Driving with Dad

With my mother in serious decline, my family’s focus has been on her. My mother is now in a nursing home. She still has some expectations that she will eventually be released from the nursing home and will be sleeping in her regular bed again. The sad reality is that barring a miracle the nursing home is where she will remain, unhappily and crankily, until death takes her.

We still visit regularly with mother of course. But I am beginning to turn more of my attention to my father. The sad fact is that there is not much else I can do for my mother. I can provide occasional company, tell her I love her, and push her around in her wheelchair to meals and physical therapy. I bring her flowers on occasion and tell her stories of life around our house. But it is difficult to visit her more than once a week and the more her mind goes the more challenging the visits become.

Although my father now effectively lives alone, managing my mother’s care is still a full time job. Not surprisingly, the last couple of years have been very stressful. He no longer has to immediately fulfill my mother’s demands. There is staff in the nursing home to do most of this, just at a more sedate pace. Providing somewhat distant tender loving care is a challenge of itself. In addition, the finances of nursing home living are challenging.

Each day is a cycle with few variations. As my mother’s mind deteriorates, the woman he loves becomes less recognizable. We sense that our father is fraying around the edges. So I’ve decided it is as important to provide support for him as it is to support my mother. My mother may be unhappy, but she gets the physical care that she needs. My father needs distraction. He needs to get away from his situation. He needs respite.

The good news is that he now lives near Washington, D.C. He is a native Washingtonian. The bad news is that it that he is tethered to his retirement community and cannot usually get away for more than a few hours at a time. My father is a sociable creature, but he is still developing friends at their retirement community. It can be a bit chancy for him to get away by himself. While he can still drive, the Washington traffic is relentless and unforgiving. We are worried that the split second response times needed by drivers around here may be beyond him at this point. Too many day trips are probably chancy.

My goal is once or twice a month to get him out of the apartment and engage his mind in something unrelated to fretting over my mother. What could we do with a couple hours? It turned out that what my father really wanted to do was see old haunts.

He grew up in a row house in Northeast Washington. Of course, over the years he has revisited Washington many times. He has even been inside his old house, now passed on to new owners. He has seen graves of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and distant relations. He has visited old schools and neighborhoods. Yet one thing he had not done was retrace some of his many youthful bike rides. With his ADC Atlas of the Washington area, me in the driver’s seat, and my Dad in the passenger seat we set forth in my car on a hot July afternoon.

It was a rambling little adventure on Maryland and DC roads, mostly inside the Beltway. It turned out that being in the passenger’s seat was ideal for him. He did not have to concentrate on driving. Instead, he had the pleasure of looking out the window. While it was hot and muggy outside, it was cool and comfortable inside my car.

We looked in vain for an entrance to the Mormon Temple in Kensington, which is easily seen from the Capital Beltway. We got lost a few times. He changed his mind frequently about where he wanted to end up next. Eventually we were in DC and heading down Beach Drive. Here, along Rock Creek Park, was an area he knew intimately from his boyhood days. There used to be a horse stable around this corner. Was it still there? Yes, it still was! There used to be a monastery here. We pass an old building. Could this have been a monastery? He was not sure but it was fun to speculate. We traveled at minimum speeds down Beach Drive under the canopy of tall trees. We made frequent stops so he could look out the window. “Seeing this brings tears to my eyes,” he told me. He said he was at a nostalgic age. While much has changed about Washington, much is still the same. Many of the houses that were new and opulent to his boyhood eyes are still there and kept in good shape. He knew the most surprising things. “John Rockefeller used to live in this house.”

We ended up at a Starbucks at Four Corners in Silver Spring. We laughed as I tried to explain the concept of Starbucks to this man from the World War Two generation: fancy overpriced coffees and sweets. My Dad is more the type to drive through the McDonald’s drive-thru and make sure his coffee came with a senior citizen discount. Neither of us are big coffee drinkers. So despite it being a hot day we ordered hot chocolate and noshed a brownie while watching the traffic on Colesville Road pass by.

Mission accomplished. For a few hours, my father was a happy creature again. The woman I know as my mother recedes from my present. Perhaps consequently I am increasingly grateful that my father is still around and in full possession of his faculties. I am indeed fortunate for the first time in nearly thirty years to have my father living near me again. I will try not to dwell too much on how many good years he has left, but to savor in the time we have together. It may be that our drives around DC will, in the end, be far more meaningful to me than to him. Someday perhaps I will make the drive down Beach Drive alone. I may stop at a place where my Dad and I stopped, and I will be the one with tears in my eyes.

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