Having both parents suddenly go into an assisted living facility is stunning. It has put me in a place that I never expected—that WE never expected—and it is difficult in a way that I am not sure people who have never had the experience can understand. None of my father’s planning applies. Not the will nor the trust they let go of several years ago (I believe from bad legal advice) nor the cabinets of papers he meticulously kept. All of that is, in his words, “of no value.”
They have been forcibly scaled down from a 2000 square foot house to less than a 500 square foot apartment. On one side of that sieve is years of furniture and memorabilia, and food and supplies purchased, never to be eaten or used. On the other, a Spartan space of basic comforts and limited potential. Don’t get me wrong. They enjoy their new home. It is safe, comfortable, and supportive. They talk about going home, but they also are coming to know that it is impossible now.
There was one moment when I was working in my father’s office, an hour or so after beginning to dig through years of papers and files, when I just stopped. My mind suddenly went on “Pause” and I looked around this room. Photographs of family and friends, many of whom are now gone, were posted on every wall. Certificates, accolades, and photographs of prominent people he admired.
Office equipment, relics of a long-gone era, stood dusty and unused. File cabinets of paper files stretching back more than 75 years resting in black metal cabinets waited for relevance. The flotsam and jetsam of waves of time were everywhere I looked. Notes that had meaning only for my father lay abandoned on the desk and worktable. Paper clips, rubber bands, pens, random screws, keys to unknown locks… a deputy badge from the time he helped to find a murderer and a pocket watch inscribed “The Greatest Dad.”
But what struck me most was that the room, as the house as a whole, was frozen in time. At one point, my father stood up and walked out of that room. He did not know it, but he would never return. It was a haunting and indescribable feeling: the room frozen in time and waiting for a return that would never happen.
The stroke had advanced slowly. First, it took his balance so that he slumped to the floor at the HEB then asked for help to get to his truck, where he fell again. He thought he was just tired. He didn’t really remember falling against the garage wall while taking the groceries inside, but the helpful neighbor noted it. The stroke made itself known when he fell after going to the bathroom that night, and his words slurred as he asked my mother for help. But her dementia told him that he should go to sleep; he would feel better in the morning.
You see, he was her caretaker. It never occurred to him that the roles might suddenly be reversed.
Someone called 911. My sister and I are not really certain who that was. Dad spent a week in the hospital, and several weeks in skilled nursing rehabilitation, progressing remarkably well. Then, there came the move to assisted living where reality seems to be readjusting over time. The dream to go home, to sit once again at his desk and pore over bank accounts and taxes, and for her to fall asleep in her favorite chair while watching television, is gone.
So, I take his place in this office chair surrounded by ghosts. I think about all of the material goods that have accumulated over the decades: gifts, photographs, memorabilia from times past. And I remember his words as I ask about various items that he might want us to bring: “it is of no value.” I see my mother gesturing that it should be thrown away. There is nothing in this home that they want to take into their new life. Nothing at all.