Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My Trip to Visit My Father Who Has Alzheimer's (work in progress)

Gus made Tater Tot casserole for the church dinner. He and the girls took it to feed the homeless. That meant The Bear and I were left at the Road House with the paid programming that followed the Packers game.

The Bear didn't much mind, or better said, he didn't complain. He is used to being left in front of the TV as Gus's family goes about their business of high school sports, boot camp workouts, homework, errands, and Midwest socializing.

Gus's dinner does not include many green leafy vegetables. It's like most of the meals I will have on my trip to the visit The Bear, but that is fine. I'm used to Wisconsin food, and have lived on it most of my life.

I'm here now from Arizona, where I live, to see my father, who has just received his official diagnosis of Alzheimer's. I've brought him up to my brother's from where he lives in Janesville, thirty miles to the south. The farmland along the back roads is frozen and snow covered. Ponds are slick, shining sheets of black ice.

We saw three wild turkeys on the way up.

I have never, in many years of living in Wisconsin, seen wild turkeys. Yet, there they were, off the side of the road, crossing a corn field stubble.

I'm staying with the Bear and his new wife Linda. They have a guest room that faces the street in a Victorian brick house. The old furnace and steam-fed radiators can't keep up with the cold. They clank all night. Flannel sheets and a pile of qulits help with the cold.

After Gus and his family leave for the church dinner, The Bear and I decide to hit the road too. He needs help with his jacket, but stands and uses the bathroom before we go. As we walk in the cold out to little rental car, I hold his elbow. He is stooped from the Parkinson's and not so good with stairs. The driveway is shoveled but slick with patches of ice.

We make it to the car, and I help him in. Once settled I ask if he wants to take a road trip rather than go home.

"Hell yes," he says.

"How about the brewery over in New Glarus?"

He nods.

On the way we take a tour of reminiscence through downtown, the downtown of my adolescence and his glory days as town councilman. We drive past the old house. We talk about things that happened in places in the town -- a canoe race that we lost, neighbors who divorced, houses I helped paint for work while in college, times we worked together on the family house.

The town has changed, seems so much smaller than in my mind's eye, my dream life.

Once on the highway, I gun the little car. The Bear likes that, has always liked cars,

I hated them. He worked for Triple A.

Now, we just enjoy the view as the shadows lengthen.

He is more lucid than people think. My brothers and sisters tell me he is "too gone" for conversation. I disagree. In the car, we have plenty of time to think in silence, plenty of time to process. He tells me he is concerned about US fiscal policies, not exactly the subject of a feeble mind.

His age and decline in function has softened him. I tell him I am sorry for having been such an asshole of a son.

"It's alright," he says. "Make the most of the days you have."

In New Glarus, the brewery is closed and it's getting dark. But a grocery that sells the brew is open, so we go in. The Bear uses the grocery cart as his walker and we find the display in the back of the store. They let us mix and match single brews for a six pack. I get a Fat Squirrel and a Spotted Cow. The Bear picks out a Black Top. He doesn't drink, so doesn't really care what they will taste like.

I take a picture of him in front of the brewery.

On the way back home, we call some of my siblings A few of them are having trouble. Maggie had serious issues with Earl. She is distraught. The Bear can't stop being the father.

"Sweetheart, you let me know if you want me to come down there to help. I can come down if you need me. You just let me know."

This comes from a man who cannot remember where he is, much less drive a car to Florida, yet his role as father won't quit.

As we roll through the hills, I tell him about my own struggles with parenting, with marriage. I stay away from money, because I don't want him to worry. I tell him about my writing projects. He doesn't scowl like he did when he was younger, stronger. He was disappointed that I did not follow him into the military, but has come to terms with my choices.

I talk to him like I have always wanted to talk to him -- openly, with emotions like fear and anger and shame. He listens, hears me. Nods. Asks questions.

He tells me things I never knew about him, about his own dreams. His dream to be a pilot. His days as a lineman in North Dakota in the winter. His courtship of my mother.

I see monstrous hay bales left in a field out the window. They are frosted with snow as the sun sets and a near full moon rises. 

I have so many amends to make. I have been too hard on Wisconsin. I have been an arrogant prick to my dad. I am such a beginner with being the son who comes to visit. How can I tell him that, in many ways, I have failed? Failed professionally. Failed to become the writer I wanted to be. Failed to become the father and husband I wanted to be.

And I wonder if I am next, if the Alzheimer's that wracks my father will soon lower its hood on me.

The radio say it's zero degrees out there in the cold fields as we wind our way back to my father's home.

My dad is happy with his new bride. She takes care of him. I guess that's what matters. My sibs don't visit him, don't like his wife. haven't gotten over my mom's death. Fear losing inheritance. Or whatever it is. I sleep in the basement. It's cool. I wait for the bats. Text my beloved.

I don't talk to The Bear about depression and how I feel it is aptly named. The whole system slows down. Thoughts don't happen. Connections don't get made.

I think about my nieces.  The youngest of them, Kortney, sits with my dad where he sits in front of their TV. She is the only one who seems to see him. But she is getting older and now plays solitaire on her I-Pad.

When I leave him to return to my own home, he is hunched over, listening, watching, waiting.

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