The Best I Could

By Erika Hoffman

The Best I Could

On the day we drove my 92 year old father to UNC Hospital with the hemorrhagic stroke making it impossible for him to see anything on the left, he joked along the route. Once in the emergency room, an attractive young doc extended her long arm and took his bony hand in hers as she introduced herself; “I’m Dr. Leeper,” she said.

Without a moment’s pause, my stooped dad squeezed her hand and said, “So, you’re Dr. Reaper, as in Grim?” And then he smiled his little upturned wry grin to let her know he was punning.

She laughed. “I’ve not been called that before.” My father’s little joke turned out to be prophetic.

The next day he was watched over, hooked up and curtained from another patient – a co-ed who had overdosed the same night Dad entered the hospital. In fact, we saw her friends pull up behind us, and the assistants hurried out to help as they pulled a quarrelsome drunk from the backseat of the car. Most likely her cohorts saved her life. Yet, while sitting on the opposite side of the curtain with my inert dad, all I heard was her whining on the phone about being admitted and maybe charged for underage drinking. I listened to her bemoan her fate as I watched my dad doze in and out of semi-consciousness. When he did rouse up, he didn’t understand why he couldn’t raise his arms which were strapped down to prevent his tugging the tubes out of his arm or nose. My dad would have been compliant had he been able to retain what was asked of him, but his memory lasted only seconds and instructions given him whiffed away from his mind as soon as uttered.

After a couple of days, Dad was moved. A physical therapist came by to assess him. Dad’s quick repartees often threw folks off. They always thought he was more with it than he was. Dad had severe dementia. He’d had it for seven years. During that spate of time, he lived with us. He moved to our home because he could no longer take care of his home and affairs. He was 84 when things went downhill. I wasn’t really prepared for the aging of my dad. He’d been a widower for so long. He was independent and never asked much from us kids who had moved away from New Jersey decades earlier. He had his friends. He kept up his house and had his routines. Maybe it is human nature to assume life just keeps going on, until one day it doesn’t; a decision has to be made.

At 84, he had open heart surgery and a porcine valve put in. Within six months, his memory slid away. His recollection of things was a bit spotty, but after the operation, I noticed acute changes. At any rate, he came to live with me in North Carolina, as that is what he wanted to do. It was me or a nursing home. Many of my pals said they couldn’t look after their elderly folks or didn’t want to. But my dad was always good to his children, and he was a loyal husband to our mother and a hard worker and a faithful friend. I’d look after him in his final years, when dementia robbed him of many activities he had liked to do. Even the ability to process the conversation thread coming from the news anchors on TV waned. After a while, his TV watching became DVDs of Gunsmoke and other old westerns where he knew the plots and recognized familiar actors.

He couldn’t recall if he had eaten five minutes after he ate. He couldn’t remember the birthdays of us, his kids, or names of folks he’d known all his life. And in that last year he’d think I was Mom, and that his parents were coming over for Sunday dinner. It was hard to break the truth to him, and sometimes I’d avoid answering when he’d ask me when they would arrive. I hated to view the stark disappointment on his face. Sometimes, I was kind about his confusion. Sometimes, I was frustrated and brusque.

Once in a while Dad had some clarity. The day the physical therapist came and seemed to think he could do something to help my father, Dad perked up. The young, harried fellow greeted me in an offhanded way. “Hello, Mrs. Vogel. You’re Henry’s wife?”

“Wife?” I sat up straight in my chair.

“Yes? Or, Sister?”

“How long have I been sitting here? Have I aged that much?” I answered in my stunned state. “I’m Mr. Vogel’s daughter! Dad’s 92. How old do I look?”

The fellow stammered and eyed the door. “Oh, Mr. Vogel looks much younger than 92.”

“Even if you think him a mere 82, how old does that make me – his wife?” I laughed and then added, “My father was no teenager when I was born! Thirty-one years separate us!”

This skinny guy couldn’t get away fast enough. He stuttered something about folks having partners who were much younger or some such slush. This physical therapist with poor eyesight and big foot-in-mouth disease bolted, and I glanced over at my dad with eyes closed but smiling.

Dad said, “Get him back! I think I like that guy!”

Even in dire times, Dad could make me smile. He found humor in life’s situations. Even his experiences in World War II sounded like episodes from McHale’s Navy!

Dealing with dementia is hard. Nonetheless, I am happy I had him for those seven years after his heart operation. It taught me to live in the present. I learned to like the simple things and treasure what memories we could still share. People often bemoan the cruelty of dementia, and I don’t argue with them when they say that one feels robbed by it. Yet, aren’t other diseases cruel thieves? When folks say it isn’t fair, I don’t know what they mean, really. Who has been promised a life without difficulty, without pain, without regrets?

Sometimes, dementia may be the price paid for living a long life or having a medical intervention prevent you from dying early when you were still physically competent and mentally agile. Despite the confinement, the work, the worry, I appreciate those seven years I had with my father. I think I am a better person for having been a caregiver to someone who needed me and someone who deserved to be taken care of. Caregiving for the demented is not easy, but it’s not total misery either. Joy exists among the sorrow. Some of my favorite memories of those years were of tucking him in at night, when he’d hold my arm in a claw-like grasp, and he’d look affectionately at me and say, “I might forget to tell you thank you. Sweetheart, you are so good to me.”

“See you tomorrow, Dad,” I’d whisper and turn off the light. And I’d go down the hall to my bed and sleep soundly, remembering his kind words.

About this writer

  • Erika Hoffman Erika Hoffman views most travel experiences as educational experiences and sometimes the lessons learned are revelations about oneself.

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3 Responses to “The Best I Could”

  1. Erika the love in this story is palpable. I so enjoyed it.

  2. Sioux says:

    Erika–My father died while in the late, late stages of Alzheimer’s. It’s heartbreaking.

    I’m glad you got to have him in your home. The memories you now have of that time with him… well, let’s just say I wish I had had the chance to care for MY dad…

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