8.12.2018

OT: Sunday's with Kirk in the Kar.

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.

18 comments:

Alan Mermelstein said...

Kirk,

Thank you so much for sharing a part of your life. It’s a comfort to me as I lost my mom in Jan and like you am taking care of my 89 year old dad. He’s a wonderful guy and is now in a terrific assisted living facility. I’m a little older than you (67) so at the end of this year I’ll be a fully retired formerly full time wedding photographer. So then when my friends refer to my “part time” job I’ll no longer have to wince! But it’ll be weird being retired!

Dave Jenkins said...

You are a good son, Kirk. I'm not far behind your dad, and I hope my sons do as well.

Today my wife and I went to Huntsville, AL (about a hundred miles) to visit my brother, a retired army colonel who is in a VA nursing home there. He is 75, six years younger than I, and has Parkinson's and a type of dementia called Lewy Bodies, which leaves him quite lucid most of the time but subject to sudden onset of delusions which can render him violent. This was one of his good days.

He and his wife celebrated their 50th anniversary in the nursing home in January, with his four remaining siblings and many other family members and friends. The brother and sister between him and me both passed away in their 70s. His wife still lives in their home near Huntsville, but spends most of her days with him.

I'm in reasonably good health, active, and try to keep myself sharp by writing and photographing assignments (when I can get them) but you never know when things will turn sour.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave, we're all heading in the same direction. We just need to head there with faith and courage. Thanks for sharing.

Rob said...

Kirk:

This was clearly raw, and hit me a little hard. I wish all the best to you and your family.

Your blog is both a service to the photographic community, and credit to your father's son.

Rob

Scott Wonderling said...

Kirk, you're doing a wonderful thing for your father. In between trying to figure out this whole photography thing, my full time career is as a Speech Pathologist in skilled nursing, long term care, and memory care facilities. I've spent more hours than I can count trying to help people hang on to their minds an memories as long as possible. I wish everyone in that situation had family members as caring and dedicated as you are. Even if he doesn't always remember the visit, I'm sure your presence is a source of calming comfort long after you've headed back up to Austin.

Patrick Dodds said...

Nice post Kirk, thank you.

William Collinson said...

Kirk, lovely post that reminds us all to make time for what is truly important. You also give insight into the realities of caring for our elderly parents, in a honest and touching way.

Just as much, I enjoyed the update about your son. Your closing comment, that millennials *do* work, is perfectly in touch with conversations I've been having lately with friends. My oldest, at 22, didn't find that college suited him. After working for a few months in a local restaurant, he joined the US Navy, much to my surprise. He was accepted into, and completed, the US Navy's nuclear power program and serves as an electronics technician and reactor operator aboard one of our nation's aircraft carriers. In port, a typical work week is 50-60 hours, and at sea that can almost be doubled. Yet he loves it, serves with pride, and reminds me that -any- generation can demonstrate a determined work ethic.

I have little doubt that your son will find great success, in no small part due to his own determined work ethic. Congrats on his new job!

David said...

My wife and I have been doing the Sunday visit to the nursing home for more than six years now, first with my mom, and now with hers. I would have never imagined it, but the nursing home and its staff are now just part of our normal lives. Luckily, we are only 15 minutes away. Keep making that trek. You’ll be glad you did.

Glenn Kujansuu said...

Kirk, what a nice Sunday to remember your Dad.

alexander solla said...

So cool to hear that your son already landed a decent job! That is fantastic! As a parent whose kid will graduate in May of next year, I am already close to the panic state of: WHAT NEXT?!!

You seem to handle these life changes with aplomb. My guess is that swimming gives you time to let the emotional stuff do it thing. For me at least, swimming used to be the time when I could push my body hard enough that after getting out of the pool, i was done. With everything.

Reading about your visit with your dad is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. You cover the whole spectrum in a very spare manner. Speaks volumes of how hard it is.

Tom Barry said...

You are the son every father should have. All the best to you and yours.

Jack said...

I did a variation of your Sunday for a few years. Fortunately (the only good part), my dad was just 12 miles away in a VA facility. I and my three sisters visited him at different times to increase the days he had visitors.


Sadly, by the time he got there, his cognitive abilities were pretty low. He could, however, still call us by name for the first year. After that I quit asking him questions and told him things that related to his former life and profession (teaching business education at a community college).

About 14 years later we were repeating the process for my mother. That keeps my worrying about my future.

Congrats to the Kid. He'll do fine.

Cheers

Mike Marcus said...

Anymore, I am not sure whether I more appreciate reading your posts about photography or life.
The reports on your dad are especially moving. Thank you for having the energy and taking the time to share on both topics.

irkregent said...

It takes a generous amount of transparency and vulnerability to share this with all of us. I think I can sense some of the emotion that lies between the lines.

Thank you for writing this. It holds more interest to me now that my mom is suffering from memory loss issues. I wonder what kind of care she will need from us in the future, and your words are ones I will take to heart should we find ourselves in this stage of life.

Kenneth Voigt said...

Very nice of you to share such personal feelings and experiences.
I was quite moved. It wouldn't hurt to write more in this vein.

Bonaventura said...

Kirk,

You are being a tremendous help and comfort to your father. As someone who walked the Alzheimer's path with my mother, I see that you have figured out the best way to interact with your Dad: stay positive and adapt to his condition. One piece of advice: recognize that this is a tough road for you too, even if it doesn't always feel like it. Be very good to yourself too. Insist on those meals with your family, swimming and the joy you seem to find in your work.

rlh1138 said...

Add my thanks to those of the others. Glad you felt like sharing, I'd be curious how it felt/helped to do that with us 'strangers'. My wife and I did that trip with each of our mothers, and now I'm doing it long distance with my older sister.

Life.... long strange trip

Neale MacMillan said...

Thanks Kirk for sharing your experiences with your aging Dad. Reminds me of the last years of my Mom's life, who suffered from Alzheimer's. Fortunately, I had a much shorter drive to visit her than your Austin-San Antonio run. Best regards from Gatineau, Quebec.