Always Already Being Lost

July 5, 2013

” . . . everything is always already being lost.”
— Bradley L. Garrett, discussing Walter Benjamin on the nature of ruins, from Explore Everything: Place Hacking in the City

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

I’ve just returned from two weeks of keeping company with my 94-year-old Dad on the family farm.  I’ve written about my father before, most notably a tribute in honor of his 90th year.  On this recent visit, I was reminded daily of the small, accumulating losses that accompany anyone into extreme old age.  Since my last visit in February 2012, I noticed that my Dad no longer checks his email every day, works on crossword puzzles, goes to mid-week mass, or plans and cooks even simple dinners, much less barbecued chicken.  His short-term memory is going, and it is doubtful that he will be able to continue to live alone in the old farmhouse, even with the considerable day-to-day support that a few of my siblings provide.

And this is going to be a challenge for our family, because Dad will not go willingly to another home no matter how much better a change would be for him — keeping him in physical safety, with good home-cooked meals provided, and lots of other support.  He wants to die at home on the farm.  The loss of his home, a reassuring space, would be heart-breakingly sudden, not like the other losses he has born, some so gradual that he might not even be aware of them.

We cannot stall the passing hours.  There is no promise of preservation.  I see in the slow, inexorable deterioration of the farm house, sheds, and barn — those that will be torn down when my brother builds his family’s retirement home on the land — the reflection of my Dad’s inevitable decline.  In spite of the pain, there is beauty in this collapse of our everyday existence.

Farm house window

Farm house window

East side door

East side door

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

East side window

East side window

Roof of Uncle Pete's garage

Roof of Uncle Pete’s garage

Interior, garage

Interior, garage

Barn doors and windows

Barn doors and windows

My view upon waking

My view upon waking

Old farmhouse in the morning light

Old farmhouse in the morning light

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

22 Responses to “Always Already Being Lost”

  1. Judy Says:

    WOW–this soooooooo reminds me of my father–living on the family farm–where my sister now lives and is into renovating the house, tearing down the out buildings that were listing to the east. Of course they want to die at home–sometimes that is just not possible. BUT–I do know what you are going through.

    • Rosemary Says:

      So many of my friends and colleagues are also working through this transition with frail and elderly parents. Whoever said that love is easy? Thank you for once again reminding me that my family is not alone on this journey.

  2. Kitty Says:

    Rosemary, thanks so much for expressing this reality in word and image. (The garage interior could be my own 91 yr old father’s as we arrived to clean before selling)

    • Rosemary Says:

      You are so welcome. It’s funny how so many of us experience this same “closing of the books” on our elderly parents’ lives.

  3. Janet Foss Says:

    It looks like he has had a beautiful life, without regrets.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I cannot speak for my Dad regarding regrets. I don’t know if he is without regrets, or how much he thinks about his life and its meaning. I look at his life and see his “success” in raising nine children, all of whom are responsible adults. I see his love of the land and his stewardship. Big accomplishments in my book.

      • Janet Foss Says:

        Yes I think that is big, and if they are all like you he has to be well pleased in his heart.

  4. Chris Says:

    I would say those are truly the most important accomplishments in life…most of us struggle just raising one or two children to becoming responsible adults and good people and he has done it nine times?? Inspiring to say the least!
    This post made me sad in a way and good in a way…hard to explain but I think you know exactly what I mean as I believe this is how you felt in writing it. It was indeed a bittersweet story and the photographs are poignant and beautiful.
    When I saw the last photo of your dad’s beautiful, old home that has sheltered and nurtured so many of you for so many years and to think that someday it will be gone along with your dad, brought me to tears!

    • Rosemary Says:

      Thank you. It is distressing to be with my Dad and see how unhappy his “dependence” will make him, and his refusal to acknowledge some of his needs. And yet, I appreciate that he has the energy to fight and resist. This is going to be a ‘tough love’ transition. I’m so glad you could see the love in my words, as well as the sadness.

  5. Deborah Says:

    I felt like you were writing about my dad and our home. Just this week we were talking about how he can’t remember like he used to…only 75. After my mother’s death, we thought we would lose him, but he keeps busy on the farm and this week heads out for a month long trip to CO. The images, your photographs…beautiful. Think I walk across the road and see my dad! Thank you for sharing this.

  6. Chris Says:

    Of course, I could read love and sadness in your words and they also came through in the photographs, which moved me very much. My own elderly father lives in Minnesota….
    Are your brothers not going to salvage any of the old structures? I hope they have not told your father that they will someday be tearing down his home. That seems just as sad to me as his slow decline….
    I’m so sorry!

    • Rosemary Says:

      I’m sure my bothers will salvage as much as they can for use around the farm in the future. My youngest brother is already re-using old boards from a torn-down corn crib in a “new” shed. My Dad is aware that the old house will be torn down eventually.


  7. My mom is coming to visit for a few weeks. I haven’t spent more than a few days once a year with her. I look forward to that time and this as the days are slipping by fast…it is hard to help our aged parents who do not want to admit they need any help…and I think of myself and how much I would resist it too.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I’m sure you and your mother will make the most of this time together. I’m finding that partings now are bittersweet — one never knows if this is the last time.

  8. gertyp44 Says:

    It’s heartbreaking thinking of the end of all this. I’m almost glad I’m not as close to you. Thinking of the barn coming down, almost hurts worse than the house! Yet, I’m sorry I was never closer because there are SO MANY memories I didn’t get. So thankful to Ben for giving us an in-depth tour last spring.

    Has your dad ever lived elsewhere?

    Thank you for this touching post. Love seeing Uncle Ray on his lawn tractor out the window. xo

    • Rosemary Says:

      My Dad and Mom, when they were first married, lived in an apartment in Belle Plaine. Other than that, the farm has been Dad’s home. I’m not sure what my brother’s plans are for the red barn. He may decide to hold on to it for a while.

  9. camilla wells paynter Says:

    Rosemary, your fine photography, eloquent thoughts and wonderful choice of poetry combine once again to make your post a work of art in its own right. It seems to repeat themes I’ve been seeing or experiencing in other ways, other contexts, like a kind of universal broadcast. Strange. The universality is, I suppose, part of its excellence, but it still seems magical.

    After the father of her two sons had abandoned them, people told my grandmother she should give her sons to an orphanage. Instead, she bought them a house, with her own hard-earned money. This was the house my grandmother chose to die in. My father lived there and cared for her, while she lashed out at him in lifelong bitterness combined with the effects of dementia, taking her misery out on the one closest to her. Her death itself was long and painful, since the hospital will only give so much morphine for home use. When she died, the medics came, and they were required by law (in Illinois) to try to resuscitate her. It was the worst thing, my father said, that he had ever had to witness. Yet her wish was fulfilled. Some of her ashes are buried on her property. It is impossible for me to say which would have been better for her, for him: she would not have died well in a home, either. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” I suppose; the very proud spirit does not take a slow exit gracefully. So with your father, 94 and still mowing his “north 40.”

    My father lives in that house now, but when I inherit it, I will sell it, (after salvaging what I can of its hundred and fifty-year-old fineries) probably to someone who wants to make it into a parking lot.

    I wish you and your Dad the best possible outcomes of this difficult process of transition.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Thank you for your well wishes. And thank you, too, for sharing the story about your grandmother and father. Who ever said love is easy?!?

  10. shoreacres Says:

    I think the primary reason I’ve put off your posts for a time is that I wanted to take them all at once. Even though it’s been two years now since my mother died at age 93, the process you describe seems so close and so sharp. It’s painful.

    What was most painful was realizing that she’d made the decision that she truly had had enough. She wasn’t fearful of death or eager for it. She simply was tired, and ready to let go. She was able to stay in her own place, with my help, and that was good. But there comes a time when a child caring for a parent becomes very difficult. It would have been “better” for her to be in a home where others could have been firmer with her than she allowed me to be. On the other hand… and on the other hand.. and the other…

    We never know with certainty what action is right. What is sure is that decline is inevitable, and as you’ve suggested here, it can be as tender as it is painful – and as natural.

    Now that Mom is gone, I’ve realized something else. Helping our elders ease their way out of life is practice for that day when our own time comes – as it surely will.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Yes, I wish we had some conversations with Dad BEFORE getting to this point — about what we kids should consider if we notice his memory going, or under what circumstances we should take away his car keys. I hope my husband and I are more pre-emptive in making plans for old age so that our closest family won’t have to go through this. But even imaging a future, with dementia or Alzheimer’s — what is the best plan? I don’t want to live if my mind is gone, even with the most loving care of my physical body. But how do you go about putting these wishes into play?


  11. […] Always Already Being Lost, July 5, 2013 […]


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