Tomorrow morning I'm flying to Detroit. I'll be returning to Vermont the very next day on a chartered plane. With me on the charter will be some crew members, some medical personnel, and both of my parents, who'll be secured in gurneys for the flight. After we land at the Bennington regional airport, an ambulance will carry my parents and me to the Prospect House nursing home, which stands at the edge of the campus where I teach.
When we get to the nursing home, an aide and I will wheel both of my parents into my dad's room. My mom will want to see where her husband will be staying. Next I'll wheel my mom into her room, so she can meet her roommate. I'll hang some family pictures on the walls of both rooms. I'll make a list of what their rooms will need in order to be comfortable. Then I'll wheel my dad over to visit with my mom in her room. Later, my wife will come over from work, and she and I will sit with my parents for dinner. When dinner is over, my parents will each go back to their rooms and sleep among strangers in strange beds.
Apparently, my dad was quite a traveler in his day. I've seen pictures of him that were taken in rural Mexico during the 1960's, and he's told stories of a trip to California back in 1955. (He hired a farmer to fly him around Orange County in a cropduster, back when it was all farmland there.) When my sister and I were three or four years old, he brought us back some souvenirs from a trip to Morocco. But that trip in 1973 or thereabouts was apparently the last hurrah. In the 1970's the bottom started dropping out of Detroit, and the restaurant my parents operated began losing money. In 1985, after years of struggle, my dad finally sold the business and the land it was on - land that had once been pasture on his father's farm.
By 1999 my parents were doing better, thanks to the income my dad was earning as a screw machine operator. A strong man, and a hard worker ever since his childhood on the farm, he was now (at the age of 72) working sixty-hour weeks in a hot factory. I know how hot it was, because I worked with him there back in the summer of 1992, when I was between terms at Oxford. My dad and I were both on second shift. As a Rhodes Scholar/Night Janitor, I was responsible for cleaning the front offices, as well as the shop floor and bathrooms. (Let me tell you sometime about the hazing rituals that factory workers have for new college-boy janitors. For now, I'll just say that one of them involves playfully permuting the functions of various bathroom fixtures.)
That summer my dad and I both reported to the night foreman, who was an asshole named Hugh, but everybody called him Baby Huey when he wasn't around. One night I got some kind of food poisoning, and I was lying flat on my back out on the oily shop floor, moaning and holding my stomach. Huey came by and saw me lying next to my mop bucket, and he said, "What's wrong?" I said, "I'm sick." He said, "You know, your dad works." (His tone added a parenthetical, "Unlike you.")
In 1999 I had found more agreeable work as a doctoral student in physics at Berkeley. On the academic schedule I had plenty of free time, and my mom and I thought it would be nice if my dad could do some traveling, like when he was young. So I planned a trip to Istanbul and Rome. I flew from Oakland to Detroit, where I picked up my dad, and together we flew from Detroit to Istanbul for the first leg of the trip.
When I saw him, the first thing I noticed was that he was walking on his tiptoes with an odd shuffling motion. When I mentioned it, he said that he'd been healing slowly from his hernia operation. (He had finally gotten around to having an operation for a hernia that he got while working construction back in 1985 - his first job after selling the restaurant.) This made sense, so I didn't think much of it.
That shuffling gait was the onset of a neurodegenerative disease, one that resembles Parkinsons in its symptoms, while not responding to Parkinsons treatments. Today my dad is in bed almost 24 hours a day. Apart from the motor control and related issues, he's in fairly good health. He's just completely helpless.
When I graduated from Williams College in 1991, my whole family came out for the commencement ceremonies. During the weekend, we took a side trip to Mount Equinox in southern Vermont. My mother, who grew up in Chattanooga living amidst the Smoky Mountains, pronounced Vermont to her liking. She said that if there were anyplace she would ever go to live besides back to Chattanooga, it would be Vermont.
Were she born in a different time and place, my mother would have been a senator. Though uneducated, she has an iron will and rare qualities of intellect. As recently as six months ago she was enjoying her usual pastimes, which include correcting the poker players' mistakes on ESPN, reading 50 books a month, and doing the Sunday Times crossword with fearful automaticity.
Then in January she came down with pneumonia and septicemia, spending the next month in and out of the hospital. The doctors also diagnosed her with emphysema and a heart condition. (It had been decades since she'd had a physical.) Her illnesses have aged her: dulled her wits, left her weak. Since February she's been mostly confined to her bed at home, breathing compressed oxygen.
My half-brother Wayne, who lives in my parents' basement and who is frankly a little slow, has been my dad's primary caregiver these past several years. As long as my mom was healthy, things were stable. The situation had its drawbacks, but it kept my parents in their home, which is what was most important to them.
But since February, when my mom returned home from the hospital, my parents have both needed care 24 hours a day from home health aides, to the tune of $24,000 per month. As my parents' attorney-in-fact, I have been signing the checks. From the start, simple arithmetic said they would have to move.
None of my parents' options were good. My brothers and sisters and I have chosen as well as we could for them. On Tuesday, my mom will see the green hills of Vermont again, and my dad will have one more plane ride.