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A Case For Small Talk: What Dads Need

Updated on June 15, 2009

I’d like to get my Father something really special this Father’s Day. Something other than the usual CD collection. Typically, shopping for a gift for Dad began with a stop at the music store at the mall and a browse through the Jazz Greats or Easy Listening section. I knew I couldn’t miss with Basie. Coltrane or Dexter Gordon would be better. Peggy Lee would also guarantee a smile, not to mention Tony Bennett or the unforgettable Nat.

But I’d like to give him something more than a Jazz CD as his father’s day gift.

Dad, 85 this year, has spent the last 3 years in a nursing home. Yes, signed, sealed and delivered by yours truly, the middle son of three. As much as I hated the idea of doing so, Dad’s and Mom’s health issues were simply more than I could handle. They both needed round the clock care. Dad, specifically, was blind. Glaucoma. There was also the beginning of Dementia. Mom, in general, had everything. Topping her list would be cancer, heart disease (quadruple bypass two years ago), diabetes, arthritis. But if you asked her, she’d say she was fine and had no idea why her son had put her there.

Choosing a long-term care facility can be quite challenging. First my wife and I had to learn that a Nursing Home and an Assisted Living facility were two entirely things. One might think this point should be an obvious one, but it wasn’t, I must embarrassedly admit. That said, let me explain a couple of the general differences as I learned them, and perhaps spare some one else any open-mouthed surprise. Nursing Homes, though they can vary greatly, provide much more personal care for their residents around the clock, than does an Assisted Living facility. The resident (I learned the hard way, never called a patient) gets a room, in many respects like a hospital room--though some places can make it appear, at first glance, like a hotel room with medical equipment. There are usually at least two residents per room. Aides and nurses visit the resident throughout the day and sometimes night to deliver meals, administer medicine, take vitals and perform routine room maintenance. The type of service provided varies with each resident’s specific health requirements. They may require bathing, physical therapy, perhaps even a moment or two a month with a counselor.

Assisted Living facilities, at least the ones we visited are, on the other hand, more like Bed and Breakfasts with some medical assistance. The key descriptor here is ‘Assistance.’ Residents in these facilities, in general can do more for themselves than a resident in a nursing home. (A personal note—they also have more money (Just check out the visitor’s parking lot). Most, if not all Assisted Living facilities do not accept the average type of medical insurance. Well, not Dad’s anyway. I believe some may have a policy to accept a couple of Medicaid insured residents. But the waiting lists were formidable.

Dad and Mom needed a nursing home.

We asked around for recommendations. Our church, the hospital social worker, the county social services department, and of course our various doctors all helped tremendously with lists of prospective residences for my parents. My wife and I made the rounds, visiting the establishments, priority given to the ones closest to where we lived. An actual tour of an establishment is worth 10 recommendations. And speaking to an actual visitor or resident is priceless in helping to decide. Be reasonably sure however, that any resident who speaks to you is, for the most part, well, no offense, let’s just say ‘on the same page as you.’ There was one lovely lady of about 80 or so who wasn’t as much interested in giving me a critique of the place as she was in ordering me to ‘visit’ her.

There are also many online sites that not only list facilities by areas, but rate them as well, complete with reports of any violations outstanding against them. Check out for a pretty exhaustive checklist of questions/concerns designed to help with in the decision-making process.

Dad and Mom were admitted on the same day, the nursing home very accommodating in giving them a room together—and it worked for a while, for the most part. But as time went on, Mom got into her teasing mode every now and again to pass the time. She enjoyed calling out to Dad from across the room, especially if she caught him napping in the afternoon and have him guess where she was. Dad would say, “You’re right there, in the chair.” And though she would be sitting in the very wheelchair Dad had declared, she’d pretend not to be.
She’d laugh, “No, I’m not.”
“Then where are you?”
“Guess…” She’d say again.

There were times I swore Dad knew the deal and was just playing along, feigning his annoyance, content in knowing the teasing amused her. If so, he never let on.

There was a lot I didn’t know about Dad

Don’t know about most, but I found shopping for Mom was simpler. She loved jewelry. The bigger, shinier, the better. The last gift we bought her was a matching necklace, earrings and bracelet with garnets, her birthstone. That was two Mother’s days ago. She passed away that fall. Massive stroke.

Dad reacted as he had to most recent matters, resigned to the inevitability of it all. “She’s so much better off, now.” No tears. None, even when he speaks of her mysterious visits to him on particular nights. He only wonders why she never speaks to him any more when she appears. He wonders if she’s angry with him for not having gone to her funeral.

Except for every now and then, we’re pretty much used to the nursing home. Dad never complains. In fact, he sometimes seems incredibly grateful to us for his being there. He seems secure. He’s been through about 6 or seven different roommates since Mom passed. Sometimes he’s lucky and it’s someone he can talk to, and sometimes not so lucky and winds up with someone who yells out through the night. Dad actually prefers it when every once in a while he gets the room all to himself for a couple of weeks. But all in all, like I said, he never complains. Still, I don’t know how I will answer him if he should one day ask, “So am I going to be here in this room for the rest of my life? Is this my home?”

I’m hoping he never asks.

Getting him out of the nursing home would be the greatest gift. It wrenched our hearts to have to leave him there right after Mom’s passing. We rationalized that we’d get him out in a year. We’d move or build an addition onto the house. We’d create a place for him. A nurse could visit a couple of times a week. He’d love it. We’d manage. But thoughts like that were a couple steps away from reality. Do you know how much a visiting nurse costs? Insurance wasn’t an option—Who plans for in-home long-term care? Probably like many others our age, my wife and I were caught completely unprepared those couple of years ago—had simply waken up one day to the fact that the whole of the dependency, caregiver, guardian situation had flip-flopped on us. Even if we did have the means to provide the housing, the reality was that Dad needed around-the-clock attention. He was blind. His short-term memory was going. He needed three meals a day, medication 3 times a day, bathing, exercise, help in the bathroom—help getting to the bathroom. He needed these things everyday. Not for a while, not for a month or two, but everyday for the rest of his life.

And what about me?

One of the difficulties in seeing Dad so dependent upon the facility and me is that I wonder of my own future. The whole gene thing doesn’t put me on the best side of the odds. What’s in store for my health? Dementia? Glaucoma? Diabetes? Cancer? And most unclear is where will I be? Will I need a stint on an Alzheimer ward?

I’m glad to be having the opportunity to get to know Dad. I find it strange and regretful that I have virtually no memory of him when he was young—like his twenties or before—I have no mental images of him with a full head of hair. Nothing other than some photographs.

He was a nurse at a hospital, worked the 3-11 shift, which meant we saw very little of him. One of my strongest childhood images was that of him sitting alone with a cigarette (very Carly Simonesque) in a darkened living room—lit starkly and only by the black and white television living room. I’d be on my way to the bathroom and he’d notice me as well and ask why I wasn’t in bed.
“I gotta pee.”
“Well, hurry up, now.”
I couldn’t always decipher whether he was angry or not.

I pretty much draw a blank when it comes to remembering him. Yet, obviously, this man was a man who had talents and dreams. He was on the high school swimming team—pretty good diver I’ve learned; he boxed—golden gloves—lightweight; played the sax. Tenor, jazz clubs in the city. I’ve got old 78 records that he’s on. He played at Carnegie hall once. He was in a 5-piece combo that actually won top prize once at the Apollo. He never spoke of these things, and I never asked. I know he had a whole life now on course to just ultimately vanish, that I know so little about, and will only get a glimpse of through our talks in his nursing home room. He can’t remember names so well, but he can remember events.

There are days I can spend hours there with him talking like that. During a long pause, we might flip on the Classic Movie Channel and see what’s playing. Remarkably, he enjoys the old movies—even though he’s probably only hearing the soundtrack and dialogue. Most times he can name the actors because he’s seen most of them. He loves Bogart and Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracey, Henry Fonda. War films and Westerns.

Meaningful conversation can be quite simple

I’ve found I don’t have to say much to have a good conversation with him. I’ve learned to listen to him, and interject a short question to keep him going, let him know I’m sincerely interested. Many of those times he relates his ‘dreams’ from the night before to me—they’re more than dreams to him. That fine line of imagination and physical reality has blurred. He’ll tell me how some thug soldiers came in the previous week and kidnapped him. He had been taken back to their fort—though he didn’t know where it was because he had been blindfolded during the transport. He said that when they removed the blindfold, he caught a glimpse of one of them, and could swear it was my older brother, and he called out to him, but never got an answer, only a toothy grin, without a word, and then my brother would turn and walk right through the wall. Dad asked me if I knew how they could possibly do that, walk straight through a wall and disappear.

I stopped trying to convince him he was hallucinating. What was the point? Instead I’d simply ask him if he ever gets afraid when things like that happened to him.

“No,” he shakes his head matter of factly. “They’re actually pretty nice to me.”

“They never try to hurt you?”

“No, can’t say they ever have. And the thing is, they always bring me right back here and put me in the bed. Tell me to get some rest.”

I report some of his stories to the doctor, and he assures me he’ll adjust Dad’s medication after visiting him.

When it’s time to leave I give him a hug—a gesture I’ve only recently learned to do and have become pretty comfortable with--and tell him I’ll see him real soon. And I mean it. Really. And then the days fly and another couple of weeks pass by before I get back. Life can get busy. We don’t always do what we know we should. I can be sitting at my workstation and all of a sudden I start thinking about him and what he’s doing in that one square room of his.

I imagine myself in his place. I wonder which of my three daughters would visit me the most. Which of them would steady me as we walked, as I must now steady Dad? Not sure, and I probably shouldn’t be wondering at all. Still, the question gnaws its way into the light of my pondering. I wonder if any of the girls would care to know who I used to be in the prime of my youth. Who of them would try to fill in the blanks in their memory of my life, sit patiently, allow me to ramble on about my days in high school or on college campus.

How disconcerting to me the odds they’ll never know most things about me, how well I played shortstop, how far I could throw a tight spiral, or why they called me ‘Mockswell.’ Looking back it’s probably my own fault that I never created an opportunity or atmosphere for that type of communication. My youngest is 22—surely they’re not kids anymore—all three are well along in the transition from ‘daughter’ to independent woman, and quite beyond the self-prodded stage of wondering who is this man they call Dad.

Perhaps that is what happens to many of us. It’s at least half the explanation for my lack of memory of my father. My parents slipped quietly and unnoticeably into being acquaintances for me, probably when I began college, faded into my life’s background, increasingly overshadowed by my day-to-day activity of where I was headed. In a way it was how it should have been—it wasn’t as if I were running away from home, I was simply growing up. Maturing. The problem was that my past was incomplete with my lack of knowledge of my parents, and I haven’t noticed until now when I see the lack from the opposite perspective.

Which of my girls would care to now ask what shaped my life? Which of them now has the time to invest? Damn, I’m not even sure I could answer them if they did ask me. I guess I just want them to read one of the Ed McBain mystery novels I’ve collected since Junior High, or ask to hear a little CSNY or what the hell was so important about Dylan, take a night off and sit and watch Midnight Cowboy with me, or ask me what I was doing when that man Kennedy got shot or what ‘Kent State’ was about or if I was nervous taking my driver’s license road test, what was it like before remote controls and microwave ovens, did I ever hear of Barbra Streisand, were movies really only fifty-cents, what I felt like when my first dog died, who my best friend was in the sixth grade, how I felt when I first held them after birth, when was it that I first knew I wanted to marry Mom?

All they can see of me now is that my hair is speckled with quite a bit more gray than black, my physique is on the other side of being ‘toned,’ without any real traces of athleticism and too often now stiffens after mowing the lawn, shoulders not quite as erect as when striding the streets of the city during an extended summer lunch hour. My breath gets short too quickly too often, evidence of far too many Marlboro all-nighters and Dewar’s happy hours.

Maybe questions like that seem trite. Maybe it’s all just ‘small talk.’ But no, maybe this is the perfect example of the axiom ‘less is more.’ I think my Dad appreciates opportunities to answer questions like that. I hope so, because that’s exactly what I been asking. And I see his face light up. I see his legally blind eyes light up and fix themselves on something precious. And I feel my own self, filling spaces too long vacant in me.

There are several worlds we commute between in this lifetime. Continually we are shifting gears, entering and departing galaxies of people, ambiguous, at best, as to whether we are guests or hosts. I am in and out of the world of my father, and he in mine, discovering overlaps, learning to open our doors wider to each other, awaiting the opportunity to host loved visitors.

I really need to get him something nice this year.


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    • g.d. mack profile image

      g.d. mack 8 years ago

      Father's day was great! Thanks Jean. A talk filled visit this time... It didn't hurt that two weeks prior I had my second grandchild--first grandson! We shared pictures with Great-Grandpa. (don't know how much he could make out in them, but you could see he was thrilled!)

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 9 years ago from Wisconsin

      It cannot be easy. Good luck with it all.

    • profile image

      Jean 9 years ago

      Heartbreaking. Thanks for writing this. We're dealing with something similar, only both parents are still with us. Well, in body perhaps, not always in spirit. Don't beat yourself up about visiting or not. You get there when you can - it works. And Father's Day will be a good day.


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