By John Earl
Surf City Voice
May 16, 2013, was the last time that I published a self-written article for my investigative water-news blog, the Surf City Voice. As I prepare to reboot the Voice, I would first like to explain what happened, not just to excuse any absence, but also because many of you can relate to my story.
Five years ago my then 88-year-old father started to suffer from extreme back pain and was diagnosed with kidney failure, congestive heart failure and the slow onset of dementia. His health had always seemed as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, but now it was frighteningly obvious that he was entering the final phases of his life, something that I had always almost thought would never happen.
Prior to that day, my father took daily two-mile-long walks around our beach-side neighborhood, an activity that he took pride in as a symbol of his good health and exceptional longevity. Wearing his signature outfit—a straw hat and off-white coat—he would walk in short but brisk steps without a cane. And he always brought his snacks: a slice of whole-wheat bread held in his hand and several carefully cut cubes of Hershey’s milk-chocolate bar stuffed into his coat pocket.
Easy to recognize and always eager to talk to anyone, my father made lots of friends along his exercise route, some of whom regularly stopped by our house over the years to check up on him and to drop off cookies or baked bread.
Suddenly, his spinal column curved sharply to one side at the waist and yesterday’s steady gait became wobbly. He cut his daily walking route down to a couple of blocks and started to use a cane. But he was still determined to live each step as if as if nothing had changed. A new walker with wheels allowed him to move faster than ever. Still, after taking it on a trial run, he folded it up and left it to gather dust.
“I’m not at that point yet”, he explained.
Looking back, I recall what might have been some early signs of my father’s slow slide into dementia, but I thought little of it then. In his mid 80s, he started to complain of forgetfulness. Increasingly, he had trouble remembering the friends in his address book. He made notes alongside their names in order to remind himself who they were during his next memory lapse.
“It’s terrible,” he said, whenever he couldn’t remember. But who wouldn’t forget things at his age, I thought, reassuring him that it was no big deal.
With my father, it was hard to know where mischievousness ended and a combination of bad memory and bad hearing began. Sometimes, I felt like I was part of a Burns and Allen comedy routine. Every time my Norwegian friend, Petter, came to the door to pick me up for our weekly tennis match, my father, who is very hard of hearing, would ask him his name. The conversation would usually go something like this:
What’s your name, again?
And so on…
But he scared me on a couple of occasions, late at night, when he got up to go to the bathroom and asked me, quite seriously, “What am I supposed to do when I go to the bathroom? What are the steps?”
Each time I tested him for signs of a stroke and in a few minutes he was acting normal again. After his doctor replaced his vicodin, a strong pain killer that sometimes causes people taking it to act a little wacky, the problem seemed to go away.
Memory problems aside, my father has certainly had a memorable life, which I was part of for 59 years. Born in 1920, he grew up mostly in Alta Dena, California, through the Great Depression. But his family lived fairly well, thanks to his father’s successful business transporting goods across country in railroad cars.
The small Mediterranean-style home of his youth still stands, at Solano Drive, just as new looking as it was nearly a century ago. The private school he attended, just a couple of streets down, is where he got a classical education, prepping him for entrance into Stanford University in 1938.
But my father’s early life was also painful at times. When he was 14-years-old, his father died of pneumonia. And one of his three brothers died before reaching his teens.
My father went on to graduate from Stanford University with honors and a Master’s degree in engineering, but first he took a detour as a First Lieutenant and B-29 flight engineer in the Army Air Force during World War II. He went on bombing missions over Japan and was almost selected, he told us, to be on board the Enola Gay.
On two occasions his plane crashed. Once in India, after takeoff, a misfortune that ended up with a tree branch going through the bottom of the plane and punching a hole in my father’s leg.
The other crash, in China, was deadly. Flying at 14,000 feet on a night mission to bomb Omura, Japan, the B-29’s wings and propellers iced up and it started to spin. As the pilot and co-pilot struggled to control the airplane, my father stood on the wheels in the nose-wheel-well waiting for it to open—in a few minutes the plane would hit the side of a mountain.
My father barely slid through a small opening in the wheel well and immediately opened his parachute, but it closed and opened again repeatedly on the way down. The plane disappeared into the clouds, but he saw it again, burning, a few moments later when it exploded on the side of the mountain. Five other crew members also bailed out and also survived. My father and the other survivors were taken in by local Chinese. The rest of the eleven-member crew, including the pilot, died in the crash.
In his mid or late seventies my father submitted an article about that experience to the New Yorker magazine. He was an outstanding writer and I remember how hard he worked on that story. It was rejected because the editors wanted more details. Those details were recently made available to me in a previously declassified document that confirms the deaths of the crew members.
“Who cares about that? It happened a long time ago,” my father snapped, after I showed him the document a few months ago.
After the war my father finished school at Stanford with a Masters degree in engineering, followed by a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan. He and a colleague wrote a seminal thesis about human motivation that is still cited in text books.
After the Korean War, my father married my mother. Her first husband, a friend of my father’s, was a fighter pilot who was shot down and presumed dead in that war.
My parents built a home in Claremont, the college town that I would grow up in during the 50s and 60s and where my father would teach and do research as a professor of psychology at Pomona College and as chairman of the Claremont Graduate School psychology department. Later, he became Chief of Research at Stockton State Mental Hospital where his main focus was on treating heroin addicts with methadone. Before retiring, he did similar work for San Francisco and San Bernardino counties.
Due to his professional background and personal interests, my father had accumulated a large library covering a wide range of topics, including, of course, psychology, as well as statistics, quantum physics, history, politics and general science. Into his mid 80s he assisted former students and colleagues with their research projects and exchanged ideas with them—reams of pages with his precise notes, drawings, and mathematical calculations that I can’t begin to fathom—are still in storage boxes today.
That was my father’s mind—before dementia slowly seeped in.
When I was younger, I wondered if I would have what it takes to be there for my father when he would be too old to care for himself. My brothers had looked after my cancer-stricken mother in her last months in the mid 1990s because they lived near her in northern California, so I had not been put to the test.
My turn would come gradually. I really started taking care of my father a few years before I learned of his failing health, when he began to subtly show signs of declining judgment, whether related to dementia or not, putting himself and others at risk.
In his mid to late 80s, he was already an easy mark for con artists, like the young man who came to the house to visit him on the premise that “old people need someone to talk to” and offered my father the pink slip to his truck as collateral for a loan. Had I not intervened, he would have given that “nice young man” the money, just like he had trusted a series of former tenants when he gave them extra time to deliver their rent—tens of thousands of dollars that they never paid—after believing in their sob stories and false promises.
And there were a series of small accidents in the local Albertson’s parking lot (none of them were his fault, he insisted), near misses on the road, and a growing habit of passing through the occasional red light, “safely”, that made it clear to me and his doctor, but not to him, that it was time for him to stop driving.
But after his license was suspended due to his health, he swallowed his pride and dropped his appeal. He had always loved driving for the freedom and control it gave him. Earning his license three quarters of a century ago was a coming of age event, and so was losing it at 88 years of age.
My father still got around with me as his chauffeur. He liked going to the local Albertsons, where he would push his own shopping cart (a substitute for the walker he had refused) and was well liked among the cashiers for his geriatric energy and friendliness, as well as for his habit of buying tons of tapioca pudding, ice cream, and Lean Cuisine frozen dinners.
His best friend, an electrician who lived in a bachelor pad above our garage, took him on rides to Seal Beach and other coastal spots to watch the sunset. They would also watch baseball and football games together, sometimes in his friend’s apartment. One day, at the very bottom of the steps leading to the apartment, my father slipped and fell. His face was bloody and bruised, but he took a photo of it and sent it to friends and relatives. After a few weeks the ugly marks disappeared, but the incident was an omen of worse falls to come.
For several more years my father remained the king of his house, able to walk through it without assistance, dress himself, feed himself, balance the check book and pay the bills. He wrote witty emails to his friends, although his time on the computer was increasingly spent responding to Publisher’s Clearing House scams and no longer for serious writing—until due to dementia or arthritis or both he finally stopped using the computer altogether. He kept up his support of the ACLU and read his newspapers, the Times and the Register, and several nature and science magazines. He still liked to watch 60 Minutes every Sunday and the PBS News Hour every week-night.
Then two summers ago, just before his 92nd birthday, my father had the first of several falls in the kitchen while I was sleeping. On the third time, I heard it, a big thud on the kitchen floor. I called 911 and he went to the hospital. No bones were sprained or broken, but he spent about a week and a half in a rehab center doing physical therapy to get some of his leg strength back.
His partial physical recovery was quick, but his memory and intellect had declined. Now he had trouble remembering the names of other family members, including his other sons and his brothers.
When my father returned home he used grab bars and other furniture to keep his balance as he wobbled between rooms. He could barely use the toilet or dress himself without assistance. From that point on I prepared his meals and handled the bills.
He spent a lot of time sitting in the kitchen, happily, looking out the window and then reporting in detail on the all of the neighbors’ movements, or watching television in his personal sofa. He still went on his walks, but now only around the block by pushing his wheelchair like a shopping cart, with two rest stops for visits with friends and to catch his breath, always with me pushing him up the last uphill stretch.
He sailed along that way for the next five months. Then, one day, I heard another big thud, this time coming from his softly-carpeted bedroom. I found him on the floor writhing in pain. He broke his hip and needed surgery, but there was an estimated 10 percent risk that he would not survive it due to his weak heart. His alternative was to live the rest of his life in traction.
I went out for a run along the secluded Santa Ana river trail like I usually did several times a week. I took my Walkman and blasted classical music to try to clear my mind. I was too stressed to finish the run, but after talking to my father’s doctors and my brothers, I decided that surgery was the only humane option.
The surgery was successful, but this time my father could not just get up and walk around on his own. Probably due to the surgery, his dementia had become much worse. Meanwhile, my father’s younger brother, who at 89 had been in good health physically and mentally, fell down some stairs and broke his hip. He died a week later. I still haven’t told my father.
Preparing for his return, I signed my father up for 24/7 care with private home care company. It was a great stress relief for me, but I knew that—at $12,000 per month—something would have to change, soon. I applied to the Veteran’s Administration for financial aid for my father’s care, but the accumulative total of a pension he had received for over 15 years was over the allowed asset limit—he would have to be broke before he could get help.
The way things were going, that time would come soon. With enough home equity several times over, we applied for another mortgage to consolidate and pay off all my father’s debts and to have money up front to pay for his care. But due to new regulations implemented since the 2008 crash, we were told, not a single loan institution would provide my father with even the smallest loan.
To lower costs, we terminated the contract with the home care company and hired privately at a lower cost to us and for far fewer hours. Soon, however, we even had to cut that back.
So we decided to sell the house in order to get the money we needed for my father’s care. We issued a 60-day notice to another tenant who was renting a room on the property. When he didn’t pay his rent on time we gave him an option of accepting a financial incentive to move out quickly so we could sell the house sooner.
But the tenant took leverage from our urgency and demanded outrageous sums of money in order to leave. When we refused his demands he used scurrilous accusations and false legal claims to delay his inevitable eviction.
The courts ruled against him in every instance; but, thanks to legal loopholes created by and for greedy California lawyers in the name of tenants’ rights, that process took months and brought my father’s home to the brink of foreclosure.
Finally, the tenant ran out of tricks and was forced out, ending an almost unbearable nightmare. Were it not for my older brother, who as head of my father’s living trust kept the legal nuts and bolts–and himself–glued together during the ordeal, and my son, who selflessly provided substantial financial support and assisted in caring each day for my father, as well as help from other family, care-workers, and friends, the outcome of our shared family ordeal could have been tragic.
After we moved into our new Huntington Beach home, the last thing I could do was go back to reporting the news. My mind had fogged up to anesthetize me. I was still angry and depressed and couldn’t focus, not even enough to write a single paragraph other than Facebook comments. In my spare time I just wanted to go swimming in the pool, ride my bike, play tennis, lay out on the beach and read.
I did do a lot of reading about water issues during the past year and half, however. I also attended and spoke up at the occasional water board meeting. But that was fun and easy stuff. It was me keeping in touch, just barely, waiting for the fog to lift.
Of course, there was still the main matter of caring for my father. That takes its own measure of anxiety, as anyone who has cared for a declining parent knows, despite the great help that my father and I get from his current care-givers.
Physically, caring for a parent is not a hard job, at least not yet in my case. There’s no heavy lifting involved, for example, although the nights of little or no sleep can be exhausting. It’s not the parent’s confused behavior or the changing of his diapers in the middle of the night that grinds and shakes your world.
What frustrates, depresses, frightens and wears you down is your inability day after day to accept the fact that your parent is not the intellectually and emotionally capable person that he used to be and that he never will be again.
It’s not hard to grasp that idea in the abstract, but remembering it when he spent the whole night talking to people who weren’t there and trying to climb over his bed rails or doesn’t want to eat his dinner, despite getting dangerously thin, is more difficult.
That is why the outside caregiver is essential to the in-family caregiver’s own health and well being, not just to the health of the parent. Having someone else there gives you the chance to go out, spend time with other family and friends, and to return home with a happy buzz that allows you to enjoy your time with your parent.
Put another way, being refreshed helps you to show the love that allows you to fulfill “your opportunity to give back to your parent”, as a MWDOC water board member thoughtfully put to me a few months ago.
As far as reporting goes, somehow, over the past 18 months, I managed to keep one foot barely in the game. But it was just a couple of weeks ago that I decided to leave anger and depression behind me and finish this come-back story. Now that it’s done, I am ready to resume reporting on the strange behaviors of water buffaloes and other public officials.