A Story of Love
August 22, 2002
I have a new man in my life. His name is Dominic. He is gentle, humorous, wise, eloquent and loving. We have been spending a lot of time together during the past five weeks and our appreciation and love for each other is deepening. Dominic is ninety-three years old.
I first met Dom about six years ago when I bought the house next to his in North Adams, Massachusetts. Over the next two years we would spend a few hours together each week at his house or mine. Since he was quite hard of hearing, I mostly listened to his many stories about his growing up years with his Italian family, all of whom were deceased, his tour of duty overseas during World War II and other memories, joys and sorrows.
Dom lived in a very neglected house with his sweet dog Skippy and would spend every “good weather day” outdoors as much as possible – cutting and gathering firewood, mowing the grass or shoveling snow and adding to his growing accumulation of scrap wood and other cast off materials. He supplemented his gas heat by burning wood, paper and other scraps in an ancient modified Army stove located in the tool room of his house. This jury-rigged heating system was highly unsafe, being in violation of current codes, and he had no smoke alarms in the house.
Dominic never married and had no nieces and nephews. He would speak of his unrelenting loneliness, of missing his four siblings who had lived with him in the house for twenty-eight years. One by one each of them had passed away, leaving him alone since 1989. At the same time, he was fiercely independent, a loner, proud of his self-sufficiency. I would bring him home cooked meals and invite him to my house for meals. I also brought treats for—and shower affection on—his love-starved dog. For Dom’s eighty-ninth birthday, I made him his favorite cake—angel food with whipped cream and strawberries on top.
About three years ago I found my self increasingly caring and worrying about Dominic’s safty and well being. I wanted so much to better his living conditions and his life, yet felt that as a non-relative I had no right or responsibility to undertake or even entertain such a desire. I also knew that his pride and self-worth were largely attached to his continued capacity to be self-sufficient; “his own boss.” So gradually I broke off all contact with him. After all, Dom had a car, he had some financial resources, he was doing okay, it wasn’t my job. Then I carried the shame over not even being able to maintain a caring, casual connection with him. And so it went for three years—a painful cycle of avoidance, distance, worry, shame, regret loss, and longing.
My mother’s parents—Leroy and Renée—died when she was a teenager. My father’s mother, Elsie, appears in early black and white photos and in home movies of my early years; however I have no memories of her. My father’s father, Casper Gordon, would occasionally visit us—driving up in his black Ford, dressed impeccably in his dark thore piece suit, wearing a hat, watch fog dangling, shiny black shoes, slender and composed, standing ram-rod straight. We called him “Big Dad.”
I remember no warm interactions between my father and Big Dad. He spent most of his time at our house watching television—boxing, Philadelphia “Phillies” baseball, Our Miss Brooks, Charlie Chan, Groucho Marks. I remember these TV shows better than I remember him, other than his appearance. I never visited Big Dad at his home in Swarthmore, PA—he died at age Seventy-six when I was ten—his grandchildren did not attend his funeral.
My father, Gordon, was an active alcoholic born in 1908, one year before Dominic. He died in 1986 at age seventy-eight from dementia, which at that time was considered alcohol-related. It is accurate to say that I never developed a significant, loving relationship with him. His long-term relationship with alcohol and his co-dependent, love-hate relationship with my mother, Sophie, also an active alcoholic, consumed his focus. Except for some short-term employment and business ventures prior to and immediately after World War I (he served in the Coast Guard out of Key West, FL), my father did not have the demands of a 9 to 5 job. Generally, he would start the day in mid-afternoon by downing a Bromo Seltzer, followed by cocktail time around five PM, during which my siblings and I would have our first contacts of the day with our parents. After a family dinner, already heavily clouded by alcohol consumption, there was little or no interaction with him. When I was sent off to boarding school at the age of thirteen, all meaningful contact ended. Highlighted in my memory are infrequent contacts, devoid of any fatherly warmth or caring.
About five weeks ago I was reading the daily paper and came across an article and a photo regarding a recent car accident in North Adams. There was Dominic sitting on the sidewalk by his damaged car, blood streaming down his face while being attended to by emergency medical technicians. Three days earlier, in the same paper, appeared the obituary of Libby Barker, my beloved therapist and “good mother” for thirteen years. She had passed away, at age seventy-five, while I was on vacation in Cape May, New Jersey. My overwhelming grief and sense of loss was matched in force by self-recrimination for not keeping in contact with her or knowing she was ill, so that somehow I could have given back some small measure of the loving, nurturing care she had given me.
When I read about Dominic’s car accident and that he had been admitted the local hospital, it only took me one day to call the hospital. Dominic had left after one night—A.M.A., against medical advice. Even without his car and with an eight-inch stitched-up gash on his head, he had hitched a ride home—to his safe haven.
That same day I drove over to his house and knocked on the door. There was Dom, frailer and more vulnerable than in the past. He was confused, agitated, and without his car, which had been totaled. His gratitude and need were immense. His dog Skippy was ill, emaciated, and had lost most of his hair. The whole house smelled of neglect, illness and despair. I crossed the threshold and took Dom into my arms. I knew that, at that moment I was making a commitment to my self, Dominic, and Skippy to once again be a part of their lives. I was making a commitment to let Dominic back into my life; into the place in my heart that was empty, neglected, waiting, and longing. Longing to clear the cob webs of indecisiveness and disconnection in my life; longing for love.
In that state of love and longing, I dove in deep. In the past five weeks I have spent an average of Five hours a day caring for Dominic and Skippy, while also working with his case worker, doctor and lawyer (and veterinarian) to put into place adequate and continuous care.
Last week I saw my current therapist and shared with him the details of the month since Dominic re-entered my life. He cautioned me to “be careful” and to move out of the role of primary caregiver as quickly as possible, for my own well-being. Tears welled up in my eyes, my heart lurched and I said, “Joe, I haven’t fully grieved the loss of anyone because I have never really, fully loved. This is my opportunity to be part of loving, giving and receiving relationship with Dominic. I will be careful, all the while giving myself fully to love.”
By the grace of God, this story of love will continue.
February 2, 2004
Today, I turned over the keys to Dominic’s house to his lawyer, who shortly will be awarded legal guardianship. First, I made one last trip to the now-vacant house; the heat has been turned off and pipes have burst from the freezing temperatures, leaving a glaze of ice on the kitchen and bathroom floors. I cleaned out the refrigerator and gathered together a few more of Dominic’s personal items and mementos: a warm winter hat, some family photographs, a book on the history of North Adams that I had given him some years ago, and the crucifix that was tacked above his bed.
Dominic now lives at Sweetbrook Care Center in Williamstown, just two miles from my home. He has been there for nearly a month. He has been placed in the Dementia Unit and shares a room with one other man. By all accounts, this setting provides very good care to its residents. For the first time in many, many years, Dominic is bathed, shaved and dressed in fresh clothing every day. His social worker reports that he is friendly, quite appreciative of the care and attention he is receiving, and adored by all the staff and by many of the female residents, as well. He is eating and sleeping well and gets a good bit of exercise, traveling the circuit of hallways and activity rooms that comprise the locked unit.
Dominic was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in May of 2003. He received six hours a day of in-home care, which I had set up shortly after writing the first segment of this story. For the most part, this worked well for both Dominic and his care-givers. His warmth and gratitude endeared him to the women who came to cook his meals, take him out for groceries, scenic drives and to church, and keep the house clean. Skippy also thrived during this time. His medical issues were addressed by many trips to the veterinarian. He took medications daily, gained twenty-five much needed pounds, and loved going on long walks. I remained an essential person in their lives, coordinating and monitoring services, filling in as care-giver when needed, visiting twice a week or more, and doing Dominic’s laundry. When Dominic’s front door came off its hinges due to wood rot, I went to the hardware store and got instructions and supplies to repair it. When the summer heat became overwhelming, I installed one of my air conditioners in his living room. I kept his ancient boiler up and running and worked closely, sometimes side by side with the care-givers, to assure his safety, health and comfort.
As expected, Dominic’s Alzheimer’s progressed. During the fall and winter of 2003, there were many incidents that indicated he was not able to adequately care for himself while alone in his house. He would turn on the burners of his gas stove and forget to turn them off, burning pot of coffee and filling the house with smoke. Several times he told me that he woke in the night, stumbling and falling through out the house, not able to get oriented. He became more convinced that people were trying to break into the house and would call the police on a regular basis. Several times he took off on foot, walking several miles from his home, in search of someone to help him.
This was a frightening and difficult time for me, since I had been working diligently to place him in a more secure setting since May. Dominic would not consent to move and his protective care worker, while concerned, was not seeing enough evidence to place him against his will. Meanwhile, his lawyer had applied for legal guardianship, which was not progressing in a timely manner. Then, on December 29th, Dominic became convinced that one of his new care-givers was stealing from him and angrily barred him from entering the house. This left Dominic without daily care, since the holidays had reduced the number of available workers to fill in. Though exhausted from an eight-day holiday gathering at my house, I agreed to try caring for Dom and Skippy at my house until an emergency placement could be found.
Not surprisingly, this proved to be far more challenging than I expected. Neither Dominic nor Skippy adjusted well to staying at my house and I was clearly not able to provide twenty-four-hour care by myself, so after a day and a half, arrangements were made for Dom to stay on the Psych unit of the local hospital until a suitable placement could be found. I took Skippy back to his home and visited twice a day. Then, on January 8th, I drove Dominic to his new home at Sweetbrook. Partially due to our on-going, loving, trusting relationship, he went willingly and settled in without incident; short term memory loss had clouded his memory of the recent events.
I visited Dominic today. Each time I visit he is thrilled to see me. We hug and kiss and he tells me “now that you are here, I feel so happy.” He holds my hand tightly as we walk. Today I brought him a pair of reading glasses, slippers, a newspaper, and some butterscotch candies, along with the items I had taken from his house. He is pleased with these items, but quickly forgets that they are his and that I have brought them. A sad exchange occurred when he asked, excitedly “will I see my dog today?” I answer, no, and this time Dominic does not ask how Skippy is, so thankfully I do not have to lie to him. Skippy was euthanized on January 12th. I tried valiantly to find a new home for him, after resigning myself to the fact that he would not be able to successfully adapt to living at my house. However his long-term behavioral and medical issues made him impossible to place. Tears well up in my eyes as I write this; I am grieving the loss of Skippy, also a loved one. Meanwhile, I continue to give myself fully to the love that Dominic and I share.
-Renee Sharpless Bartovics
Renée is a retired crisis clinician and grandmother of nine. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her 6 cats. She finds the wonder of writing to be magical and healing. She has self published a book of poetry and memoir - You Can Take My Word For it - which can be found on Amazon. Renée is currently working on a novel.