Lessons From A Saint

Kelly Alblinger

© Copyright 2020 by Kelly Alblinger

Photo of Fil.

When I began writing this piece I intended to describe the relief of finally laying down an emotional burden, but something else began to emerge as I typed. Letting go of my preconceived ideas allowed a greater truth to surface, and the life lesson that resulted was a beautiful surprise.

Life lessons have the tendency to sneak up on us when we least expect them. We’re just going about our business, doing what we do, and BAM! a message from the universe smacks us upside the head without warning. If we are paying attention, the impact can be life altering. Our perceptions of our self and others change, and we view a situation with new clarity. Often a profound truth is revealed, and the reverberations can be staggering.

I have been the primary caretaker for my father-in-law (Fil) for the past two years. He’s 86, with rapidly accelerating dementia.

Fil has never been a compliant person. He does his own thing, in his own way, in his own time. He’s lived in a cargo van for the past decade; not because he couldn’t afford something better, but because that lifestyle is very permissive. A permanent home comes with too many responsibilities and there’s less freedom to pack up and go on a moment’s notice. I guess you could call him a modern-day gypsy.

I’ve had a relationship with him for more than 30 years, and during that period we have battled more times than I can count. He has strong views about gender roles that are left over from a different era. He does not appreciate women who think for themselves, thus a major reason that he does not care for me. At best, we tolerate one another.

Color me shocked in 2016 when he requested that I help him with an estate plan that included acting as his power of attorney if he should become incapacitated. Despite my misgivings I felt familial obligation, so I accompanied him to the attorney, signed the paperwork, and forgot about it.

During the following year he began acting “squirrely” (that’s a technical term our family likes to use.) Fil would show up at our home randomly or not at all; he would promise to replace the worn out tires on his van and six weeks later would roll up on the same bald wheels. He missed doctor appointments, he didn’t shower or change clothing for weeks. There were a couple of hospitalizations for dehydration and eccentric behavior. We knew something was wrong, but were powerless to do anything about it.

Then the sheriff showed up on our doorstep with him in tow. “Does he belong to you?” For lack of a better answer I said yes. “He backed his van up over a curb, narrowly missing a fire hydrant and a lawn full of children. He doesn’t know his own name or address. We found your info in the glove box. We’re impounding the vehicle. Call this number to claim it. Have a nice day.”

My life changed radically in that moment.

He lived with us for a short while, but he refused to sleep in the house. We pulled our camping trailer up to the back patio, and he had his own bachelor pad. He spent the day in the house watching TV and slept in the trailer. Fil had no idea why he was a captive in our home and kept asking for the keys to his van. We repeatedly explained that the authorities had suspended his driver’s license, and that the van was damaged beyond repair. “Oh,” he would reply, and then two hours later we’d have the same conversation. I became his cook, chauffeur, maid, and nanny.

We found a lovely retirement home nearby. Not fancy, not modern, but comfortable, run by a compassionate family. We moved him in; he seemed fine with the decision. After 4 months he got kicked out for striking the manager with his cane. We moved him to another facility where the residents were a bit rougher around the edges. He lasted there for 11 months, until his temper once again provoked his eviction. We moved him a third time, to a memory care facility. The staff there was trained differently; they knew how to handle him, and he was as happy as the situation permitted. He was still a pain, refusing showers, eating raw sugar from the packets on the dining table, emptying his coffee cup into the artificial plants.

I handled all his financial affairs, bought him clothes and treats, shuttled him back and forth to endless medical appointments and physical therapy. We spent a lot of time together in the car and there were long, awkward silences. He didn’t want to listen to music. The talk radio hosts spoke too quickly. It was too hot/cold in the car. I swear, I think he sometimes made stuff up just to be difficult. His capacity for understanding his own life was swiftly diminishing.

Then one day the realization hit me that he was not choosing to be this way. He had no control of the many disconnects in his brain. Aside from the huge gaps in his memory, he couldn’t process information fast enough to make sense of it. He was losing control of bodily functions like balance, walking, and toileting. Fil abandoned all concept of time. If he couldn’t see the position of the sun he had no idea if it was day or night. He’d eat a full meal then yell at the server for not bringing him breakfast. Simply getting through the day became a perilous obstacle course designed to trip him up at every turn.

My heart went out to him. This was not the fiercely independent man I had known. This was not “the last great pioneer” (a nickname he’d given himself.) I suddenly saw him through a different lens. He had morphed into a six foot tall, two hundred pound toddler. I began to feel protective of him, as though I was his guardian. And indeed, that is what I had become. I advocated on his behalf with doctors and creditors. I wrangled for special favors from his caregivers. I made the rules bend to his needs everywhere we went.

And yet I complained to anyone who would listen about what a burden he had become, and how much of my time his care sucked up. Many people have called me a saint, but I knew that I hadn’t earned that title. In my mind, a saint is selfless and their intentions are pure. Up to this point, I’d been operating out of obligation.

His personal caregiver called and said he didn’t look well, was acting strangely. He was compliant. Let her do all her business with him silently, no protests. She was scared. My husband and I rushed him to the ER.

Yesterday he died.

It was sudden, swift, unexpected. We got that phone call, and 24 hours later, to the minute, he was dead: massive stroke, renal failure, a cancerous tumor the size of a lemon in his abdomen that had gone undetected because it didn’t cause any pain.

I was the only one in the hospital room when Fil departed. I was on the phone with my own dad when lights began blinking rapidly on the monitor above the bed. It was scary, watching those vital waves zigzag up and down the screen then gently begin to flatten. Clutching Fil’s hand, I told him that it was okay to leave. We’d be fine. It was time for him to move on to his next great adventure. He was unconscious. I will never know if he actually heard me because there was no indication that he had. He simply stopped breathing.

I had just a moment to acknowledge his exit, then alarms started going off and the scene quickly became chaos. He had a DNR and my last act of protection was to refuse resuscitation for him. During his final months he had repeatedly expressed the wish for a pain-free passing, and I made sure that he got it.

People tell me that he was lucky to have me (he was) but I now realize that I benefited as much as he did. I was forced to see him differently; not as the adversary I had faced down over so many years, but as a vulnerable human being trying to cope with a body that was breaking down and a mind that was deserting him. He was out of his element, and he needed someone he could trust to be strong on his behalf. Instinctively he knew that I was that person, and he was brave enough to ask me to stand up for him.
It has been my unique privilege to be of service to Fil, because there was no one else in the family equipped to do what I did. I was repeatedly forced to move far out of my comfort zone, and do things I never imagined I could do. That has been a blessing for me, because now I know that I am capable and strong. I’m not a saint, but I am a genuinely good person; I am fiercely loyal; I am intelligent; I am kind. Becoming Fil’s go-to person helped me define who I truly am, and I realize that has been his special gift to me.

As an entrepreneur, Kelly founded By Request Secretarial and Business Services, an on-call secretarial service that has been successful for nearly two decades. A frequent contributor to Quora.com, Kelly has built up a solid following and earned her own “space” on the site. Early in life Kelly realized that her role in group settings was to speak out loud what others were too hesitant to say. An astute observer of life, Kelly channels her reflections into her writing, giving voice to those silent spectators. She lives with her family near Los Angeles.

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