Eldercare and Ice Cream: Sweet Life

This morning I’m struck anew by the power of simple pleasures.

I’ve been in California this past week with my parents. I’m here to help get my father into residential care. His Parkinson’s Disease is severe; it’s time for him to leave his home. Our luck may not seem so sweet.

But I am lucky. Not because everything is hunky dory, but because I watched the sun rise this morning over Tomales Bay, because the hills on the horizon are green and shadowed. Because this beautiful room that is not my room is painted a pale yellow. Because life can be so many different things at once: sensuous, bitter, unearthly.

I’m in Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, renting a friend’s house for the night, accompanied by another close friend. Both of us are escapees from children and schedules and work and life’s usual and unusual woes.

Yet I won’t forget one afternoon last week, after my brother and I took our father to visit two places where he might live. Dad leaned hard on his cane, following our instructions about where to step: one foot up, one foot down.

We drove along East Bay suburban streets, packed with ranch houses and bungalows and all the stucco pastel colors of my childhood, the mangy stands of palm trees, the ancient American cars in driveways up on blocks. We talked rationally about the good points of these caregivers, the nice windows and shutters at the other place, the yard, the roses.

Pros and cons: one foot up, one foot down. My dad tried so hard, ever the professor, even as he struggled to remember words.

I thought he’d want to head straight home, that he’d be exhausted. But as I navigated through the late-afternoon traffic, down streets that looked both familiar and utterly strange, he asked if we could stop for ice cream.

My brother leaned forward from his slump in the back seat. “Ice cream, Dad?”

“How about it? A little ice cream.”

“We can do that,” I said.

Fifteen minutes later, we sat in a pink-filigreed ice cream parlor I also remembered from childhood. That seemed odd, too. I’ve become defended against the neighborhood changes, the gentrification, the Trader Joe’s up the road, but here was the same shop, in the same shopping mall with the bowling alley where we used to bowl as a family treat.

“How about a sundae?” Dad said.

“A sundae?” I asked, surprised by how specific his request was. “Really?”

“Just a little sundae.”

“Do you want hot fudge?”

He looked away. “Oh, I don’t need that.”

“But you can, if you want. You get a choice of toppings.”

“Toppings?”

“Chocolate, caramel, coffee, marshmallow,” I read off the menu, “hot fudge. See, hot fudge?”

He squinted at the words. He can’t read much.

“OK. Hot fudge.” He seemed indifferent, but I knew he wasn’t.

My brother and I both ordered exotic concoctions—me, a “Black and Tan,” with caramel sauce and toasted almond ice cream, a long-ago favorite but something I’d never normally order as an adult—my brother, a large sundae with Mint Chip and Rocky Road.

We joked about when I used to work at another local ice cream parlor the summer after my first year of college. My brother would pick me up at night after my shift. I’d give him gigantic sundaes for free, the ice cream packed down and drenched in syrup in to-go containers.

I’d often cut my fingers on the metal rims of the ice cream cartons when I scooped. I’d learned to hate flavors like Bubblegum. I’d gazed into space, listening to the Commodores and Fleetwood Mac on the radio. I had smoked pot in the back room with the assistant manager and snuck handfuls of candied peanuts. After a week, she’d told me I could be a manager, too.

But even then I was already floating away, heading back to school, to another life I could only hazily conceive of at that age, one far beyond a working-class suburb in the East Bay. That was the last summer I spent in my parents’ home.

Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions. I keep my visions to myself.

Last week, after our sundaes, after my dad had crumpled napkins in his shaking fingers (he’d only smeared a bit of hot fudge on the table), we got him home. He settled into his armchair in front of the TV. Within moments, his head sagged forward. His eyes closed.

Before I left, I kissed his balding scalp, the silvery strands of hair trimmed by our in-home caregiver that morning. He wasn’t quite asleep.

“Honey,” he whispered. “Thank you for the wonderful day.”

I wanted to cry. I was still rushing away, but the moment caught me, too. It still has me, as the tears come, in this beautiful place that’s not my home.

For an instant, ice cream seemed to make it better. That very small pleasure was what my father remembered or wanted to remember.

He shouldn’t have thanked me, I think. He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t remember what that afternoon was really about.

But that’s my guilt and self-pity talking, because who’s to say he didn’t—or that it matters? Who’s to say why blessings come to us or when the frailest father stops being a parent?