Unlike some people, I’ve never had a problem with change. In most cases, I’ve welcomed it as a positive thing. An adventure. Something different. Maybe because I’ve always been easily bored. But there’s no denying that, like it or not, change takes some adjusting to. Lately, it’s become crystal clear to me that some changes are harder to swallow than others.

My dad has lived in a nursing home for nearly six years, the result of two strokes and an unsuccessful attempt to remain at home with in-home caregivers. Three weeks ago, he had another stroke. While his mother (my grandmother) died from a stroke at the young age of 62, Dad has had several strokes now and has lived to tell about it. He’s 81.

Depending on how you look at it, I am very fortunate indeed. Both my parents are still living and my mom, at least, is in good health. I’ve watched my friends bury their parents and I know my turn is coming, no matter how much I dread it. And yet, the process of watching my dad’s steady decline is particularly difficult, especially given who he was before.

A dairy farmer all his life, Dad worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known. If you’re not familiar with farm life, and have a romanticized fantasy in your head of fresh air, beautifully sleek horses, cuddly lambs and kittens, and large tables groaning under farm-fresh food of every variety… well… that’s partly right. Balance that view with a dose of reality that includes never-ending physical labor, zero vacations, zero days off, sick animals in need of a vet, busted machinery in need of a mechanic, and debt up to your eyeballs. There, that’s more accurate.

It’s a tired cliché, but a farmer’s work really is, quite literally, never done. Never. My dad rose every morning at 5 to bring the cows into the barn for the morning milking. It didn’t matter if there were three feet of snow on the ground, howling winds, or a coating of ice on every surface. It also didn’t matter if he was sick. Remember, there are no days off for a farmer, and that includes sick days. Milking the cows took a couple of hours, combined with feeding the animals, and cleaning everything involved in the process afterwards. He usually made it back into the house for breakfast at 9:30. After breakfast, the crops in the fields beckoned and whether it was planting or harvesting time, Dad spent hours navigating machinery through the rows of crops, hoisting heavy bags of fertilizer or seed corn, stopping to fix broken machinery if he could and waiting for a mechanic to arrive if he couldn’t. And always, always watching the sky for rain. Good if the crops were dry; bad if you were racing under dark, swollen clouds to get a field of hay baled. In the spring, summer, and fall, Dad’s day usually didn’t end until after dark. He’d come into the house, sometimes as late as 9:30 or 10 p.m., exhausted and sunburned. He’d page through the newspaper for a few minutes at the kitchen table, then go to bed so he could get up at 5 the next morning and start all over.

Fast-forward to the present, and I’m watching my dad sleep in his wheelchair while I place the plastic pieces on his Bingo card. His left arm and leg are useless, and there are random stains on his shirt from the day’s meals. I arrived at lunchtime to find him sleeping in the dining room, his partially eaten lunch in front of him. We had to get a new canister of oxygen before going to Bingo, as with each stroke, his lungs have been further damaged and he’s now on oxygen 24/7. The little he speaks is barely above a whisper, and he has a harder time understanding. Yesterday, he’d misplaced his right hearing aid but it doesn’t matter much now because conversation is no longer a priority.

While I am so grateful to his caregivers at the nursing home for taking care of Dad, I so wish they could see him the way he used to be. Strong, hard-working, funny, smart. He loved listening to bluegrass music, loved playing cards, loved eating ice cream, loved going out for seafood with friends. He loved going to church and he loved to work. I want to tell his nurses: “This isn’t my real dad! If you could only see how he used to be, you’d be amazed. You wouldn’t recognize him!”

Dad’s nurses are busy and I know they don’t have time to sit and engage every resident. And they couldn’t possibly know or appreciate his history, his previous life, like I do. I know it’s the natural cycle of life. The old ones fade away and die, and new ones are born, blah, blah, blah. Change is good, right? Sometimes, it’s so hard to take.

Published by Kelly Z Conrad