By Lola Wilcox
CROW December, 2007
I’m in Arizona again, for my stepmother’s second cataract operation. My father’s hold on propriety slips further – she finds him holding a handful of his poop, heading out the door. He threatens to hit her, the hospice worker, and today me, when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do… like poop in the toilet. Yet a remnant of his personality remains – “Who are you?” I say to him when he makes a fist. “Harold.” “And who am I?” “I don’t know.” “I’m your daughter. Does Harold hit his daughter?” “No.” His fist unfolds. My step-mother has the house decorated for Christmas. Besides the tree and wreath, every table, lampshade, countertop, bookcase has something on it. Ceramic angels suspend from the chandelier. My father always likes looking at the Christmas tree lights, and spends an hour doing so before he goes to bed. He counts his fingers over and over, a stage three sign. There are only four stages to this type of dementia; the fourth stage is bedridden, often with restraints. She prays for him to die before that happens. I’ve spent part of the day on the phone looking again for a day care option, someone to play cards with him when I’m not here. Not yet in Sedona. “We’re trying to get one started by 2009.” “A little late for us,” I say.
I mentioned the situation to a Native American friend at work, who took the question of my father’s passing to a sweat lodge. She came back with a message: “He’s afraid. Make him a medicine bag with what he needs to take with him into the other world.” She holds out four bags of various sizes and leathers. I choose a palm sized, soft elk skin one, tanned dark, with a yellow leather pull-tight string threaded along the top. I put things in it – a pine cone “leaf” for the forests he loved, a pussy willow kitten for spring, a small book of the names of those there and here who love him. My eldest son puts in a loop of three feet of medium weight fishing line and a hand-tied fly; “I use this fly to catch everything from bass to trout to catfish. It’s the fly I would take with me.” My father was a fly fisherman. My husband adds three quarters, one from each state Harold lived in: New York, Wyoming, Colorado. The Arizona state quarter isn’t out for a year yet, so I draw one with a saguaro on it. How to give the bag to Hal so he understands? My homeopathic herbal teacher said “Aspen in his water for the fear.” I have to get it from Bach Flower Remedies; it is not at our health food stores, but maybe in Sedona.
One of the men in my writer’s group, a brilliant writer, has a mother who is deep in her descent into Alzheimer’s. The other day he found a poem she wrote, and sent it to us.
Afterglow Ernestine, July 20, ….
An anonymous life,
with its handful of intimate moments,
bestowed with longevity.
What to do with those additional years?
Are they friend or foe?
Science did not intend
the gift of years to become a nursery
of children with old faces.
Our fortress in growing years is a
rostrum of people and places,
lodged in memory.
Made to toil and love,
we do not transplant easily.
Afterglow is a mosaic.
In thanks, we pause in its luster to
genuflect our knees
for heaven’s promise.
Each sentence expresses an emotion, a lump in the throat, thought into words. There appears to be a little more technique required. My father, made to toil and love, does not transplant easily to heaven’s fields. Too heavy for me to lift into bed, he is frail enough he needs what help I can give. My husband and I could lift his mother… I have a handful of intimate moments every day, several today with my Dad; perhaps my friend’s mother Ernestine and I have different definitions of intimacy. I’m trying to grasp the mosaic that may be in my father’s mind. My friend’s mother was a Roman Catholic; my father, a New England Presbyterian, can say thanks for a life well lived, but pauses at the idea of heaven. Science may not intend, but the pharmaceutical companies may hope for a nursery of children with old faces. Does the Creator intend this creep into senility? Intend each individual litany of questions? Intend the vulnerability when the fortress of memory crumbles? Intend the families to learn something?
I am sitting on the bed, saying prayers, tucking him in. He asks: “How old am I?”
“Old enough to be in heaven long ago,” I say. “It’s time to go before you forget all.”
“Do you want me to die?”
“Yes, I do,” I answer this new question, and watch his face crumple, a tear form. “You barely know who you are.” I wrap my arms around him. He says into my ear…