By the time he was 76, my father was frail. His balance was poor and he had trouble walking. He lived alone in Baltimore in a big house full of stairs, and watching him come tottering down those stairs was terrifying.
Each time, I thought he might fall. He refused to make the house safer – no stair lifts, no grab rails (they would disfigure the house, he said) – and would not consider living anywhere else. When my brother and his wife invited my father to move in, the invitation was vigorously declined. And we lived in three different cities, far apart.
To try to cope better with this situation, my brother and I created a shared Google calendar – an online calendar in which we could both make entries from wherever we happened to be. Each time either of us spoke to our father, we marked it in the calendar: what time of day it was, how he sounded, what we spoke about.
For example, on Oct. 13, 2009, at 1:30, I telephoned home, spoke to my father and wrote in the calendar that he was “just off to see the new doctor, writing a list of his medications. Nothing else to report; leaves starting to turn and it’s starting to get cold.” Later that afternoon, he called my brother and said that he liked the new doctor and that he had indeed discussed his medications with her.
The upshot was that we had an excellent record of how he was – whether he was getting out, if he was cheerful or feeling low, changes to his medicines, any falls he said he had had. The calendar also allowed us to make sure that one of us spoke to him just about every day. And if I couldn’t reach him, I didn’t have to wonder whether he was lying hurt and helpless at the bottom of the stairs for days – I could look at the calendar and see that my brother had spoken to him a few hours ago.
We never told my father we did this. He probably would have been furious. There is, after all, something weird about the idea that people are taking notes on you, however loving their motives. It was our imperfect solution to an imperfect setup. And it helped us.
Just before his 79th birthday, my father started collapsing. First, he fell in the street. He thought he had tripped, but he wasn’t sure. Then he fell several times in the house. The calendar provided a full record of it – and we could both see that there was something new, something abnormal. It turned out that his heart was stopping. My brother flew down and took him to a hospital, where he had a pacemaker put in.
But the calendar had other, more subtle effects, too. It was, in essence, a journal kept by two people who read each other’s entries, and so it gradually became a conversation between the two of us as well as a record of events. One day, he’s infuriating my brother with speculations about two friends’ having an inappropriate affair: “I said I thought he was being outrageous and that it was none of his business, even if his wild speculations were true. I hope he has the sense not to say anything to anyone else about his unfounded, wild, no evidence claims.” Another day, I’m remarking, “I’m worried by the extent to which he does not seem to cook for himself anymore.”
As you might expect, there are times when reading someone else’s journal entries is disquieting and revealing. I discovered aspects of my brother’s relationship with our father that I hadn’t appreciated. One of his entries said: “Asked about my accident (first time).” This was more than a year after my brother had been hit by a car and badly hurt. My heart cracked: I had not realized how inattentive my father had been.
Going back through the calendar now, more than 18 months after my father died, the entries chart a relentless physical decline – profound fatigue, sore hips and knees, aching wrists, swollen legs, inflamed teeth, increasing forgetfulness, the savage indignities of old age. One day, he took a bath but couldn’t get out of the tub. Luckily, the housekeeper arrived; she couldn’t get him out either, so she recruited the postman to help. My father thought this was hilarious: I admired his ability to laugh.
For through it all, there’s such courage. Yes, he’s just had a pacemaker installed and he’s feeling rotten, but he’s making strawberry jam. One day, “He sounded very low – lonely, old, and scared.” But another, he’s reading a history of some sinister French aristocrats and planning to install a wood stove in the fireplace. A beloved friend is coming to stay. He’s just learned a new poem.
At the time, I was glad we kept the calendar because it helped us to cope with a difficult situation. Now I’m glad for a different reason: It helps me remember small details about him, the little things that slip out of memory, that fade with time. Laughs, tears, worries, frustrations, joy and love – it’s all in the calendar.
New York Times News Service
Olivia Judson is a writer and an evolutionary biologist.