THE CARDINALS

Rebecca smiled at her elderly father sitting across the table. He was having a good morning and seemed more alert and aware than usual. She took a second to remind herself about how important it was to appreciate these moments because she knew that eventually, they were going to come to an end.

William Brickstone was eighty-eight years old. Judith, his wife of more than five decades, had passed away seven years earlier, just after his first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease began to appear. Fortunately, in his particular case, the condition had progressed slowly, and it was only recently that he’d been forced to move in with his only child.

However, in the last few months, Rebecca had noticed an alarming decline. The doctors were doing everything they could, but they continually warned that a grim outcome was inevitable. So for now, all she could do was take their situation one day at a time and try to make her father as happy and comfortable as possible.

To get the day off to a good start, he needed to eat. “Would you like some breakfast? Maybe some eggs?” Rebecca wasn’t that hungry, but she knew her father was.

Looking out the dining room window, he was transfixed by the coming and going of the wide variety of birds at the feeders. “Yes. Okay.”

“How about scrambled?”

“Yes, okay.” As the disease advanced his tone of voice had flattened and now showed little emotion, unless, of course, he became upset by something – real or imagined.

She was relieved that he was being so agreeable. There were some mornings where breakfast turned into a long drawn-out ordeal. “We can have toast too. Do you want bacon?” He always preferred it over sausage.

Rebecca waited for an answer as her father stared through the window at the birds. Realizing his focus was elsewhere, she decided to fry up some bacon just in case. She went to the sink and washed her hands. After drying them, she got out the skillet.

For the next few minutes, there was silence until the bacon started sizzling.

The sound broke the spell and got her father’s attention. “Can we have bacon?”

She smiled. “That a good idea. Let’s do that.” Rebecca stepped over to the refrigerator and got the eggs out.

“Were you able to make your bed this morning?” He usually made an effort and then she would later straighten it up for him, but he did not respond.

She waited and then asked, “What would you like to do today? It’s Saturday.”

“It is?”

She understood that each day was pretty much the same for her dad. Thinking he might like to get out of the house after being cooped up with the blustery January weather she said, “It’s a sunny day. Still cold – but at least the sun is out. Would you like to go for a drive?”

“No. Home is better. No doctors.”

Rebecca sighed. It was getting increasingly difficult to get her father to leave the house. He hated going to the doctor, and now he equated every car trip, no matter how innocent, to being a trip to see the specialists. “Okay. What about –”

Her father, still looking through the window, suddenly became excited by what he saw. “Look! There’s the female cardinal. That means the male is nearby. They’re alwaystogether.”

“That’s right. I’m sure he’s around somewhere.” Rebecca cracked four eggs into a bowl, added a touch of milk, and began to beat them.

William’s tone of voice changed back to a monotone as he asked, “What happens if one of them dies?”

“What?”

“If one of the cardinals die, what happens to their mate?”

“I don’t know, Dad.” His question caught her off guard. Occasionally, he surprised her with his lucidity – but she knew it could quickly slip away.

Still watching the feeder, he said, “It’s not easy being the one that’s left behind. I just wonder if they suffer the way we do.”

Rebecca tried to maintain a steady demeanor. She and her father both knew how painful it was to lose a spouse. Just a year after her mother died, she and her husband were in a horrific car wreck. A drunk driver blew through a red light and hit them broadside. Her husband was killed instantly, and Rebecca’s back was broken. She endured three surgeries and months of excruciating rehab before she was able to regain any semblance of a normal life. Shortly after her recovery, her father’s symptoms began to worsen.

At that point, she wondered if she had the strength to go on. Her dad began demanding more of her time, and she’d lost her mother and the man she’d believed she would spend the rest of her life with. Having never had children, she felt cut off from the world. At times it was just too much to deal with – but she had to carry on, fighting against her grief as she did her best to provide the highest quality of life she could for William.

But now to complicate matters, her back was becoming increasingly unstable. Often the spasms would take her breath away. The doctors said she needed another complicated surgery with a long recovery time to relieve the discomfort, but she’d decided it was not possible while she was taking care of her father. She would just have to tolerate the pain.

Watching her dad’s interest in the birdfeeder reminded her of something else he was interested in. “I almost forgot. I got you something.”

“You did?”

“I’ll show it to you after we eat.”

When the food was ready, she took it to the table and poured their coffee. She watched as her father began to pick without enthusiasm at the eggs. Rebecca took a bite of toast and attempting to avoid a nagging tone of voice said, “Please try to eat. We want to keep your strength up.”

“I don’t like bacon.”

Her first impulse was to argue, but she caught herself. “All right. Do you want something else?”

“No. I’ll eat it.”

Over the next few minutes, her father ate, what was for him, a good breakfast.

When he was finished with his food, Rebecca asked, “Would you like some orange juice?”

“Yes, okay.”

She poured some for each of them.

Her dad sat and stared at the glass, but showed no interest in drinking the juice.

Rebecca hoped he would at least take a few sips, but he just stared. “Would you like to see what I got for you?”

“Yes, okay.”

She left the kitchen for a minute and came back with a decorative gift bag. Rebecca set it down in front of her father.

His curiosity was another good sign that his mental acuity was better today. “What’s this?”

She smiled. “Look inside.”

He carefully opened the bag and was surprised by what he saw. Her dad reached in and pulled out a book about professional baseball players.

All of his life, William had been a passionate baseball fan. He and his daughter had attended many games and had spent years watching them together on TV. But it had become increasingly difficult for him to keep track of the innings or even the score. But, strangely, his memories of his favorite players through the years, for the most part, remained intact. He not only remembered which teams they played for, but he could also recall their career stats and which World Series they won.

“I think you’ll like this book. It has lots of photos, and I’ll read each of the biographies to you.”

“You will?”

“I’d be happy to. All of the great players are in that book. Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle – everyone.”

“Yes, okay.”

Her father now had difficulty comprehending written words, but, on occasion, he did enjoy having Rebecca read to him. The doctors had stressed how important it was to involve him in subjects he cared about in order to keep his cognitive functions at the highest level possible.

She snuck a glance at her watch. There were several household chores she needed to attend to, starting with the laundry. On good days, her father helped fold the clothes, and she was hoping he would be willing to do that today, but whether he did or not, Rebecca always had to make sure her schedule revolved around how it would affect her dad.

During the warmer months, she had encouraged him to help her in the flower beds. He seemed to enjoy being in the sunshine and fresh air, always keeping a close eye out for his cardinals. But now, in the dead of winter, they were frequently trapped inside by the weather. However, she had wisely planned ahead and purchased a variety of hanging house plants that were hung in groups in different rooms.

“I’m going to start some laundry, and when it’s dry you can help me fold it. While I do that, would you please water the plants?”

“Yes, okay.” William got up and retrieved the watering can. Taking care of the plants seemed to help him relax, and he enjoyed checking them to make sure they were in good health.

They each took off to perform their respective chores. Once she had the laundry started, Rebecca went to check on him. She found her father sitting in a chair in the spare bedroom repeatedly rubbing the palms of his hands on knees. The water can was laying on its side, and water was leaking out on the floor. It was obvious he was extremely agitated.

“Dad, what is it?”

“It’s dying.”

“What’s dying?”

“It’s sick. The leaves are brown.”

Rebecca looked at the plants and saw that, indeed, one of them did not look good. “We might be able to save it.”

Her father looked down at his hands and nervously started playing with the wedding ring he still wore. “It’s going to die.”

“Well, if that happens, maybe we could get another plant to replace it.”

Her father turned and looked at her in disbelief. With his voice rising, he yelled, “You can’t just replace something when it’s dead!”

His emotion took her by surprise. “All right. I understand. We’ll do what we can for it and hope that it pulls through.”

Unable to control his frustration, he mumbled in disgust, “Everything dies…… even the cardinals will die.”

Rebecca realized she needed to re-direct her father’s thinking. “Let’s take a break, and relax in the front room. Would you like to work on our jigsaw puzzle for a little while?”

William thought about it for quite some time before he finally decided. “Yes, okay.”

They walked to the front room and took their customary spots on the couch. The large coffee table in front of them was covered by a partially finished puzzle called The Homestead. It was the exterior of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Rebecca’s father had been a high school English teacher for forty years, and during that time he had taught the poet’s work to hundreds of students, but, like so many other things that once mattered to him, Dickinson no longer had any meaning. To William, the puzzle did not depict a beloved historical landmark but rather an old building devoid of any kind of importance.

It seemed to Rebecca that so much of what made her father who he was had been lost forever, but she couldn’t dwell on that. She had to remind herself to accept the person he was now and to embrace the time they could still share together.

As always, they worked in silence. She had learned that turning on the TV or listening to music distracted him, and he would soon become irritated. Fortunately, he quickly forgot about the hanging plant and concentrated on finding pieces for the front porch while she put the roof together.

Rebecca had been forced to stop buying the 1,000 piece puzzles and was now getting the 500 piece versions. Because her father’s attention span was continuing to diminish, he was no longer able to focus for long periods. At one time they could complete a puzzle in days, but now it took weeks.

Although he worked on it longer than usual, William, eventually, lost interest. Rebecca suggested several other activities they might try, but he was content to just sit quietly for a while.

As the morning went by, she was relieved that her dad was able to recover from his disappointment over the sick plant and maintain a reasonably positive attitude. There had been times when his frustration about something, that to her seemed insignificant, would boil over into a major outburst.

Consequently, with the difficult days becoming more frequent, she was extremely grateful for every good day they had.

Eventually, lunchtime rolled around, and they sat down for ham sandwiches and potato salad. After eating, they began to fold the laundry together. As they worked, Rebecca made several attempts to start a conversation with her father, but he was unresponsive.

Over the last few months, as William’s symptoms became more pronounced, so did his silence. Rebecca had been instructed to do everything she could to keep him engaged – but not to force the issue. So they worked quietly and then with the laundry put away, they settled down again in the living room. It wasn’t long before her dad fell asleep. Throughout the day the pain in Rebecca’s back had become more intense, and she couldn’t help thinking how nice it would be to take a break and rest – but she didn’t have that luxury, so she decided to use the downtime to begin pursuing an abhorrent task that she’d been putting off.

Recently, Rebecca had been struggling with the most difficult decision of her life. She had been forced to start thinking seriously about putting her father in a memory care facility. With his mental faculties deteriorating and her worsening physical issues, it was becoming more difficult by the day to ensure his care and safety.

However, it broke her heart to even consider it, so she had put off investigating possible choices for as long as she could – but Rebecca knew it was time. Reluctantly, she opened her laptop and began to search.

William slept for about an hour, and when he woke up, she was relieved to see that he was still calm and at ease. On the weekends, one of the TV channels played westerns that her dad enjoyed, so she turned the set on for him.

Since he was having a good day, Rebecca decided to cap it off by having one of his favorite dishes for dinner. There was no sense in upsetting him by fixing something he might refuse to eat. William loved fettuccine alfredo, and since she enjoyed cooking, Rebecca took great pleasure in preparing meals that her dad liked.

Fortunately, her dinner selection was a hit, and her father ate a good meal. After the dishes were cleared, Rebecca thought it might be a good time to exercise his memory. “Dad, would you like to look at your new baseball book together? I can read to you.”

“No reading.”

“All right.” Disappointed that he didn’t want to even look at it, she knew it was important to find an activity he would participate in. “What about looking through a family album? That’s just pictures. No reading.”

“Yes, okay.” He followed her into the front room and dropped down on the couch. Rebecca went to the shelf and pulled out the largest collection. Then she sat down next to her father and began to slowly turn the pages.

As they looked through the book, they came to a picture of Rebecca at the age of six on her first day of school. She pointed to the faded photo. “Dad, do you know who that is?’

He bent down closer and studied it. “No. Who is it?”

Rebecca tried to hide her sadness. “That’s me, Dad.”

Thinking it was doubtful, William shook his head. “Could be someone else.”

These were the moments that took an emotional toll on Rebecca. Until his diagnosis, it had never occurred to her that there might come a day when her father would have difficulty recognizing his own child.

William closed his eyes and thought before he said, “I don’t have a daughter. Maybe I have a son.”

Knowing that there was no use trying to correct him, Rebecca just said, “You have a family.”

She turned the page of the album, and there was a stunning wedding photo of her mom and dad. For just a moment, seeing them side by side took her back to another time, a time before the harsh realities of life tore their marriage apart. She marveled at how beautiful her mother looked in her dress and how handsome he was in his tux Although the picture made her smile, she also felt sorrow that they were no longer together.

As she stared at her mother’s face on what was surely one of the happiest days of her life, Rebecca realized that time is a cruel thief that steals the beauty in our lives while we allow ourselves to be distracted by the trivial and mundane. She now understood that by staying focused on the meaningless, we manage to miss the moments that matter, allowing them to quietly slip away unnoticed.

Rebecca was determined not to let that happen with her dad. She was going to spend every second with him that she possibly could because she knew they were on a journey that would not end well.

Deciding there was no point in testing her father on his recognition of the married couple, she turned the page.

“Wait.” Her father motioned with his hand. “Go back to Judith.”

William’s words momentarily took Rebecca’s breath away. She turned back to the photo. “You’re right, Dad. That is Judith, your wife.”

He gently ran his fingers over the plastic that covered the picture. “So beautiful.”

As Rebecca fought back tears, she asked, “Who is that with her?”

Without looking up, he shrugged. “Did you know I was married?”

She nodded. “Yes, Dad. I knew.”

“Married for a long, long time. But it ended too soon.”

“I know.”

They sat in silence for a few moments and then William looked up. “Do you think our cardinals will be safe? If one of them dies……”

“They will be okay. We’ll keep feeding them, and you can keep watching them.”

William reached over and closed the photo album. He didn’t want to see anymore. Rebecca understood. Even though the past was fading for her father, some of what he could remember was painful.

Her dad had always been one of the most intelligent, independent people she knew, and it hurt to think of him as being vulnerable, even helpless at times, but that was their reality, and she had to deal with it.

For the next two hours, William withdrew and had no desire to interact with Rebecca. She spent most of the time on her phone paying bills and texting friends, but always keeping one eye on her father. It was a delicate balance to try to keep him involved without pressuring him, but tonight it seemed like he just needed time with his own thoughts. When his usual bedtime arrived, she studied his face and could see that he was getting tired. “Would you like to go to bed now, Dad?”

“Yes, okay.”

Thankfully, another conflict was avoided. Bedtime was sometimes the most volatile time of the day for her father. When both of them were tired, frustrations and irritations could easily be magnified.

Over the next ten minutes, she helped him change into pajamas and get his teeth brushed. Then it was into bed. She sat down on the edge next to him. “Maybe tomorrow we could look at your new baseball book. Would you like to do that?”

“Yes, okay.”

She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. “I love you, Dad.”

“Will the cardinals be okay tonight?”

“Yes, they’ll be fine.” She tried to be as reassuring as possible. “They’ll be waiting for you in the morning.”

“It’s cold tonight.”

She patted him on the hand. “Try not to worry about them.”

Her father looked up and with surprising tenderness in his voice, said, “I was married once.”

Rebecca took a deep breath. “I know, Dad. Judith was a wonderful person.”

“You knew her?”

“Yes. We were very close. She was important to me.”

“Judith died. It was so sad.”

“It was very sad…… Let’s try to get some sleep.”

“Yes, okay.”

She stood up, walked across the room, and turned out the light. “Good night, Dad.” She closed the door behind her.

Rebecca stood in the hallway and tried not to let her emotion overwhelm her. It wasn’t easy, but she knew that she had to stay strong for her father. She couldn’t allow her own sadness and feelings of hopelessness to interfere with her ability to care for him.

Exhausted, and stooping over from the fierce pain raging in her back, she slowly made her way to the couch in the living room. Grabbing her laptop, she spent the next hour sitting with an electric heating pad pressed against her spine as she pored over possible places that would allow her father to finish his life receiving the care he required. For Rebecca, the research was both discouraging and depressing.

Finally, unable to keep her eyes open any longer, she decided she had to get some rest. After all, in less than eight hours, she was going to have to repeat the same day again.

Rebecca closed her computer, but before she went to bed, she allowed herself a few minutes to relax. Her mind drifted from one thought to another before settling on a mental image of her large suburban neighborhood. How many other households, she wondered, were experiencing situations similar to hers. How many other people were responsible for the care of a vulnerable loved one and were dealing with incredibly challenging circumstances, out of sight and with little or no support.

She knew, without a doubt, that among the myriad of issues they each faced, one of the most difficult was the sense of isolation. It was an intense form of loneliness that Rebecca had never experienced before, and no one could truly understand or appreciate it until they were placed in that position themselves.

Having contact with other people was a pleasure she was now denied. Although she had a few close friends that stayed in touch, stopping by in person was out of the question. Allowing visitors in the home was extremely disturbing to William. The last time someone had come in, her father had lashed out in fear and anger, and his stress level remained high for hours after they left.

But today had been a good one, and for the most part uneventful. For that she was thankful. But with Alzheimer’s disease, you never knew for sure what was going to happen next, and, as always, that made her worry about what tomorrow would bring.

***

The next morning, the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. Even though it was Sunday, Rebecca had discovered that her father was more comfortable with a consistent routine. It seemed important for him to go to bed and get up at about the same time each day.

She swung her feet off the edge of the bed and winced as a bolt of pain shot down her spine. Although she had tried to ignore the obvious, there was no doubt her back was getting worse all the time. Thinking about the long day ahead, Rebecca felt tired already. What she wouldn’t give for another hour of sleep  – but that wasn’t going to happen.

As quickly as her physical discomfort would allow, she got dressed and shuffled down the hallway to her father’s room. She knew that at this stage of his illness, it was unlikely her dad would have two good days in a row – but she also knew it was important to try to stay positive.

She knocked and waited, but there was no response. She knocked again but heard nothing. As a feeling of apprehension slowly crept over her, she hesitated for just a second and then opened the door. In that instant, her world changed forever.

Rebecca looked around the room in horror. Her father had attempted to make his bed, and his slippers and bathrobe were gone. But it was the shocking blast of freezing air pouring in through the open window that made Rebecca cry out in anguish.

Since her dad had moved in, the windows in her home were never opened under any circumstances, and they remained locked at all times. Terrified, she ran over, pulled back the curtain, and saw the window screen laying in the grass.

As panic overwhelmed her, Rebecca knew she didn’t have a moment to waste. She ran back to her bedroom, grabbed her phone and called 911.

***

The police quickly arrived, and Rebecca provided the authorities with all of the information she could about her father. She gave them photos of him and a detailed description of what he was wearing. She also explained the best way to approach her dad without scaring or upsetting him. Unfortunately, the one thing she could not do was give them any clues about where to look for him. She had no idea where he was trying to go. The police, for their part, did their best to reassure Rebecca that these types of searches frequently produced positive results – but, of course, they could make no guarantees.

In short order, the Silver Alert was issued and law enforcement immediately swung into action. The media also took the necessary steps needed to inform the public about her father’s disappearance and condition.

Once the police had left, there was nothing she could do but wait, however, that only gave Rebecca time to berate herself as a massive wave of guilt consumed her. She had committed herself to her father’s care, and now she believed she’d failed him.

Collapsing on the couch, she slowly looked around the room until her gaze fell on the new baseball book. Rebecca had not had the opportunity to read a single page to him, and now she feared she would never read to her dad again.

Her mind was filled with self-loathing. How could she have let this happen? This time yesterday, her father was having a good morning. He was warm and safe. But now he had spent the night outdoors lost, confused, and freezing.

Just the thought of it was almost more than she could bear. Rebecca couldn’t begin to imagine what he was going through, and she didn’t dare allow herself to think that he might not be found before he was injured or worse.

The next twenty-four hours were a blur. Rebecca could not control her emotions, and her ability to think rationally was impaired. Distraught, during what turned out to be the longest day of her life, she was unable to do little more than exist. She sat on the couch and stared at the jigsaw puzzle. She paced through the house until she came to the sick plant that had angered William, and she sat at the kitchen table watching the birds at the feeder, wondering if her dad would ever see the cardinals again.

But when nightfall came without any news from the police, her distress only intensified. It was predicted to be another cold night, and she knew her father might not survive it.

With her nerves frayed and in excruciating pain from her back, she tried to get some rest, but it was impossible. Rebecca could only manage a few minutes of fitful sleep at a time before waking up with her mind racing. Dreadful thoughts and mental pictures only increased her anxiety and despair. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, morning arrived – but the authorities still had nothing to report on her father.

Rebecca got up, showered, and tried to eat some breakfast, but she had no appetite. Giving up on food, she moved to the living room and spent the next hour sitting on the couch thumbing through the same photo album she and her dad had looked at. It seemed like every time she turned a page, another photo tore at her heart as she realized that the world she’d once known was now lost forever. Feeling more alone than at any other point in her life, the precious memories were suddenly interrupted by the ringing of her phone.

When she saw that it was the police, she momentarily froze. As terrifying as it was not knowing, at least it kept the hope alive that she would be reunited with her dad. But this call might bring the tragic news she feared. What if three days from now she had to bury her father? How could she live with herself? How could she possibly go on?

With her hands shaking, she swallowed hard and answered. There was a slight pause, and then Rebecca heard the police officer say the words that brought the harrowing nightmare to an end. Her father had been found – and he was safe.

Instantly, she experienced an enormous surge of relief as she hung on every word the officer said. He quickly informed Rebecca that her dad had been found wandering along a creek bed less than two miles from her home. He said that William was cold and that he had multiple bruises and abrasions, most likely from falling, but, otherwise, he was in good health.

When the call ended, she sat on the couch sobbing. The release of pent-up tension combined with the euphoria that swept over her was like nothing she had ever experienced.

Rebecca now realized she had kept her dad at home for too long. She’d made a terrible mistake by not placing him in memory care before a potentially life-threatening event like this could happen – but she had been blessed with a second chance. It was time to face the fact that taking care of her father was beyond her capabilities. That meant that moving him into an appropriate facility was the only choice.

The last twenty-eight hours had made it clear that moving him to a safe place that could provide him with the around-the-clock care he required was no longer just an option but had become a necessity. And the sooner the better.

Although it was impossible to predict how her dad would react to such a decision, she knew it would be best for both of them. His well-being could be monitored and assured, and she could have the surgery that would, hopefully, stabilize her back and bring her relief.

The last seven years had worn Rebecca down. But, although physically in pain and having suffered tremendous personal loss, she had found the courage and perseverance to move forward and put her father’s needs ahead of her own. She had, under incredibly difficult circumstances, done the best she could for him, but she knew it wasn’t enough. Her father had been in danger, and she could not allow that to happen again.

Within forty-five minutes, Rebecca was at the police station. Still shaken by the knowledge of what could have happened, she waited nervously in a small room with two officers. After several minutes, the door opened, and William was brought in.

She took one look at him, and her eyes filled with tears. His face had several long scratches, and there was a large bruise across his forehead. She rushed to her father and wrapped her arms around him. “Dad! Thank God you’re safe.”

Rebecca squeezed him for several seconds and then held him at arm’s length waiting for some sign of recognition, some flicker in his eyes to indicate that he realized who she was – but there was nothing, only a dazed stare.

As she began to cry, Rebecca hugged her father again as tightly as she could. “Oh my God, I thought I’d lost you.”

In his usual flat tone of voice, William said, “I was lost. Didn’t they tell you?”

“Yes, they told me.” Now that he was safe, she couldn’t help being curious. Knowing he might not be able to answer her question, it still needed to be addressed, so she stepped back and gently asked,  “Dad, why did you leave? Where were you trying to go?”

She was surprised when his expression slowly changed to one of intensity. “It was important. I wanted to be there.”

“Where, Dad?”

“I wanted to visit Judith…… Did you know she died? …… I think the cemetery is near the house, but even though I looked and looked, I couldn’t find where she’s buried.”

Rebecca gently touched the side of his face and said, “Dad, anytime you want to visit her grave, I will drive you there. Just ask, and we will go.”

While incredibly thankful that her father was safe, Rebecca was well aware that his worst days with the disease were still ahead. Although she was relieved now, she knew it was only temporary, and she could not help fearing what the future might hold. She gently kissed his cheek and said, “I love you. Dad.”

William looked away and then turned back to her. He stared at her face for a moment and then softly asked, “Rebecca?”

The sheer joy of hearing him say her name made her heart soar. “Yes, Dad. It’s me, Rebecca.”

He looked at his daughter for a long time before he said, “We have to remember to feed the cardinals in the morning. The male and female will be together.”

Rebecca brushed away tears as she took her father by the hand. “We will, Dad. I promise. We will.”

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