Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Room For Improvement

I never thought Assisted Living could hold the likes of Gene Dall.  Before he fell and dented his head, my father was not to be contained.  Occasionally, I wonder what things might have been like had he not gone down that morning.  I tend to think he'd probably have killed somebody behind the wheel.  Between the drinking and the diabetes, he was a menace on the road.  And most other places, really.  Not outwardly malicious.  He just wanted to do his own thing.

Of course, I'm not happy he suffered traumatic brain injury, but it always seemed like something big had to happen in order to slow him down and reel him in. When God steps in, He doesn't joke around.

Dad will be 86 next month.  I didn't think he'd last long after Mom died.  Theirs was such a co-dependent package deal.  They loved each other/hated each other/needed each other.  She's gone almost five years, and he's still hanging in there.  It's unbelievable.

I enjoy spending time in my dad's room.  It's like a little apartment, except there's no kitchen stuff or bathtub.  Which is really for his own safety, and it's absolutely fine with him.  He's pleased with the meals he receives and would be perfectly happy if he never had to take another shower, ever again.

When he first moved into senior housing, I struggled with how to personalize the space for a guy who couldn't care less about decorations.  My reflex was to fill the room with my mother's knick knacks and stuffed animals, but the sight of them made me sad.  Plus, he doesn't really give a shit, and that made me even sadder.

Although he's not particular about where he lays down, I bought my father a bed. In his lifetime, he has slept everywhere.  On benches, in chairs, at church, on the train, while driving, in the grass, on the sidewalk.  I was afraid he'd roll off a twin mattress and hurt himself, so I got him a full.  Gene Dall's a big dude.

Dad's got a closet for his clothing.  It's not as neat as the way Mom kept his things, but I do what I can.  I come by every few days and put clean outfits together on hangers.  Pants, a shirt, underwear and socks.  It's always the same set-up.  I switch out the laundry and leave an empty basket for him to fill with his spent clothes.  I place clean pajamas on his pillow for that evening.  He drapes the dirty ones back on a hanger when he's done sleeping in them.

Gene wears the same shoes every day.  When this pair gets beat up, we'll replace them with new ones.  Until then, these will suffice.  Every once in a while when I stop by, he'll still be padding around the common areas in his slippers.  It freaks me out.  I don't like him in his slippers during the day.  It makes me think he's one step closer to wearing boxer shorts on his head.

"Where are your shoes?" I ask.

"I thought these were my shoes."

"Those are your slippers."

"Oh," he says.  "Then, where are my shoes?"

We have lots of conversations like this.

I labeled the drawers of my dad's bureau so he knows where stuff is located, but he doesn't care about these details.  If whatever it is that he thinks he needs isn't right in front of him when he thinks he needs it, he doesn't need it.  He's that gentle now.  It's mind-blowing.

Dad seems to have no problem locating his spectacles in the morning.  I'm pretty sure he removes them before he goes to sleep.  He used to snap the arms off his glasses all the time when he was younger.  He'd get drunk and pass out with them on his face.  Or fall and bust them that way.  Then fasten them together with safety pins and paper clips.

My father wears his watch all the time and a crucifix around his neck.  In the beginning, he worried about his wallet and police shield whenever he misplaced them.  Most of the time, I'd find these items in the pockets of his trousers and set them aside.  He'd call the house, agitated.

"I can't find my potsy."

"I have it," I'd tell him.

"Oh, good.  Bring it next time you come."


He stopped asking about either of these things about six months ago.  Finally, I just put them in my underwear drawer, tucked into a corner next to the little ziploc bag filled with Desmond and Rory's baby teeth.

Dad's room has a nightstand next to the bed, on which there's a lamp, his alarm clock and a pencil sharpener.  I always check inside the bottom drawer for contraband - sugar packets and little bags of popcorn, maybe a stale brownie wrapped in a napkin.  Sometimes, I'll find his diabetic socks, stuffed behind the Scrabble game.  They're difficult to put on, so he hides them.  I return the sweeteners to the young lady at the front desk and toss the snacks into the trash.

"Don't throw those away," he tells me.  "Bring them home for the boys."

"We have cookies at the house."

"I'll eat them, then."

"Do me a favor, Dad.  Leave them where they are."

I wanted Gene to have a phone, just in case he ever needs to reach me.  I bought an older model on the internet.   One he could just pick up and use easily, without having to press any extra buttons.  I wrote my number down on a big index card because he doesn't remember much.  I love when the phone rings at my house and it's him.  Our conversations are brief.  The longest one has maybe lasted eight minutes.  I do most of the talking.  I take great comfort in knowing where he is and that he is safe.  It is a new world luxury.

"Good evening, Patrolman Dall," I answer.

My machine displays the caller's name.  He's always impressed that I know he's on the other end.

"This piece of paper said I should call."

"I'm glad you did.  Have you finished your supper?"

"I guess so."

"What did you have?"

"I don't know.  Meat, I think.  It was good."

He's telling the truth.  It doesn't matter what's on the menu, as long as it's food. Although pancakes are his favorite.

"All right, then.  See you tomorrow.  I'm gonna come by in the morning, if that's okay."

"I'll be around.  You know where to find me, right?"

"Yeah.  I love you, Gene."

"Thank you," he responds.

My father's got a table and two chairs near the window.  The chairs are from the kitchen set my folks bought in 1972.  They're dark walnut-stained captain's chairs, very heavy.  The table is from an unpainted furniture store.  It's sturdy enough that if he leans on it to stand up, it won't collapse.  Dad sits at the table and does word search puzzles until the points are dull on every pencil he uses.  I sharpen the pencils when I'm there.  He also likes to play cards.  He used to read the newspaper every day when I was a kid, starting from the back with the sports.  His mind isn't interested in current events anymore.

Along the shelf over his bed, there's a photo of Mom and Dad at my wedding and some pictures of the kids.  Also a plaque that reads, "The Police Officer's Prayer." It looks like an award.  I guess in a way, it is.  He's still alive.  Big winner.

From time to time, he asks, "What ever happened to that girl?"  He's referring to my mother.

Mostly, I just remind him matter-of-factly that she passed away.

"She had cancer, Dad."

"Oh.  I didn't know.  That's too bad."

Occasionally, I suggest that he broke her balls so much, she just collapsed and died.  He thinks this is hilarious.  It is kinda funny.

I like to sit on the back of the commode while my father shaves.  He sings and whistles as he lathers his skin.  He still knows a bunch of songs.  He likes "Take It Easy" by the Eagles and Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom."  Bits and pieces of the oldies.  We sing together.  I clean his glasses and put them back on so he can see what he's doing.

His toiletries are right on the sink top for his convenience.  But he won't use any of them unless he's provoked.  And I have to watch that he doesn't put deodorant on his face.  He gets confused.

"I'm a good-looking guy," he mentions to his reflection in the mirror.

I can't help but agree.

I used to watch Dad shave when I was a little kid.  I wanted to be close to him, but I didn't know how.  I always felt like he didn't think I was very interesting, but that wasn't the case.  He's just not the kind of guy who gives much emotionally.  I understand this now, but it took a long time to figure it out.

When my mother was dying, she and I had many conversations about my dad's care and his future without her.

"You know, Mary.  Your father's always been a filthy animal," she'd say.  "He was dirty since the first day I met him."

"That's disgusting.  Why did you ever marry him?"

"I felt sorry for the bastard."

I've always loved this story.  From very early on, it made me long for the promise of romance.

"I wish I could take him with me," she suggested one night when she didn't have much longer with us.

"I know.  I wish you didn't have to go," I said, hoping not to cry.

"You do realize he'd drive me bonkers, though.  Even in Heaven."

"Good point.  Better leave him here."

"Promise me, honey.  You won't let him look like a bum."

"Yes, Mom.  I promise."

Dad likes to walk me back outside after we've gotten together at his place.  He carries the laundry basket and puts it in the rear of my car.  He tries to close the door by hand.

"No, don't," I tell him.  "I've got it."

I press the key fob, lowering the hatch automatically.  He stands there for a minute, trying to figure out what just happened, and my heart breaks a little bit. Then we turn around and go inside the building again.  I kiss him goodbye and give his arm a squeeze.

"I'll call you when I get home."

"You do that," he says.

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