Saturday, January 21, 2006

You gotta raise them right

My parents need a keeper and it isn't going to be me because I feel like they need to be on leashes.

A week ago Friday Beanie called me to tell me my father had set his den on fire. She was very sanguine about the news and softly chuckling as she told how Dad nearly set the house on fire with incense. I asked if they were all right and she assured me they were and the proceeded to tell me more. It seems my father has been roaming around New Holland in his boxer shorts. Okay, so they have a button fly and he wears a T-shirt and sneakers without socks, but they are still his boxer shorts. Impish memories of people with Alzheimer's getting loose from their keepers and running riotously naked in the streets and boulevards around home taunt me.

Beanie continued. She called Dada to help her with one of the horses that was caught on the fence. Dad and Mom now live five minutes away from Beanie's house and Dad made it in record time. When he got out of the truck his hair was sticking up in every direction, obviously he just got out of bed and hadn't taken the time to comb his hair, his hair that is a beautiful glimmering silver among the blond that has always been carefully and neatly combed into a wave at the front and smoothed neatly, no hair out of place. Okay, he was worried about the horse, a feeling he and Beanie share -- a deep love of animals. When he got closer and spoke to Beanie it was evident from the flash of his one remaining tooth in the middle of his bottom gun line he didn't even put in his teeth. He didn't put in his hearing aids either and my normally neatly dressed father was disheveled. Beanie said he was trying to traumatize her. I know what she means. Dad traumatized me a few years ago without thinking twice about it.

I was visiting for the holidays and up working late on my computer when he came out of the bathroom. Well, Dad didn't come out of the bathroom. It was someone who vaguely resembled my dad but he was really old with puckered lips and one single tooth in the middle of his bottom gum line. It was a huge shock to see the man who hasn't changed in looks (outside of the silvering of his beautiful blond hair) in all the years I have known him to walk in one door his usual self and out the other door an old man. I managed to bury the memory until that call about nearly burning down the house.

I called my parents to find out what happened. Mom said Dad just doesn't understand more is not better, but as she griped about Dad's over use of incense I kept wondering how a curtain could have caught fire from the tiny little glowing ember at the tip of a stick of incense. Either the curtain was flimsy (it wasn't) or the tip was on fire (it wasn't). I flashed back to forest fires started from a spark that burns down hundreds of acres of trees and untold numbers of wildlife when most people can't manage to light a campfire without the big box of big matches and a six pack of Bic lighters.

The curtain caught fire and flashed up to the ceiling, sending roiling smoke and soot throughout their newly decorated and painted house. Dad grabbed the first thing within reach to battle the flames -- Mom's favorite coat -- while she ran to fill a bucket of water. I can just see the two of them, thin and frail, puckered lips without dentures, Dad's hair in spikes and Mom's in curlers, beating at the window while it cracks from the heat and the air fills with oily soot and smoke. "We'll have to repaint the whole room and the ceiling," Mom told me with that little note in her voice that means she gets to warm up the credit cards and spend more money, her favorite past-time.

My parents spent the entire weekend cleaning every surface and steam cleaning the carpet, drapes and upholstery now painted black with soot and smoke, their faces flushed and silvered hair unrecognizable beneath smudged fire black, Mom haranguing Dad about using too much incense and Dad surreptitiously turning his hearing aids off and shooting verbal barbs at Mom.

When my parents moved to the countryside near Columbus, their old farm house was surrounded by soy bean fields. Columbus sprawled closer and Dad put up a wooden palisade fence to maintain a little privacy and protect his plants, trees, bushes, and roses from the now busy two-lane country road fronting their house. Dad had an above ground pool behind the garage and at night he would slip naked from the house and swim in the darkness beneath the bright sparkle of stars and the changing face of the moon. No one saw him. It was a hedonistic pleasure that, with the spread of the urban strip mall disease, he had to give up. That's part of the reason they moved farther out into the country away from town to where soybean and corn field surround their six acres of land and the neighbors aren't close enough to see much of anything unless they pass down the two-lane country road or get out their telescopes and binoculars. So, it's not that surprising that Dad mows the lawn and goes to the end of the drive to pick up the mail in his boxer shorts, but going to the hardware store in town with my brother-in-law is really pushing it. Are my parents losing it?

Mom can't remember anything any more and repeats what she tells me time and time again while I listen and remind politely that I remember what she said the day or week before. Forgetting something you've told someone -- or several someones -- isn't a sign of anything other than the creep of time that has filled the brain with so much information it's a little difficult to remember where you filed something and when you shared out the file. Parents with more than one child tend to call every child's name before they get the right one. Frustration, anger, and/or pique + multiple children = confusion. It's a normal and known equation.

Age deteriorates mental and physical functions as the body begins to run down, especially since the warranty runs out at 30 and everything past that is gravy time. (no one tells you about that or lets you know about the quantum writing, but it's accepted that life doesn't go on forever, so not a big deal) But it's difficult to watch those strong pillars of my life shrink with age until I stand taller than them and have to be careful when I hug them because their bones and bodies are frail and thin, but when they start burning down houses and appearing in public in their skivvies, it's time to start worrying who's going to draw the short straw and have to let them move in to enforce the rules they ruled our world with when we were teenagers.

Now, if I can figure out how to stop time and freeze them in a more competent state. Any ideas?

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