Friday, May 09, 2008

Disappearing Dad

In some ways my dad is so much more in my life these days. Every morning, first thing, before or during my first cup of coffee, I usually call him. We joke and I check on a few things and see what he's doing and planning. If I forget to call, he will often call me so I won't call when he's in the bath or busy making his breakfast. If he needs anything serious, I'm there for him. I take him to doctors and surgery and do errands when he isn't up to it. These days a trip to the grocery store is usually too much for him. He is shrinking and one shoulder seems dipped down.

This picture was taken a bit over ten years ago, in August 1997. Dad is toasting something on board a small ship that we (my parents, two aunts and an uncle) took through the waterways of Russia. (That's my late mother in the background looking pretty good herself.) My dad wasn't exactly moving fast then, but he stood stronger, straighter, taller. I was watching out for all these old folks and pointing out the many uneven pavements and step ups and other hazards. He wasn't the one I worried about the most since one of my aunts had injured her arm before the trip started and the other one fell at the airport in Russia and pulled up a bit lame for the trip and my mother had a history of blackouts and falls.

I was taking Dad on an outing on Wednesday and I was thinking how small he seemed, how I seemed to tower over him now as he wheeled his walked along at the mall where we were going to get him a haircut.

Will he just shrink until he disappears? It is sad. I remember this feeling of towering over my grandmother as she shrank, but I was taller to start with. Then the feeling of being taller than my mother when actually I had been shorter until her spine started to compress.

My dad had a world class wanderlust. It is a gene, I think, and there are lots of people in areas like Texas that were fairly recently frontiers that have it. Unfortunately, he didn't have much money with which to scratch the itch to travel. So we patched together road trips on cheap gas, relatives' extra beds and campgrounds. As he gradually had more money there were motels, hotels, even airplanes. At some point in the '90's my parents realized that they had driven through or visited all 48 contiguous states. They took a cruise to Alaska and then, of course, Hawaii loomed. Somehow they talked me into booking a cruise around the islands for their 55th wedding anniversary in 1996. I joked that soon they'd be getting passports and filling in the countries. Sure enough, they did get passports and went off on a tour of the England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. My dad loved beautiful, green Ireland and thought he could live there. Or maybe it was the stout and whiskey. So it wasn't a huge leap for them when my aunt suggested they go along on a cruise on the Russian waterways.

My parents had a friend living in Germany and she was urging them to come visit while she was there, but they never got it done while my mother was alive. They continued driving to Colorado and having adventures and they participated with me and two friends in a great road trip in 1998. They put a lot of energy into moving in 2000. It took a lot, too, with 33 years worth of my dad's pack rat, use everything depression era ways and my mother's stuff magnet hobbies (miniatures, spinning, weaving). My dad was energetic during that move. I went back to Mesquite with him one last time with a trailer so he could transport back here rocks, fossils, plants, one pet box turtle living in the yard and some sad lawn furniture. Dad had energy then and he was standing tall. He hung bird feeders in his yard, had an outdoor shed built for seed and yard things, planted and poked about. There is no energy for this now. The giant ferns he has cultivated on the glassed-in porch no longer get re-potted and it is usually the maid who waters them.

My dad is much more of a presence, more of a concern to me. But physically he seems to be disappearing, shrinking, leaving me a millimeter at a time. On the phone, he occasionally sounds like my strong dad of old. The one who rescued me in cars that broke down, throwing on a tow chain around my bug's bumper or who handled tasks requiring strength and agility well beyond anything I ever managed. Now if he drops something on the floor, he has to maneuver around with his 'grabber' on his walker to get it up. In the morning he makes a trip to the curb with his walker that has brakes and a basket and gets his paper with the grabber. His world is shrinking, too. He does get out for activities, but it wears him out to do so and long trips are out of the question. He did renew that passport he got in the late nineties, but only for an extra form of ID. He doesn't really see himself leaving the country again. In fact, his granddaughters and their four small children are coming for a visit because jumping in a car and driving to Colorado is no longer an option. He and mom used to do this even in the winter. Getting on a plane seems daunting, too. After my mother died, Dad and I managed several car trips to Colorado and Dallas. He made that trip to Germany and then went back a few years later with a friend and they also visited Austria, England and Iceland. He checked off a few more countries than my mom ever made. He said of the younger (my age) women who took him on this trip: "Everywhere those girls wanted to go was uphill." But he made it. Now it is clearly out of the question. It's hard to say when the corner was turned.

All of us Boomers (the ones who haven't already been consumed by stroke or cancer or diabetes or heart disease or something) think they we won't shrink. That we can be larger than life for all time. That we won't diminish, disappear, sag into gravity and finally return to the earth. But we will. When we look at our shrunken parents, we are looking into the future. A smaller and smaller future.

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