So Far, So Good

Like a lot of people in Orange County, I have parents who are aging, increasingly frail, and living on their own far from their children. At 96 and 92, they’re struggling to remain independent, and the distance between here and there has never felt so vast.

Before I tell you about the odd little video I shot of my blind, 96-year-old father unloading the dishwasher—and why everything you need to know about living honorably and on your own terms is contained in those six minutes—let me give you some backstory.

In 1985, I moved to Orange County for a great job three time zones away from my parents in Pittsburgh. But as alluring as the career opportunity was, I wasn’t entirely sure it was a good idea. My parents were 66 and 62 at the time, and as the only one of their four children still living in the city, I felt an obligation to stay in town and be there in case I was needed. My father was the one who set me straight, in no uncertain terms, and gave me one of the most valuable gifts a parent can give: independence.

“Go live your life,” he said. “Hell, we could be here another 30 years.”

And so they have been.

They’re 96 and 92 now, about to make their final move from a two-bedroom senior-living apartment into what Dad calls “the lockup,” a more restrictive health center in the same building where they can get a higher level of care. It’s a surrender, of sorts, an acknowledgment that they’re no longer capable of living on their own. They need help. But because they raised four equally independent children—my two brothers live in Florida, my sister in Colorado—they find themselves alone in a city that their kids left long ago. It was their choice to live where they wanted, with whom they wanted, and we respected it, just as they respected my siblings’ choices and my long-ago decision to build a life among other refugees in this warm and sunny place.

With their youngest child successfully launched, my parents were free to enjoy themselves among longtime neighbors who, one by one, moved into a senior-living community, Friendship Village. For years after my parents joined them, I could have delivered much of my old paper route there during my occasional visits. They were happy together, and among friends.

But 30 years later, I am here, and they are there, and I’m not sure what to do with the advice Dad often offered about child-rearing: “A parent’s job isn’t to keep kids from falling. The job is to reach out and slide a pillow under their bottoms when they do.” The corollary, of course, is that the child has a job, too: to stand by, pillow in hand, to ease the inevitable impacts of age and infirmity on his parents.

Even without immediate family nearby, my parents are well cared for, and that’s a comfort. But no matter how often their kids visit, each of us traveling thousands of miles to adjust their TV or reprogram their speed-dial numbers or stock the fridge with fresh fruit, our arms simply aren’t long enough to reach all the way to Pittsburgh, where Mom and Dad live day by day, alone together, defying the actuarial tables.

It’s easy to chart how my parents’ world has shrunk, how little by little they conceded bits of their independence to the relentless advance of time. In the years before their move to Friendship Village, but after Dad’s retirement, they traveled abroad to consult with businesses that might benefit from his years in marketing. They also bought a minivan and shuttled themselves (and a lot of furniture) to their scattered kids and grandkids. They never missed our every-other-year family reunion, held in places as distant as Vermont, Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia.

But their endurance gradually waned, and eventually they began sticking closer to home. One of their final plane trips, to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary at my sister’s home in Colorado, was the week after 9/11. They made one other trip, to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday at my brother’s house in North Palm Beach, but after that, air travel was just too much. Dad began losing his sight, and Mom her hearing and swaths of her memory.

Still, those were good years for all of us. My siblings and I raised our families, and built our own lives, and visited Pittsburgh when we could. My parents, supported by a generous U.S. Steel pension, made new friends and grew even closer to the old ones. When their kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids came to visit, they ordered rollaway beds or made up couches, and sometimes rented the facility’s guest room to handle the overflow.

But their world grew ever smaller. Mom had a bridge group and got out whenever she could, but she also worried about leaving Dad alone in the apartment for too long. They’d still dress for the long walk to the dining room, but Dad grew self-conscious about eating in front of others because of his poor eyesight, and Mom’s stamina for that walk wasn’t what it used to be. Sometimes it was just easier to eat alone in the apartment.

There were calamities, too. Dad had always walked around Friendship Village like its glad-handing mayor, responding to greetings and passersby, even if he couldn’t tell who they were. Ever proud, he refused to use a white cane, because it signaled his infirmity to others. He eventually began using a wooden walking cane, but only after a particularly bad fall in which he broke his leg. After that, his steps grew shorter and more cautious, and he eventually began navigating by light sources, which he uses as beacons. It’s why he leaves every lamp on in their apartment, all day.

In time, their range shrank to maybe a thousand square feet. They spent their days mostly in leather recliners, facing a TV perpetually tuned to Fox News. They kept the volume way up, no matter that everyone on Fox already shouts. To me, their world seemed very bright and loud.

After the broken leg a few years ago, Dad ended up
recovering for a few days in “the lockup.” The paperwork to return him to their apartment and my mother’s care took forever, he said, “because they don’t usually release people from there.” But by the time I visited in March, they’d already made the decision that it was time for them to give up their apartment, and to get the help and attention they need at this fragile stage of their lives.

Of course, it’s complicated, as is everything for people their ages. Mom has the eyes. Dad has the ears, as well as a former Army captain’s sense of regimentation and duty. They depend on each another, and neither can live alone in the apartment. So during that visit, they were waiting for two adjacent singles, or the rare double room, to open up.

Everyone knows what that means.

Death comes to Friendship Village with startling regularity. “We lose about three a week,” Dad says as a matter-of-fact, without any apparent sense of foreboding. And so I helped them inventory the contents of the apartment, and took photos of their furniture and other belongings to shop around to their progeny. They’d like to find good homes for it all, and that will involve shipping stuff to every corner of the country at a cost that will far exceed its value. But we’ve promised them we will do our best.

On the final morning of my last visit with them in their own home, Dad set about his usual routine. He rose about 6, turned on all his beacons, retrieved the morning paper from the hallway and set it on Mom’s recliner. But as he headed into the kitchen to prepare breakfast, something told me to fetch my smartphone. I hit “Record” just as he began unloading the dishwasher.

At this point my story could get quite dull. A six-minute video of a 96-year-old blind man unloading a dishwasher? But after posting that recording on our family Facebook page, it became a sort of Rorschach test for their kids, grand- and great-grandkids, and cousins from various generations. Everyone saw in it something different, something remarkable. And the responses often were emotional.

“Go, Granddaddy. That was elegant.”

“Always the example of how to be a man.”

“Such a beautiful love story.”

So this is what it looks like to live with fierce independence, far from your children, and deep into your 90s:

His hands begin a sector-by-sector search of the top rack. He finds two familiar plastic cups—he prefers them to breakable glassware—and places them on the counter above the dishwasher. I ask if I can help, and of course he declines.

“A lot of this stuff is going right on the table,” he says, as his hands continue to patrol the rack.

He places two plastic saucers on the counter, then puts ceramic mugs on top of them —one for his coffee, the other for her tea. Then his hands locate one of the last things remaining in the dishwasher, a highball glass from a set they’ve had for as long as I can remember.

“This,” he says with a strange bit of ceremony, “is Mama’s medicine glass.”

He walks toward me at the opposite end of the small kitchen, holding the glass out for me to see before placing it on the counter beside my mother’s day-by-day reminder pillbox. “Every time it comes out it comes right over here, turned upside down, so she always has a fresh glass.”

This is how it has always been. He tells a story often, to remind us all why he believes he was put on this Earth: When he wanted to ask for my then-19-year-old mother’s hand in marriage, they had to roust her mother, Edna Vance, from bed. When he announced his intentions, he recalls that my grandmother dropped her head for a moment, then said: “Just take care of my little girl.”

He has done so without fail for 73 years.

For the next few minutes, he executes a series of mundane morning chores, remarkable only because he has taught himself to do them without eyesight, pausing only once during his rigidly choreographed routine to ask, “Now where in the hell am I?” He sorts forks, knives, and spoons, dropping them by feel—but without mistake—into their assigned places in the drawer. He dries two cups that still feel wet, reminiscing as he does.

At one point, I pan around to Mom, who is peering from a chair as her husband moves around the last kitchen they’ll ever have. When I refocus on Dad, he’s running water from the spigot into the mug he’ll use for her tea. He fills it to overflowing, pauses, and then fills it some more.

“Is that … ?”

“It’s full,” I say.

He reaches into a high cupboard and pulls down a tin of Earl Grey teabags. “I gotta get Mama some more tea before too long.” He drops one into her cup, places it into the microwave, hits a button, and announces with some degree of pride: “That’s cooking!”

Typically, when the tea is done, he would carry the piping-hot cup from the kitchen, across the dining room, slowly, slowly inching his way into the adjoining den to set it on the table near her newspaper. But this morning, nearly 30 years after I left town to create a new life across the continent, my father walks toward me, straight at the camera he has forgotten I’m using. He puts his arms around my shoulders, and leans in close. His unseeing eyes stare directly into the lens.

“What my problem is, Mart, if I change my routine, I forget something. I can’t write things down; I can’t read. So I have to go by a fixed routine, or I overlook something.”

The moment is intimate and wonderful and it makes me cry every time I watch it, because of how desperately he wants his youngest to understand that they continue to adapt, to find ways to manage by themselves, without burdening their far-flung children. And at that moment I realize that their stubborn independence is the inheritance of which I’m most proud, along with my father’s commitment to uphold the deal he struck with Edna Vance all those years ago. He’s still taking care of her little girl, and the idea that he soon may be unable to do so clearly frightens him more than death.

He has told his primary-care doctor many times: “You have one job, and that’s to keep me alive one day longer than her.”

With that, he turns back into the kitchen, because my mother’s tea is nearly done.

Watch the Video!
The full six-minute clip that inspired this essay. Click here.

Illustration by Anna Parini
This article originally appeared in the August 2014

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