“Am I bothering you?” Dad’s calling again.
You sure are! (I’m really not doing anything that can’t be interrupted.)
“Good!” Dad will turn 93 in just a few days. We would be in Michigan right now to celebrate his birthday as well as my sister’s first anniversary and our oldest granddaughter’s graduation, but COVID is cancelling and complicating a lot of plans.
Dad’s been painfully lonely since my mom died eight-and-a-half years ago, and nearly unbearably so since COVID.
Before the pandemic, he was still driving a little—mostly to the nearby Family Fare to talk to people and distribute some hugs but never buying much. He’s living the quarantine life now, and there’s no going anywhere. So he watches the news or “In the Heat of the Night” reruns (his TV is on 24/7) or plays on his computer—which usually amounts to reading the local newspaper or playing a favorite game on Pogo. He might click a link to watch the fancy chickens that belong to friends who live in the Netherlands. He also hopes to catch a glimpse of the friends themselves. It was a near tragedy when the power went out. It wasn’t just the lights and coffee pot and microwave that it took down. It also took his connections to the outside—the computer, the TV, and the phone.
Most of his old friends and relatives have either died or gotten caught up in their own lives or have their own health issues to deal with, constricting his circle of connections. That’s not a COVID thing, but it’s exacerbated by it. We talk at least once a day.
“Get on up here,” he says.
I sigh. “I wish I could.” South Florida is 1500 miles away from northern Michigan, and being in a COVID high-risk group ourselves, my husband and I are not yet ready to mingle with the travel crowd.
The Commission on Aging was sending a lady to clean his house and do his laundry once a week and an aide to help him with a bath twice a week. They haven’t come for the last two months. Meals-on-Wheels still delivers, but it’s a quick stop-and-go by a masked man. He liked to “complain” about the busyness. “Nancy [the housekeeper] sure makes a lot of racket!” he’d tell me. Now he misses the noise and the company.
My brother had to move into Dad’s basement because of flooding in his own place, but he seldom comes upstairs. He’s a respiratory therapist and branch coordinator for a local medical equipment store so he tries to maintain a good bit of distance. In the meantime, he’s undertaken some downstairs renovation tasks, keeps up on yard work and helps upstairs in a pinch. But he doesn’t sit at the table and have coffee with Dad any more.
Dad understands. Until he doesn’t.
My sister (who used to live around the corner but moved 20 miles away last year when she married) still does Dad’s shopping, runs errands, takes him to doctor appointments, and tries to trouble-shoot problems. Visiting outdoors to maintain social distance frustrates him. He misses human touch. He understands, though—until he doesn’t. He does have a friend who comes by periodically with breakfast sandwiches and cups of coffee. Sometimes I think he actually sits inside at the table with him.
It’s hard living 1500 miles away.
Dad hates beds and prefers to sleep on the floor in front of the television. He’s done it for years. He tosses and turns and can’t get comfortable on a mattress. He drinks several cups of black coffee throughout the day—and night. He has no sleep schedule. He’s up and down all night. He snacks, plays on the computer, and watches a little TV. He complains that his fingertips are “slippery,” so he can no longer turn pages to read or work jigsaw puzzles or cook or bake like he used to. Finger cots “fall off.” He used to carve beautiful wood art. He can’t any more.
This morning I’m sitting in a Cracker Barrel rocking chair on my patio overlooking our lake talking to Dad on the phone. He tells me it’s “so damn hot” he had to close the drapes. He thought he might get sunburned right there on the floor. I remind him that sun through a window tends to be hotter. Later he complains that it was “colder than hell” outside the other day—and even more so since my sister “shaved” his head. He had to double-jacket and couldn’t understand how my sister could be outside bare-armed. I tell him he could come live with me when this is all over. We have air conditioning when it’s hot, and it’s seldom cold in winter.
He hates Florida.
I tell him that a pair of Muscovy ducks are making whoopee in front of me. He asks if the alligator has come around. I ask what he ate today, what he’s going to eat. He’d had a packet of instant oatmeal to which he’d added some bran flakes for breakfast and then later a waffle with a hot dog. He said he’d probably graze from the Meals-on-Wheels containers. He used to be able to pack away the food. Now not so much. I ask how many times he’s washed his hands today. In my mind, I see him roll his eyes. I change the subject.
I tell him how I remember sitting in the back of a police car and ask him to tell me again about the time we got rear-ended at a stoplight when I was two or three—back when seatbelts weren’t an option. He tells me how he and Mom both turned around to catch me mid-air. I could ask him about the baby he delivered in the back of the ambulance, but I don’t have time for that story (and the others that would follow) again today. Besides his work as a carpenter and a maintenance man, he was a volunteer firefighter. He also founded the county’s first ambulance corps and trained EMTs. He says he feels so useless now. He wants to do home repairs. He wants to mow his lawn. He wants to blow snow. He wants to help my brother move household items away from the floodwaters. He wants to do something to help fight the virus. I tell him he’s done so much for others. It’s time for him to rest and let others do for him.
Am I bothering you? I’m calling Dad this time.
What are you doing?
“Not a darn thing.”
What’s your plan today?
“I might just go out to the garage and see if my car starts. I thought your sister might have come. She hasn’t brought any groceries or cigarettes for a week.”
Actually, she might have been there just a couple days ago. We’ve all lost sense of time.
What do you need?
I know he needs more than ice cream and cigarettes. He needs to see and touch people. I remind him that even when (and if) he can go to the store again, he probably won’t be hugging anyone for a long time.
He understands. Until he doesn’t.
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