Adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) often do best when focusing on one thing at a time, but after my dad's stroke and brain injury, I need to be two places at once. How can I support my aging parents when my family back home needs me too?
by Frank South
“Danny Boy threw up in my room and it stinks like hell.”
Its 11 p.m. and my 14-year-old daughter, Coco, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), is calling me from our home in Georgia. I’m in the guest room at my parents’ house in Delaware on one of my trips to help my mom and dad deal with my 86-year-old dad’s recent debilitating brain injury and stroke.
“Danny Boy’s a dog,” I tell Coco. “Sometimes you have to clean up after him.”
“I did,” she says, “but it still stinks like hell. I can’t sleep. But what stinks like hell even worse is that Mom says when Aunt Maureen, Mark, and the baby visit, I have to give up my room and sleep on the floor in your room. When are you coming home?”
“As soon as you stop swearing,” I say.
“Uh-huh,” she says. “But then again, if you don’t get home in time for Aunt Maureen’s visit, then I could sleep in bed with Mom, and that’d be better. So why don’t you go ahead and stay with Grandma and Grandpa for a couple more weeks?”
“Uh-huh,” I say. “I’ll see you in a couple of days, Coco. Does your mom know you’re up?”
“Dunno. She’s asleep,” she says.
“You should be too,” I say. “It’s late.”
“Don’t you think McGee on NCIS is getting too skinny?” she asks. “He looks weird to me now.”
“You just don’t like change.”
“You should talk,” she says, “so shut up.”
“You first. I love you. Go to sleep, Coco.”
“I refuse. I love you too, Dad, but you can’t make me. You’re not here.”
Our quick-tempered, subject-changing ADD/ADHD patter goes on a little longer until I hear her winding down, and after phone kisses back and forth, I hang up. I get up from the foldout couch and look around. My wife Margaret and I slept here the weekend I introduced her to my parents. What was that, 26 years ago? Then our kids stayed in here, too, on our visits to Grandma and Grandpa's. Is this the same foldout couch that’s always been here? I sit back down and bounce a little. It could be -- it’s definitely old. But it’s still sturdy.
I go back into the living room where my 88-year-old mom and I were talking before Coco’s call.
“How’s my beautiful granddaughter?” she asks.
“Good,” I say. “She’s good.”
“Did you tell her you’re coming home Saturday?”
“I said I’d be home soon. I didn’t say exactly when.”
“Your father and I have kept you away from your wife and kids too long,” my mother says. “You belong with your family in Georgia. They need you.”
I nod. She’s more right than she knows. Margaret is overwhelmed with a supertight budget, new town, new house, our two ADD/ADHD kids, and her 81-year-old mother moving into the downstairs bedroom. We talk on the phone every night and she’s been totally supportive and hasn’t complained once. Okay, maybe once. Last week she moaned about discovering how our son had taken half of the three grand his late great aunt left him for a car and spent it on Internet porn, rap videos, and junk food. Then we bickered back and forth about what to do and decided to take away his laptop until hegets a job and pays it all back.
I can feel the pressure building back home, but I’m terrified of leaving my mom alone with my father and his untethered mind. Lately Dad’s been calling Mom at all hours demanding to be “set free” and going off on jagged, time-traveling, paranoid rants filled with old enemies and dead relatives. Mom sees my hesitation and leans forward in her chair and points at me.
“You’re worrying about me,” she says. “Now stop it. Thanks to you, I’ve been feeling much more rested and less stressed in the last few days. I’m sure I can handle things myself now.”
She points out that despite the phone calls, Dad seems to be slowly improving at the rehab center, and over the last few days we’ve talked to insurance agents, bank people, and doctors. We’ve rearranged some furniture and routines around the house to make her more comfortable living by herself. Over dinners that I make sure she eats, we’ve talked about the shock and sense of loss she’s going through since Dad’s fall. The big, strong, take-charge man she married went down hard, but there’s no reason to give up hope. He’ll get better. He’ll be able to come home soon.
“Now you have to go home too,” she says.
“I guess so,” I say. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?
“Of course I will,” she says. “You’ve taken care of everything for me. What could go wrong now?”
Right on cue, the phone rings. I glance at the clock as I get up to answer it. “11:30. I bet it's Margaret,” I say. “Coco probably woke her up instead of going to bed.” My mom thinks that Dad talked an aide into dialing for him again. “Tell your father I spoke to him an hour ago. We’ll see him tomorrow.”
I pick up and the call is from the rehab center. But it’s not Dad on the phone. It’s James, the charge nurse on Dad’s floor. “I need you to get down here as soon as you can be here, Mr. South,” James says. “Your father’s become violent. He’s injured people.”
I hop in the car, leaving my mother at home in her robe and slippers doing her best to stay calm. I promise to call from the center as soon as I know what’s going on. Cutting through town by the university where my dad had been the head of life and health sciences, I try to keep myself calm and try to imagine what could possibly have happened. My dad, violent? It can’t be true. But James had always been one of the most compassionate and unflappable nurses I’d ever met and he sounded pretty damn flustered on the phone tonight. I’ve seen Dad angry a few times and he could scare me silly as a kid -- but violent? No. He spanked me only once growing up. I was 8 and when it was over, he cried more than I did.
Then again, Dad had been a soldier, a WWII Ranger, even. But there aren’t any Nazis at the rehab center. But maybe he thinks there are. He’s just lost hold of the only mind he's ever known. Oh come on, he’s 86-years-old. He couldn’t relive D-Day on Rehab Floor 2E if he wanted to. He can’t even walk. But those Rangers crawled under bullets and bombs all the way across Europe. Okay, he’s tough and and out of his normal state of mind. What if he got his hands on something sharp?
I push the night button of the rehab center and rush in through the double doors. When I round the corner of his floor, I see Dad parked in his wheelchair in front of the nurse’s station. He seems alert, but his head is down and he's looking at the floor. He looks up as I approach and shoots me a sly smile. He doesn’t look so much like a soldier as an 8-year-old waiting for a spanking.