My aunt handed me an article last week. Retirement homes have begun to provide classes in empathy for their employees.
Attendees wear glasses that mimic macular degeneration, shoe inserts to cause foot pain and earphones full of confusing audio input. They’re required to accomplish easy tasks that are immediately much less simple. Students suddenly understand why that “ornery old lady” is so sour; why the confused gentleman can’t seem to grasp reality. Many, including retirement home directors, were reduced to sobs.
Maybe it’s my writer’s imagination or the close connection I had with my grandparents, but I feel the frustration of my aging friends and relatives with acute clarity. The story of clear-eyed, strong, beautiful youth that lies behind behind every individual with delicate, papery skin and a vague expression has always caught my attention.
Years ago, I created a scrapbook for my grandmother, then nearing ninety. Frail in her wheelchair, she turned pages with shaking, blue-veined hands. Even earlier, in college, I’d introduced her to words like “hottie” and “foxy” when we looked through a box of photos from her Navy days. Now she leaned closer to peer at pictures. “I can’t tell who that one is,” she pointed.
I grinned. “Well, whoever she is, she’s one foxy lady!”
Smiling back, she announced, “Well, in that case, it must be me!”
When she left me for heaven, my heart broke. I’m blinking back tears as I write this. My one consolation is that she’s once again a foxy hottie, hanging out with her three best friends. (I think we’ll get to return to our favorite age in heaven. This is only my opinion. If you have been to heaven and found it’s not true, I don’t want to hear about it.)
But as I said, imagining how aging must feel, at the deepest level, has always been easy for me.
We’ve had a rough couple of weeks. Barely time to breathe.
Hubby’s dad went to the doctor for what he thought might be pneumonia. He’s had recurring bronchitis and is in his 80’s, so possible pneumonia seemed a logical conclusion to his respiratory symptoms.
He ended up in the hospital with exploratory heart surgery. That shortness of breath? Not the lungs.
He was—and is—experiencing Atrial Fibrillation (also known as AFib) but didn’t realize it. Now familiar with the symptoms, it’s apparent to all of us that he’s had it for some time. His heart is enlarged and operating at 35%.
Heart exploration showed no blockage, which was the first assumed culprit. The cardiologist fitted him with a vest full of sensors to gather data for two weeks, trying to ascertain the cause. The vest, which doubles as a defibrillator, can also shock his heart if necessary.
My friend’s mom had an implanted defibrillator. It shocked her heart just as she turned off a light at church; she assumed an electrical malfunction and called out for someone to come check the switch. One of the other attendees suspected the real issue and brought a chair for her to sit down; while he helped her, the defibrillator went off again and gave him a bit of a jolt.
Maybe I should advise Dad’s girlfriend not to hold his hand…
Dad’s doing unbelievably well, considering he’s more or less stuck in the house for two weeks. He can go out, but lugging the bulky battery pack for the vest is a pain.
Aside from Dad, Hubby is having the hardest time with the situation, as the roles of his life are rocked with swift, unanticipated and sudden reversal.
We have black and white photos of this man receiving military awards, towering over the higher-ranking officials. Fond family lore honors this tank commander who could barely fit in the hatch. This weekend, I found a picture of him leaning against a tank, casual. He might as well have been hanging out by an SUV.
In college, his larger-than-life presence on the football field drew interest from professional football teams. He played pro ball for a season, then decided to join the military. He continued to play for the Army and moved up the ranks, stationed in in Japan and Iran. One of my favorite pictures shows him crammed into a Jeep next to a Korean official, looking more like John Wayne than John Wayne.
Back in the States, he taught logistics to a new crop of fresh-faced recruits.
The Pentagon called. Come to Washington.
By this time married with four kids*, he decided instead to retire from the military. He started a second career, managing for a large corporation. On weekends, he loaded and drove a horse rig to competitions for my mother in law, who trained award-winning horses (and riders). His own horse was so large it could step over the stall door.
In his spare time, he learned enough blacksmithing to shoe skittish horses (harder than it sounds). He was a handyman and an artist, fixing, creating and building.
Popular among military and civilians alike, he and my mother-in-law hosted parties and an annual Father’s Day crab feast for their many friends. With the arrival of grandchildren, he became the beloved Papa.
After the death of my mother in law, he has continued to be the beacon holding our family together, drawing everyone home for holidays. A few years ago, he found happiness again with the widowed mother of one of our friends.
Through his example, he taught my husband to provide, to put family first, to work hard, to survive heartbreak, to excel. To be a man.
I owe at least part of my happiness to this giant man with the even bigger heart.
We watch with pathos. I pray that he’ll rebound, like my grandfather, who overcame similar issues and lived another twenty years. My hope is tempered by the reality and gravity of his condition.
This weekend, Hubby and some of our wonderful friends built a ramp on the front of Dad’s house. Twice. After walking on the recommended grade, Hubby realized it would still be too steep for Dad to navigate comfortably, so he took it apart and adjusted everything.
This is the man I love: willing to spend six extra hours on a project to make sure it’s just right. Another man with a giant heart.
I watched as Dad hobbled to the top of the ramp, nodding his approval. Emotions crossed his face. I wondered if he was remembering, as I was, the man he’s been.
The football legend, dwarfing the other players as he strode across a stadium field.
The tremendous leader respected by both allies and enemies in war.
The esteemed teacher and no-nonsense manager.
The great friend to so many.
Some of these things, he still is. But I imagined, as he scanned the ramp, how he might feel. How he might be remembering. How he might wish for the return of years past.
Perhaps I’m kidding myself. To think I can imagine how it could feel to once have been able to do all the incredible things he’s done.
To think I know what it means, this ramp, to someone who is the definition of a man.
*He is also an adoptive father; Hubby’s oldest sister is adopted. Their great relationship is one of the reasons Hubby and I wanted to adopt.