Recently I’ve dabbled in Buddhism, finding its inclusive, laid-back philosophy soothing. I’ve developed a spiritual sense without going formally religious in any way, and this has brightened my life immeasurably by lessening my sense of aloneness and allowing me appreciate the present moment. But given all this, I often question the universe, the “god of my understanding”, for the way she seems to take from people their best assets as they age.
Good at walking? The Universe gives you crippling arthritis. Love to read? Cataracts or glaucoma for you, my friend. Work with your hands? Parkinson’s, I’m afraid. It’s as if the cosmos has it in for us. As if she takes notes as we go merrily about, building skills in our younger lives.
So when my husband developed dementia and then aphasia, it was just one more proof of the eeriness of fate. Don’t get me wrong; his vocal chords work just fine, but the effects of long-term illness and radiation have garbled his speech. So now he can’t talk, this intelligent, wonderful man of mine, a man of Scottish-English descent who didn’t complete high school but built himself a stellar reputation in the trucking industry by sheer hard work and a wonderful gift of gab unequalled by anyone I’ve ever known. Don could bend gnarly truckers and longshoremen to his will with verbal charm, good humour and jokes. If he needed a final load of plate steel at the dock but Forklift Freddie balked at the risk of going past quitting time, Don could soft-soap him into fetching it, even if the guy looked like Bluto or growled like Darth Vader. Don always found a way to make it happen.
He was known for his joke-telling. The boss of the company would take him on big-lodge fishing trips to Knight Inlet to help entertain clients. Don could tell jokes, both dirty and clean, for hours. Literally. He held a vast store of them in his nimble brain.
“Ever hear the one about the nun and the 9-iron?” (punch line: “she hit him with a 9-iron, right here!”)
“How about the Scotsman who hid his small child in a large bag and when he refused to pay, the driver threw his bag out the door. (punch line: “First ye try to rob me and now you’ve killed my son!”)
Then he’d tell the whole story, complete with Scottish accent, and have ’em rolling in the aisles. He was known for it. My mother told him once he should write a book about his funny trucking experiences, and he did, with my editing help. We got it published too, a best-seller for a couple of years in Canada1.
His fluency came from self-defense, he once told me in confidence. He was never as tall or muscled as some of the guys, and he feared being manhandled, so figured he had to learn how to “talk quick” to get out of a jam. It never failed him.
This darling man has just turned 76 and has lived in a care home for almost two years. He can’t use his communication skills to get by any more, as the words just won’t come. Knowing him so well, I can usually infer what he means, but the staff cannot. So they look right through him, carrying on as if he weren’t there, as they do with other residents. To be fair, their workloads are heavy, and ultimately, management must take the blame for not hiring enough aides and LPNs, enough staff to handle emotional needs as well as physical. Enough to give residents the respect and human contact they so desperately need. Poor Don tries valiantly to get the words out, but they just aren’t there, and the staff don’t or can’t take the time to wait for them. And so he’s just another “care object”, a “unit” to be helped with toileting, changing, feeding but little interacting. This breaks my heart.
I see him as often as I can, several times a week. My goal is to provide attention, loving care and fun. Luckily, he hasn’t lost his sense of humour. We sing, we laugh, we behave in silly ways. Like children.
It seems to help.
1. Big Rig: Comic Tales of a Long-Haul Trucker. Available online at Amazon.ca or Chapter-Indigo.