At first the will to get Dad up a modest incline on the beautiful grounds of the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California last week was a lark. It was a cloudless morning and my two sisters and I decided to get Dad out of the house for the day. Unfortunately, my father’s diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and mule-like determination to only sleep sitting up in a chair, have rendered him unable to walk more than a few steps at a time. The chronic lack of circulation to his lower extremities have made his legs and feet the perfect storm of oozing, ulcerated sores that never seem to heal. Dad’s lower limbs are perpetually swathed in bandages and compression socks. His delicate, easily wounded toes are clad in special “diabetes shoes,” which look more like two oversized canoe paddles than footwear. The man who thought nothing of taking me hiking for hours in the back country to fish for rainbow trout, can now just barely shuffle the 25 feet from his den to his kitchen.
How did this happen? How did this big, strong, smart man who was once an aviation mechanic in the Navy during World War II, become the helpless old guy in the wheelchair?
“My wife gave me three such beautiful daughters,” my father said aloud as my sisters and I formed a conga line behind Dad’s chair in an effort to push him (and each other) forward. The wonderful thing about my father at this stage in his life, is that he is full of appreciation and compliments. Every time he sees us girls he lights up, telling us how beautiful we are. When he comes to visit, he praises us lavishly—from our cooking and hospitality, to our wit and intelligence. With a father like this, it’s easy to want to spoil him, so with love and patience, we wheeled his hundred-and-seventy-pound body around the park, stopping often to take pictures and admire the Desert Garden, the lily ponds and breathe in the scent of the eucalyptus grove.
Despite all his infirmities and his inability to complete the most mundane tasks on his own, Stanley is a delight to be around. He makes jokes. “Oh those trees must make great pets, cause they’re barkless.” Dad also has the uncanny ability to find just the right song lyric to match the conversation. Once, when I told him I’d just returned from Oahu, the jukebox in his head started crooning the words to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii.” When my sister asked him if he wanted to eat for breakfast that morning, he launched into a spontaneous version of the Stan Kenton Orchestra’s “Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.”
As we rounded the corner past the Australian Garden, we saw that our efforts were met with an even steeper hill–one that was insurmountable given the circumstances. We stopped in our tracks, set the brake on Dad’s chair and pondered what to do next.
After 40 years of marriage, Mom and Dad retired and built their dream cottage along California’s central coast. A year later, Mom died of uterine cancer when she was just 66. To lose Mom so young was a tragic blow none of us ever really got over. Even though my father met and moved in with another woman a few years after that, Dad continues to talk about Mom to this day as if she were the sexiest, most gorgeous, most talented, most perfect woman to have ever lived. My sisters and I can never get enough of this. We loved our mother fiercely, but the woman who lives on in Dad’s memory is a mythical goddess only a man passionately in love could create.
“Come on. We’ll just turn around and go back,” my sisters said. “No,” I insisted.
I whipped out my cell phone and called the main number for the Huntington Gardens. My sisters looked at me dumbfounded. After listening to a few prompts, I got the operator, explained our circumstances, and asked for help. Five minutes later, an employee in a motorized golf cart arrived. We carefully got Dad out of his wheelchair, loaded him into the front seat of the cart, and soon enough we were on our way up the big hill, past the Japanese Garden, then finished the day admiring Gainsborough’s famous paintings in the main museum.
Like most seniors with short-term memory loss, I know Dad’s already forgotten about our day at the Huntington, but it’s one I won’t soon forget.
Joanne Sala is a freelance writer who grew up in the far-flung reaches of the San Fernando Valley. With a keen ear for dialogue and an insatiable desire to get the real story, Joanne has written for a variety of entertainment outlets through the years, including Venice Magazine, E! Online and Mr. Showbiz. She has profiled dozens of actors and directors and says her most difficult interview was Anne Bancroft; most outrageous: Charlie Sheen; unabashedly flirtatious: Josh Brolin. Joanne currently lives in Marina del Rey, California where she spends her free time gently coercing her husband into doing all of the housework so she can devote herself to tennis, competitive Scrabble and watercolor painting.