Playing cards was just simply a part of my life as a kid. I grew up before cell phones and computers were in the lives of common folks. We had to entertain ourselves with simple things like cards. In my family we would play cards when relatives would come to visit, and we would play cards to pass the time on Christmas and summer break when the days were long and there wasn’t much to do. My card playing years were about 1978 – 1984, I was between 8 and 14 years old. Little did I know that the act of playing cards those years was simultaneously embedding memories in my brain that would surface some thirty plus years in the future.
Somewhere out in the world at that time was someone whom I had yet to meet and would not meet for decades to come, but whom I would also play cards with. Maybe he was playing cards in those years too. During my card playing years he would have been in his 50’s. Someone that would have seemed old to me at the time, as he was only three years older than my maternal grandfather. It would have been impossible for my younger self, the girl I was in those years, to have imagined making a friend out of someone that much my senior. His generation was so foreign to me. They were the people who lived the history that movies were made of. They were they people that would dance the jitter bug and listen to radio programs before television. They were from a bygone era and I thought would be gone by the time I reached this current era.
John is this friend that I would play cards with. A surprise in my life. A link to my past and a hand to help me go into my future. There were connections that I have tapped into as I have spent time with him; things that surprised me and that I hadn’t bargained for.
Fast forward from my card playing years to now, 39 years into the future, and I would find myself needing a part-time job to pay for an online school for my youngest son. I only needed to make a little per month to take on this new expense. I wasn’t looking for a career, my career was still to be wife and mom, but I was looking for a paycheck. I took on a job with a company that hire caregivers to people who needed help in their later years. In late October of 2016 I was asked to fill in for another caregiver at John’s house. My other client had gone into the hospital and I was no longer needed there and I needed to do some temporary fill in jobs to get some work hours.
The first time I was at John’s house he kicked me out. He said he had a friend coming to take him to a church to listen to something about politics. It was an election year, and a month away from voting on who would be the next president, with the first female running for office. It was modern times and we live in the liberal state of Oregon, so I thought he could be telling the truth, people were heavily talking about this election, but I wasn’t sure if his story was true because he also was in the grips of dementia. He was kind about it, the throwing me out. He had things to do and places to go, and I had to go. I left, but parked my van away from his house in watch of what may and may not transpire. Calling into work, I told them the situation and that I would stay near until I heard about what was really going on. I wasn’t sure if he really had a friend coming or he just wanted me, the stranger, to go. The phone call that I got from the office assured me that they had talked to his son and he thought that it was true that John had other plans and I was free to go.
The next day I arrived at his house he was ok with me staying. He took me down the hall, reassuring me that he wasn’t going to try any funny business, and showed me to his office. There on the wall were pictures of him in his navy troop, photos of the ships he was on in WWII, and photos of he and his beautiful wife around the time of their wedding (she had passed away 2 ½ years prior to my first days at his house). After that we sat in his living room and visited. There was nothing else to do because his house was immaculate, orderly, and he didn’t want anything done. I somehow made it through my three-hour shift and left, glad I would not have to return. He was a nice man, but sitting for three hours was not what I wanted to do for work.
I took a couple other fill-in jobs and then was called to see if I wanted to go back to John’s on a regular basis. I declined this offer since there was nothing to do. I felt good for not accepting something that I didn’t feel comfortable with, but quietly and gently there was something that tugged at my heart for him.
I knew that tugging, because I have had it before. I have felt the drawing of the Holy Spirit in my life. Sometimes the leading was simple yet a little odd, but at the other end of where I needed to go was blessing both for myself and the other person involved. I had to go with that tugging, so I let the office of my employer know that I would take on John as my client. I was now to be one of the caregivers to this spunky man of 89 years.
We quickly hit it off. He had a great sense of humor and loved when I joked with him. I loved learning of his life in Dos Rios, CA as a young boy, and learning the characters of his story; his mother and father, brother and sister, grandmother, the school teacher he loved and the two boys who were friends of his. One of these boys had a hole in his pants and was climbing down the chain that held the tire swing in the school yard. These two boys didn’t have a mother to mend their clothes and didn’t have underpants either. During the decent down the chain, one of the two brothers got a testicle caught in the link of the chain. The teacher came to his rescue and told the snickering girls to all leave as she untangled that unlucky testicle.
I have heard many stories that have poured forth from John’s memory. Now did his memory serve him well, or was I getting half- truths from a good story teller? I don’t know. But for the time we were together, every memory and story was taken as his truth for the day. His dementia was a bit of a mystery to me. He seemed to be really with it and know what was going on. Knowing him for only weeks did not give me the full spectrum of knowledge I needed to successfully handle each day’s new issue.
On Veteran’s Day he was sure that he needed new glasses. Due to the training for this job, I became aware that I would possibly be taking my client to dr. appointments and assumed that taking John to get new glasses was in line with my duties. At the optometrist, he sat and tried on different styles of glasses as I and the lady who worked there helped him pick the right pair. He would always wear his “cone scooter” (this was his name for his hat) and on it was embroidered his years and branch of military service. This hat attracted attention, magnetizing strangers to him to thank him for his service. He was thanked that day as well from one of the ladies that helped him choose his glasses. He sat next to me and as we bantered back and forth, as we had grown accustomed to doing, he would smile and I knew that he was enjoying himself.
At some point during the verbal frivolity, he then surprisingly asked if I would marry him. This was funny coming from the man who thought it was good that I was a married woman, assured me that there would be no pats on the butt, there was nothing between us and wanted to know if my husband was okay with me doing my line of work (I’m assuming him meaning spending time alone in another man’s house and running about the town with him). In the spirit of fun, I accepted his offer of marriage! And in a way my heart would become "married" to him, in a different kind of love and commitment than I had known before.
Once his glasses came in, his friend took him to get them, and according to John they didn’t work for him and he wanted them returned. One of his grown children, after the fact, asked me if I was aware with the issues with his eyes. No, I was not. I felt silly for following him down this path and began to see that my view of him may have not been accurate. Things would come up as important for that day, but would fade into the background the next. The benefit of my believing his daily concerns to be real and because I took him seriously, I gained his trust. Trust was going to be an important part of our relationship as he declined deeper into his dementia and needed help and reassurance in the near future.
In the month that transpired from that day to his 90th birthday (12/21) I would often listen to him tell of how he wanted to die and how he didn’t want to make it to his 90th birthday. But you see, for some reason unbeknownst to him, John was just not dying. He wanted to with all his heart. He wanted to go to bed and not wake up. He wanted to be with his wife.
During that month, I heard stories of how he came off a LCPV (landing craft personnel vehicle) on different islands in the Pacific arena of WW2 on and near Okinawa only to be met by Japs (sorry if you are offended, but that is what the Japanize where called during the war) and it was a kill or be killed. John killed. John survived. He was only 17 when he enlisted in 1944 and served through the end of the war. It was amazing to me that I sat next to someone five evenings a week who had survived what was the fate of so many, the war. He survived for 90 years. So many people of his generation would have loved to have some of those extra years. But John wanted it all to end. I told him he was one tough cookie. I told him that he had been good at so many things in his life, but he failed at dying. He would grin at that!
His 90th birthday came and went, and then Christmas and New Year’s, and he was still stuck on this planet, and he was declining. His heath seemed good, but his memories were fading, conversation was getting difficult. Alas, I had an idea to see if he liked playing cards. We needed to fill in the time that I was scheduled to be there as his caregiver. I started out playing the simplest game I knew, War. For a short time we played this, but then I wondered if he would be able to learn a new one. I told him how to play Go Fish and he took to it like a duck to water. I think that maybe he had played before and it was somewhere deep in his memory. And that is how we filled our time together, talking and joking with one another for about our first hour together, then playing multiple rounds of Go Fish (which when I was winning he would accuse me of cheating!), and then me cooking him dinner and cleaning up. We had a rhythm to our time together and it became easier to fill the time.
The first four months of this year have been hard on both of us. John’s memory has been fading and my life has been consumed with trying to figure out how to help my sick youngest son get well. There had been times that I shared with John about my son. I didn’t mean to mingle my personal life with his, but he was kind enough to ask about me and my family. Something had transpired from my initial first days with him to now and it has transcended the duties of the job of being his caregiver to also becoming friends. He would give me advice based on the things I would share with him about what was going on with me. He treated me with respect, thanked me for what I did for him, laughed with me and even called me a “smart ass” with a twinkle in his eye. I would be a little bit of a smart ass with him, because he loved it and could take a joke so well. I never thought being called a smart ass would feel like a term of endearment, but it did because of the person it came from.
In being a caregiver to an elderly man, I felt that part of my job was to give him a place to be the older man and share his wisdom as my elder. His wisdom didn’t feel condescending but more like a tool that he was using to shape me. It worked because he showed a real interest in me and respected me as well. I felt like I was not the only caregiver in the relationship, he cared for me too.
As we play cards something strange was happening to me. I would get flashes of memories, seemingly unrelated events in my younger life. At first I didn’t know what was happening, why were these memories coming to the surface? I finally realized that these memories had a time span of later elementary years to Jr. high years, the same years that I had played cards to pass the time. Something about seeing the cards triggered random memories from those years. Memories, I have a lot of them. I can close my eyes and be there in my mind when a memory appears. I also have had a time that a lot of my memories have been blocked. When I suffered from post-partum anxiety, after my third son was born, my brain was so tied up in working out stuff that I lost a lot of memory from that time. The brain and memories are a very interesting thing, something that we often don’t have control of. My memories popping up came without my trying to resurrect them and John’s memories of his life were dying without his trying to make them go. It was a strange paradox to realize.
These memories were giving me a window into a part of my life that I think needed some work. For some reason I needed to reconnect with the girl that I once was and I needed to open up myself to some healing. Funny how these things come about.
As my memories rose to the surface I realize that I had a good but not perfect past. My memories was aiding me in personal growth, just as John was growing me in telling his stories and giving me advice. My memories, his stories, and his advice had shown me some of my weaknesses, longings, and areas that I need to grow in. I suppose that I had been ripe for this type of relationship. I needed this elderly man just as much as he needed me.
Other things about my time with John connected to that same card playing time. When I was a kid I watched a lot of the old Little Rascal shows. As we sat at his kitchen table playing cards I looked up on Google on my phone that age of one of my favorite actors on the show. Spanky McFarlin, one of my favorite Rascals, was born almost two years after John. When I was a kid watching the show those kids seemed to come from such a far of time, a time so different than my own childhood. And now, sitting across from me was someone who was Spanky's contemporary. I was friends with someone that in age could be one of my favorite Rascals that I thought as a kid came from ancient times. Another thing that bridge my childhood to my friend John's younger self was big band music. As a kid I would play my grandpa's records and my sis and cousins would dance to the amazing music in living room while the adults visited elsewhere. I have loved this music every since and the old soul inside of me felt at home listening to it. Now, as I would cook dinner, I would play Pandora on my phone and tune it into the Glenn Miller channel. Some days John would leave the tv on while I cooked dinner. Often he would be watching one of my favorite tv shows of my grade-school days, CHIPS. It was interesting to see old familiar faces of the actors and hear the music that went along with the show. Do you see the connection. Over time I saw it. All of these different things were bringing me back to a time that I was transitioning from being a kid to going through puberty. It was a time that as a child you are your true self and then as you start to change you become so self aware that you edit and change yourself to be some version that other people want you to be. For some reason I needed to revisit that time, and being with John took me there.
I have come to realize that people in our lives have something to give us to aid us in our growth. I like to think of it as puzzle pieces. John had a piece of the puzzle to my life that I needed. Playing cards with him is something that I really wouldn’t have done with anyone else at this time of my life. Everyone else is too busy to play cards, but I needed to play cards, listen to big band music, watch CHIPS, and spend time with someone from his era. I needed to have time to slow down and revisit this younger me, and John, being 90 with dementia sure did slow me down.
As time went by, playing cards became more difficult for him. His near vision was making it difficult to see the cards and I suspected that his mental decline was making the game less enjoyable as well. We stopped playing cards. I had to find something to fill our time. Our times of long conversations was fading as his ability to remember his stories and keep a conversation going were passing. Luckily the bad winter weather was taking a break and the sun started to shine!
Somehow, I discovered his love for ice cream. We would drive over the Willamette River to a far-off Baskin Robins ice cream shop and get kids size cones. After that I would take him for a drive. We would then, on other days, take off to different parts of town, or even out of town, to get ice cream and take drives. We would comment on the budding trees and make other small talk. I would play the Glen Miller radio station on Pandora through my phone that was connected to my van's stereo. He would sometimes know the names of the songs that came on and sometimes sing along. He would often try and get me to drive slower. I would tell him that I had people behind me that wanted to drive fast. He didn’t care. He had forgotten about the speed at which life was lived when trying to get to some place on time. He wanted to go slow and see the scenery. It was nearly impossible to slow down, but I did when I could. And this is how we would fill our time together.
As I’m writing this I just feel choppy. I don’t feel that I can express in words the labor and beauty I found in having John in my care and me in his. We had many talks. We connected. We agreed that we were friends. He said that I was family. He became family to me. Sometimes it was easy to go spend time with him, other times I just wanted to stay home and take care of my family. But what I learned from him is priceless. I got paid money from my employer, but I got paid with a valuable education from John and his two adult children whom I was in contact with and got to know as well. I learned a little more about John and his story through them. They both had very different views of the same man. They shared with me their views and parts of their lives as well. Their stories that they shared with me aided in the lessons that I needed to learn.
There are too many lessons to write in detail about. There are personal things from my side of all of this and theirs that I don’t want to share, but from all of their stories and my internal workings of memories, the big take away was this, what you do in your family matters, it seems to matter more than all other relationships. It matters what parents do and don’t do with kids. It matters how you live, it will affect your family. It matters that you care for one another. Families can be resilient, even when there are deep hurts. Love and forgiveness are the most important traits to have. And yet love and forgiveness may never come from the ones you need it from and you may have a hard time giving it to some more than others. People and their lives are complicated.
Yes, I was paid to be his caretaker. I would go to his house out of duty. But what I first thought would be a place where there was little work to do, had turned into a place where there has been much work to do. This man had survived the Great Depression, WWII, and all the ups and downs of his time on earth, now to at the evening of his life intersected with mine and work me over on the inside. He has been like a computer program that has been installed to find and fix something that has gone amiss in the program. He taught me some things and healed some things. I am a better woman and more whole because of him.
He has often told me he didn’t know why he was still alive. I told him that it was because I needed to meet him.