“I’m off, Stanley,” I whisper at 4:45 am, bending down to kiss him on his nose. I’d just woken Bernie upstairs to say goodbye, and now I do this to the black dog lying by the dining table downstairs, where he prefers to sleep because it’s so much cooler than in the bedroom.
“Where ya going?”
“To South Dakota, for the Native American retreat.”
The answer seemed obvious 9 months earlier, but not now. Leaving is never clear.
Losing personal independence is probably no joy for anyone anywhere, but is there a culture in the world that hates dependence as much as our own, here in America? Is there a culture in the world that admires independence and rugged individualism more, which looks down so contemptuously on those needing food assistance and welfare support? I listen to parents express their enormous pride in how their children are becoming more independent, which often seems more important than how good, kind, or generous they are.
But personal dependence is ahead for all of us, if we’re lucky enough to age and get sick. Nobody seems to be ready for it.
Back when Bernie was in rehab after his stroke, I saw patient after patient yell at family members and therapists about not needing help. My own 90 year-old mother, contemplating 2 months without her Indian live-in caregiver, adamantly refused to get a substitute. “I don’t need anybody, I haven’t fallen once this entire year,” she says angrily. “You also haven’t prepared one meal, one cup of coffee, or gone anywhere on your own,” I remind her. She doesn’t want to be reminded.
Listening to our politicians, you’d think that the biggest crisis facing our nation is mothers and children and the elderly needing help. Aging friends spend less time reflecting on their lives and preparing for what comes and more in resentment and anger at how needy they’ve become, how reliant on family members or caregivers.
Needing help is ahead for all of us. I am grateful to the Man and Stan for accepting dependence with simplicity and grace. Bernie gets drinks, glasses and cutlery as he patiently waits for me to finish making dinner. He walks outside with someone always at his side and accepts help with putting on jackets or even with pulling the heavy blanket over his body. Not once, not once, has he complained or second-guessed what life has given him. He shows no nostalgia for his past, not once has he reminded me of the times when he was so fiercely independent, chomping away gleefully on his cigar. He has no interest in cigars now.
Stanley waits patiently for a butt lift to get into the car. He doesn’t say Don’t touch me, he doesn’t say I can do this myself leave me alone, I hate this. He seems as happy as ever for a car ride, a slow walk in the woods even as things have changed.
It’s getting harder and harder to take him into the woods. The cataracts almost cover his eyes and he slips and falls. Unlike when we walk on the road, which is clear and without obstructions, in the woods, where he’s unleashed and free, he’s more liable to trip over things. He looks back a lot to place where I am, unlike previous years when he pursued alternative trails, running down the slope for a drink of water from the creek or chasing smells, knowing our meeting place by the pools of water that gush down to the creek. Now he stays by my side. His days of independence are gone. We get closer and closer, the world grows smaller, and he moans in his sleep.
“Bye, Stan,” I whisper to him.