by Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
July 22, 2002
AMID SQUALOR AND SUFFERING, THE LIGHT OF TENDERNESS
SAN DIEGO -- He's an old Norwegian man, dying in the back country, at home with a schizophrenic son as his only caregiver. Adult Protective Services had called us. Someone was worried about them, thought things were out of control and wanted us to help.
I'd waited for a nurse friend of mine to go with me as I didn't know just what I'd find when I got there was but when she didn't show, I decided to go and trust my gut.
They lived far back in the mountains, in a cabin surrounded by thick woods. The son met me in the driveway as I pulled in. He looked affable enough and harmless with a rather amusing white hat on and suspenders over rumpled clothes. He took me inside through the back screen door.
His father was lying in a twin bed in the middle of the living room where he could see the pine trees. There was a pungent odor even with the windows open and the dying man turned up his face to look at me. Bright blue eyes came up over the pillow, then disappeared as he laid his head back down.
A very quiet man.
The son shuffled nervously around the room. It was clear there hadn't been a woman in the house for a while. They were overwhelmed but making due with the resources they had. I asked the questions I needed to, filled out the paperwork that accompanies a new patient, and got them to paint a picture of what their life was like.
What had happened prior to this latest crisis of insufficient care? They'd just lost wife and mother one month prior. Dad had suddenly gotten extremely weak, unable to sit himself up in bed without help and had not been eating.
He was officially a hospice patient and thought there were other family members, this son was the only one responsible enough to be there for his Dad in his hour of need. They both looked like they were in shock from the devastation of recent events and the speed with which their world was unraveling.
I promised I'd bring a caregiver the next day to take over the heavy responsibility of caring for his father. Both Dad and son wanted him to be able to stay at home. We didn't say die at home but that's what we all meant.
Before I left, I offered to help the son change his father's diapers. The son was surprised at the offer and gratefully took me up on it. He reappeared out of the back room with a small basin and two balled up old rags.
I stared in disbelief. "You don't have any wipes?" "No," he said. "What are those?"
"Well," I stammered, "They are disposable, moist cloths to clean the skin with and you can through them away." I simply couldn't believe he had been taking care of his incontinent father with rags and then having to do the massive laundry this necessitated.
I moved up past his father's waist to afford some privacy to both men who seemed slightly awkward at the whole idea of a strange woman being involved in the heretofore private male ritual. The son did the best he could while wiping his father with two paltry rags. I hadn't earned the right in only an hour to take over in that department yet so I just helped, made suggestions and told the him I'd bring up wipes the next day to make home care and their lives easier.
I was deeply touched as I watched this younger man with the disheveled hair bending over his helpless father and gently wiping between his legs. He handled his sore and reddened privates gently, just as the elder had done for him as a small child many years ago. The inexplicable sweetness of the moment took my breath away.
Where were the other sons? Who knows but it was clear to me who the champion was in this family. Not brilliant, marginally functional in the ordinary sense, but a gentle soul and devoted to his old Norwegian father.
Two men, accepting each other on their own terms, doing their best to get by, and doing it with remarkable tenderness.
Times like these, such a thing shines like gold.
Cindy Hasz is a nurse and writer living in San Diego. She can be reached at email@example.com