NOTES FROM A SAINT
Life lessons have the tendency to sneak up on us. Often, we’re going about our business, doing what we do, and a message from the universe smacks us upside the head without warning. If we are paying attention, the impact can be life-altering. Our perceptions of ourselves and others change, and we view a situation with new clarity. Many times a profound truth is revealed, and the reverberations can be staggering. That definitely happened to me, thanks to Fil.
Two years ago, I became the primary caretaker for my father-in-law, Fil. At the time, he was 84 years old, with rapidly accelerating dementia.
Fil was never a compliant person. He did his own thing in his own way on his own time. He lived in a cargo van for a decade — not because he couldn’t afford something better, but because that lifestyle was very permissive. A permanent home came with too many responsibilities and there was less freedom to pack up and go at a moment’s notice. You could call him a modern-day vagabond.
By the time I became Fil’s caretaker, I had known him for more than 30 years, and during that period we battled more times than I could count. He had strong views about gender roles that were left over from a different era. He did not appreciate women who thought for themselves — the major reason he did not care for me. At best, we tolerated one another.
Color me shocked in 2016 when he requested that I help him with an estate plan that included acting as his power of attorney if he should become incapacitated. I had a lot of misgivings, but my sense of familial obligation won out, so I accompanied him to the attorney, signed the paperwork, and forgot about it.
Many people called me a saint, but I knew that I hadn’t earned that title. In my mind, a saint is selfless and has pure intentions. Up to this point, I knew I’d been operating out of obligation.
During the following year, he began acting “squirrely,” as my family liked to call it. Fil would show up at our home randomly or not at all; he would promise to replace the worn-out tires on his van and six weeks later would roll up on the same bald wheels. He missed doctor appointments. He didn’t shower or change clothing for weeks. There were even a couple hospitalizations for dehydration and eccentric behavior. We knew something was wrong but were powerless to do anything about it.
Then the sheriff showed up on our doorstep with Fil in tow. “Does he belong to you?” I didn’t really know what to say, so I simply nodded. “He backed his van up over a curb, narrowly missing a fire hydrant and a lawn full of children. He doesn’t know his own name or address. We found your info in the glove box. We’re impounding the vehicle. Call this number to claim it. Have a nice day.”
My life changed radically in that moment.
Afterward, Fil lived with us for a short while, but he refused to sleep in the house. We pulled our camping trailer up to the back patio, and he had his own bachelor pad. He spent the days in the house watching TV and slept in the trailer at night. Fil had no idea why he was a captive in our home. He kept asking for the keys to his van. We repeatedly explained that the authorities had suspended his driver’s license and that the van was damaged beyond repair. “Oh,” he would reply, and then two hours later we’d have the same conversation. Fil was stranded. As a result, I became his cook, chauffeur, maid, and nanny.
Within two months, we found a lovely retirement home nearby. Not fancy, not modern, but comfortable and run by a compassionate family. We moved Fil in; he seemed fine with the decision. But after four months, he got kicked out for striking the manager with his cane. We moved him to another facility where the residents were a bit rougher around the edges. He lasted there for 11 months until his temper once again provoked his eviction. We moved him a third time, to a memory care facility. The staff there was trained differently; they knew how to handle Fil, and he was as happy as the situation permitted. Yet, stalwart in his rebellion, he continued to refuse showers, eat raw sugar from the packets on the dining table, and empty his coffee cup into the artificial plants.
I handled all his financial affairs, bought him clothes and treats, and shuttled him back and forth to endless medical appointments and physical therapy. We spent a lot of time together in the car, where there were long, awkward silences. He didn’t want to listen to music. The talk radio hosts spoke too quickly. It was too hot or too cold in the car. I swear, sometimes I think Fil made stuff up just to be difficult.
People tell me that he was lucky to have me (and he was), but I now realize that I benefited from our arrangement as much as he did. I was forced to see Fil differently: not as the adversary I had faced down over so many years, but as a vulnerable human being trying to cope with a body that was breaking down and a mind that was deserting him.
Then one day the realization hit: Fil was not choosing to be this way. He had no control over the many disconnects in his brain. Aside from the huge gaps in his memory, he couldn’t process information fast enough to make sense of it. His capacity for understanding his own life was swiftly diminishing. Before long, he was losing control of bodily functions like balancing, walking, and toileting. Fil abandoned the concept of time. If he couldn’t see the position of the sun, he had no idea if it was day or night. He’d eat a full meal, then yell at the server for not bringing him breakfast. Simply getting through the day became a perilous obstacle course designed to trip him up at every turn.
My heart went out to Fil. This was not the fiercely independent man I had known. This was not “the last great pioneer” (a nickname he’d given himself). I suddenly saw him through a different lens. He had morphed into a six-foot-tall, 200-pound toddler. I began to feel protective of him, as though I were his guardian. And indeed, that is what I had become. I advocated on his behalf with doctors and creditors. I wrangled for special favors from his caregivers. I made the rules bend to his needs everywhere we went.
And yet, I complained to anyone who would listen about what a burden he had become and how much of my time his care sucked up. Many people called me a saint, but I knew that I hadn’t earned that title. In my mind, a saint is selfless and has pure intentions. Up to this point, I knew I’d been operating out of obligation.
Then, one afternoon this July, Fil’s personal aide called and said he didn’t look well and was acting strangely. Namely, he was compliant. He let her do all her business with him silently and without protest. This scared her. My husband and I rushed him to the ER.
He died the next day.
It was sudden, swift, unexpected. We received that phone call, and 24 hours later to the minute, he was dead: massive stroke, renal failure, and a cancerous tumor the size of a lemon in his abdomen that had gone undetected because it didn’t cause any pain.
I was the only one in the hospital room when Fil departed. I was on the phone with my own dad when lights began blinking rapidly on the monitor above the bed. It was scary watching those vital waves zigzag up and down the screen then gently begin to flatten. Clutching Fil’s hand, I told him that it was okay to leave. We’d be fine. It was time for him to move on to his next great adventure. He was unconscious. I will never know if he actually heard me — there was no indication that he did. He simply stopped breathing.
I only had a moment to acknowledge his exit. Then alarms started going off and the scene quickly became chaos. Fil had completed a DNR form, and my last act of protection was to refuse resuscitation for him. During his final months, Fil had repeatedly expressed his wish for a pain-free passing, and I made sure that he got it.
People tell me that he was lucky to have me (and he was), but I now realize that I benefited from our arrangement as much as he did. I was forced to see Fil differently: not as the adversary I had faced down over so many years, but as a vulnerable human being trying to cope with a body that was breaking down and a mind that was deserting him. He was out of his element, and he needed someone he could trust to be strong on his behalf. Instinctively, he knew that I was that person, and he was brave enough to ask me to stand up for him.
It was my unique privilege to be of service to Fil, not only because there was no one else in the family equipped to do what I did, but also because I was repeatedly forced to move far out of my comfort zone and do things I never imagined I could do. That was a blessing for me, and now because of my experience with Fil, I know that I am capable and strong. I’m not a saint, but I am a genuinely good person. I am fiercely loyal. I am intelligent. I am kind. Becoming Fil’s go-to person helped me more clearly define who I truly am, and I now realize that has been his special gift to me.
Kelly Alblinger is a writer of contemporary fiction with an emphasis on memoir. She is also a prolific ghost writer with hundreds of works to her (unnamed) credit. A frequent contributor to Quora.com, Kelly has built up a solid following and earned her own space on the site. As an entrepreneur, Kelly founded and ran By Request Secretarial and Business Services for nearly two decades. She lives with her family near Los Angeles.