John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Archive for November, 2010

Five Years Later

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010


Yesterday, November 22nd, was the day my father died five years ago. I spent much of the day thinking about him, and woke early this morning out of a dream in which I held his frail old body in my arms.

When he died at ninety-two he could not have weighed more than a hundred and twenty pounds. He had Alzheimer’s and congestive heart failure, and shortly before the end his kidneys gave out. I’d been tending him night and day in his house on Cape Cod, and my hand was on his chest when he died. I felt his heart speed up to a hundred beats per minute, a hundred and fifty, faster and faster until—it stopped. A few minutes later I lowered one of his bed rails and climbed in with him, slid my arms around him and held onto him in the still November night.

His life was over but his body remained—and I wish my brother and I had taken care of that ourselves. Instead, after Al came down from Vermont and we spent some time beside Dad’s body, I called the funeral home I had already talked to, and they came by to pick him up.

In part we were following our father’s wishes. His own parents were interred in a cemetery in Salem, Mass., but he’d made it clear that he didn’t want to be buried. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes thrown into the Atlantic. No fuss. The least trouble for all of us. Ideally, I think, he would have preferred no service at all, or not one where people would feel obliged to make speeches. That was my father, always trying to make things easy for everyone.

But already we had strayed from his wishes. Without asking him, without telling him, we’d bought a little cremation plot at the Island Pond Cemetery, a ten-minute walk from his house. Half his ashes would be thrown in the ocean, but the other half would be buried in a small urn. I wanted a calm place where I could visit him, not just a windy beach with the waves rolling in.

The two men from the funeral home who came to pick up his body were decent guys, fathers of boys who played baseball and girls who played soccer. Community guys from the little town of Harwich. They must have thought Al and I were strange, because as they tucked our father into a black body bag for transportation, we chose to stay in the room rather than step outside—as they had suggested, twice, we might want to do.

No, our instinct was to be part of everything. It was a hard moment, I admit, when the men paused, gave us a final glimpse of Dad’s drawn face, then zipped up the bag. They wheeled the cart outside, slid the gurney off its rollers into a big SUV, and that was the last I saw of my father. They sent him up to Braintree to a cremation facility, to some roaring oven, and a week later I was given the urn holding his ashes, a marbled gray urn of dense plastic that I had chosen from a catalogue.

Less than two years after my father died, my girlfriend Jan died of lung cancer, at fifty. She’s buried in the Clarks Chapel Cemetery off a country road near our hometown of Athens, Ohio, and every six months, maybe once a year, I drive out to the cemetery with Ellen, a mutual friend. There we walk to Jan’s grave and lie down on the ground above her casket. Ellen and I slide into each other’s arms—not something we do at any other time—and lie there over Jan, crying on the grass, holding on to each other and telling Jan stories.

Lying in repose in the funeral home, Jan had not looked good. She looked waxy and rouged and unearthly in the formal coffin her family had chosen for her. At the cemetery a tractor with a sixteen-inch bucket had dug her grave—I’ve seen the tractor since, parked by the church—but by now the ground has healed, the grass has grown, and every time Ellen and I go out there together we lie on the earth above Jan’s casket. We feel her down there. She makes us talk and weep and laugh.

I wish Al and I had buried my father—but on our own, with no help from a funeral home and a cremation furnace and a marbled plastic urn. We could have buried him next to his house, close to his cedars and hydrangeas, under the lawn where he liked to play croquet. My father was good at croquet, and well into his eighties he could still beat us all. We could have have taken a couple of shovels and dug down into his lawn and made a hole big enough to put him in.

Even in the sandy soil of Cape Cod it would have been a serious job. Impossible, perhaps, with cars passing by on the street and village officials coming around to see what we were up to.

It’s a cliché from the movies, I know: the hole at the edge of the prairie, the gravediggers setting down their shovels with the job already done and the coffin ready to be lowered. It wouldn’t be like that. It would be a long hard dirty job. Once I helped bury a horse, by hand. I’ve dug plenty of trenches, and I know what it would take to make the hole big enough and deep enough. Deep enough so the animals wouldn’t get at him, so the frost wouldn’t heave him up, so someone digging a garden decades from now wouldn’t stumble on his bones.

I could have built a coffin. Not an elegant one, but serviceable, a box. I’ve built eight houses, so I could build a coffin. Or maybe just wrapped him in blankets, the way the Navajos buried their dead. But I want him now where I can lie on top of him. On a morning like this, after waking from a dream in which I have held him in my arms, I want to drive to his house on the Cape and stretch myself out on the lawn above his body. Not above his sanctioned ashes, but his whole body.

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Miami Valley Alzheimer’s Symposium

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010


I had a busy couple of days at the Miami Valley Alzheimer’s Association Symposium, along with hundreds of family members and professionals in the field.

Sold fifty books, which was great. And sold them to the best of readers, those who are wrapped up in the disease, both its devastations and cure.

Above all, beyond my own talks, I heard story after story. The ones that come back to me now, a few days later, are about family troubles. About the caregivers, for example, who have left their own lives to move in with their parents. Or the woman with four siblings: “Two of them say there’s nothing wrong with my mother, and two of them fight me every step of the way.”

Or the woman whose brother was suing her to get back everything she had spent on their mother’s care. He wanted his inheritance.

Or the woman whose father abandoned her mother when she became forgetful and confused. He took all the money, went to live elsewhere, doesn’t visit, doesn’t want anything to do with his wife of many years. The daughter struggles to keep her mother at home, but doesn’t know how long she can go on, emotionally or financially.

Behind so many of these stories: the money. Caregiving takes money, whether you’re doing it yourself or paying some assisted living center or nursing home to do most of it. (Nursing Home, incidentally, is now something of a pejorative description. The facilities are all leaving it behind in favor of more hopeful terms such as Health Campus.) Care facilities are big business—and as my mother was fond of saying, “All it takes is cash.”

Actually, what is most needed is human will. We need both: money and the desire to help. And in some 350 people at the Dayton symposium, I found plenty of human will and drive. No wonder: everyone there had seen Alzheimer’s up close, and knew its devastations. It was a powerful and effective symposium, their 19th annual, and perfectly organized.

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