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Father Comes Home : A Family Confronts an Aging Man's Progressive Debilitation With Compassion and Patience

March 27, 1988|GERALD W. HASLAM | Gerald W. Haslam is the author of "The Man Who Cultivated Fire & Other Stories" and "Voices of a Place: Essays From the Other California." He teaches at Sonoma State University

I AWAKEN IN DEAD darkness, suddenly alert. A clouded voice is calling, as if from a departing dream: "Gerry . . . I need you."

It is Pop.

I find him tangled in his bed, unable to free himself from a urine-soaked sheet. He does not at first seem to recognize me, gazing across three decades at his youth, his eyes thick and dazed. Time hangs there, then he smiles, and the voice of the 78-year-old man quivers, "Get me out of here."

I do that, help him strip and clean himself, then dress once more. I make no issue of his problem because he remains profoundly troubled by his incontinence, the legacy of a series of strokes. I remake his bed; he shuffles into a nearby bathroom. When he returns, there is another dazed moment, followed by a smile. My father remembers me.

And I remember him--young, wearing a white T-shirt freckled with petroleum from his job. Home from a day in the Kern River oil fields, he was rummaging through our garage, a small disaster of wires and fixtures--the trappings of a part-time electrician, his second job. Occasionally, during those years, he'd wrestle with me, our only form of physical contact, for it was difficult for him to display affection. My mother's face was often troubled as she watched us romp. "Take it easy, Speck," she'd urge. "You'll get him all worked up." Rough stuff upset her, and she always seemed fragile.

Today, despite her own health problems, my mother is resilient, residing semi-independently in a nearby mobile-home park. My father, living with us, is vulnerability itself, so stripped by brain damage that he can hide no emotion. Tears and grins come without resistance to a face once carefully controlled.

Our present arrangement is a gentle paradox. Although I was raised in a household that included aging relatives, all were from Mom's family. Great-grandma, Uncle Tudy and Grandma lived with us during their final years and died with us. My father, who had himself left home at 13 and always seemed distant in family matters, was generous without being warm. "He was embarrassed by the way we loved one another," my mother says now, "and jealous, so he talked rough, but he never turned anyone away." Perhaps that is why it has never occurred to me, an only child, that my folks wouldn't one day join us.

Not everyone feels this way. One friend asked me the other afternoon, after seeing Pop shuffle, smiling but befuddled, through a holiday party we were having, "Haven't you been able to find a suitable nursing home for him?"

POP SOMETIMES TOOK me to work with him, introducing me to his pals as "my tax exemption," an appellation I did not understand but liked because it was something special between us. After work, he would stop at a blue-collar beer bar to sip suds, laugh, perhaps shoot snooker. He'd buy me a soft drink and allow me to sip the foam from his draft.

There was mild irony in his satisfaction with that gang because my father had attended UCLA and felt intense, festering dissatisfaction at not having graduated, at having been consigned to blue-collar work. He rarely talked about his college experience, not to me, at least. It was a disappointment so deep that it had to be buried, like the souvenirs of his All-American football years he kept buried in a chest in his room.

He does not, however, bury his affection for the girl I married. Jan's every attention pleases him now, and as a result I am beginning to comprehend the great breadth of her love as we care for this difficult old man. I am also seeing my adolescent children grow and change, putting their rebellions aside to comfort Grandpa, then picking them up again to deal with us. A boy who drips teen-age condescension at Jan and me, curling his lip in anger, prepares his grandfather's lunch and then patiently sits with the ailing man, helping him eat. He does this without pay, without coercion and without complaint.

This is true in part because Jan and I do the great bulk of work involving my dad, and distribute other tasks so that no individual is overburdened. But there is more: Since Grandpa joined us last fall, we have seen elements of compassion, responsibility and maturity not previously manifested in our children. Last Friday, we took the night off and attended a concert. When we returned home, Garth and Carlos were both grinning at my dad's latest effort to get attention. "Grandpa came out in his underpants and said 'Tighten my belt,' " Garth explained. "We gave him some ice cream, then put him back to bed." His smile was genuine, his voice reflective.

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