I just returned from the melancholy task of moving my father into the “memory care” wing of an assisted living facility. My Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about eight years ago, and caring for him has been increasingly difficult for my step-mother. Two weeks ago they both got very ill, my father ending up in the hospital with pneumonia, and the crisis made it clear that something had to change. They live in central Oregon, near one of my step-mother’s daughters, and I live in Southern California. Because my step-mother was so ill herself, when my Dad was ready to be discharged from the hospital, she wasn’t able to take him home, and I flew up to get him settled in the care facility. I spent four days with him, sleeping in his room on an air-mattress, trying to explain to him where he was, and why he was there, and what his life was going to be like. The most difficult part of this task for me, and I think for him, was the fact that he is more highly functioning than most of the residents. This meant that at first he had difficulty interacting with the other residents, but it also meant we were surrounded by vivid examples of what his future might be like with this terrible disease.
My father is a remarkable man. I watched him struggle to find something about his new situation to feel good about. He discovered that if he sang old World War Two songs, almost everyone responded in some fashion, some of the residents actually singing along. When he quoted poetry, people smiled. When he joked with the staff, they laughed and teased him back. He told me the day I left that he thought he could be of help to the staff and other residents, and I know he will be. The staff continues to tell me when I call how much they appreciate him, one saying “He lifts your heart just being around him.”
What I want to write about today in this post is the role model he has been for me, and how he lifts my heart when I think about him.
As my father sat and tried to talk to other residents, he would point to me and say, “This is my daughter, and everything I ever wanted to do, she did, and she did it better than me.” Now some of this is just a father’s pride, but some of it echoed a refrain I had been hearing from him for the last few years, as his capabilities began to slip away. He began to express regret about his past, regret that he hadn’t accomplished all he wanted. Although he probably won’t read this post, and I have tried to say all I am about to say to him personally, I think others of you out there you might find some wisdom in his experience.
My father wanted to get a doctorate in sociology and become a college teacher. Instead, after obtaining a masters degree in social work in the late 1940s (as a returning WWII veteran), he joined the corporate world of U. S. Steel in his hometown of Pittsburgh. You see, he had a young daughter to support and a wife who had rheumatic heart disease that required the good health care benefits only corporations like US Steel provided. He worked for US Steel for nearly 30 years, and he was never happy in that “grey flannel suit.” (The day he retired he vowed never to put on a neck-tie again!) Although there were aspects of his career as a middle manager in the personnel department that he was proud of, he never felt he fit in, and the conservative environment stifled him.
Finally, in the late seventies, when old rust belt industries no longer could compete with Japan and other rising industrial centers, US Steel gave him a golden handshake. At the age of 58, he was retired, but he was not ready to quit working. Until Social Security kicked in he supplemented his pension by teaching business sociology at a local community college–he finally got a taste of the career he had always wanted. Then, in his early sixties he retired completely, and he and my mother moved to Florida for her health. There he joined a local poetry group (he had started writing poetry when he left US Steel-and most of it was angry diatribes about corporate America!) and he began to win contests, and even get some of his work published. My mother died in 1987-he was only 66-and a year later he had met, and wooed-with his poetry-and married my step-mother, who was a poet herself. The next decade was a wonderful one for him. New marriage, productive second career as a poet, and good friends. But then in his early eighties, the confusion, memory loss of early Alzheimer’s, his inability to drive, growing dependence, aches and pains of aging, and an ongoing battle with skin cancer, all began to take its toll. That was when he began to express an anxiety about not having “been successful at doing something important.”
But from my perspective, he had been terribly successful–particularly successful in providing me with a role model that has had much to do with my own successes in life. First of all, while I always understood the economic necessity of his choice to work for US Steel, the message he gave to me, a young woman growing up in the patriarchal suburban middle class of the 1950s, was that I should follow a career that fulfilled me. That had a lot to do with my willingness to push forward and get a doctorate in history at a time when only about 32% of college faculty in any discipline were women. The pride of my parents, particularly my father’s joy, when I got that PhD, more than compensated for all the hard work and deferred economic opportunities. In 1982, when I went on the job market, the historical profession wasn’t particularly welcoming to women. As late as 1987, only seventeen percent of college history professors were women, and while I did get a tenure track job when I graduated, it was at Texas Tech University. This proved to be a very hostile work environment for a woman, one of the reasons I subsequently left, moving to San Diego with my husband and my young daughter. But once again, my father’s experience helped me, when I decided to let go of my dream that I would end up teaching at a small liberal arts college and took a full-time job at San Diego Mesa Community College.
I taught full-time at Mesa for nearly 20 years, had a very stimulating stint at faculty senate leadership, and helped start a women’s studies program. This was the totally fulfilling career my father had wished for me, and I loved that I was following in his footsteps by teaching at a community college. But, like my father’s deferred dream of teaching, I had my own deferred dream-to write historical novels. Here my father’s post retirement career as a poet again provided a role model for me. In early posts on this blog I have detailed the obstacles I encountered in achieving this goal and my decision to self-publish. But the point I want to make here is that instead of “giving up” that dream as the years went by, I started to say that, like my father, I would make writing my “second career” whcn I retired.
So, like my father, I retired when I was in my late fifties, and, like my father, I supplement my pension by teaching part-time, and, like my father, I have started on that second career as a writer, with the publishing this year of my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune. I am sixty, and if my father provides any indication of my future health, I figure I have at least 20 good, productive years ahead of me. So instead of regretting those missed chances to publish, or feeling that I can’t compete with the young writers who are starting out so at ease with the new technology, or envying the writers my age who have multiple books and a large fan-base to buoy their future sales, I am grateful for this second chance.
And, as I watch my father negotiate this last stage in his life, I see a man who never gave up his dreams, who took advantage of the second chances life gave him, and who has aged with a grace I hope to emulate.