"Memory is the diary we carry about with us."
Last month my dad woke up from an afternoon nap saying he'd been having a very vivid dream of his old hometown, Newport TN. Later that same night he resurrected the idea of paying one last visit to TN and surrounding environs, stopping to see old friends along the way. It was a trip we had planned a couple of years ago - before his cancer diagnosis. Before he signed up for hospice and began waiting to die, thinking it was only go to take a few months. Aggressive, was the term the doctor used to describe his cancer. Dad was convinced aggressive equalled imminent, therefore it wouldn't be long before he was on a downhill slide. Traveling was out of the question.
Needless to say I was surprised when he began making lists, checking maps, having the car tuned up, marking dates on the calendar. When he bought himself a $7000 Jazzy motorized wheelchair because he needed the lift that came with it I knew he was getting serious! As the days passed, one of the glaring differences between my father and I became apparent. Each step of the many trips our family took over the years were planned and orchestrated by my Dad. I didn't know it when I was a kid. I was along for the ride - literally. The most memorable trip was in 1962 after dad retired from the Navy. My parents piled five daughters, a dog, a cat and a canary, plus luggage for all into a light blue Ford station wagon. We were headed for a new home in Florida. It was a time before minivans with 3 rows of seats, power windows, air conditioning, seat belts, DVD or 8-track tape players, fast food restaurants, and child abuse laws. We were crammed into the car like sardines with little space between us, leg room was unheard of. It was the kind of trip where the saying, "don't make me stop this car" was invented. I can laugh now, and marvel at my mother's ability to seemingly go along with many of my father's crack pot ideas. Well planned, but still on the verge of insanity.
Every day for 2 weeks Dad made suggestions about how to plan for the trip to Tennessee. I nodded my head, did what he asked and threw out a few suggestions of my own, which were either not heard or ignored. It was easy to see that this was activity for Dad's brain and I should let him do it. I wrote letters and made phone calls to people we wanted to see, places to star on our itinerary. We had everything just about in order except for the getting the Trip-tik from AAA.
Then came the discussion of how and when we'd accommodate potty stops. It turned out Dad was treating himself with all kinds of bowel products and his ability to go or not go was in question. The last thing either of us wanted was to have to stop between rest areas, pull out a "slop jar" in order to poop on the side of the road. Or worse yet, in the car. I drew the line as to what I could handle. It's one thing to stop along the highway for a quick pee. It is something else all together for a man who can barely stand on his own to try to squat and do his business in a bucket. Then, I had to ask, what happens to the contents of the bucket. Nope. I wasn't up to that challenge.
Once his fear was out in the open it became clear that we shouldn't try to go so far from home. Hopefully the people we want to see will come see us.
After my mother died I was given a copy of a booklet called Crossing the Creek * that Hospice gave out to patients and caregivers to gain some kind of understanding about the dying process. There was a whole chapter on the bowels. Another chapter about sleeping and dreaming. Here's what it had to say:
The work of the dying process has to do with resolving all the unresolved issues of one's lifetime. This is a huge job and requires considerable effort. It is very important work because death is merely a transition which prepares us for the next phase of life. It is not smart to enter the next phase loaded down with a bunch of unresolved junk from the past.
The sleep/dream state is very useful in accomplishing these tasks because it gets around the limitations of time and space.
Even patients who claim not to remember the content of their dreams will usually reminisce about their lives when they are awake, especially upon first awakening. Virtually everyone who goes through a dying process reminisces about the important events and people in his/her life. These reminiscences can be important clues as to what is going on in the dreams he/she may or may not remember or wish to share.
That explained to me how the idea of going to Newport again must have come about. Dad is obviously doing some processing, maybe some letting go, in his sleep. This morning I went into his room just as he was climbing out of bed. Let me just say as kindly as I can that my father isn't the nicest getter upper I know. In fact, he's rather like a grizzly bear. I'm still learning not to get in his way or even say hello before he's done his morning oblations. How are you is a question that should never be asked. But this morning it was a bit different.
Good morning, I said.
Good morning, Mar-ee, he responded rather pleasantly.
And with no prompting whatsoever, he added, "If I had a daughter who was a writer, she could write down some of my earliest memories."
Huh? I thought to myself. All his daughters have been asking him for stories of his early life and continuously gotten his standard answer - I don't know.
Well, I didn't let this opportunity go by. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and started jotting down notes. My normally taciturn Dad was on a roll. He recounted one memory after another. Not a lot of detail - more like vignettes - but each tale seemed to be crystal clear to him, which is amazing because he was talking about things that happened almost ninety years ago. I peppered his stories with questions. Each time he said, I don't know. He'd act like he was finished, then add ... And I remember. I think we were both enjoying the moment. (Oh God, please don't let me forget these special times.)
As anyone who reads this blog knows my father and I have had some major disagreements recently. And you must also know that I am a believer in the power of prayer, miracles and fairy dust. In the last few weeks my father has been less cantankerous, much more at ease. I think there is something to what was said in Crossing the Creek. Tomorrow my father will be 93 years old. My west coast sisters are coming to celebrate. My Dad will be king of his castle with all five of his princesses at home. It could very possibly be another opening of Pandora's family dysfunction box, or it could be the beginning of a loving goodbye each of us is craving.
Wishing each of you good times to remember and someone to share them with,
Middle Merry ME - Princess #3
*www.crossingthecreek.com/guts.htm, Crossing the Creek, by Michael Homes, RN, pg 9