Each day provides its own gifts.
Today, was the 4th of July. In the morning, I thought I could hear the sounds of a marching band wafting over from the downtown parade. Last night, there were non-stop firecrackers being set off around the neighborhood and tonight they're still at it. For my parents, however, it was simply another day in a round of confusing and difficult days. I reminded my mother that it was the 4th of July and she nodded her head and asked for another glass of water and told me how much her legs hurt. Later, I took a cab out to see my dad at the Rehab Center where he's been since leaving the hospital.
"Hi, Dad," I said, waking him up from an afternoon nap, "happy 4th of July." The 4th has always been one of Dad's favorite holidays, partly because our hometown - Ypsilanti, Michigan - is known for its 4th of July parade (apparently the longest-running in the state.) "Oh," Dad said, with a bit of confusion. He remembered being wheeled out somewhere to see what he thought was the Thanksgiving Parade on television. "It was pretty good," Dad said, smiling. It was still about an hour until dinner, which I'd come to eat with him. When he'd been at the Rehab Center without visitors he hadn't been eating or sleeping well. Not surprising, really. Eating is a social activity and one that older people, who already have less of an appetite, particularly dislike doing alone. So, eating dinner with Dad was my new job.
About an hour later, dinner came: sloppy joes, a few chips, some corn, a piece of chocolate cream pie, and lemonade. "You're not eating?" Dad said, as he began to tentatively take a few bites of his food, looking at me with alarm. "Of course," I said and went out into the hall and asked if they had any leftover trays. I offered to pay, but the aide handing out the trays refused, saying that the food would just have to be thrown out anyway. And so there we sat: me on one side of Dad's small room and Dad on the other, eating our institutional meals. It really wasn't that bad, I decided; in fact, it was quite companionable sitting there eating with Dad.
Dad finished everything, placed his silverware meticulously on his plate, folded his used napkin and sat drinking the coffee that came with the meal. After I thought enough time had passed, I suggested that Dad let me clean his dentures. He pulled them out of his mouth and began dipping them in his coffee. "Dad don't dip your teeth in your coffee!" I said in horror. "What?" he asked, looking down as if he had no idea what I meant. I cajoled him into putting the dentures in the denture cup and went into the bathroom and gave them a good scrub. Then, I returned, clean dentures in hand, and handed the toothpaste and toothbrush to Dad. "Why don't you brush your teeth now?" I asked. But no matter how much I pleaded, Dad wasn't having any of it. It was still light out and a nice day. "Gee," I said, "how about I take you outside for a ride and when we get back you can brush your teeth?" Dad liked that idea and so, we set out.
It was a pleasant evening with a slight breeze. We could hear redwing blackbirds calling and the odd firecracker going off in the distance. Dad wasn't strong enough to walk very far on his own, so getting out was a real treat. As we wheeled along the sidewalk, Dad commented on the trees we passed, any birds or butterflies, just about anything. His obvious joy at getting outside made me realize how much the able-bodied take for granted. As we followed the sidewalk, we could see another wheelchair couple ahead of us. When we got to the end of the sidewalk, the other pair had started back and, as they came toward us, I could see that it was a woman about my age and a thin elderly woman that seemed older than Dad. "Hi," the younger woman said, "would you like to come with us down this trail I found?" We introduced ourselves and headed off. At first, the going was easy. Then, we were headed down a fairly steep slope. "There's a creek," the woman said. "Must be Geddes Creek," Dad said authoritatively. I think he was right. He might not have known it was the 4th of July, but he knew the lay of the land since he had lived his entire life within about a ten mile radius of where we stood.
It took all my strength to navigate the trail to the creek with Dad and his wheelchair. I had visions of runaway wheelchairs and disastrous crashes and held on tight. When we got to the bridge over the creek, I caught my breath with relief, and we all stood for while and looked down into the small creek. It was a joyful moment. The two elderly people who spent so much time cooped up inside a drab facility were delighted to be outside on a lovely summer evening. And I and the other woman were delighted to share the moment with our parents. On the way back, I plucked a wild daisy and handed it to Dad. Back in Dad's room, I reminded him that he had to brush his teeth. He grumbled, but went into the bathroom, where he stayed for quite a while, hopefully brushing his teeth. "When are you coming back?" Dad asked, with none of the grumpiness that he'd shown a few hours before. "Tomorrow, Dad, tomorrow," I said, then filled a small glass with water and put the daisy in it and set the glass on the window ledge. Small moments can carry large gifts, I thought, as I took one last glance at the daisy and hugged Dad good-bye.
Here's a great link on loneliness in old age and why it's so important to spend time with aging parents.