Chapter XVII The Melba Notebooks
Dad has been insisting for some weeks that before winter comes I go with him on a hike to a place we had been before. We take Rob, friend of his, and leave early because it’s a good distance to the trail head. My notebook entry that evening follows: 9 24 99 6:00 PM Ja: Back from hike. A beautiful Fall day. Drove to the north ridge at about 6000 ft , then up probably 3 + miles a pretty good climb, beautiful views. We’re all, however, glad to be home; very glad.
The day is cool but sunny. Dad and Rob and I hike the North Ridge, a nice trail, a gentle up-climb, shaded until one reaches the tree line nearing the glacial ice. Bob does well, slow, but steady, using that pursed lip exhalation he has had for many years; it gives him just a little more partial pressure of oxygen, helping his mine-dust scarred lungs to keep up with his inflexible will. He is in character, pushing on quite oblivious of those with him, preferring the mountain solitude to peopled conversation. By the time we reach the open ridge it is one o’clock. All his life Bob has insisted that he doesn’t need to eat or drink while hiking, and that does not change in this, his 92nd year. I know his ways, and am actually not certain he is wrong. Though the current dogma hikers and physiologists is totally contrary, I have too often seen today’s truth become tomorrows lie. But Rob is not used to all this Bobism. For the past hour he has been suggesting we stop and eat.
At 1:20 we find ourselves on a pleasant grassy saddle. The snow, just now, is hidden from view but we have watched it come and go from sight, as it moved ever closer. Behind us is a small hill that we have skirted; But Bob never wants to avoid the more difficult and upward path, and he spurned our wimpy choice to follow the trail voiding the unecessesary ridge climb up and down. Without comment, or a backward look, he mounts the hill, while we go round to wait on the other side. He approaches:
” Dad, we need to stop and eat here.”
“Alright!” with that familiar sour smile and look which says: “OK ladies!” he does not argue, but acts. Again, there is no discussion. We sit down and open our lunch, as he stands 20 or 30 yards away.
“Really” I say to Rob, “he’s very tired. If we both just continue here, he will join us.”
But no. He turns and looks up the near, and steeper, slope. Without a word he heads up the way he just came down. “Let’s eat”. I say. “You go back ’round the hill the way we came , while I climb up after him; we’ll meet you on that side, the downhill side. We won’t lose him either way.” And that is exactly what happens. I reach the top some ten minutes later, find Bob, and we make our way down the other side to meet Rob and continue on our way; but this time, downward, towards the trail-head below.
Like life itself, going down is almost always harder than coming up. Frequently Bob lies down for five or ten minutes at a time, falling soundly to sleep under his old distressed woolen lumberman’s cap, heedless of the crazed mosquitoes. I wake him to urge him onto his feet, each time with more difficulty. At long last we reach the car, passing Rob who develops knee pain and has to rest often. On the long ride home, Bob sleeps, but still refuses food or water, and wordlessly collapses as we arrive home.
Later I reflect more about the gradual loss of self that Bob had experienced during the past few years. Unable hear; to speak sensibly; unable any longer to hide from himself and others his caseous mind and lost physical capacity including the ability to drive. His home is no longer his; he has no power to make decisions there. Shi, the new caregiver, is the culmination of all that accumulated loss of what he has treasured above all things throughout this century: Independence. She is big, assertive, fat, all he dislikes in a woman. But now his likes or dislikes don’t matter. Shi Is. She does.
Suddenly it comes to me: He was planning to stay on the mountain that beautiful day, to walk out of life, Eskimal like, after reaching the snowline, or the highest spot he could. Would I have been able to interfere before nightfall? I’ll never know. I can’t help being saddened that his confusion and failed strength didn’t allow him to make his own way from the living. On that lovely day one more time, and one more way, he had lost his freedom. All that will be left to him in the coming months will be resentment, and anger. It will fade, but only because it is replaced by a quiet resigned senility.
* Five spiral bound Melba Notebooks, dated from 1995 to 2002, contain the hand written entries of numerous caregivers and family who make it possible for this aging couple, Bob and Melba, whose lives spanned the entire last century, to live in their home until their ashes are scattered in places meaningful to them. The notebook entries are the way caregivers communicate with one another, not only to help Bob and Melba avoid nursing home care, but to shelter Melba from the idiosyncrasies of her difficult but admirable and beloved husband Bob. This scene is adapted from one of the hundreds of episodes recorded therein. The Notebooks are Dialogue. They tell, often in moving or hilarious terms, of getting old and dying; of being a child or a caregiver to the very aged as they approach death. Names and places are altered, but the voices are genuine. Asterisks in the text indicate edited iterated informational material. Italics are the author’s comments