The evolution of my grief followed a twisted path, wandering down trails and into tangential back alleys. In the beginning it was not grief but a fierce, panicked worry which gnawed at me waking and sleeping. I believed the phone would ring and a voice would announce, “We found him. He’s at the hospital being treated for dehydration…”
Whispering Breeze Assisted Living misplaced my father, Max Lourde, the day after Thanksgiving–Black Friday. I was reveling in the fight for the last Wii when my phone rang. I said “hello” out loud and “damn” to myself as a young man took advantage of my inattention to grab the last box. Meanwhile a warbling soprano voice was attempting to get to the point. The soprano identified herself as the assistant director of Whispering Breeze and commented with a quaver that she didn’t know how to say this.
“Just say it.”
“We…we can’t locate your father. Could you…” The soprano trailed off again and I hung up the phone, digging for keys as I ran for the door.
Dad had been fearful, angry, and finally resigned to his move to Whispering Breeze–an establishment which had earned his immediate disenchantment upon hearing the name. He had made a snotty and crude pun on it involving cows and flatulence. I wove through traffic and felt unreasonably angry I could not recall his exact words.
I felt certain Dad would be found. How, after all, could one slow-moving old man not be found by 50 trained searchers? The weather was mild. He would be fine. A sixth sense insinuated itself into my consciousness, a sort of fantasy GPS of my father’s imagined wanderings. I could see him shuffling along, a frown of concentration distorting his weathered features. He would be repeating the words the physical therapist had taught us to drill into him: “Step out, step up, step out, step up…”
The facility foyer had been packed with the variously uniformed–nurses and cops. A nurse recognized me and as I met her eyes I asked the question which would become the refrain for the next portion of my life.
“Where is my father?”
She looked to the police officer who had been interviewing her before answering as though rehearsing a lie they had agreed upon.
“He went outside about two hours ago. We haven’t seen him since.”
The officer had questions for me. While she asked my panic fluttered and stilled. We’re doing something. Someone else is in charge. Everything will be okay. Family history spilled from me as if the sheer weight of information would bring Dad back safely.
It had not been one thing which precipitated Dad’s move. There had been Mother’s death, of course. My husband, Tad, and I had discussed whether he could live on his own then, but he had insisted he was fine and proved he could look after himself by showing me how the stove and washing machine worked.
“This is the washing machine,” he said as he led me into the laundry room. “Dirty clothes go in the hole here in the top. Then you put in some soap, twist this button here like so, and…there you go! The clothes get clean all by themselves.”
“Okay, Dad, all right. Just…just don’t…you know. Be careful.”
Not since menopause had I felt so helpless. For those bleak years I had been stalked by a sensation of fading. I could feel myself turning insubstantial. People stopped noticing me when I walked into a room and a recurring nightmare had me begging for help, for attention, for something–and not even being ignored. Being ignored indicates there might be something to pay attention to. I was simply absent except for my invisible need.
The police were searching but I couldn’t be still, couldn’t just stand by and let others take responsibility for my father’s well being. I had to search for myself. The frantic bird which was beating its fragile wings inside my chest needed out. Left turns were needed. If I just circled long enough he would come to light.
I held a bird once. I held a sparrow which had knocked itself stupid against our kitchen window. Its heart was close to its chest wall and it beat against my hand as I cradled the fragile feathered body. A sparrow seems not so small in flight. In the hand, however, even a child’s hand, it is tiny. The stick-like feet stirred against my palm. The eye facing me opened. I began to coo as I could feel the thrumming heart beat faster, ever faster. My eye looked into the black bead of the bird’s eye, searching for the soul-to-soul connection I sometimes felt with our dog, Arnie, or the occasional bottle-fed calf. With a final thrum the sparrow heart stopped. Mom told me terror had stopped the bird’s heart. It seemed unfair that an animal I was trying to save should die because of my hand, my eye.
Grief was the steady pain of denial.
I half-ran through the streets and alleys around Whispering Breeze. I turned left, and left again. An apartment building. No dice. A narrow alley. He was not behind the garbage cans. I looked at all the gates and wondered if he had slipped into a back yard, if he had perhaps confused this bland alley for his own–all garbage cans look the same? Had he been trying to go home?
Yesterday he had been safe in our home enjoying turkey. It had seemed a little strange that he had been so talkative. We had talked about my childhood, my mother, our ranch, cows, chickens, dogs… We covered a lot of territory. It was unlike Dad. He was an old rancher. In his prime if he had something to say it was for a reason. “Number 259 dropped twins again. We’ll have to make a note.” He never just talked.
One comfort: he didn’t have a car any more. That change had come with a call from the police.
“We’re with your father in the Emergency Room. There’s been a car accident. Can you come pick him up?”
The unholy triumvirate of words–accident, police, ER–had been followed at the hospital with a request from the doctor which seemed innocent enough.
“We’ve x-rayed Max’s cervical spine and he appears free of injury. However, I believe he should follow up with his primary care physician as soon as possible.”
What a chicken that doctor was. I later learned she had suspicions about why Dad had run into the car ahead of him at a stoplight but hadn’t felt like sharing. Doc Brown, who had been Dad’s physician for 20 years, was careful and glum when he presented the diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease. Dad wanted to know if it meant he was “going senile.” Doc Brown assured him it did not.
“Your brain and your nerves aren’t communicating as fast as they used to, Max. You told your foot to step on the brake. It was just your nerves that blinked. Not you. Not your brain.”
A reporter showed up at the house not long after I got home. I focused on the interview instead of the escalating despair I felt with the passage of time. What would make people care he was missing? How should I describe him? Think, Debs. Communicate.
As I searched, I began to feel disoriented. The streets and alleys began to blend into each other. The pastel houses were all washed with my tears and the blisters on my feet had broken.
The pros and cons Tad and I had discussed before talking my father into Whispering Breeze had never included the possibility the facility staff there might just let him walk away and not notice he was missing for two hours. We had talked and thought about his safety in other terms.
The last straw was not when Dad started falling, although it probably should have been. He didn’t tell me about the first two and wouldn’t have mentioned the third if he hadn’t had to. He had called at 2 a.m.
“Dad? What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Just…can you come over for a minute?”
“No, the morning is fine…”
A ridiculous conversation I realized after I had hung up. He wouldn’t have called at two if he hadn’t needed me at two. Ten minutes later Tad and I were struggling to help him off the floor of the kitchen where he had crawled to the phone.
We balanced his safety against his need for independence and independence won. But when he was diagnosed with early dementia and I dropped by his house to find a burner left untended with an empty pan warping on top–that was the end of Dad’s living alone.
I gave in to numb despair. Tad and I sat at the kitchen table in silence. It was dark. I couldn’t eat. Going to bed felt like a betrayal. There was nothing to be said. Tad soaked my feet in warm water, fed me sherry, and made me lie down. I put the cell phone on my pillow and the land line next to the bed.
I dreamed of Arnie that first night Dad was missing. The heeler and border collie mix had been as consistent a fixture in my life as my parents. He had been a joyful mixture of play and dedication to work. Unlike the rest of our working dogs he was allowed in the house. In my dream he was sitting on a kitchen chair, his brown eyes regarding me soberly. Somehow he was speaking to me, his words as plain as they were silent. It seemed normal in dream time.
“The quality of mercy is not strained…”
He went on but I was distracted. I kept toying with the juxtaposition of Arnie and a quote I had learned years after his death in high school English.
Despair gave way to a stubborn determination, a firm denial, in the morning. He would be found. He had to be found. I still believed the phone would ring. The weather was mild. It would all be okay.
A volunteer search team canvassed the neighborhood. The police followed up on every bogus sighting. Tad and I printed posters and distributed them everywhere we could think of. We used the picture taken of Dad by the Whispering Breeze staff on his admission. It wasn’t flattering but it was free of background distractions. And it was recent.
My GPS of Dad’s wanderings was still going strong. He had sheltered the night in the corner of a building somewhere, under a pile of leaves. Now he was walking again, confused, yes, but with that steady self-assurance which had carried him through his life. He would be telling himself the facility was just around the next corner. He was thirsty and hungry but he persevered.
Grief turned feral on day three. It bit and hissed, leaped and scratched at me like a barn cat on a trip to the vet. I screamed at Tad.
“How could they just let him walk away? What the hell were they thinking?”
Tad, ever reasonable, tried to reason. “It isn’t a nursing home, Debs. It isn’t their job to keep tabs on everyone all the time.”
Furious he would point out something I already knew I screamed some more, stomped across the kitchen, and threw a bottle of sage at the cuckoo clock. Tad cleaned up while I sat at the table and wailed my rage, screaming and crying until my face and throat hurt and no more tears would come.
In my head Dad was no longer wandering. He was exhausted, thirsty, hungry. He had holed up somewhere. He was waiting to be found. I ached over his condition.
The final blow was presaged on the news. Tomorrow the temperature would plummet. Snow would blow. I stepped into the yard in the morning and stared at nothing while the first flakes sifted down. Winter storms had always before lifted my spirits. Now every flake was another pound of bitterness weighing at me. The air was chilly. By afternoon when I stepped out the wind was blowing snow horizontally in hard little balls, whipping around every obstacle, eddies swirling and reversing themselves along the ground. The thermometer fell past ten degrees and kept heading down. I didn’t bother to calculate windchill. Dad was dead.
Tad waited a day and then asked if I wanted to plan a memorial service. He was trying his gentle hardest to bring me back to earth.
“They haven’t even found his body,” I said, and stared at the milk scum on my cold coffee.
My GPS of Dad’s travels had not stopped when I understood he had died. Inside me he was still wandering. Sometimes I thought I could hear him calling me. Sometimes I thought I knew what had happened. A kindhearted stranger had seen him wandering and taken him in like a stray from the wild. He was living in that house, warm and coddled. No matter how many times I would try to logic myself out of this conviction it would return. A persistently sweet fantasy. Dad is okay. He’s just living somewhere else now.
Frank, our neighbor from across the street, showed up on our doorstep a week out. When the doorbell rang I perked my ears and the fantasies started. It would be Dad standing there on the porch, travel-worn but intact. I stomped the image and opened the door.
Frank said he felt sad every time he looked at our house, that it was always decorated so beautifully this time of year. He asked if he minded if he did the decorations.
“See. I understand if you don’t want to. But if you’re just not up to it…if you don’t mind…”
I showed him the boxes in the garage.
Tad’s relief when he saw the lights were up hurt me. He said they were beautiful but I shouldn’t have done it. He could have put them up over the weekend.
It was Frank, I told him, and his disappointment hurt even more. I realized how much I had removed myself from everything. Tad missed me. Our kids and grandkids missed me. Even I missed me.
I found Christmas cards with a subdued picture of a country chapel under snow and pulled out my address book. The same sentences flowed from my ball point pen in card after card. “Wishing you all the joys of the season…our love to you and yours…” With every “joy” came a pang of loss, ever receding until I could write it without irony. With every “you and yours” I missed him so much.
That night, with cards safely posted to ensure arrival before Christmas, I dreamed of Arnie again. My second dream began not as a fanciful conversation with my old companion but as a meditation on the day of his death. Although I had not noticed at the time, Arnie had grown old as I was preparing to enter middle school. That summer he began to limp. Then he got a nasty cough. We had the vet see him when he came out on other business and he confirmed the diagnosis my father had already given me: advanced old age. The vet prescribed a mild pain killer for Arnie’s arthritis and an antibiotic for the cough. He seemed more comfortable for a time but began going downhill again toward early fall. On the first cool day Arnie could barely stand up. His white muzzle was wrinkled in pain. Mom lit a fire on the hearth and encouraged Arnie to curl up next to it on his favorite braided rug but soon he became too warm and moved away into the kitchen where we were.
The next day Arnie went missing. I looked for him all morning and finally found him, acres away from the house, lying under a stand of young aspen. He did not look glad to see me but reluctantly came home, limping extravagantly, when I grabbed his collar and pulled. Dad yelled at me from the corral–”you leave that dog alone”–when he saw us returning and I was sorry in the dream that I was too young to see the grief on his face.
I released Arnie’s collar and slowly he turned and slowly began to limp back toward the aspen stand. Dad came over and watched him go. When I started after the dog he grabbed my arm.
“No, Debs. Let him go. See. This is the way most animals like to die. They want to be by themselves at the end.”
I had cried ceaselessly that day. Arnie had never come back.
When I awoke my pillow was wet with tears. They were generous tears and I sobbed with an open throat. The grief felt fresh and I wondered why until I remembered. Yes, Dad was gone, too.
Christmas began with those cards and I continued to make it a Christmas everyone would remember. I decorated every windowsill with evergreen boughs and candles and imagined Dad looking in at the house, the trees and bushes and eaves lit up, a candle flickering warmly in each window. He would be pleased. I baked. I cleaned. I decorated the oversized tree with glass ornaments which distorted my still-tearful face.
Two days before Christmas I rested. Putting on a CD of Christmas music, I sat with a cup of spiced cider before our fireplace and stretched my toes to the warmth. We had had another cold snap. The tree glittered in all its finery. The house smelled of cake. I stared into the fire and enjoyed my animal comforts.
A rancher found Dad’s body that spring. He had made it all the way to the edge of town, through a five strand barbed wire fence, and across the first rise. He was curled in a small declivity beneath some willow brush.