Dad’s Fallen and I Can’t Get Up: Reflections on Losing a Parent
On Monday, February 23rd, my father died suddenly after a brief hospitalization following a fall in which he broke several ribs. Losing a parent is difficult, but our relationship, like most father/daughter relationships, was complicated. He suffered from chronic depression and had multiple bone fractures and other medical issues. But during the last three years of his life, he was like Benjamin Button. He seemed to be getting younger and happier every day. He was more mellow, less angry, and more empathic. I’ll miss him.
As I was searching through my files, I came across an article I wrote about him in 2010. It’s called, “Dad’s Fallen and I Can’t Get Up”. It’s about the last time he broke a rib, and how I dealt with the stress of being his caretaker.
March 9, 2010
I woke up this morning to this email from my older sister, Nina: “Dad called me last night. He fell on his left side while going down the stairs. It’s 1 AM and he’s in the hospital having X-rays. He doesn’t yet know if he broke anything, but he’s in pain.”
Oh, no. Dad has been falling a lot lately. He’s already broken several bones, and I could only imagine what he must have broken this time. I was concerned and quickly called my sister.
“What’s going on with Dad?” I asked.
“He didn’t want to call and worry you last night, but his rib is broken and there’s nothing they can do for him at the hospital. He’s back home on painkillers.”
Dad speaks to Nina in Toronto every day. In the last few years, our father has needed increased support. The siblings have each taken on a role to support him. Nina’s patient calm personality is perfect for providing daily emotional support. My brother, Nathan, provides financial support; paying bills, filing medical forms, and filing his taxes. I am his medical liaison.
We moved Dad to the Atria, an assisted living facility in Riverdale, New York, in 2008. Up until that time, he was living independently in an apartment in Baltimore. When he started to fall and break bones as many elderly people do, my siblings and I decided it was time for assisted living. We moved him to the New York area so my brother and I could watch over him.
“Please God, not another broken bone,” I thought to myself. Dad had been falling and breaking bones for months now. In November, he fractured his left hip and had a hip replacement. In April, he fell at my sister’s house and broke his elbow. As his primary medical caretaker, I have spent countless hours managing dad’s care. I have stood by his side at the hospital, advocating for him pre- and post-surgery. And then there was the follow-up care, driving an hour each way to take him to and from appointments.
Now, as I thought about dad’s latest fall, I found myself collapsing under the weight of it all. I volunteered to be in charge of his medical care because I had seen two children through multiple surgeries. I knew how to speak to doctors. I understood medicine and hospitals. This was a job I could do well. Even so, my initial thought was, “I don’t think I can handle taking care of one more thing for Dad. I just want to escape to an island and make it all go away.”
Nevertheless, I called my father and waited while he slowly lifted the phone to his ear. “Hello?” he whispered.
“Hi, Dad. How are you feeling?”
“My left side hurts a lot. I can’t believe I broke a rib. Why do I keep on falling? Why do so many bad things always happen to me?”
“I’m so sorry you broke your rib, dad. It must be really painful. I’ll try and come by later if I can get away from the kids”.
Like many parent/child relationships, my relationship with Dad is complex. He suffers from chronic depression. So even though I can rationalize that his depression is a disability, I am still drained by his negativity and “cup-half-empty” approach to life. I sometimes wish I could magically turn him into a take-charge uncomplicated father, like Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady. I’m sick of always having to be the stronger one. But I suck it up and make the trek to Riverdale, bracing myself for a potential visit from hell.
I enter Dad’s apartment and find myself softening as I gaze at him lying uncomfortably in bed, purple and blue bruises on his left cheek and over his left eye. His face is remarkably unwrinkled for an 87-year-old great grandfather. The wisps of fine cottony white hair framing his large bald spot are flying in all directions, but he doesn’t care. If he can’t see it, it’s not a problem. His salt and pepper goatee is neatly trimmed, and there aren’t too many cookie crumbs hiding between the coarse hairs today.
“Thanks for coming, Sandy,” Dad says, his voice weak from pain.
I warm up some of my homemade vegetable soup in the microwave and prop him up on three pillows to feed him.
“Mmm, delicioush shoop,” says dad, his mouth full of soup. I wipe a piece of barley from the side of his mouth and keep feeding him until the bowl is empty.
The follow-up visit
Two weeks later, it was time for dad’s follow-up visit to the orthopedist. I got to his apartment and helped him get ready to go.
“Dad, let’s take the wheelchair. It will be easier for you,” I said.
“No, my walker is fine. I don’t want that damned wheelchair. I am not an invalid!” said Dad.
“Fine!” I slammed his folded walker into the back seat of my car. The walker seat flipped open, and out spilled the mess of junk mail, synagogue bulletins, dozens of bright yellow individually wrapped Fig Newtons, used tissues, fruit-flavored hard candy, dirty plastic spoons, and crumbs from cookies past.
“Just take a deep breath,” I said to myself. “This will be over in a couple of hours.”
“Parking is so expensive. Why do you have to park here?” asked Dad, as we pulled into the lot adjacent to the Montefiore Medical Center.
Too irritated to explain again that if we had taken the wheelchair, we could have parked further away. So I set up the walker for him. We set out towards the hospital entrance, but after a few minutes, he is too tired to walk.
This was going to take forever. I was fuming. Why did I let him talk me into ditching the wheelchair? “Okay dad”, I said with as much calm as I could muster. “Just sit in the walker seat and I’ll push you.”
I gritted my teeth and began pushing dad up the steep parking lot hill to the hospital’s elevator bank. How was I going to make it through the day without losing my mind? And then I remembered – I brought my iPod! I quickly pulled it out, plugged the upbeat guitar ballads of Jack Johnson into my ears, and muted my dad out. I am doing what I can to get by…