The Kindness of Strangers

Thank you to the sixty-something man in the parking lot.

He came to help me when I was so crazed and desperate I would have called out to Dick Cheney or Adolf Hitler and asked them to help had either of them come goose-stepping by.  I was struggling to get my father out of the car and into his wheelchair so I could push him into the urologist’s office.

“I don’t want to get out,” Daddy said.  Every time I pulled his right leg out onto the pavement, he pulled it back in the car.

Together, this stranger and I wheedled and eased him up, then back into his wheelchair.  I think Daddy weighs 170 pounds or so; that’s a lot of dead weight when he doesn’t want to cooperate.  It’s a little easier pushing him in the wheelchair while he drags his feet, but not much.

We went inside the doctor’s office, as a series of strangers opened doors for us.  Thanks, again, to all of them.

“We need a urine sample,” the physician’s assistant told me.  They were examining Daddy today because he’d had some blood in his urine.  “Will he cooperate?”

He has Alzheimer’s, I told him, and he’s incontinent.  He can’t cooperate.

Still, we moved him onto a port-a-john, yanking down his pants.  He sat there and hummed and sang and talked to himself.  Otherwise, he didn’t or couldn’t cooperate.  Another move, with two of us supporting his weight, back into the wheelchair.

Daddy and I sat in the room and stared.  I look at him sometimes and wonder where he’s gone.  The whole concept of Alzheimer’s interferes with my vague notion that we all have souls.  Does my father still have a soul?  Are breathing and a beating heart the signs a soul is present?  Or are they almost nothing, automatic physical functions?

My father is almost bald now and he’s missing a few teeth.  Once, he was strong and handsome and athletic.  I was never the daughter he wanted — assuming he wanted children at all.  For years, he seemed to exist to tell me what was wrong with me, to correct me in any way he could, as harshly as possible.  How odd it is that I am the one who is here with him all those years later.  Neither of us would have ever anticipated that.  But, you know, life doesn’t give a damn what you anticipated.

A technician came in to do an ultrasound.  She pulled Daddy’s pants down a little.  Daddy rallied a little.  “This should be fun,” he said.

The physician’s assistant came back to catheterize Daddy’s bladder.  This, clearly, was not fun.  I tried to distract him while the tube went in, but it didn’t help much.

The urine was extracted and tested.  “No blood in his urine,” the doctor said.

So, we sat in his office, with my father staring off at the wall and the paintings, and the doctor and I talked about options.  Since Daddy had smoked a pipe for years, there was a possibility — slight, but a possibility — he might have bladder cancer.  A CT scan would make a clearer diagnosis.

It was funny how it all came pouring out of me at that point.  No catheter was required for that particular flow.  Why a CT scan?  Why more tests?  Why more doctor’s visits and possible hospitalizations?

“He has no quality of life now,” I said.  “He lost his mind years ago.  What are we trying to save?”

I talked and talked and talked, far more than I ordinarily do, louder than usual.  As I talked, I tried to examine my own mind and be as honest as possible.  I knew there was only one answer: Were he in his right mind, my father wouldn’t want any more treatment.  Were I in his place, I wouldn’t want more treatment.  I wouldn’t want to sit there, in a strange doctor’s office, with my adult child watching me, seeing I was no longer there, my mind had gone, my control of my bodily functions had vanished.  Seeing me stripped of all dignity and quality of life.

The doctor said he would note this all in my father’s record — that he (the doctor) had recommended further treatment and that it had been rejected.  I knew he had to do that.

“Just tell me,” I said, “I’m not a terrible person.”

He said no, I wasn’t.  He said he sympathized and he understood.  I would like to thank him for that.  In the midst of a miserable day of struggle and self-recrimination and haunting guilt, he made me feel a little better.  The kindness of strangers isn’t merely a brilliant line in a brilliant play.  Sometimes, it exists out there when you need it the most.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

15 comments… add one
  • And I thought taking my 6-year old daughter to the urologist’s office was difficult! Thanks for an article that helps put things in perspective!

  • Thanks for sharing this today.  I’ve been really down in the dumps about my own mother with Alzheimer’s.  To make a long story short, she presently refuses to speak to me.  I was the black sheep/least favored child, constantly critiqued, never a word of encouragement or an “I’m proud of you.” comment. 

    It’s been difficult for me to cope with the idea that a mother doesn’t want to speak to her own child.  But that’s where we are.  At least right now.  She never was what one would call a pleasant person, and I would have liked to have at least a _few_ good memories of her.  But, apparently, this is not to be.  Alzheimer’s will rob us of any final chance of that.  I’ve felt too numb to cry.  I’ve felt too numb to write about it.  But at least I know I’m not alone.

  • Diane Hernandez Link

    Dear Ruth,
    I totally understand what you mean by the kindness of strangers.
    Both my parents are cancer survivors. My father already had diabetes but eventually lost both kidneys and had to be on dialysis three times a week. Soon after he developed dementia and didn’t understand what was happening to him.

    I felt terrible because I have a full-time job and was not always able to take time off as often as I wanted to since they live in another city. Yet my mother would sometimes call and talk about the kindness of complete strangers, who’d seemingly show up out of nowhere to help her take her electric wheelchair out her van, so she could visit my father whenever he had stay in the hospital.

    This past Saturday, my mother and I attended a lovely arts & crafter fair in Gruene, Texas. We were especially impressed by all the kind people who volunteered to help her navigate all the rough and rocky pathways. One man even held her hand without her asking, which made her cry later on.

    I want to thank all these gracious folks who made an enormous difference in our lives through their acts of kindness–even though I don’t know their names.

    Always best regards,

  • Thank you so much for writing this.  I am coping with my father’s Alzheimer’s now, too.  My father and I were extremely close, and shared many loves – books, music, movies.  I miss him so much it hurts.  I think the empty shell that he is now is worse than if he had just passed away.  You are not horrible; you are a caring person who knows that this disease is evil and doesn’t deserve to continue to rob someone of their soul.

  • Donna Meadows Link

    Dementia is the worst of thieves, stealing away all we value most about living and being…
    And it won’t go away, sitting there thuggishly waiting to steal one more bit.
    Thank you for reminding us of the realities of this horrid disease.  And of how far small kindnesses go in supporting us in moments of agony or frustration.  There is much we can do for each other and it doesn’t take a lot of time.  I certainly need to be reminded of that often.
    Your writing in this blog  is rich and soulful and never fails to connect with me.  Thank you, Ruth.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Thanks to all of you for writing.  It’s a tough, tough subject, but it does help to know I’m not alone.  What kills me is how it sneaks up on you, despite your best efforts.  Both my parents would have hated what happened to them (my mother had accelerated Parkinson’s and lost both her mind and any control of her body).  But, still, they ended up like that, suffering and incoherent at the end.  There’s got to be a better way.

  • Cindy Link

    Ruth — Bless you for saying out loud what so many of us are afraid to say.

    My 80-year-old father informed me last week that he stopped taking his medicine and now he feels better. Plus, he said, the doctor was poisoning him. I just decided that, if he really does feel better, he ought to have those better days if he wants them. 

    And I’ve never heard anyone else mention the soul problem related to Alzheimer’s.  Don’t we tie intelligence and decision-making to the soul?  When intelligence and all remnants of memory are robbed through Alzheimer’s, is their soul still in there?  Do they meet up with their minds on the other side?
    Just As Puzzled As You,
    Cindy A

  • Diane Hernandez Link

    Dear Ruth,
    I want to add that you are not a terrible person by any definition. You are simply sharing your frustrations of the moment, which is necessary to help you deal with this major life challenge. Clearly, you are caring daughter who is serving as her father’s advocate since he cannot communicate on his own behalf. You are simply sharing your vulnerability, which only demonstrates your inner personal strength. Thank you for sharing what is in your heart and soul!

    Always best regards,

  • It’s such a struggle when parents are infirm in body and mind. My mother at 94 is barely ticking over now and in a nursing home nearby. You describe tellingly the constant questioning, both that concerning the residue of consciousness in the parent and that arising from one’s ever accessible reservoir of guilt. As other commenters have said, your practical compassion is exemplary and your inner feelings are absolutely as they should be. When it comes, may the going be peaceful and may you take comfort in knowing that you did what you could.

  • Paul Link

    Terrible?  Ruth, You are a fucking saint!  I hope my kids are able to think as clearly about my doddering old self after they’ve changed a few of my diapers!

  • I feel as if I “get to know” a person when I read his or her writing, especially on a regular basis.  Even as one of your newer readers, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, you are NOT a terrible person. 
    Ruth, you are a good soul, a loving and giving person.  Your thoughts are the same thoughts that many of us have during these difficult times. 

    This is a poignant and sadly beautiful description of a relationship, and many of us can relate.  I also love the description of the stranger.  How nice to meet those good souls who happen along the rocky road. 

  • Sheila Link

    Ruth, thank you for a sensitive and honest snapshot of what it’s like to have an aging and ailing parent. I, too, have been grateful for the kindness of many strangers who have helped my mom (in a wheelchair) and me navigate doorways and elevators. Sometimes, I find that people either don’t know what to do to help or they are oblivious. One time, I was taking mom to church, and I struggled mightily to get the heavy wheelchair out of the trunk. No one stopped to help, nor was anyone inside the church willing to move over so my mom could slip in at the end of the pew. I was in tears before the service started. We’ve never gone back.
    I sometimes feel very alone helping my mother. I’m always thankful when someone shows a bit of kindness and thoughtfulness. Maybe folks just need to be made more aware.

  • The kindness of strangers is the best balm of all for the soul because it’s unconditional. And unexpected. Thanks so much for reminding us.

    It’s difficult for those of us still hale and hearty to imagine what it would be like to be so dependent on others. I had only a small taste of it when I was involved in a bad boat accident. (I may be the only person to have ever been seriously injured while whale watching.) And it was, as usual, a lesson in not pre-judging others.

    While I was on a whale-watching expedition a couple of years ago off Cape Cod, I had been particularly annoyed by a young woman who seemed to keep pushing her way in front of me whenever a flipper would appear off the side of the boat, and I found myself trying to edge her out. It was an instant dislike. A few moments later, when a whole pod of pilot whales appeared, everyone on the boat rushed to  one side, making it dip and almost capsize, and I couldn’t get a hand on the rail. When a big wave came through, the boat lurched violently the other way, throwing me (the only one who didn’t have a hand on the rail) several feet into the air and down onto a metal bench. I was nearly unconscious and temporarily paralyzed and found myself suddenly helpless, peering up at a circle of faces around me. And the most solicitous among them was that annoying young woman, who took charge and held my hand while I was deciding whether or not I was paralyzed for life. I had a sudden epiphany of what it would be like to be helpless and dependent — and so glad of the kindness of a stranger.

  • Winston Link

    Ruth, the soul remains there as long as the “physical plant” survives.  Alzheimer’s is like the Berlin Wall, it divides the two.  But the imprisoned soul sends out powerful signals received by loved ones and receptive strangers.  Hence, you hear the signals and rush in like the “Berlin Airlift” giving aid to the “physical plant” that still houses that soul that no longer knows of or can fulfill its physical needs.

  • After watching a woman with Alzheimer (or dementia) sobbing at the breast center as she waited for her mammogram, I understand what you have just written. Until that moment, I had given no thought to the challenges of medical treatment for those types of patients. I had to ask myself why she had to go through such a traumatizing experience.

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