Saturday, June 16, 2007

A trip down memory lane with Dad

Bittersweet memories

NOTE from DearMYRTLE: Dad is on hospice because of his heart condition. He has had four bad bouts since February, where even his nurse was surprised he recovered. I marvel at his ability to get up after a few days of painful confinement. Though Dad experiences confusion, disorientation & exhaustion, he still has some drive left. Before Blanche died last Christmas, his days were busy trying to do things for her comfort and interest. Now his ambition in life is to let his children know how much he loves them -- he has made me promise I will take every opportunity to tell them, even after he has gone.

As our family makes preparations for this week's Father's Day, and the upcoming reunion on Orcas Island in mid-July, I wonder just how much longer we will have Dad. With his heart problems and an old stroke, we always thought he would pass away before mom. In this context, each precious day must be lived as “normally” as possible to avoid casting a shadow across the experience.

June 2007 – For a few days recently, I took Dad on a trip around the “loop” (Washington’s Olympic Peninsula). It was hard on him physically, but Dad has asked me to take him many times these past few weeks. I figured this was as good a time as any. My plan is to help him live the life he wants as long as possible.

Whenever I asked if we should slow down, Dad wanted to press on. He appeared thrilled at the recollection of sites he has visited so many times over the years. Actually the outing did wonders for him emotionally & spiritually. I loved hearing him reminisce. It also gave me a chance to unwind from things now that Tammy is recovering nicely from her multiple surgeries of the past seven weeks.

Planning the trip was half the fun. Dad and I poured over maps, and I took the path he wanted to go. Discussions were held in four 20-minute swatches of time. That is about how long Dad could plan without getting out of breath, or out of memory for where things were. Fortunately we were able to get reservations at the last minute. For him, “the loop” starts on highway 101 from Olympia and proceeds westward to Aberdeen & Hoquium.

We spent the first night at Hi-Tide in Moclips where unit 106 has a wheelchair ramp and is a 1 bedroom condo unit complete with kitchenette and fireplace. As soon as we got there and Dad settled in with the TV, I took a restorative 45-minute walk on the beach. Dad stayed in the room except to go to Ocean Crest for dinner. He actually walked (swaying and holding on to everything) into the restaurant, and asked for a table by the window. As those of you who have been there before know – the view of the Pacific Ocean through those tall evergreens is spectacular.

The next morning we lazed around. Dad is sleeping long hours these days (9:30pm-11am or so). I took had an early walk on the beach for about 30 minutes and watched the rain storm come in from the southwest. We drove the now-paved Moclips-Quinault Highway to Lake Quinault where Dad was delighted to go up and down every aisle in the little red grocery store across from the Lodge on his trusty electric wheelchair. (By the way, neither MapQuest nor any of the printed maps show this highway. Dad remembered it as an old gravel road.)

The second night we ate at the Lake Quinault Lodge and were entertained by three hummingbirds that frequented the feeder just outside our window. There was a mix-up with our room so we called the Hi-Tide and were able to get our room back. Fortunately it doesn’t get really dark until 9:30pm or 10pm this time of year, so the short ride back to Moclips wasn’t difficult. Oddly enough we didn’t see any deer the entire trip.

The third day we drove up around the western corner of Washington, with Dad tipping his hat at Kalaloch when we passed. We stopped at Ruby Beach, though there is nothing there except a primitive public restroom and lots of wonderful viewpoints and switchbacks on the hiking trails down the cliff to the beach below. From his wheelchair perch in the van, Dad encouraged me to walk, but I chose to stay up top, within ear shot. We don't leave him alone in public places because of his obvious small size and vulnerable demeanor.

Ruby Beach is where his mother my Grandma Myrtle would bring her three little children (Dad, his sister Beverly & his brother Jack) to the beach, summer or winter. There used to be little one-room cabins with outhouses on the beach. Now, with the tide so near to the cliff it is obvious all except the current crop of logs & driftwood were consumed by the surf long ago. Dad said there used to be a wonderful little cafĂ© at the top of the cliff that as a teen and college student, he and the guys liked to visit. The draw wasn’t the food, it was a pretty waitress.

One thing about car trips – it gives the participants a chance to talk. Every day Dad asked me about each of his children. He asked whether I think each was happy in their marriage, their chosen profession, in family life, etc. This hope that his family members are happy is a recurring theme. Again and again he would respond to comments about his dear family members with things like “I sure hope so” and “I pray she is happy”.

Family is a treasured blessing for Dad.

Remembering his children’s spouses, their children and grandchildren is hard, but Dad makes the right connections most of the time. When he “messes up” as he calls it, he nearly cries, and says, “I hope you don’t think I don’t care when I get the names mixed up, because I DO love them.” I assure Dad that there is a time and season for everything, and he is doing quite well in his great-grandfather stage of life.

This reminds me how he asks me to sit with him at family gatherings and help with the conversation. He has told me many times he doesn’t want to appear unloving just because he cannot remember someone’s story. He knows his mind isn't what it used to be. He says it is important to ask questions of his visiting family members that are relevant to their situation. “Otherwise they will think I don’t really care.” This tender concern is moving.

Dad calls himself “an old crock” and I tell him “I’ll be an old crockette one of these days myself” which always makes him smile, and serves to put him at ease when he has had a bad moment of confusion.

He talks with me about God, how he thinks of Him as a loving, kind creator. He expresses his feelings about Christ, and going to church. On our drive, we are able to marvel at the beautiful world He created for us to enjoy.

On the third day we enjoyed intermittent light rain. We drove on through Forks, where Dad had earlier thought he would like to look up an old friend in the phone book. But at the last moment, he said “No, that’s OK, I look pretty scruffy for an old crock.” I tried to work through that with him, but soon bowed to his wishes.

We eventually found our way up to Sol Doc Hot Springs with its $15 entrance fee at the base of the road. The main building has been completely redone since I was last there with Dad and the family about 42 years ago. To Dad’s delight there are pictures of the old buildings on the walls throughout the dining room. The river has changed its course a few times, but I did manage to take some pictures near when my brother Dan and I went swimming in the nearly freezing stream.

That night we dined and slept at Lake Crescent Lodge. We had reserved space in the Pyramid (rooms 300 & 301). Room 300 is handicap accessible. I rigged up Blanche’s beeper, so Dad could call me in the night if he needed me. He did consent to the oxygen this night. We will always take the oxygen concentrator on trips like this. He had insisted he was well enough to leave it behind. He said wouldn’t go if I brought it. This is his life, so I consented to leaving the heavy thing at home.

Instead, I brought along plenty of portable oxygen tanks. At night in a regular bed Dad coughs heavily – sometimes needing oxygen, even when it is already on. But we talked about the fact that he has a lot of coughing not just when he lies horizontally. He says he does not want to see the doctor about it. At home the fluid either isn’t as profound or as noticeable, perhaps due to an upright sleeping position. Dad does sleep much better at home in a hospital bed (with two egg crates) where he can raise his head for breathing (providing less stress on his heart) and raise his knees (for a change of pace with his leg cramps).

Dad in wilderness path near Lake Crescent Lodge.

This is a photo I took of Dad on the pathway to our rooms at Lake Crescent Lodge the next morning. Dad wanted to show the little ones how big some of the old “second growth” trees are. As a young Boy Scout camping out and hiking all over the Olympic Peninsula, Dad remembers some original first-growth trees that were 8-10 feet in diameter, but those are mostly long gone or at least hidden from our view. Again, there was the ever-present fine mist, and intermittent drizzle, just to remind us we were in the “Olympic National Rain Forest”.

Dad driving back to the Lake Crescent Lodge from the boat dock.

My sister Sharon likes this picture of Dad best. I took it as he was coming back to the Lake Crescent Lodge from the end of the boat dock. It makes us think about how he will be going on ahead before too long.

The last day was very long for Dad. He didn’t want to stay in or even go as far as Shelton. His words “May as well go home” reflected his body’s exhaustion from the trip.

We drove to Port Angeles, where we looked around the waterfront. “Looked” means we drove through it, occasionally stopping and opening the window where Dad found something interesting to observe. I am so thankful for the wheelchair ramp on this conversion van. It makes such outings possible. I took pictures of the famous courthouse, where I was once slated to be a “witness for the prosecution”. But that is another story from the “olden days”.

Dad surprised me by asking to go to Pleasant Harbor. We hadn't talked about it before. I think the trip was jogging his memory. The place doesn’t show up on the paper map, and the van doesn’t have GPS. I declined to call OnStar for nearest crossroads since I knew I could just use the OnStar satellite telephone and ask Carrie to look it up since she is always near her computer. Cell phone coverage was spotty at best during the whole trip with two phones on different systems (AT&T & Verizon).

Dad correctly remembered Pleasant Harbor being on the west side of Hood Canal south of Dabob Bay. We did find it just south of the tiny town of Brinnon. As a young teen, Dad used this as a “safe harbor” where he and his sailing buddy would hole up at night. Now it has a moderate size marina with stationary and floating docks for moorage. The size is probably limited by the harbor itself. The good thing about it is that the mouth of the harbor is to the NE. Since most of our weather comes from the SW, this means there is land to take the brunt of a storm, and provide shelter to the Pleasant Harbor boaters. On land there is very limited parking on hilly terrain. We discovered a fairly OK deli and a swimming pool for those renting space at the marina. There was no place for us to stay since we didn’t have the boat.

Later, we drove past the powerhouse at Cushman. Dad wondered if the dam was still in operation. Since the powerhouse looked well maintained, we thought it was probably still producing electricity. We went around the south end of Hood Canal then up the “crook” at the 106 cut-off near Skokomish. We picked up Route 3 over to Bremerton to catch the ferry home. We did stop in to say a brief hello & goodbye to Steve & Sue, the managers of Eastside Storage. It was a long day for Dad, but he didn’t want to stay in Bremerton either.

Throughout the trip Dad would remember things like taking his Blanche (my step-mom) and us kids to the beach. He told me a lot about the freedom that kids in his youth had to camp and hike all over the Olympics unescorted. He said that the kids felt they knew more about those Olympic Mountains and the trails than most of the forest rangers, particularly since the rangers asked for the boy’s help when making trail maps.

Sometimes Dad is overcome with grief about living life without his sweetheart. He wonders if he will go to heaven to live with her soon. If & when, he says. Dad sees her as being quite a lady, far exceeding him in finer qualities. His humility in this regard is quite loving and shows respect for their relationship.

One thing that helped put the trip on a less-stressful plane was to talk about how much fun it will be for me to bring my children and grandchildren to these special places next summer. That put Dad on task thinking of great hikes, and interesting stopping points that should be included in that journey.

The views were quite green and lush, and whether raining or sunny, the trip was worth the effort. Dad would point out 3rd growth evergreens, and an occasional 2nd growth tree. He said the forests really have been harvested, to the point of excluding any of the original-growth ancients. We talked about wildlife management and how clear-cutting patches of the forest actually provide space for the deer and other animals to live where main-stay foods such as grass and shrubs can flourish. I thought deer lived in the forest, but Dad explains that by definition, forests have little light on the floor to raise tender shoots of grass.

I’ve talked with Dad about trying to eat a little more. (He is going through a “no fat old men” stage again.) I remind him about the upcoming trip to Orcas, and how nearly everyone except Jim, Nancy and Bronson will be there. I asked him to eat just to have the strength to enjoy this family reunion.

That is my next goal – to keep him strong for this next family reunion.

Like we have anything to do with deciding things like that, eh? That is most assuredly God’s province.

(c) 2007 Pat Richley, All Rights Reserved.

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