It’s astounding how quickly I was able to normalize taking care of an 89 year old man. His name was George, and he was raised in a bar and served in the Navy during WWII. As a younger man he loved to drink, and he married a firebrand who has long since passed, but still filled him with joy and happiness, even at 89. He fathered a number of children, and when he retired chose to sit on his ass and do nothing. And that nothing has only come back to bite him in the same ass plenty of times in the years since.
When I got to know him, a pacemaker was keeping him going, and while there were plenty of dietary restrictions and pills that made up most of his meals, the family referred to him as The Energizer Bunny, and in the five years I had known him previously, this was not the first time it was believed he was on the way out. He is not suffering from the kind of memory loss I’ve witnessed before, but he has trouble remembering what’s going on, the right word for the thing he is trying to talk about, and there are long and uncomfortable pauses in his conversations, punctuated by coughs and other mysterious sounds.
I am but a 40 year old man, and while I have hemmed and hawed about age in the past, spending time with George makes me rethink comments I’ve made in the past. I have some gray hairs, I’m not a spry or in shape as I once was, and my memory has been eroded by years of alcohol and drugs. But I’m alert. I can make it to appoints, and I can do physical labor if I want. (I usually don’t.) I don’t have any illnesses, and I’m not impaired in any way. In many ways, I’m absurdly young, and so naive about what the future holds that I was not entirely prepared for what I would learn about myself.
George and I get along pretty well because, in spite of our age range, we have a lot in common. We both lived in Oakridge at one point. My dad worked for the railroad, and George worked building and fixing roads. We were both born in California, and moved to Oregon later. We are both a little old-fashioned, and I wear bow ties and sweaters and say please and thank you. I like old movies and TV, and we both love the music of Spike Jones. But George reminds me a lot of my family, too. Poor. Well meaning. Having worked his whole life, only to find himself trying to make sense of this future that barely resembles what he remembers from his youth.
We mostly watch TV together, and while his coffee was long ago traded out for a brown colored decaf that is warmed up and sort of resembles coffee, he will still drink it, all day long, and fall right asleep in his chair after a cup. It’s hard to get him to take to water that way, even when I have to use my stern voice. He seems to enjoy westerns, but he doesn’t really seem to care anymore what’s on. His daughter – my wife’s mother – watches a lot of news and sports, and I think he’s a little tired of the incessant prattle of the television. I understand; I’m not much of a TV guy myself, and if I had my druthers I would just turn it off. But I feel the need to fill the space between us, and I let it go, a cushion between us when I don’t know what to say.
The best part about hanging out with George is that he does not give a fuck anymore. Not that he did much before. But it is only amplified now. Once night I decided to turn on Cosmos (something to watch, ya know?), and asked him if he minded. He stood up, and I asked if he needed something. He said, “No, I’m fine. I just want to stand up for a bit.” I said okay and looked back at the TV. Without warning, George drops his bands and his drawers in front of the television, then scratches himself. He sits back down. It suddenly occurs to him that I saw this, and he looks at me. We lock eyes. He shrugs, then looks down and starts pulling them back up. Of course, he needs to stand up again to do this right.
But the entire time I kept thinking, “no matter how bad the itch, no matter who was in my house, I would still go to the bathroom to scratch like that.” I wondered how many years it would take me to get like that, how frail I would have to be before leaving the room to scratch just doesn’t seem worth it.
The first time I had to peel off his socks and confront his swollen feet, is fairly vivid in my memory. The hospital gave me a stack of papers that I keep telling my wife I will read. But she has already read through them, and has gone out of the way to fill up the pill box and made notes about all the instructions we have to follow. So I knew where to turn for guidance. But then I get a text: “take gel patches off of gpas feet when he goes toned.” Then a follow-up message: “To bed” Apparently, one of the side effects of his recent hospital visit was that his feet have been swelling. So this bandages were somehow helping with that treatment. Of course, we are supposed to tell him to keep his feet up, so the swelling will go down. But how is he supposed to remember? So we have to remind him, constantly. It is hard not to sound mean, repeating it so often.
So he had these gel patches, supposedly to help with the swelling.