Friday, July 21, 2017


March, 1999
     Our oldest child is down in Florida with her husband Frank, to see how Ed and Aliceann are faring in the midst of the major changes in their lives. Kathie, fifty-nine, her shoulder-length brown hair as glossy and unsilvered as it was when she was twenty-five, calls herself an aging hippie on wheels. She can discourse easily on disability with Ed, because she has whizzed around in a wheelchair ever since an automobile accident just before Christmas in 1965.
     Kathie calls me almost every day to update me on assorted medical mishaps and miscellaneous upsets. Her concern about her father is contagious. Stubborn Irishman that he is (I remember it well), he often refuses to use his walker when he wants to make short trips inside the house. Brushing off the worried warnings of any of the women in his life close enough to make them, he employs phrases used by his children in their teens: “Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. I’m not a baby. I can take care of myself. Stop worrying all the time.” And with confidence and aplomb, he sallies forth for another stumble.
    Just today Kathie is in the guest bathroom when she hears a cry from Aliceann and then a crash. She knows what has happened, but not whether her father has really hurt himself this time. Aliceann’s alarmed outcries, barreling through the house, assure her that at least her father is alive and conscious. “Edward, I told you to be more careful. Now look what you’ve done. Why won’t you use your walker? You’re going to give me a heart attack. Why won’t you ever listen to me?” Kathie, feeling somewhat frantic herself, tries to hurry out of the small, cramped bathroom, which is barely wheelchair-accessible. By the time she is able to back her wheelchair out of the bathroom and maneuver through the guest bedroom into the living room, Frank has picked Ed up and helped him into his wheelchair, which he is even more reluctant to use than the walker.
    Aliceann is still distraught. “I keep telling him not to go so fast. He has to use the walker. I can’t lift him up by myself. He has to stop falling.” Kathie and Frank soothe her as best they can.
    After his fall, her dad seems bewildered, disoriented, and depressed. Recently he has suffered one calamity after another. Kathie tells me that on his way to the airport to pick them up, her father started feeling sick and dizzy. He passed out long enough to bump into another car. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and no damage was done. Everyone was kind and helpful. They restored his faith in human kindness. No big deal. But still, Aliceann and the rest of us have been worried about his driving for months now; maybe this is the sign that he should give it up.
     Unable to persuade him, Kathie calls Ted, the older of her two younger brothers. Ted, a tall craggy fifty-seven-year-old who bears a resemblance to Captain Ahab when all his limbs were still intact, has been Ed’s business partner for years, and is better able than Kathie to deal with the “old buzzard” when he gets cantankerous.
     Kathie explains the situation. Ted asks to speak to his father, and adds his arguments to the case. Ed grudgingly promises he won’t drive again, although this is clearly a crushing concession.
    The rest of us are terribly relieved—and not just for traffic safety. Ed had recently driven himself to a flea market where he was going to meet Aliceann, fell on the steps and couldn’t get to his feet. He kept asking people to help him, but they avoided looking at him, pretended they didn’t hear, and passed on by. He says he was near tears, and bursting with frustration, rage, and fear. He was finally able to become upright by grabbing the railing and pulling, and pushing, and shimmying and struggling, but recognizes that this accomplishment has become almost impossible.
     While Kathie and Frank are visiting, Aliceann has scheduled appointments for Ed with most of his regular physicians‑‑a general practitioner, a neurologist, a cardiologist, a dermatologist, and a urologist‑‑so that Kathie and Frank can hear firsthand how the doctors say Ed should deal with his medical problems. More important, she wants them to back her up when he refuses to hear what he is told. She also asks them to back her up when she tries to get Ed to eat more. How much he eats--or how little -- seems to be the source of the most constant conflict between them.
    So, with Ed in tow, Aliceann, Kathie, and Frank, the familial board of overseers, traipse from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, where they hear at least three different versions of medical wisdom. Ed always hears, “You’re doing great, Ed, keep doing whatever you want, and don’t pay any attention to these worrywarts.” Aliceann hears, “Edward, your wife is always right. You absolutely must do what she says—eat your vegetables, clean your plate, and slow down when you walk and talk.” Kathie and Frank, who have been married only three years and still hear things in much the same way, both hear, “Edward and Aliceann, Edward is doing great for an 84-year-old with Parkinson’s disease and a bum knee, but he’s going to have trouble talking and walking. He’ll start out fine, but then he’s going to stumble. It’s the Parkinson’s disease and he can’t help it. Everybody needs to be patient. And Aliceann, just leave him alone when it comes to eating. He’s 84 -- let him eat what he wants and quit when he wants.”
    Ed tells me that part of his problem is that his knee replacement of fifteen years ago needs to be replaced again. Bearing weight on his right leg is extremely painful, and he is sure a new knee will enable his legs to keep up with his intentions. His Florida doctors, who may privately agree with his diagnosis, have adamantly refused to accept his prescription for a cure. They don’t tell him he may be unable to walk anyway, as his Parkinson’s Disease takes its toll. Instead, they say they do not want to undertake this surgery on a man nearing eighty-four. There is the risk of hitting an artery during the procedure, the risk of infection, the possibility of other dangerous complications. He could lose his leg. He could die. These seem like pretty compelling reasons to all of us, except Edward, to leave things alone.
    Ed has other reasons to be depressed. Business reasons. He and Ted jointly own a manufacturing plant that has been leased to a large international company ever since Ed’s retirement nearly 20 years ago. Until last year, income from that building has kept us all going financially. “If they don’t renew their lease,” Ed has been saying fretfully for the last three years, “it will be a disaster.”
    Ed’s fretting is one of his most tenacious traits, so I couldn’t believe the disaster would actually happen, and Aliceann couldn’t, either. The family has always weathered financial crises in the past. But in November of 1998, the tenants did indeed do the unthinkable. They moved out, taking everything with them except the tons of oil that had condensed on every imaginable surface, blackening all the interior walls, ceilings, joists, braces, and pipes so thickly that it cost Ted $100,000 to clean them.
    After several months with no income from their un-leased building, Ted called Ed and Aliceann to tell them the well has run dry. He simply cannot continue sending them the generous income they’ve been accustomed to. He is struggling to get loans to keep them all afloat, but there is no guarantee that there will ever again be enough money to maintain their large, comfortable retirement home. He tells them they will have to sell the house by the first of September and rent a smaller, less expensive one. In fact, he warns, it is likely that by September he will have NO money at all to send them each month unless he starts getting renters.
    Ed and Aliceann have difficulty believing that their fervent wishes won’t serve to bring wealthy clients cantering into the building by the dozens, allowing them to stay where they are with their belts a bit tighter. Ed begs Kathie to talk to her brother and try to persuade him to do something so they will not have to move. Kathie dutifully calls Ted and pleads with him to come down to Florida to consult with their father, see what kind of difficulties he’s having, and try to find a less drastic solution to the financial problems than making him sell his home. In order to help out, Aliceann has even gotten a sales job at a local clothing store.

   Ted has been to Florida and shares Kathie’s concerns about their father’s health. He admits that Ed has aged considerably since his last visit. Not only does he look older, but he has developed the disconcerting habit of falling asleep not just in the middle of the day but in the middle of a conversation. In addition, because the Parkinson’s disease seems to be getting worse and the falls more frequent, Ted believes an assisted living complex is the only practical solution.
    Unfortunately, as is often true of practical solutions, there are major impediments. Some parents are delighted when the children have grown up and flown the nest, leaving them free to come and go as they please. Ed and Aliceann, however, have anything but an empty nest. They are now owned by—or more accurately, possessed by—six cats and two dogs. When their best friends Blake Thaxter and his sweetheart, Grace, recently came to visit, Ed craftily hid the last two kittens that seduced them at the pound, knowing how much the guests would disapprove. When the time comes to move, whither they go, the pets goest. Then, of course, there’s the minor detail that neither Ed nor Aliceann will consider living in any place likely to be inhabited by “a lot of sick old people.”
    His sons think the refusal to part with the pets is insane, but Kathie, a devoted animal-lover, is more sympathetic. She describes an idea she has. She and Frank will remodel their garage and build a wing that would include the large living room they rarely use. This will make a lovely apartment of adequate size, and she and Frank can be Edward’s assisted‑living providers. Aliceann and the pets won’t be able to take care of Ed’s needs by themselves, but if they’re up here in Massachusetts, the whole family will be able to help.

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