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So Far Away
A Daughter's Memoir of Life, Loss, and Love
By Christine W. Hartmann
Vanderbilt University Press Copyright © 2011 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
The Phone Call
In October 2007, I came home from an early-afternoon bike ride through the colorful Massachusetts foliage to find a solitary new message on our answering machine. The red light blinked insistently at even intervals, and while I had planned to run to the bathroom after removing my helmet and bike shoes, I decided I'd better listen to the recording. Standing in the kitchen next to the machine, I couldn't understand much of what the caller was saying, and I was tempted to delete the message as just another phone solicitation. I nevertheless pushed the repeat button and listened again: crackle, "I'm sorry," murmur, "your daddy," something incomprehensible, name of my father's nursing home, blah, blah, "very sad," something else incomprehensible, mumble, "call back."
Okay, I thought, I don't need to get every word to understand this. They never call me. "I'm sorry ... your daddy ... very sad." I know what they're trying to tell me. I scrambled to get my cell phone out of my pocket, then scrolled through the too-long contacts list. My father, Hans, is dead. I glanced up at the clock to remember the time. One thirty-eight in the afternoon. But wait. Why didn't they call my cell phone after they realized no one was home? Those were the nursing home's instructions: if something happened, they were to call me at home, then on my cell, then at work, then call Ron's cell. With four numbers, they were almost certain to be able to reach one of us.
Hans's nursing home was in Delaware, the state where he resided for most of his life. Until the beginning of 2007, Ron and I lived near Delaware as well. Then a change in my career brought us to Massachusetts. Rather than subject Hans to a grueling, disruptive move, the family chose to keep him near his friends and my brother. Nevertheless, I determined that the nursing home should always be able to reach me, because I had primary responsibility for his affairs.
I had emphasized the importance of having numerous ways to contact me because my father had specific orders on his chart: "Do not resuscitate. Do not hospitalize." Despite these directives, when he had been found unresponsive at five in the morning the previous year by a nurse at Lovering Nursing Home, she had called 911 first and me second. By the time I spoke with her, an ambulance was already transporting my father to the emergency room. After that incident, I learned my lesson. I taped a large sheet of paper to the front of Hans's chart. In all capitals it read, "DON'T CALL 911. CALL DAUGHTER." Then it listed my numbers.
I finally came to the middle of the alphabet on my phone and found the nursing home's listing. I pushed Send. As I waited for a connection, I felt strangely calm. I hope he didn't suffer too much. But in any case his frustration and distress have ended.
A woman with a strong Jamaican accent answered the telephone. I told her my name, that I was Hans's daughter, and that I had received a phone call from them. By the time I heard the first few words, "I'm so sorry to tell you that your father ...," I had finished her sentence in my mind: is dead. To my shock, she concluded instead, "... has been crying and screaming all morning. We thought that if you talked with him, you might be able to calm him down."
Not what I had anticipated. Not even close. "Oh. Right. Sure," I responded, fumbling for words. "I would be happy to talk with him."
"Good. We'll get him. Hold on."
I had only a moment to pull my thoughts back from the abyss into which they had mistakenly jumped. It's not over. And now I was standing in the kitchen really having to go to the bathroom—and instead waiting for the nursing home staff to wheel my father from his room to the nurses' station phone. Why didn't I pee before I called? But, of course, you don't think of that when you've just received a message seeming to indicate that your father has died. Before death, all your needs—physical, emotional, relational, financial—suddenly disappear into an arena far removed from daily life. After a while, it becomes difficult to make the effort to retrieve them.
For the previous two years, I'd been very good at shoving many of my needs under the rug out of concern for my father. Dangerously good. After all, this is what a good daughter is expected to do. Or so I thought.
My father cared for me his entire cognizant life, even when caring necessitated performing less than pleasurable duties. Though after their divorce my mother could be quick to enumerate Hans's faults, she always described him as an enthusiastic parent. For decades she even saved a copy of the letter Hans had written to family and friends the day after my birth, titled "The Report of a Proud Father." Therefore, I'm sure that during my childhood, along with cuddling and playing with me, Hans changed my diapers, cleaned up my vomit, and wiped my feverish brow. And I'm sure he did it with love for me in his heart.
When my parents divorced because of "irreconcilable differences," I was nine and my brother, Warner, was eight. My mother moved out of the house, which was uncommon at the time. Irmgard had initiated the separation; she had outgrown the marriage, so she was the one who left. Our parents gave Warner and me the choice of going with her or staying with Hans, and we made the most rational decision we could at the time: we asked, "Where will Speedy live?"
Speedy, the family cat, clearly favored my father. So Irmgard moved to an apartment complex three blocks away, and Speedy, Warner, and I continued to live in the large house with Hans.
Instead of alimony, our parents agreed to a one-time, lump-sum payout. Consequently, my father quickly found himself financially strapped, having borrowed money to pay my mother. All of a sudden, to our horror, and for no reason we could comprehend, my brother and I faced mealtimes with single frozen dinners split among the three of us, mountains of egg noodles or instant mashed potatoes, and foamy glasses of powdered milk. Used to our father's gourmet cooking with fresh ingredients and nightly variations on culinary themes, we rebelled vociferously against every cutback, but most especially against the frothy, tepid milk substitute. We hated the taste, the temperature, and the smell. We spat it out or refused to drink it, and eventually Hans acquiesced. After weeks of heated battle, we happily found the gallon jugs of fresh whole milk in the refrigerator once again. Our father had given in, a sign of his true love for us, we were certain.
The actual reason behind the sudden curb in spending remained unknown to us, as did the pain our constant complaining caused Hans. But we found out many years later that we had also been oblivious to his nightly pilgrimages to the kitchen. Close to midnight, moving quietly so as not to wake us, he would mix powdered milk with water, then rinse out the same plastic container that proclaimed in red letters, "Whole milk, vitamin D enriched," and funnel in the reconstituted milk, allowing the foam to settle overnight in the refrigerator. He fooled us every time.
I didn't think of what I did for Hans in the nursing home as reciprocating, doing for him just because he had done for me. I loved him, and I had firsthand knowledge that he did not shy away from putting aside his own needs and desires for the sake of his children's well-being.
Sometimes I held my breath out of a desire to avoid the reality of the moment, such as when I pulled his diapers down to help him pee. His penis could start to dribble before he bent his legs enough to sit on the raised toilet seat in the shared bathroom of his nursing home room. I would grab his organ and redirect the stream toward the toilet bowl, so that the urine didn't make too big a mess on the floor.
If I'm being honest, the entire procedure disquieted me. I know many children do much more for their elderly parents, but I would have been very content to go through my life without ever having had to touch my father's penis.
But sometimes I could not avoid it, because when my father had to go, he had to go now. Lovering was small and adequately staffed, but Hans didn't always give a lot of advance notice about his bodily functions, and he wasn't capable of much self-control. The feeling of urgency would overtake him suddenly, perhaps because he could no longer process the subtle early warning signs. I did not always have enough time to run down the hall to find a staff person to perform the duty I would rather have shirked. But I abhorred the alternative of letting him sit in wet diapers until someone could come around to change him. If he could tell me he had to empty his bladder, then he would realize his behind was not dry. Only my hang-ups stood in the way of his comfort. So I held my breath and tried to think of more pleasant things.
But caring for my father didn't feel the same as caring for a small child, although he was in many senses exactly that, and many of the routines were similar. Except he did not grow up—he grew down. He used to walk by himself, then he shuffled, then he moved along with a walker, and finally he was confined to a wheelchair. The scope of what served as his memory became ever more truncated, to the point where he lived almost exclusively from moment to moment. On the ubiquitous "activities of daily living" scale my father scored very low. He couldn't shave or bathe himself. Most days he could shovel food into his mouth, though it behooved his caregivers that he wore a bib. Still, he retained some of his old gestures, such as the way he put his huge hand up through my hair against the grain and ever so gently rubbed my scalp with his fingers; or the way his eyes sometimes gleamed with recognition of me. And his voice was the same—even if his words often followed a logic only he could comprehend.
"Hi, Hans," I said into my cell phone when they brought him to the nurses' station and handed him the receiver. "It's ..." But he interrupted. He knew me by the sound of my voice.
"Oh! Tina. How are you?" he choked out, his voice reverberating with emotion.
"I'm doing really well, Hans. How are you?" I responded, rather surprised that he had asked. He usually didn't. Quickly I added, "How are you feeling?" because I learned he didn't always know how to respond to abstract questions such as how he was. A concrete question about his feelings derailed the conversation less often. The many possible answers regarding the state of his existence may have confused him. Or perhaps how he was linked too closely in his mind with similar questions having to do with where he was or when he was. The answers to these questions he did not know.
"Tina, I'm trying to figure out a ... crossword puzzle," he said, "and I don't know the answers."
I knew with assurance that Hans was not solving a crossword puzzle. He hadn't read anything since his first major stroke. I had piled all manner of books and old magazines, even reading material from my childhood—illustrated editions of The Cricket in Times Square and James and the Giant Peach—on the desk in his room. But he lacked the initiative and the visual acuity to pick any of them up. Instead I responded to the emotional content of what he said: "It sounds like you're frustrated."
"Yes, I'm frustrated. I just can't figure it out. This crossword puzzle ..." The thought trail ended abruptly for him. The subject shifted. "I was talking with Walter, and he said he was in the garden with you, but you were far away from him on the other side, and he couldn't speak with you. You didn't come over to talk with him. Maybe when he can speak with you, he can understand what's going on. Walter wants to wait to talk with you first. He doesn't want to talk with me, and you can't answer, either."
Walter was Hans's only brother, one year older, who still lived in Germany. Walter had probably called him recently. Being on the phone with me may have reminded Hans of this, or of being trapped in East Germany in his youth, or of any number of other past events. Having a conversation with Hans felt like being awakened suddenly in strange surroundings and thinking, "Where am I? What day is it? What am I doing here?" My mind would hurriedly grasp at the fragments of information in his sentences, trying to piece together the puzzle of his thoughts. I knew I could try to redirect the conversation, or I could continue in his world as best I could. This time I stuck with the concrete: "It's quite possible that Walter called you a few days ago."
"Yes, maybe I talked with Walter on the phone. But he won't tell me what's going on. He wants to speak with you, but you won't tell me either."
Nurses talking in the background interrupted us. They were speaking so loudly that for a while I thought they might have been talking to me. Then I realized they must have been having a conversation quite close by, not noticing my father on the phone. I asked Hans whether there were people around him. He replied that there were, but that he didn't know them.
In the seconds of silence I let pass, I tried to come up with an explanation of these people's presence to fit with the crossword-puzzle-speaking-with-Walter-and-me-in-the-garden scenario. I simply couldn't. Well, then, why lie? And so I launched into the truth: "Hans, those are nurses. You're in a nursing home. A while ago ..." I hesitated and calculated. Can it really be over two years now? Two thousand five, September thirteenth. Yes, that's over two years ago. I sighed and told him the truth. "I can't believe it's been two years, but over two years ago, you had a massive hemorrhagic stroke. You were lying on the floor of your condo for more than three days before we found you. You were in the hospital for a while, but basically you've been in nursing facilities since. So the people around you are there to take care of you. They're part of the staff of the nursing home."
I paused, my heart beating faster, to see how he would react.
"They're nurses. Yes, I see. Well, that explains what they're doing here. But I don't remember any of that."
"Actually, that's my point exactly," I answered, astonished that he had not countered my story of his incapacitation with disbelief. Having started down this road of truth-telling, I saw no reason to stop. "Having no memory is part of your problem. You've had three strokes. Each one could have killed you, but you've survived. But your mind was affected, and you have no short-term memory anymore. Recently, you seem to be losing your long-term memory too. So you just don't remember. But they are nurses. You'll just have to trust me."
Amazingly, Hans accepted this story without argument. Maybe he had already forgotten the beginning before I reached the end. In any case, he didn't protest. This contrasted dramatically with his rebelliousness during every part of his post-stroke life in the first year.
Hans's changes began in early July 2005. That month, as part of a general downsizing in preparation for retirement, my father moved out of the house where he had lived for thirty years and into an empty condo I owned. Sometime during his move, he had the smallest of three eventual hemorrhagic strokes. Because the effect was not dramatic, no one noticed when or how the first one happened. Conceivably, it occurred in his sleep. Afterward, his eyes remained bright blue. He still combed his short blond hair to the left. He continued to cut an imposing figure with his broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted build. But appearances can be deceiving. Over the course of a few minutes or hours, my father ceased to be the Hans he had been for seventy-four years and the person my brother and I had known our entire lives.
I think the months from July to September must have been among the most miserable of Hans's existence. Vaguely sensing that something wasn't quite right, he angrily maintained that what wasn't right was other people's fault. Muddled thoughts plagued him, and his life slowly crumbled into disarray. But he attributed the changes to the incompetence of others. Something about his accusations didn't feel accurate, however, and this bothered him.
Hans became very unhappy. Yet he could not grasp his altered psychology, just as I did not appreciate that vagaries of synaptic connections and blood flow could modify a person's seemingly fundamental personality traits. Generally optimistic and outgoing, my father hardly ever remained ill tempered for long. Only after Hans was institutionalized that fall and I took over all his affairs did I discover just how much he had changed. At his local bank branch, he had screamed at the workers. Some were friendly acquaintances who had known him for decades, but he berated them for long wait times and "mistakes" they made with his account. Staff at the nearby drug and electronics stores avoided him, because he continually brought back items and yelled at them for selling him "defective" products. He made trips downtown to reprimand his financial advisor about the "deliberately incomprehensible" statements. He also harshly rebuked my brother and me for trivialities at regular intervals.
Had I been aware of the entire picture, I would have intervened. As it was, his anger baffled me, and I feared for our seemingly fast-disintegrating relationship. Chagrined, I didn't mention anything to anyone. Warner didn't talk about his problems with Hans to me, either.
Excerpted from So Far Away by Christine W. Hartmann. Copyright © 2011 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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