My Dad. A couple years ago. At Cappy's Restaurant in San Antonio.
Sundays have followed a very familiar pattern this year. I get up and pack a small camera bag. I put into it cameras I might use if I have time to stop and do some street photography. I never do. The bag also gets a phone, some eyeglasses and a checkbook. We all walk the dog together in the early morning and then I get into my car and head for IH-35; the most direct route to San Antonio, Texas.
The drive can be quick and efficient. Today I covered the 78 miles, from door-to-door, in about an hour and fifteen minutes. Sometimes the drive can be excruciating. One day, because of a series of accidents and one construction detour, it took over three hours to cover the distance. Music helps after the Sunday morning radio shows on NPR start to merge together in my consciousness.
When I get to San Antonio I head to the big H.E.B. grocery store near my dad's place. If you are from Texas you more than likely shop in a neighborhood H.E.B. or grew up shopping with your parents at one. I drop by the store ( A huge Texas chain) to pick up a copy of the Sunday New York Times and a small bag of Hershey's Kisses (milk chocolate: traditional) because my dad has been reading the NYT for nearly 60 years and has probably been eating Hershey's chocolates for even longer. I also stop at the H.E.B. to use their toilet; a vital step given that I leave Austin with a large coffee in the car's cup holder and by the time I get to San Antonio it's all gone...
Some days, I also pick up a package of Depends (adult diapers) and some antiseptic wipes, just, you know, in case we're running low at my dad's place. I show up at the front door of his deluxe (and brutally expensive) memory care facility most Sundays (traffic permitting) by 11:00 am. I get buzzed in then sign into the guest book. I glance through the pages of the register to see who else has been by to visit my dad in the last few days. I'm always hopeful I'll see my older brother's scrawl on one of the pages. Sometimes it works out.
I head down the hall and knock on dad's door. He's generally in his favorite, big upholstered chair. Sometimes he's listening to classical music on his Henry Kloss radio. Sometimes he's napping. I check in with him to see how he's doing. He still remembers me without hesitation but his memory is fading fast. My sister called to tell me that when she visited recently it took him a while to understand who she was.... Memory loss and dementia is a long goodbye...
We get down to business and I tell him how he's doing financially. He likes to hear the current investment strategy and how it's working. He's always happy with the results. While we talk I check his closet and his dresser drawers to make sure the facility is up to date with dad's laundry. He likes to look professional even at 90 years old. Even after being retired for decades. Although we'll probably never use them I keep several of his business suits and even some formal wear in his closet. You never know. And I think knowing the suits and pressed dress shirts and ties are there makes him feel better. Somehow still attached to his previous life and work.
On good days we go for short walks around the (very nice) facility. He introduces me to the staff members whose names he can remember, sometimes explaining, as he has for the last 30 Sundays that I am his son and I've come by for a free lunch. Around noon one of the staff drops by my dad's room to let us know that they are serving lunch. The food is really, really good. The soup in the first course is always exemplary. There are always fresh flowers on the table and linen napkins for our laps.
Everyone who lives in the facility is about dad's age. Some are a few years younger than 90 and a few are even older. All are living with various conditions that rob one of memory and cognition. About half the folks come to our dining room (higher functioning residents) with the aid of walkers while the other half come in wheel chairs. There is one gentleman who still walks without mechanical assistance and my father takes pride in getting around with just his wooden cane. The same one I got for him when he had a knee injury twenty some years ago.
Dad and I sit at the same table, with two other people, on each visit. One of my favorite tablemates is a woman who is always smiling and positive. She sometimes asks me a number of times during the meal who I am. I always smile and answer the same way. The staff brings each person the soup of the day to start. Then they bring two "show" plates by the table so the residents (and their guests) can see what their choice of entrees will be. Today we had a choice of chicken breast or pork loin, each paired with two fresh vegetables. We all swear that my dad is eating in a healthier fashion than he has for years. Dessert today was a small fudge brownie with walnuts; finished with a swirl of whipped cream. Delicious.
After lunch we'll walk out into the enclosed and landscaped courtyard and dad will tell me disconnected and oddly conflated stories that mix memories from his childhood with random conjecture and repetition. I listen with rapt attention and agree with everything he tells me. I have learned to distract him from subjects that upset him and deflect his attention to other topics. After a while we go back to his room and he settles in with his music and the fresh NYTimes and there's a moment when I can tell he's ready to slow down, take a nap and push the company out the door. He's always been happiest spending time reading, alone.
We make small talk and I remind him to have one of the staff call me if he needs anything. Anything at all. This week he let me know he wants a haircut. There is a barbershop on the campus; over in the assisted living wings. One of the staff will take him over in a wheel chair and wait with him while he gets his hair cut. There will be a charge on the monthly statement from the memory care facility for the barbershop. I've stopped even looking at the bills. At 90 you should be able to do exactly what you want. I don't worry about the money. It's there. He and I can afford it.
When I leave his room I'm exhausted from the energy it takes to always be positive; always smile and to be present in a way we never really were when my mom was alive and ran the show. Before I leave the facility I stop by the nurse's station to ask how his week was and how his vital signs look. I also want to make sure he's not giving them too many problems about taking his medications. I say "goodbye" to the staff whom I've come to admire for their infinite patience and care, and sign out, heading for the car.
If it's been a long day and I haven't been sleeping well I'll stop by a Starbucks in the neighborhood and grab another cup of coffee. Then it's back to Austin. I'd stay and shoot some images but it's hard to change mental gears so quickly and then I never really know how the traffic will be on the way back. I'm also trying to take care of myself. Part of that is making it back home in time to get ready for my own job tomorrow, to take Studio Dog out for another walk, and to have a nice, quiet dinner with my own small family.
I can say with authority that the traffic coming back into Austin will be brutally slow and stupid. I used to link up my phone to the bluetooth in my car because one or the other of my siblings would always call and want to get "a report" about dad from me. They know my schedule too well.
Since I own my own business the siblings equate what I do with "being somewhat retired" and they imagine I have loads and loads of time to spend managing my dad's finances, legal stuff and healthcare through the week, with ample time left over for the Sunday visits. I started to get the feeling that I was reporting to my "bosses" (and I've never really had a boss before) and this left me feeling a bit unsettled so I've just turned my phone off and tossed it back into my camera bag for the journey home. I generally send a group text when I get home with a synopsis of the day and week. I try for transparency without judgement. Sometimes they just get transparency.
When I get home it takes me some time alone to get back into my own rhythm. I carry a certain amount of worry about my father throughout my waking hours. There is an inevitability about his eventual demise but knowing that doesn't assuage my persistent feelings of responsibility, and a bit of dread. Ah well. I hope I'm setting a good example for my own son.
Speaking of the boy!!! As you may know he's graduated from college and has been searching for, and interviewing, for jobs. I'm pleased to announce that he got, and accepted, an offer on Friday. It's a great job in public relations for a large San Francisco firm with an office here in Austin. The job has stuff we freelancers have never experienced!!!! Such as paid health insurance, dental insurance, a 401K with a match, a parking place in the garage, and an office in a downtown high rise. After accepting the offer the firm asked if he'd like to fly out to S.F. on Monday to meet the H.Q. team. Youbetcha. I'll be dropping him off at the airport tomorrow morning at 5. We're very excited for the boy but he seems to be taking it all in the same calm stride with which he navigates most things in life. Yes, millennials do work!
Well, that's how I spend Sundays. Me, the car, and my dad. Sometimes it seems like a duty but mostly it seems like a nice opportunity to spend time together. I don't leave him until I see a smile...
Hope your Sunday is equally interesting and well spent.