I woke up at 2 a.m. thinking about a friend who, like millions of other elders, was forcibly removed from her home and placed in a long-term-care facility.
In the weeks before she was whisked away, I tried to warn her that she was getting forgetful, even delusional, and that if she didn’t move herself out of her two-story apartment with the worrisome stairs in favor of a safer living situation, someone else would likely step in and do it for her.
She looked at me like I was crazy and, with all the authority of her 94 years, flat-out told me, “If there were something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?”
She had no recollection of falling and landing in the hospital for five days. When I went to pick her up, she thought she was checking out of a hotel.
She saw my spending the night at her house as an invasion of her privacy.
The night that it hit her that she had lost control of her bladder and had to wear “diaper pants,” she screamed and asked me to shoot her.
But, by the light of day, the agonizing nighttime scenes were forgotten. She was immaculately groomed, drove herself everywhere, and could carry on the most interesting and astute conversations. Anyone casually stopping by would be impressed by her pleasant apartment, her yoga practice, her ongoing art projects, and her ability to take care of her own daily needs.
Like so many other fiercely independent creative elders whom I’ve assisted over the years, she found the possibility that someone could actually force her out of her home to be unthinkable.
Yet it happened.
Yesterday it was my turn to help my mom with her ADLs (Activities of Daily Living). Were it not for my dad’s presence in the home, and the care of all three of her daughters and her four granddaughters, my 93-year- old mother would require 24-hour care, either at home or in an institution.
A few days ago, in spite of our concerted efforts to keep walkers strategically placed in the front and back of the house, my mom again slipped and fell. My dad, unable to help her get back up, walked over to summon one of the neighbors, who picked up my light weight, skeletal mother and carried her to bed.
My mom’s eyesight and hearing is perfect. She still plays the piano beautifully, with vigor and enthusiasm, and speaks six languages. She catches all my jokes and is quick to poke fun at life. But her memory is slipping day by day. Yesterday she wondered who my parents were.
My dad is losing his eyesight. He can no longer read or write. In his own way, he’s doing a life review, dictating letters and making phone calls to relatives and old acquaintances while he still can. Yesterday he asked me to track down the phone number of a friend he worked with fifty years ago, someone he has not spoken to in many years.
I found the number and dialed it. As luck would have it, the man he was seeking answered the phone.
After identifying himself, my dad didn’t mince words but cut right to the chase. “I’m about to die, and I want to set the record straight.” He then launched into a story concerning an incident that happened at work that evidently had been smoldering on his conscience for all those years.
Much to my dad’s astonishment, the former colleague on the other end of the line claimed to have no recollection of what he was talking about. Undaunted, my dad described several more times what, in his mind, had taken place so long ago, and told his friend why, now that he’s about to die, he was making it his final mission to correct this mistake.
From my perspective as I overheard the conversation, it was nothing that a man in his final days needed to worry about. No criminal activity had taken place. But in my dad’s mind it was “important to set the record straight.”
From what I gathered, his friend still maintained that he didn’t remember the incident, which confounded my dad to no end.
“But you were there. Surely you remember!”
After more bantering back and forth, whatever this colleague said on the other end of the line seemed to be easing my dad’s mind. Toward the end of the conversation, he was laughing and enjoying the camaraderie of reconnecting with a friend from the past. But right after they hung up he turned to me and said, “Suzan, can you imagine such a thing! He was there, he gave the orders, but he doesn’t remember anything about it!”
“There’s one thing I want you to know, Suzan,” he went on, as if for the first time. “I believe in the day of judgement. One day you will stand alone in front of your maker. When I stand before my maker, I want to have a clean slate . . . Every day I commune with my heavenly father . . . ”
I’m happy for my dad that he has found peace.
On page 17 of the book “Veteran’s Stories of Ventura County,” there are two photographs of my Dutch Indonesian father as a teenager newly inducted in the Royal Dutch Navy. These photos were taken before he was a prisoner of war and saw the atomic bomb annihilate Nagasaki. In these two photos, his face looks just like mine when I was his age. He’s happy-go-lucky, smiling with youthful optimism, unaware of the horrors to come.
I respect how the God of his faith has helped him to bear the shock of war and burden of life. In my youth we argued . . . now I understand.
As for me, the longer I live, the more I see that the human mind is capable of inventing the most astonishing beliefs. And we all tend to assume, just like my elderly friend: “If there was something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?” — in Ojai, CA.