Just another example of my own cracked judgment, I sometimes thought--this notion of educating my boys and caring for my debilitated (and nicely dementing) father at home.
In another way, the decision was well nigh inevitable. When my husband Donald and I married, love-struck with idealism in our late 30's, we fully agreed on the kind of family life we wanted. We strongly held that the "prayers, works, joys and sufferings"--the real tasks, the real "stuff" of living--should be kept close to hearth and close to heart. We didn't believe in getting substitutes to supply the bricks and brio that constitute an ordinary human existence.
We didn't hire nannies or baby nurses. We didn't substitute bottles and artificial nipples when I, the mama, was brimming with mama-milk. We didn't outsource life.
And that led right into the next steps: we didn't want our kids' spiritual formation to be left by default to the TV, the Mall, and the Public School. And we wouldn't ship my father into medical exile to age, decline, and die.
My father lived here with us for 14 years; I can report that the homeschooling/caregiving juggling trick worked pretty elegantly--at first. I was able to invest myself fully is the role of homeschooling Mater et Magistra; and Father--"Grandy" to the boys--even played a creative part on our educational team. Though blind, he could quiz the boys orally on their spelling and math facts. "Eucharist." Mississippi." "One-half of a hundred and forty-five." “Luminous." " Thirteen times thirteen" Grandy's spelling and math were infallible.
Though increasingly deaf, he could rock in his rocking-chair and listen to them read the Gospel of Luke or recite a selection from the Big Book of Silly Verse. In fact, his deafness was a plus, because the boys were certainly never permitted to mumble. "Loud and clear!" he'd yell every five minutes. "LOUD AND CLEAR!" (Our older son, Ben, 10 years old at the time, took to calling him “Old Yeller.”)
In the years when Grandy was still steady on his feet, the boys could hold his hand and walk him two blocks to the senior center for lunch or a blind support group meeting. The people in the neighborhood always had a friendly word for the old man shuffling tortoise-slow, led by 7-year-old Vanya with a Big Job to do; and it does something for a boy's personal confidence, I think, to be trusted with that kind of responsibility.
It got more complicated in the middle years, as Father's disabilities increased. Only Ben could be trusted to push his wheelchair through busy intersections; and the rocking-chair recitations were discontinued when our younger son, Vanya, became frustrated at being mis-heard or misunderstood.
Then Father's dementia got to be a daily challenge to our ingenuity. He'd want to get up and wander about the house and out the door, risking disaster, so we had to put a scarf around his middle and tie him in his chair. “I’m a prisoner! A prisoner!” he’d protest. “Yeah, and I’m Nurse Ratched,” was my half-joking, half-grim retort.
When he figured out how to escape his bonds (the boys dubbed him "The Great Grandini"), we had to devise more protective restraints and more effective distractions. Ice cream always helped.
As the years went on and he required yet more care, and I wondered again whether we could still handle everything at home. My own increasing disabilities due to rheumatoid arthritis made me doubt that I could go on as a caregiver. I felt stretched to my limits, and past them, when my whole day consisted of dealing with my doctors and his, my therapies and his.
Even when the local medical center enrolled us in their home hospice program, which brought devoted nursing assistants into our home, Grandy's extreme weakness (plus my stiffness and pain) meant I often felt the need of an extra hand.
"Come over and help get Grandy out of bed." I'll yell, as my father signaled his urgent need for the bedside potty. "Why do I have to do it?" my big son Ben sometimes groused. "Get Dad to do it! I'm trying to do my algebra!"
("You can learn algebra anytime," I thought silently. "You've got to learn compassion young.")
My husband Donald always had a real devotion to my father. As Grandy sank toward utter helplessness, the boys could not miss learning compassion. They couldn't miss hearing as their dad sang him the simple old songs of 60 or 70 years ago, "Don't Fence Me In," "Roll Out the Barrel," "You Are My Sunshine," "Side By Side." They couldn't miss noticing as Donald changed Grandy's Depends and cleaned him up with wet-wipes, spritzing lemony air spray around the room to banish lingering smells.
The boys watched, usually without comment, as faithful neighbors from our parish brought Grandy Holy Communion every Sunday afternoon. And every day they saw as the nursing aides came and went, good women who took his vital signs and called him "a darling" and brought him special treats, frowning over his heart arrhythmia and laughing when he called them "doll".
Inching toward his 93rd birthday, Father was a model of patience and obstinacy: having been given a life expectancy of six months, it was 27 months before he died. We called him "Grandy Cat" for his nine lives, for the way he went very low and then rallied, then went lower still and rallied again. Sometimes I thought he'd be permanently terminal; he’d be terminal without terminating, forever, or until Christ should come again. I thought I might get him a button that said "Biologically Tenacious," or one of those scrappy T-shirts from the disability-rights group, proclaiming "Not Dead Yet."
"Is Grandy really, really dying?" asked Vanya, who at 14 was still able to show that he cared.
"Yes, kiddo. One morning we'll look in on him, and he'll be dead."
In the end, it was very peaceful. Our assistant pastor, Fr. Akata, had come by to give my father the Sacrament of Anointing and Last Communion: Viaticum, the "Food for the Journey." Christ with him, Christ in him, heading toward Christ: he was good to go.
It wasn't till the next day that my father breathed his last. My husband and our two boys stood at the bed and prayed; we shed a few tears; we shared some stories about old Grandini, Old Yeller, Grandy Cat. Eucharist. Luminous. This is homeschooling, too.