The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

'We have to get out of here!' How a dad foresaw the meltdown in long-term care

The fault lines of long-term care systems have been laid bare. And a lot of people have a lot to answer for. It all got Bill Richardson thinking about a time in his life when he spent a part of every day visiting his father in a residence. It turns out his dad had something important to say. The world should have listened. Here’s his essay “Essential Service.”

Bill Richardson's dad had dementia, but he was clear as a bell on institutional living

Bill Richardson on the left and his father, Stan, on the right. (Bill Pechet and submitted by Bill Richardson)

Bill Richardson, special to CBC Radio

My final conversation with my father, Stan, a day or so before he died, before he stopped talking altogether and gave over what little energy he had left to trimming his sails for the voyage out, was fractured and disjointed, which was usual. He had dementia and, for the last two years of his life, his worldview — which for more than eight decades had been conservative and representational — turned quite abstract, cubist I would say. He became the dad in Dada.

"Do you know who I am?" I would ask.

"Well," Stan would say, looking at me long and hard, "if you're not who I think you might be, I'd say we're both in rather a lot of trouble."

I went to visit him every day after work, in the personal care home where he was well and scrupulously looked after by a saintly team of women and one gay man, with whom he'd now and again try to set me up. So, really, who needs Grindr?

Sometimes I'd find Stan in his wheelchair, sitting in his Tilley hat — which accessory I now own, and which I wear with an ever-diminishing sense of irony — clutching the teddy bear that, when you pressed its paw, would say, "I love you. I love you. I love you." I own that, too.

Bill Richardson's father Stan on the left and Richardson on the right — both wearing the Tilley hat that belong to Stan. (Submitted by Bill Richardson)

This was towards the beginning of Stan's institutional committal, which is what it was, let's not kid ourselves. I signed the papers, which he knew, and that was among the few things he never forgot. This was when he could still believe that this was a temporary address, that his sentence was commutable, that his transgression, whatever it had been, was subject to expiration; his punishment would end and he'd be going home, his trespasses forgiven.

"Planning on traveling?" I'd ask, reeking of forced cheer.

"We have to get out of here," he'd say. "This whole place is going to blow!"

He wasn't kidding. Stan had been an enthusiastic reader. He was a big fan of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy and other writers of well-crafted page-turners. It was interesting to me, if heartbreaking, to see how he'd internalized the vernacular, the plot points.

"How was your day?" I'd ask, blandly, stupidly, because I knew that, no matter how much love and tender care he received from the — let me say it again — amazing and devoted and really selfless professionals who worked with him, his day was a fog of sadness and confusion and bewilderment.

"It's a good thing you find me here," Stan would say, "because just this afternoon I was kidnapped by that gang from across the river."

"Ah," I'd say, "tell me about that." But he couldn't.

On nights when he was able to figure the phone, he'd call me at home.

"I fear," he'd say, "the proprietress is angry with me."

It took me a long time to understand that this was code for how he'd either had to call for help to get to the toilet, or had been too embarrassed to call for help and then required help to get clean.

"The proprietress" became a regular character in the sustaining myth he devised to bolster his understanding of his troubling here and now. I named her "the lady that's known as Lou."

Stan, born in 1926, knew a lot of poetry by heart, which was usual for pretty much anyone from his generation, when memorizing was part of the school curriculum. Some of my fondest memories of growing up are of him reciting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere or The Highwayman or Casabianca.

"The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled..."

His star turns though were the Robert Service warhorses, The Cremation of Sam McGee and especially The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

"A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou."

Those poems, in his dementia, became touchstones. Stan couldn't remember them in their entirety, but even in the salted furrows of his brain, they prospered in part. They were like life buoys that I could toss and that he could grab. 

"There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun," I would say, passing the baton, and Stan could always pick it up. "By the men who moil for gold."

I almost never dream about Stan. I think it's because I don't need to. He's with me all the time, in one way or another; now, more than ever. Now, in our season of protracted brokenness, he's at my side whenever I read or hear the phrase "essential service," and he comes to me when I consider the heartbreak of the women and men who are numbering their final days in situations and places they'd never have chosen. When I think about their children and grandchildren and friends who wave to them from parking lots, or play the trumpet on the sidewalk. When I think about the ones who are completely abandoned, for the love of God. For the love of God.

When I talked to Stan for the last time, late in June of 2014, it wasn't Service he was trying for, it was another of his standbys, Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.

"Once upon a midnight dreary," he said, "while I pondered weak and weary..." 

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary..." 

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I — while I —" 

"Ah, damn it" he said. 

He sank back in his chair, defeated.

That was in the morning. In the afternoon he went to bed and didn't get up again. He skipped "Quoth the raven." He went directly to "Nevermore." 

He was a modest man and a gentleman. He was never one to blame or say, "I told you so." I know he'd take no pleasure in knowing that he'd been absolutely right, a prophet, when he'd told me, "We have to get out of here! This whole place is going to blow."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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