Tuesday, January 26, 2010

There's No Place Like Home, If You Can Find It

The PB's dad, a former machinist for the Bethlehem Steel Company, is 95 and in "perfect health," according to the doctors who examined him after he fell in his house, where he lives alone, on New Year's Eve. "Perfect health" except for vitamin D and B12 deficiencies, that is. Then there's his new injury, a cracked vertebra that is causing him considerable pain. I suspected a deficiency when he began complaining that his legs felt weak about a year ago. But he accused the PB of pretending to be a doctor, and refused to go to a doctor for blood tests. Dad is best described as scrappy.

Dad can afford good health insurance but he doesn't have a primary care doctor or a prescription benefit plan. He canceled his very reasonable plan when it increased by $17/month last year. He refused to believe that he might someday need a prescription that would make this monthly charge worthwhile.

The PB is extremely fortunate to have not only a sharp, argumentative dad but also a pair of kind, dedicated siblings who live closer to him (2 hours for one, 15 minutes for the other) and are taking care of him as he's been in and out of the hospital and a couple of rehab places for the past few weeks.

Since the ringworm plague prevented us from hiring cat sitters and traveling home for the holidays, we finally made the trip to Pennsylvania to see dad this week, the day after we got the official all-clear. I'd been spending about an hour a day on the phone with him since New Year's. A phone call that lasts less than an hour doesn't count with my dad. Thus I became an expert on the menu options and the food quality at his hospital and rehab places.  And I heard repeatedly about the evil attributes of the "turtle shell" back brace he must wear for several weeks as his vertebra heals.

I don't drive, for reasons even I no longer remember. I need to learn. One of these days. In the meantime, my husband drives for us both. He never complains; he is magnificent. The drive to Bethlehem takes about 6 hours, since we stop for rest breaks (he gets sleepy) and we like to take the West Side Highway in Manhattan. It feels like a long, long drive. Connecticut seems as endless as Montana.

When we arrived in Bethlehem, it was largely unrecognizable because the steel mills have been converted to an enormous Sands casino, with corresponding enlargements to many streets and bridges. It's strange to call a place "home" when you are perpetually lost there and few things look familiar. When the steel company closed, it left a  silent landscape of blast furnaces and rotting mill buildings that stretch for miles along the Lehigh River. Most of the residents regard its redevelopment into a casino, sports, museum, and entertainment complex as a godsend. But it will always remind me of Pottersville from It's a Wonderful Life. There's a giant neon "Sands" sign attached to an old ore-moving crane that they left in situ. We don't gamble and we worry about the families of people who shouldn't, but do.

The downtown, historic area looks about the same, though. I spent my teen years there, taking guitar lessons, cruising the library, and working as a museum volunteer. We escaped the rehab center one day to have lunch in the Moravian Bookstore, which has expanded into housewares, gourmet food, candy, Christmas ornaments, clothing, and jewelry over the years. There's also a café with free wireless, which the rehab center lacks. Then we drove around a little to admire the 18th-century stone houses and elaborate Victorians on Market and Church Streets. There are no houses in the Boston area that compare with the charm of these Pennsylvania houses. Darn. Stone houses are rare up here; I love them.

There are several large, parallel roads in Bethlehem that head from downtown towards the places we need to get to: my dad's and sister's houses, all-night restaurants, the highway to New Jersey, etc. I can't tell one from the other, and they all veer into dark countryside eventually, if you don't get off them in time. We make a lot of U-turns and wander in circles whenever we go "home."

Can you still call a place "home" if you seldom know how to get there?

The rehab center is above average; it smells like cinnamon and apple as you walk in. Everyone on the staff is nice, according to my dad. He is using a walker, but he's very spry with it. He's doing great in physical therapy. No one can believe he's 95. I expected to feel stunned and sorrowful over his deterioration since I hadn't seen him in more than a year. But, in fact, he looks about the same and can argue with as much energy and stubbornness as ever.

The food is terrible but my dad isn't very fussy. There are many things he won't eat, including mushrooms, apple juice, and any pasta that isn't covered in tomato sauce. But he does like frozen dinners and canned soup, and since rehab food approaches that culinary level, he's okay. He loathes the coffee but nearly had a stroke when I suggested he order a cappuccino or latté instead. He always puts six spoonfuls of sugar in his Sanka, plus about a quarter-cup of milk, so I didn't think a latté was that outrageous. But he reacted as if I'd suggested he drink kerosene. So he's stuck with the coffee. I tried.

He shares a room with a friendly, retired high school German teacher who has gout. When the lights go out at night, he and my dad enjoy lying awake, talking about history and the Bethlehem Steel, which is what my father prefers to talk about most of the time, even though he retired 30 years ago. My husband and the teacher spoke German together while my dad and I talked about the steel industry.

I'm glad we saw him and were able to give my sibs a weekend day off. They both came to the rehab center that night, anyway, to see us. They are saints and angels, and I feel guilty that I can't do more to help them.

I'm sure we'll be heading down there again very soon (please don't tell my husband that it might be SuperBowl weekend). Perhaps next time we won't get lost getting to "my" house.

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