Who says ADD/ADHD symptoms have to be disabilities? Having to learn to cope with my stammer, poor word retrieval, and memory problems has been surprisingly helpful in helping me relate to my aging parents.
by Frank South
These men carried deep wounded feelings beneath the tough exteriors (or so I thought), but they taught us that the only unforgivable sin was self-pity. - Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life
Not too long ago, my elderly father cracked his skull when he fell on his head in the middle of having a stroke. He is now recovering from the trauma of the stroke, the accident, and brain surgery. A month after the accident, I’ve left my wife, son, daughter, and mother-in-law back in our house in Georgia (which we’d just moved to from Hawaii) to come up to Delaware and try to be of some help to my 86-year-old father and 88-year-old mother during their crisis.
I’ve always been the more distracted, self-absorbed, and impractical of their two sons. My younger brother, who lives close to their home, is the steady, competent one. With him away on a well-deserved vacation with his family, I’m here to do what I can. I’ll cook and clean -- two things I’m good at -- and hope I don’t step on any emotional landmines in the process. I tell myself to follow a kind of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) Hippocratic oath: “First, pay attention, then do no harm.” If I keep all my personal junk clamped down and stay focused on my parents’ needs, I should be able to, at the very least, not make either of them feel any worse. It’s a reasonable goal, but considering the gravity of the situation, it’s one I’m not sure I have the concentration and understanding to pull off.
This morning I told my mother, who's exhausted from the emotional pummeling of the last month, to stay in bed and rest and that I’d go out to the rehab center to see dad by myself today. She was so tired, she didn't even mind that I took their Lincoln Town Car out of the garage by myself.
My mom and dad are particular about their Lincoln and their garage. Yesterday was the first time in my life I was allowed to back it out. My mother sat beside me, watching me and the mirrors, coaching the whole way, her warning hand raised just in case I got too close to either edge. Inch by inch, swiveling my head back and forth checking the rear-view mirrors, I backed the fat car out of their narrow garage, paying close attention so as not to let the car come within scraping distance of the white wood trim of the garage entrance. All clear, I put the car in park, pushed the button on the visor to lower the garage door, and we both finally took a breath. You’d think my mother and I wouldn’t worry that I could pull off something as simple as this. I’ve been driving for 45 years, for god’s sake.
That said, a couple of months earlier on my last trip up, in a simple attempt to provide her with some much-needed joy and stress relief, I drove my mother to Baltimore in the Lincoln to see the symphony. We left in plenty of time; I’d used Google Maps, called, and planned well. After first dropping my mom off with a friend we were meeting at a restaurant close to the concert hall, I parked the Lincoln on a pretty, tree-lined side street, made sure it was locked, and joined them. During dinner and Mahler, the Town Car was towed and impounded. I had parked in a pretty, tree-lined tow-away zone. My friend saved us a gazillion dollar cab fare by driving my mother and me all the way back home to Delaware that night, but the point remains I didn’t pay attention and that left my 88-year-old mother and me stranded in the middle of the night 100 miles away from her home. As my friend drove, I stared out the window at the I-95 rushing past, thinking once again that it’s when I try the hardest to get things right, that I bring on the biggest disasters.
Back in the present day, I drive to the rehab center without incident and walk in looking for my dad. I’m toting one bag full of laundered warm-up pants, polo shirts, pajamas, sandwiches, and cookies, and another carryall holding an electric razor, barber clippers, scissors, aftershave, and a couple of old sheets. I’m on a mission to make today better than yesterday.
Yesterday was hard. Recently removed head bandages reveal the physical and emotional pain has been coping with.: His head and face are bruised; the left side of his head, which has been completely shaved, is covered with a huge scar; there are stitches above his right eye from an even more recent fall; and his skin is flaking off his neck, ears, and scalp. My mother and I were sitting with him yesterday when an aide came into the room with his meds, and he introduced us to her. “This is Berna Deane and Frank,” he said smiling, “my mother and father.” At first we thought he was joking around, but then the more we tried to correct him, the more adamant and agitated he became. He lurched up, suddenly wanting to go to the bathroom. As the aide and I slowly helped him in, he looked in the bathroom mirror and saw himself for the first time since the accident. “Oh my god,” he said, “I look like a mental patient.”
“No, no you don’t,” we said, but at the moment, he actually did. I could tell from the look on the aide’s face she thought so too. That wasn’t right. This is Dr. Frank E. South, Ph.D., an internationally known scientist and WWII Ranger who cherishes his dignity. Of course, everybody in these places is somebody -- no matter what their situation is now, but this is my father, damn it. I’m going to make sure he can at least recognize who he really is.
Today, I’ve come prepared. I’ve got one old sheet on the floor of his room and one around Dad’s neck. Though my intensity of purpose startles my dad at first, he’s cooperating, sitting up in his wheelchair, while I clip away, giving him a crew cut.
“Have you seen my mother?” he asks. Locks of white hair fall to his shoulders.
Grandma’s been buried in Nebraska for years, but right now, that doesn’t matter.
“I think I saw her around somewhere,” I say.
“She’s probably at the bar,” he says.
“Probably so,” I say.
Then, like a barber and customer in a small town, we both start to relax to the buzz of the clippers and snip of scissors. He picks up a strand of his hair and looks at it.
“It’s hard for me to remember things exactly,” he says. “I try so hard...”
“Uh huh,” I say, “Me too.”
“Huh. Really?” he says, and puts the strand of white hair carefully on his sheet-covered knee.
“Yeah,” I say, “People’s names, places, objects -- the words sometimes just won’t come.”
“They hide,” he says.
“Got to be patient, wait for one to peek its head around the corner, and then grab it,” I say, thinking of how I struggle with language, even as a writer.
My dad nods and smiles. “Right, that’s it. Gotta grab quick,” he says. I brush dead skin and hair off his shoulder and start clipping the fine hair at the base of his neck.