Dad, the Deep-freeze and Dogs
My parents had a complicated relationship; if that’s not too blatant a diminutization to pass literary scrutiny.
The history and architecture of their particular joinery is subject for another treatise all on its own but for the purposes of this tale, it shall be simply put that after over 50 years of what society defines as a marriage; and what I, as a casualty thereof, can be classed as a biased observer, there came a denouement.
It was commonly agreed upon long after the fact that the worst “favor” we ever did for my father was the bypass surgery and the pacemaker. It succeeded solely and singularly in lengthening only the tenure of his life and did nothing for the tenor of its longevity.
My mother was occasionally heard to mutter; “How often do those batteries need to be replaced?” when the bill for the pacemaker maintenance came due and, in the end, there was ample evidence to suggest that she simply tossed aside the notices regarding the replacement of said batteries.
Calculated? Knowing my mother, probably.
Cruel? In the end, I’m not so sure, someone else will be the arbiter of that scale.
But here we were, circa 1989, with my parents both in their late 70’s and my father failing on multiple fronts. I lived in California, my only sister lived in Ohio, both of us having sprung forth from the venomous pit that was our home life at early ages, she into an immediate marriage and the subsequent finding of her particular brand of religious salvation and me, 10 years later on the timeline, into a life of sybaritic indulgence in about the farthest point from home I could find without crossing an ocean.
We were each in possession of our copies of “Toxic Parents” and determinedly hell-bent (excuse the pseudo, absolutely intended, religious reference) on rising above the miasma from which we had slogged forth. The communication between the two of us had deteriorated over the ensuing decades to terse, controlled, war correspondent-like communiqués involving the impending collapse of our shared history of house and home into the degradations of old age. This is to say, not much.
“Have you talked to them lately?”
“Are they talking to each other?”
“If you’re going back in December, I’ll go back in June.”
So Daddy was back in the local hospital, again, with yet another potentially fatal heart attack or bleeding ulcer or …… insert age related trauma of your choosing. He was not a lay-a-bout sedentary patient though by any means. Medicare, as I’m now finding out myself (insert indignant “huff”) only allows one to remain in the hospital on their dime for 3 days before someone else, namely you, has to start picking up the tab.
My mother, from frugal farm stock born, knew every penny allotted and had him a reserved room next door at the local nursing facility so he had spent the better part of a couple weeks like a shuttlecock, bouncing back and forth, grumpily getting settled and unsettled after his flights across the nets of resistance that the insurance industry erects for us in the twilight of our years.
Now let me just say that the nursing homes in Maryland, at that time, were akin to scenes from Anatole Litvak’s, The Snake Pit, so the thought of having him in one of these venerable institutions for a lengthy stay was somewhat disconcerting and it was for this reason, among many other more nefarious ones (read economic), that my sister in Ohio had secured a place for him in a nice, rural, care facility near her but…………………..not until next week and this was Friday……….in mid November………………..in the mid Atlantic.
So when I innocently called the hospital to talk to Daddy that day about 2pm Eastern time, I was not expecting the Unit Clerk to calmly drawl “Oh honey, yo’r momma checked him out ‘bout an hour ago!”
“For where?” I innocently inquired.
It seemed that my mother, not wanting to pay for even another night at either the hospital or the nursing home, had somehow enlisted the help of her sister and her husband (who also happened to be my father’s actual brother, I know, keep up here, it borders on incest but not quite), a rented panel van, and a road trip.
So I called Ohio. I informed the sister that dad was “missing in action” and to be on alert. Keep in mind here is was 1989 and there were no cell phones, emails, IM’s or anything other than pay phones at 7-11’s.
Her response was jumbled, confusing, and truly not on point but it distilled down to a couple salient points:
The nursing home was not expecting him until the next Monday
Where would she put them for the night?
What would she feed them at that hour?
Now in the interim I had managed to glean a few more factoids from the discharge nurses that really sent my head spinning and, frankly, put dinner in Ohio on my own personal back burner.
It seemed that in lieu of a medical transport my mother had convinced my uncle that they could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost and do it immediately to boot instead of having to wait for pesky scheduling, arrangements, state and local guideline adherence compliance, etc. So my gullible uncle had removed all but a few of the bench seats from the rental van and substituted the vinyl cushions from the patio furniture at my parents’ house because, did I fail to mention, my father was ever so slightly incontinent at this point, having been confined to hospital beds for weeks now and, at 6’6” and 250 lbs was not exactly the picture of mobility, so the thought of ruining a real mattress was anathema to her.
Now in her defense, she did pack a picnic lunch since they were embarking on at least an 8 hour drive in those days across the Appalachian mountains………..in mid November………4 septuagenarians in a rental van.
Truly, my concern was not with dinner, accommodations, or sleeping arrangements. I thought that we owed the Highway Patrols in 3 states at least a heads-up that there was a rental van with a collective blood pressure of over 1,000 points careening into the winter night with no one resembling a rational adult in charge.
But back to Ohio.
By now, the phone calls from my high-rise office tower in Southern California were taking on the demeanor and tone of a Woody Allen movie, with my secretary and various staff clustering around my office door, eavesdropping on each and every new incoming and outgoing call, transfixed, with hands over their mouths in wonder at the Hillbilly Hell unfolding, live, for their sole pleasure and amusement.
Up to this point I had appeared to be a mid-level young exec in uber-fashionable suits, great hair, and a winning personality that charmed my clients and made the office fun. Suddenly, like a precursor to the Transformers of future generations, I was growing appendages that were unattractive, apparently useless, and yet able to amuse and delight the masses.
But back to Ohio.
While sister dithered about details, I drew a line in the sand, several of them actually. I told her to:
Call the nursing home and alert them to the imminent early arrivial
Put a cot up in the garage for Daddy since they could not wrangle him up the stairs into an actual bedroom, surround it with heaters and pull the dog beds in close, he always loved his pets and they’d add to the warmth factor, and hope for the best.
Ergo: Dad, the Deep-freeze, and the Dogs.
And as to dinner, these folks were well into adulthood and their most recent actions were not exactly worthy of her cooking a sit down family meal in their honor so a bucket of Kentucky Fried should suffice.
Hours ticked by. No word, again, the no cell phone thing plus, I have a feeling that the very stealth nature of this operation inhibited my mother from contacting either of us in advance for fear of road blocks or other intrusive actions we might take.
And then the snow came.
The sister was now ramping up into full frantic when the phone finally did ring well into the dark winters night.
“What exit is the nursing home off the highway?”
“Wait right there! Don’t move! I’ll bundle the kids up and come find you and lead you in, the nursing home is awaiting your late arrival.”
Now I’m in Sunny California but have a pretty good living memory of night driving in the sleet and snow of the mid-Atlantic winters. Frazzled mother with 3 kids in nightgowns or four stroke-ready elders in a panel van, it ain’t pretty.
The next communiqué was from my sister, roadside, snow howling past the payphone mouthpiece.
“I’ve driven every mile in every direction on this damned hiway and they’re nowhere to be found, My kids are crying and tired, I’m freezing and I’m out of patience and something’s gonna blow.”
Nothing I could do here.
But I would really, REALLY, loved to have heard the actual phone conversation, or at least the sisters’ share of it, when she finally wised up and called the nursing home, ostensibly to alert them to the fact that dear ole dad was MIA and please stay tuned.
“Well honey, yo’r daddy’s been all tucked up in bed for at least an hour now!!”
“Well, it seems yo’r momma (such a resourceful woman for her age!!) flagged down a highway patrol out there in that dreadful weather and told him her problem and he kindly led them right to us, lickety split! She and yo’r auntie and uncle are on their way to your house rat this very minute!”
Well. KFC it was.
Nothing was ever said about the mood, demeanor, or conversation that was had amongst the principles there but knowing, intimately as I do, the Nordic tendency for icicle laced invective that permeated our family’s conversational interplay, let’s just assume, I’m glad I missed this dinner.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
And they did, indeed have miles to go.
In the morning they were gone.
No need for pancakes and awkward conversation over coffee. No need for recriminatory looks and caustic cudgels.
The elders had arisen at the crack of dark thirty and quietly slipped back into the panel van of record and taken to the now plowed and empty roads to head for home.
Mom redecorated the house.
Daddy died, five long years later, still in……..