Tuesday, September 18, 2007

This Man in the Wheelchair

He was sitting in his wheelchair.

I sat down next to him, in the bright, sunlit room where he spends his days now. His head is bent forward now almost all the time, so he has a permanent view of the floor. He will be 88 years old in January. As I sat down, he barely noticed I was there, even though he was awake. He is not awake very much anymore. His name is Roland.

Over the past month he has been moved into the "Reminiscence Wing" of this assisted living facility. He was moved because he could no longer get along on his own. About three weeks ago, he just stopped walking, after several months of repeated falls. The professionals here say this decline is normal for a senior, after the death of a "long term spouse". His wife and he were married for 49 years, until she passed away about 15 months ago. He is very well attended here, with lots of attention, care, and love.

He grew up in Whitter, California. He attended Whittier High School, and then spent two years at USC. He did not finish college, as his country called, and he enlisted in the US Army Air Corp. He spent about half of the war training pilots stateside, and the rest piloting B-17 air-sea rescue missions in the South Pacific. He followed MacArthur north, at a distance, through southeast Asia, and was actually on board the
USS Missouri for the signing of the peace treaty with the Japanese.

He returned home after the war to raise a young family, working as a manager in the oil field construction business in Southern California. A daughter and a son, born just following the war, and a young bride from Illinois. But this family was not to last intact; the marriage dissolved after several years, for reasons I did not know for almost 40 years after. The children's mother quickly married another man, and moved on in life.

This man, the one in the wheelchair, sitting in the sun, did not move on as quickly. Divorce was, for him, filled with shame. He chose to hold that shame, and over the years it often manifested itself as anger. But he was a faithful provider for his children, sending monthly child care payments for 18 years for each child. The cancelled checks he kept in a little lock box for more than 50 years in his home.

After almost 10 years of a single life, he met a lovely blond girl at a party that some friends had thrown in Mid-Wilshire. Her name was Elizabeth, named after her mother; Betty for short. It was love at first sight. She had a past as well, a failed marriage without children. She never did speak of that first marriage all her life afterward, although it lasted for about 8 years. Roland and Betty were married in 1957. A son, their only child, arrived just about 10 months afterward, in the late spring of 1958. They named him Steve.

In 1963, they bought a home in Arcadia, California, and settled in. Betty tended the home, while Roland rose in the ranks of the construction company he worked for. He spent his entire career at one company, retiring as a Senior Vice President. He traveled to Alaska in the 1970s on many occasions, working on projects related to the
Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It was a very safe, comfortable, 1960s sort of life. Dad voted for Richard Nikon, hated Vietnam War protesters, and never really understood the civil rights movement.

They threw "dinner parties" in the back yard in summer, with Roland running the barbecue, and Betty wearing MuuMuus, and passing out
h'orderves. In the winter the dinner parties continued, with their only son manning the bar for guests. Drinking was an important part of the culture, but typically not drinking to excess. All things in moderation mind you; Nixon would have been proud.

At the age of 65, the man in the wheelchair retired, and spent the next 10 years in quiet retirement, watching a lot of TV, repairing small things around the house, and on occasion, usually once a year, traveling with his wife of more than 30 years. England, France, Germany, Austria - all in big buses full of seniors. Australia. Several Caribbean cruises. And of course, several trips to their favorite place, Hawaii.
Several years ago, Betty had a fall while in the parking lot at the supermarket; she had broken her hip, and her recovery was never complete. Dad spent the rest of his days looking after his bride, caring for her daily, until finally, the burden was too much. One summer day he had a small stroke, and while still able to get around and take care of some things, it was time for a change in lifestyle. His son and daughter-in-law found a comfortable assisted living facility for them both, not far from their home.

And now, on this afternoon, he sits in the sunshine in his wheelchair. As I sit next to him, I wonder how much he really comprehends anymore, how much of him is really "here" anymore. We don't talk much, we mostly just sit together.

As I sit, I think of Ronald Reagan's letter to the American people, when he gently, and with great dignity, let the nation know that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He mentioned in the letter that he was soon to head on "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life".

Although there is afternoon sun shining in the window of this comfortable place, it feels very close to sunset to me.

The man in the wheelchair is my Dad.


Stephen said...

Just beautiful Steve . . . thanks for writing this.

Calvin said...

Thanks for sharing this intimate portrait of your family. I will be praying for your Dad, and your times together with him.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute to your dad. I was very moved. Thank You. Love, Patty

Beth said...

I'm on that journey, too, with my dad. Thank you for your words.

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