I retired from university teaching in May 2011. For years, my plans geared me to being able to retire at 60 and then be free to travel any time I wanted to travel, not just at semester breaks. I could teach part-time, take students abroad if possible, even teach on-line. And of course, there would be ample time now for writing all those half-started essays and books.
Nope. Not quite.
Some background: My mother died in 1993, and since then Dad has lived on his own. He managed his own house in Egan, Louisiana, and worked with his sister to maintain the family farm in East Texas. I always joked that my dad actually clocked more road time than I did. Well into his 80s, Dad still maintained the schedule of a trip to the farm every two weeks. Even after going on dialysis and having cardiac bypass surgery in 2004, he kept going. He drove himself to dialysis. He shopped and kept the house up and drove to the farm and worked there –just a little slower as time passed. For the last few years, my sister and I had talked about things we noticed: he was a little more unsteady on his feet, for example. And the house wasn’t kept as clean as it had been. But Dad just kept going.
Then infections with the dialysis graft in his arm began to occur — the first one serious enough that we worried whether we’d lose him or he’d lose his arm. I taught online for a week and stayed in the hospital with him. This became the pattern that marked my life for the last years of my career. Dad went into hospital for a few days; I slept on the couch or chair or whatever and taught online and commuted.
My sister helped as she could — but she lives almost three hours away and I live only 45 miles away from Dad.
The last two semesters that I taught, though, things changed. He was in the hospital more frequently, and came out weaker than before. I stayed with him more and more. I commuted a lot. More than I wanted. I love driving, but learned that I hate daily commuting. I kept some clothes and necessities at Dad’s, but still considered that I was “visiting” him. In February or March last year (over Mardi Gras break, I know), Dad drove himself to the hospital emergency room in Crowley with pain and amazing constipation; the hospital admitted him and failed to notify either my sister or me, though I am listed to be contacted. In fact, he was there several days before we knew where he was, and though he was still confused and disoriented, were ready to release him when my sister and I managed to get there. The confusion was new, and disturbing, but sadly not uncommon with geriatric patients. He recovered, but was weaker than before.
Then in May, just before I retired, he developed pneumonia and ended up in the hospital. I uploaded my final grades from his room. He was released from the hospital and hasn’t driven since. He came home on oxygen. I began retirement with a new job. Daddy’s Little Helper.
Even then, though, I managed to spend a few days a week in Lake Charles, at my own home, with my pets and my life. Neighbors helped me out. Dad was using a walker (most of the time, anyway). He cooked meals (though I suspect he ate a lot of sandwiches) and washed clothes. He wasn’t driving, and he didn’t like it. I even managed to spend six weeks in Greece in the summer. In September, I spent a week in London with friends.
However, I could see that Dad was weakening. He tripped more. He fell, but luckily didn’t break anything. In late October, we traveled to the farm for a family work weekend.
That was when some little voice told me to travel while I could: and I did. The day after Thanksgiving, I left for three weeks — most of it in Athens, and then four days in London on the return.
The little voice was right: four days before I returned, Dad tripped on his oxygen tubing. From then through the end of December, his pain increased daily and so did his ability to ambulate. By the end of December, he moaned in pain and needed help dressing because he could barely lift his legs. After three weeks and three tests, the diagnosis came in: he had an L1 compression fracture. By the time he had kyphoplasty to stabilize the compression fracture, he needed me to dress him and feed him and bathe him. The kyphoplasty went well on a Tuesday; we came home on Wednesday. By Monday, it was clear that something was going on — Dad was increasingly confused. On Monday I picked him up from dialysis, got him to his doctor, and she put him in the hospital. By that night, he was delusional. Even when he was briefly asleep, he was active — climbing poles and pulling wire, from years of work as an electrician. When awake, he talked incessantly. To his late brother and cousins. To me, warning me about not running over the dogs in the road. He pointed to the ceiling; he saw turkeys in fields. He tried to climb out of the hospital bed more times than I could keep track of. By Wednesday the doctor ordered something to relieve the anxiety, and it worked. He slept on Wednesday night and so did I. Finally. He came home on Friday, the lingering confusion cleared over the next few days, and on the following Thursday I admitted him to a nursing home for rehabilitation.
While he’s there, I’m having the house made wheelchair accessible. As I type this blog, contractors are ripping out bathtubs and old linoleum.
I am no longer under the illusion that I live in Lake Charles, not really. I live here in Egan, with Dad, and I visit my old home in Lake Charles. For now.
And so this blog: it’s a brave new world, and I’m discovering myself daily, re-inventing myself, and cherishing the gift of time with Dad.