I have become my father. I don’t mean I’m short-tempered, overly particular about petty things or obsessed with finding cheap gasoline, although these are all traits he passed on to me. I mean I can’t walk.
Unlike my father, my condition is temporary — I fractured my ankle on an ill-advised descent down an icy hill on cross-country skis, landing me with a space-age boot and crutches. My father, on the other hand, begrudgingly used a walker for the last years of his life, as his balance became more and more tenuous and his legs progressively weakened from normal pressure hydrocephalus and spinal stenosis. In other words, he was old. And, like 12 million adults in the United States age 65 or older, he lived alone.
It pained me to watch my father struggle. I tried hard to understand his frustrations, even when he was at his most belligerent, and did my best to alleviate them. I moved across the country to care for him after my mother died and, while we lived more than two hours apart, I regularly spent weekends with him, drove him to and from Florida each winter, and spent countless nights on the phone with his medical alert company or with paramedics each time he was unable to lift himself out of his chair late at night or, worse, took a fall.
I saw firsthand how difficult everyday life was for him — how heavy the door was at his local Olive Garden (not to mention the door to every public bathroom), how unwieldy it was for him to pick up the morning newspaper delivery, how precarious it was to go grocery shopping, to the gym, bathing, putting on socks.
A light bulb needed changing? The basement flooded during a record-breaking rain? The dog had an accident on the patio? Well, let’s just say, when push came to shove, he was not too proud to call on friends.
Neither of us was happy when he finally accepted the inevitable and moved into an assisted living facility. Yet I was optimistic life would become easier for him — he could still read (a retired political science professor, his beach reads tended toward topics like the Koch brothers and voter fraud), watch baseball with his best friend, even exercise — just with grab bars, meal service and aides on call.
But my dad’s independent streak was strong, and he simultaneously impressed and confounded the assisted living staff by calling the town’s dial-a-ride service nearly every night to take him to the local martini bar, where he talked sports and politics with the bartenders and other regulars.
“Had to escape the prison,” he’d tell them before ordering crab rangoon or steak skewers and a glass (or two) of Malbec.
I took him there myself when I was in town. On one of our last visits, he cut short our enjoyment of a televised basketball game with a sudden trip to the bathroom, an arduous journey that required navigating around closely packed tables and the bustling wait staff.
After he shuffled back, he stood next to my bar stool, tightly gripping his walker and stated, quite matter-of-factly, “We need to go home. I pooped my pants.”
In the car, I told him about disposable underwear that looks like real briefs. “Do you think you’d like to try those?” I asked him. “I’d rather kill myself,” I expected him to say, as he had when I suggested the medical alert device, a power-lift recliner and assisted living. But this time he simply responded, “Yeah, I think I should.” I ordered an economy-size pack for him online. They were too small, but he wouldn’t let me order a different size.
I, too, live by myself. And, at present, I am not nearly as determined to leave the house as my father was — perhaps because I know I will eventually be able to do so on two steady feet. Also, I’ve already fallen on my face on the wet tile of a tire store. Not that staying in is much easier. I also fell on the wet tile of my own kitchen.
I cannot independently procure food, nor cook it. The dog I inherited when my father could no longer care for him has protested my lack of attention by eating household objects, a fact I learned when he vomited on the stairs in the middle of the night.
So I simply accept rides to and from work, where the bathroom door is heavy but the handicap stall and non-slip floors a relief — and then come home to elevate my foot and eat meals friends have prepared for me. My wardrobe is built around socks with treads and sweaters with patch pockets, much as my father’s depended on pre-tied tennis shoes and cargo pants.
To wash my small cadre of functional outfits, I toss the clothes in a knotted plastic bag down to the basement, where the washing machine is, then follow on one foot, my weight on the dual railings I had installed for my father. I hoist myself back up the stairs on my knees and ask the next visitor to retrieve the clothes for me — another trick my dad passed on.
On a weekend morning, I woke up relieved to put on sweatpants and spend the day at home. I had boarded the dog, freeing me from the challenges of lifting his food bowl off the floor or opening the sliding back door to let him out.
I’d left my computer strategically placed on the couch and set up a breakfast station in the kitchen, next to the refrigerator, which I could roll to in an office chair. I strapped on my backpack filled with water, books, ice pack, phone and prescriptions. I hobbled over to the hall closet and grabbed a pill splitter I’d found in a cupboard at my father’s house.
He died this past spring, and I held it for a minute, thinking about how much I miss him. I put it in my sweater pocket and hopped down the stairs, ready to start my day.
Kristin Palm, a writer and poet who lives in Detroit, is the author of “The Straits.”
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