her walker out of her car and moved slowly to the main entrance.

A few steps later and she was inside The Inn. I met her at the door and gestured to where my dad was sitting in the next room over. She walked right over to him and stood in front of him. When he looked up and saw her, his face lit up with the widest and most joyful smile. “My DARLING!” he shouted exuberantly. They embraced slowly. She straightened his collar and sat down in the chair across from him. I watched as an immediate look of peace washed over his face.

All was well again.

I remember thinking, in that moment, how incredibly lucky I am. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me is the love they have for one another. My mother loves my father unflinchingly. She is like a silent warrior, forever in the background, yet always available at a moment’s notice. 

No matter who her husband becomes as he is molded and shaped by memory loss and occasional illness, she is there. She loves him without fail.

It is the greatest love story I’ve ever known.

A gift from God.

I am grateful.