Dad’s days are very simple and basic and primarily center around getting him fed/clean and comfortable. At 92, he still walks every day unless the old ankle gives him fits, and he plays multiple games of scrabble on the big giant board typically with the caregivers in attendance. He still likes crossword puzzles, so attempts the one in the newspaper and there are crossword books at the ready when he is done with the daily paper.
Happily, Daddy is not much of a television watcher. And really- thank goodness for that, mainly because Tom and I stopped watching almost all tv a very long time ago. Infusing the energy of the house with the toxic nature of mainstream news and entertainment just would not ever be acceptable again. Yes some sports end up playing on weekends, but by and large the tv remains off- except- except for two game shows that are right up Dad’s crossword-minded-alley. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. He likes to watch those in the afternoon during the week.
For the first couple of years all Dad needed was the remote control to make that happen. Even with our “old school” tv antennae set up and a second remote control floating for internet shows, he could typically operate the tech well enough, and remembered the schedule often enough to get his shows on unassisted in the family room.
In the last 6 months or so, as some of dad’s memory and capacities fade, sometimes he’d forget what day it was, or, mixed up the time, and would need some help remembering, but for the most part, he still regularly plays along with Jeopardy and “Bankrupt”, his pet name for Wheel of Fortune. But one small detail has sometimes thrown a wrench in the works- and that has to do with the fact that the living room television is housed in a cabinet entertainment center.
Before Dad came to live with us, the doors to that cabinet were almost always closed. They often were shut for days or sometimes weeks at a time. I certainly preferred, and prefer it that way. It was and remains rare for it to be my idea to watch anything on that box. I admit that I have strong feelings across the board about what “programming” is broadcast and how that affects our critical thinking and humanity at large. Not to mention Dad’s hearing is not what it used to be and even with special chair speakers, the excess volume of these shows can be obnoxious, and down right painful to the ears! But I am happy Daddy has his entertainment and can break up his days with his game show activities, and so to that end, the doors to the cabinet now pretty much remain open all the time, even when the tv is dark and silent.
But those doors sometimes shift and move a bit- and sometimes the door on the left hand side moves just enough that it blocks the line-of-sight to the remote sensor that is required for the remote control to actually work. This small detail has confounded Dad on multiple occasions. From his perspective, he is pressing the buttons on the remote control and nothing happens. In his mind, this means the batteries in the device must be dead. Sometimes I notice the struggle or confusion on his face and simply adjust the door and carry on. A couple of times I have watched him open up the remote control and start to take out the batteries. At this point with Dad’s memory it doesn’t matter if I explain to him that it is probably not going to be a battery problem if the tv won’t turn on, but a cabinet door problem, but he just doesn’t really have the capacity to recall this for future reference. I am not sure he even really understands the “line of sight” issue at all, to be honest. But the frustration is fleeting, and soon he turns his attention to the game at hand, usually only calling out or commenting on the poor judgement of some contestant’s wager amounts in final Jeopardy.
Recently, I walked through the living room right at the time that Wheel of Fortune should have been winding down to a close and noticed that I didn’t hear any audio and the tv was not on. “Hey,” I asked, “Why aren’t you watching Bankrupt?” He picked up the remote and turned it over in his hands and said, “This thing needs new batteries.”
Again- I was just in the next room working. Dad could have called me in or walked over to find me to ask me to help. but he did not. He had obviously tried to turn on the tv. He just resigned himself to not watching and so just sat there. I looked over at the cabinet and sure enough the left door had moved just enough to cover the remote sensor. “Its not the batteries Dad. The door just started to close again.” I walked over to the cabinet and opened it up more fully. “Its just this door needed to open up further.”
Dad looked at me and said, “But I already threw the batteries away.” I glanced at the clock, it was 7pm on the nose. “That’s okay,” I said, “We’ll figure it out tomorrow, but for now, it is already time for bed.” I turned off his electric blanket and took his drinking glass to the sink. Dad stood up, reached for his walker and repeated his favorite bedtime line, “I guess its time to hit the rack.”
“Nite-nite Daddy, see you in the morning.” But I saw him much sooner than that.
It is Dad’s habit to get up multiple times at night and use the toilet and get a drink of water from the kitchen sink. No matter that I keep a plastic tumbler in the bathroom right by the sink. By and large that stays unused. For decades he has had the habit of drinking from the kitchen sink at night and that habit is not about to change. I don’t particularly like how much he is up walking during the overnight hours but as long as he takes his walker, he’s been okay and steady enough to continue.
My husband has noticed Daddy’s first nighttime trip typically comes right at 8:30pm. We’ve come to expect it. When I hear the squeak and bang of his walker I usually meet him at the kitchen sink and have his glass filled before he gets there. I make sure no animal is under his feet as he walks and that he is feeling okay. That night at 8:30 he was up right on time and I went to fill his glass, but rather than find him in the kitchen I saw him sitting, in the dark, in his chair, with remote in hand- opening up the compartment again, looking to fix the battery issue.
“Dad, what are you doing? We can take care of that in the morning.”
“I just thought I’d go ahead and fix this as long as I was thinking about it,” He said. I tried once again to tell him about the cabinet door situation but it didn’t really sink in. I would have just gotten new batteries right then and there but with battery usage heavy over Christmas, I wasn’t quite sure exactly where the big pack of double A’s was at the moment. I brought him his drink and repeated that Kim, his caregiver, or I would fix the remote before he got up and dressed tomorrow, not to worry.
Then he went back to bed.
As I walked back to the kitchen with his empty glass I found myself, again, reminiscing about Dad and his ways. More times in my life that I can count he would take himself off to bed early- just to solve or resolve a problem -usually mechanical- in his dream state. He really would do this. He would come in from the garage in the early evening time and say something like, “I can’t figure out why that new starter (or alternator or timer or whatever) isn’t working like it is supposed to…” He’d take off his shoes, lay in bed, go to sleep and sometimes wake up a couple hours later, walk through the kitchen and say, “Now I know why…” and go back into the garage to fix the issue right away. He figured out long ago his consciousness provided solutions in the slower brainwave state of dreaming and he would just take his greasy-handed self to bed to go ahead and solve the problem there.
So. He’d just done this same thing with the tv remote control. A warm wave of memories washed over me as I got my own self ready for sleep. Mama noticed this dreamer as problem solver aspect of Daddy too and sometimes would give him an issue to tackle as he headed for bed! Sometimes she’d even wake him up in the middle of the night to fix something. Almost always he’d just get up, put his pants on and take care of whatever it was. Mom would look at me and say, “He really doesn’t care that I do that you know,” And it was true. He didn’t mind a bit about interrupted sleep. Dad doesn’t really realize it but he has influenced me in so many ways. My own sleep is often interrupted and I am fine with that and I consider my personal dream world as a precious gift and a rich influence of potential for my life and work. I pulled the blankets up, turned off the light and wondered what Daddy might be dreaming about.
In the wee hours of the morning, long before sunrise I got myself up for the day and went to the kitchen put the kettle on. And that is when I saw the note sitting next to the sink. A note from my dad. In the nearly three years that Daddy as been living with us, he’d never written me, or anyone, a note for any reason. So that was a big surprise really, as small of a gesture as it might seem. There it was, left for me where he knew I would see it right away, in his distinctive, all-caps handwriting:
I looked at the notepad and immediately got choked up and found my eyes welling up with tears. Such a small thing, isn’t it? But I stared at it for such a long time, so many thoughts coming to mind. Why was this note pulling so hard at my heartstrings?
Some of my emotional reaction has to be the resurfacing of a quirky family trait. Mom was a night owl and dad got up early, so often they wrote each other notes and left them on the counter to communicate when the other was fast asleep. So just seeing the note left by my dad, not only made me recall so many funny family note conversations, but it also made me miss my mom-and the wacky adventures of the four of us, (Mama, Daddy, my brother Randy and me) and life at our family home. Unless something unnatural comes to pass, it won’t be all that long before I am the only one of us left to remember any of this.
Then seeing the word “please.” Daddy finally, in the years of living here, finally asks for something, and not only is it a tiny thing- batteries, he makes sure to be polite when he asks for them.
But mostly it was the written request itself- reading it and just pondering the winding down of Daddy’s life and what is important to him, (and by extension, to me and our family now.) The batteries in that remote control were so important as to warrant at minimum two nighttime treks, probable dream scenarios, a note and this official request. The note sat as evidence of the shrinking of Daddy’s world and, too, what his mind is currently capable of grasping and comprehending.
Daddy moved in with us here at the farm at my total and complete insistence against his natural reaction to decline, and he would probably never have directly asked me to upend our life in any way to take care of him at all. Its almost like he made a silent pact with himself to not be too much of a bother. I know many people are unable to care for their parents and must rely on others, or homes, to do this for them. I fully understand this. Yes, caring for an elder be a lot of work and yes, a great deal of freedom of movement has been removed from my life. Yes it is a disruption (especially for my dear husband who never complains about Daddy’s presence) but truly, having him here is less a burden than a gift and an honor and to be quite honest? Having Daddy home with me, where I can make sure his needs are met fully and completely, is the only solution possible for my own mental health and well-being.