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“It’s your father”, she says out of breath. “He’s fallen again and I can’t get him up. He’s too heavy and I can’t do it anymore, I just can’t”. I try to calm her down. I speak in a low toned voice. I’m in a 3x4 feet cubicle and privacy at work is a luxury I don’t have. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson Disease eleven years ago, but thinking back, I know he had it for much longer than that. I remember when I was in high school getting ready in the morning, I would hear his feet shuffle - a dragging motion that many Parkinson’s patients do. The beginning signs of the worst to come. I managed to calm my mother down and told her to call 9-1-1. She refused, telling me that the fall wasn’t that bad but that my father had been laying on the floor for almost and hour because she couldn’t get him up. I begin to sweat. Being an hour away by train made me feel helpless as usual. I suggested calling Aunt Carmelina and Uncle Angelo for help but they are not on good terms again; someone didn’t invite someone over for a dinner that happened three months ago which was really about a Thanksgiving holiday that happened two years ago and so on and so forth. So my father stays lying on the floor because of an ancient squabble based on some Italian code of respect about who owes whom what. Italian pride is unwavering. I’m out of suggestions and then the phone clicks. My mother calls me back a few hours later to tell me Dad is up and okay but that she nearly pulled her back out trying to get him up. I was late for my production meeting because my mother was venting. I let her because she deserved that much. She was angry and frustrated and pathetic but behind all that I could hear the loneliness in her voice. After this incident we decided it was time to get a home care aide to help out. Of course my father didn’t like it and made it difficult for all of us including the aides. After 35 years of marriage, I suppose the only person you really want to see you in a feeble condition is your spouse. At first, a few of the aides left and never came back but we finally found Thomas who stuck it out. Thomas was kind and patient and professional, and better than
any of us at helping my father up when he had fallen. And my father started falling a lot. The winter of 2005 I was laid off from work. This happened to be serendipitous because my mother had called me frantic again. This time she had thrown her back out and was laid up in bed and Thomas’ car broke down and he was not able to get to my parents. My father was completely incapacitated by this time. The disease had reared its ugly head and was in complete control my father’s life. I no longer knew the loquacious zealous man I grew up with. My hero, who could take on any arduous task with the strength of an ox, was now a man bound by a wheelchair, hunched over, silent, drowsy and wearing adult briefs. My own inner-strength was about to be tested. I arrived a Thursday evening and used my set of keys to let myself in. The house I grew up in is smaller to me now and less comforting. I went into the bedrooms, my father’s first. My parents had separate bedrooms for some time now. My old room was now his. It was surely not the room of a teenager anymore. There was an old brass crucifix on the wall, a walker, a poster of Mohamed Ali, three bedpans, a slew of books on “how to combat Parkinson’s Disease”, stacks of old newspapers, pills and empty water glasses on every countertop. He was in bed soaked in urine and probably had been that way for a few hours. The room stunk. “Hi Dad”, I said avoiding his eyes. I knew he was embarrassed and didn’t want my help but there was nothing we could do and so I began to undress him. My mother was in her bed pillows propped everywhere. “Maria, you’re here, you had a set of keys”, she bellowed in an aching voice. “Obviously”, I replied annoyed. She began shouting out things but I told her I needed to keep my focus and I would be there as soon as I was finished with Dad. “The t-shirts are in the 2nd drawer, the briefs are under the desk, make sure you put extra padding in the brief, he needs them. He was suppose to take his pills at 4:00 but he needs to swallow them with a spoon-full of apple sauce now”, and on and on. All these things my mother was telling me I didn’t want to hear. I am too young. I’m 36 and I’m too young to be dealing with the fury of old age. I felt a rage coming on. All my friends had their grandparents getting old, but I was dealing with my father getting old.
My father, who would never be able to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. I suddenly got scared. I’m not even close to getting married and having children. I don’t want to have children late in my life. I don’t want to end up like my father. He had his first child at 39 and now he’s 79 with an incurable disease and his grown daughter is emptying his bedpans and dressing him. All these ugly thoughts went through my head as I cleaned my father up and got him out of bed. I felt resentful and angry and prayed for some strength to get me through the next few days. I went into my mother’s bedroom next. She had hurt in her face and she had been crying. My mother was 13 years younger than my father and the regret of that was all in her face. I told her Dad was cleaned up and I had given him his pills. I then helped my mother. They both hadn’t eaten and so I cooked them dinner, a drastic change from living in NYC where ordering take-out food is a habitual part of your lifestyle. And this was my weekend home – cooking, doing laundry, cleaning up my father, grocery shopping, calling doctors and Medicare, etc. I had become a caretaker and my parents had become my patients. I went through the weekend like a robot with no emotions, doing what I was suppose to do and getting to bed at 9:30 p.m. exhausted from the day, another abrupt transformation from my insomniac city nights. I had come back from one of the many errands I was doing and walked in only to find my father lying face down on the ceramic kitchen floor. My mother yelling from her bed that my father just doesn’t listen anymore. Like a parent warning a child and pointing my finger at him, I had told my father to stay put until I had gotten back from my errands. But it was no use; he tried to get himself up to get the morning mail. He’s holding onto that small shred of independence he believes he has left and doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions. Can I blame him? He has gone from a man who once took care of an entire family of five to being scolded by his condescending daughter. I started moving his legs and put them in a position where he might be able to get them up. But it was no use, his legs were like iron and he couldn’t move them. “Call emergency” my mother yelled. I looked into my father’s eyes. “Dad let’s do this me and you together, c’mon I know you can do it”.
And after about a half an hour, I managed to get my Dad up. I was exhausted, frustrated and angry but I had no one to take it out on. The phone rang and it was Thomas, he got his car fixed and would be here tomorrow. For the first time all weekend, the tension in my body left. This good news got me through dinner and the rest of my evening duties. The next morning I anxiously waited for Thomas. As soon as he arrived, I went into the bedrooms to say good-bye to my parents. Thomas was already tending to my father. “Thank you Maria for coming to help out this weekend.” My mom said in that achy voice. “Sure”, I replied, ”that’s what family is for”, but I didn’t mean it and gave her a kiss and quickly bolted out the door. I couldn’t wait to get back to my small NYC apt and be anonymous. My Dad has since passed away. The last few years of his life were not very good and aides were simply not enough it so we had to place him in a nursing home. He was now on a feeding tube and barely ever spoke. It was hard to watch him deteriorate and difficult to be around him but I went to visit him almost every weekend. I enjoyed our time together, I would bring my flute and play for him, we would play his favorite card games or I would read to him. And whenever the nurse would come to shave him or cut his fingernails, I offered to do this. I wanted to do this now. One time when I was clipping his nails, he looked up at me wanting to say something. “Dad, do you need something, is your mouth dry, do you want some ice chips?” “Maria, do you remember when you came that weekend to help out”, he spoke ever so softly “Yeah Dad, I remember”. “I just want to tell you . . “ “That’s okay Dad, you don’t have to say anything”, as tears started to well up in my eyes. “No, but I just want to say, what you did, that was really something, I know that was hard for you, thank you”. “Of course Dad” as tears started streaming down my face. “ That’s what family is for”. And this time I meant it.
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