Ever since Mom died last year, Dad has been filling the silence in his house with TV news, mostly CNN. He has been bombarded with so much bad news lately — floods, earthquakes, riots, ISIS — that Wolf Blitzer might as well have been reading from the Book of Revelation.
“The world is a mess,” Dad said during my recent visit with him at our home in Shreveport, La.
At age 90, he lives alone — three kids, now grown and off on their own — the first time he has flown solo since getting married in 1949.
He was Mom’s primary caregiver as she suffered through an awful combination of debilitating ailments, including an especially painful case of osteoarthritis.
She rarely complained, although she would wonder aloud why, if God was finished with her, He was taking so long to call her home.
The world is a mess, I agreed.
Dad said, “You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose someone you have spent that much time with, doing everything together.”
Both were from Deep South states, born in the 1920s, their families three generations from slavery. They had made a quantum leap: through the Great Depression and into Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, now a university. The first time she saw him, from a window as he walked across campus, she declared to her girlfriends, “I’m going to marry that man.”
Over time, their wedding rings became fused to their fingers. “I can’t even take it off now, not that I would ever want to,” Dad said, looking at a gold band that had been locked between two knuckles for 64 years.
He was right: I really could not imagine.
How does a baby boomer, like me, care for an aging parent whose emotional life is unimaginable? A love supreme, incomprehensible. Dad has pills for heartburn but no prescription for heartache. He’s physically able to get out of bed in the morning, but since Mom’s death, the reason for doing so is not always readily apparent.
“I can’t get my life organized,” he said.
He did buy a car — a 2014 Infiniti Q50 hybrid — then drove about 240 miles in nonstop rain to visit his oldest daughter in Houston.
“It answers my smartphone even when the phone is in my pocket,” he said with boyish delight. “It has a lot of pep, too.”
When Mom began showing signs of dementia before her death, at age 87, he took her car keys and hid them. And then endured the worst scolding of his life. “Taking her keys was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
His new car has a push-button starter, which leads me to believe he’s thinking ahead: You can’t take away a key that you can’t see.
“It’s got everything,” Dad said of the car, which is a computer on wheels. But his first car, a 1949 Plymouth convertible, and every other car afterward, had even more: his wife at his side.
No car would be “fully loaded” without her. No house a home, either.
He and Mom had the four-bedroom, 11/2-story house built in 1965, on savings from their salaries as high school teachers.
During my visit, Dad’s cellphone sounded a tornado warning from the Emergency Broadcast System. It was not a test.
“Take cover now,” Dad said, reading the text message.
Dad led me to the closet beneath the stairwell, where he and Mom had huddled, when another tornado struck several years ago.
“This is the safest place,” he said.
That tornado had skipped over the house. The funnel we were being warned about turned out to be little larger than a rope.
The tornado was gone, but his home remained the safest place that he knew and he never planned to leave. The same year they built the house, Dad started a photographic and printing business. He closed it, after 45 years, to care for Mom full time.
Mom had called the shop “his mistress.” Now both were gone.
At the cemetery where he had purchased a room for two in a mausoleum, Dad said, “If anybody was going to heaven, it’s your mother.” And where she went, he planned to follow.
On Sunday, he went to church, Bible in hand. “I really don’t feel like going, but I need to,” he said.
The world was a mess, but he would have to make the best of it, as Mom did.
“I’m glad you came to visit,” he told me. “Gets me away from that TV for a while and keeps me from losing my mind.”
He treated me to lunch at a self-serve, all-you-can-eat restaurant where customers 90 and older eat free. He piled his plate with a little of everything and mused: “They must not think that 90-year-olds have teeth, that we can only eat mashed potatoes.”
We had a good laugh for dessert.
Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Metro section.
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