Friday, March 29, 2013

Travels With Morrie

It was finally time. My 87 year old WWII veteran father, who resided in a private care group home in Arizona, was approaching the point when the progression of his dementia would require a higher level of medical support.  It was a tough decision, as Dad, aka "Morrie", was very happy living where he had been since 2011. If it wasn't for the growing likelihood that Morrie would need to be moved on short notice, my brothers and sister and I surely would have voted to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, private long-term dementia care facilities are very expensive, and Morrie has only his monthly Social Security and veteran's benefit checks. The other consideration was the distance made it tougher to keep on top of Dad's progress and maintain a good interface with his medical providers.

(By the way, Dad got his alias when he lived up here with my Spousal Unit and I, and then in an assisted-living community which caters to former military folks. I regularly reserved Tuesdays to drive over from my civilian job to have lunch with Dad. Some of my more literate co-workers dubbed these lunch appointments as "Tuesdays with Morrie", and the name stuck. Hopefully, Mitch Albom won't sue us for copyright infringement.)

Fortunately, our state has a very modern and well-staffed Veteran's Residence, with a state of the art dementia care center. Morrie had been on the waiting list for this place back in 2009, but my deployment to Iraq resulted in Dad's move to Arizona. I re-submitted admission paperwork late last fall, because sometimes it can take up to a year on the waiting list before a room becomes available. This time it only took six months before I got the call to complete the final processing.

I made the preparations to bring Morrie up north with a fair amount of trepidation. He was no longer able to do most of the simple tasks, like using the restroom, without assistance. While it had been a while since he truly recognized any of his kids, he had able to fake it pretty convincingly...once a salesman, always a salesman, I guess...but that was no longer the case. One thing I had going for me was that Morrie often thinks that he is still in either the Army Air Corps or the National Guard. I decided my strategy was to tell Dad that he had received orders transferring him to Fort Lewis, and that I had been detailed to escort him to his new duty station. While I felt guilty lying to Morrie, this fictional reason behind uprooting him did seem to make sense in his universe, as he accepted it with the resignation typical of all soldiers getting Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders.

It was one of those missions that could easily have gone either way: complete success or Epic Fail. Fortunately, thanks to a lot of folks, this one went off without any major problems. I made flight reservations on Alaska Airlines, where we have a substantial amount of frequent flyer miles accrued. I took a couple of days leave mid-week, flew down to Phoenix in late morning, rented a van to make easier access for Morrie and his luggage (I brought a gigunda, hard-sided suitcase which I use for Protective Service Detail missions, where ya gotta carry the world's supply of bulky gear.), and after checking in to my hotel I headed over to the group home.

Rowena, the group home owner and operator, definitely runs the place like it is filled with family...which it usually is! When I arrived, Dad was sitting out in the backyard, wearing his favorite straw hat, and having a semi-coherent conversation with one of the more lucid residents. While I could tell Dad had no idea who the heck I was, he greeted me jovially, and inquired if I was there to discuss the operations order. Seeing that he was in the "Army Morrie" mode, I let Dad know that I had orders for his immediate transfer to Fort Lewis, and that I was his escort. "Oh, that sounds pretty good!" was Dad's response. My youngest brother was at the house, getting ready to prepare tonight's dinner for everyone. He's a pretty talented cook, and has been the main support guy for Dad while he's been in Phoenix. While Morrie got back to his conversation with the other resident, I retrieved the suitcase from the van, and with Rowena's assistance got all of Dad's clothing and personal items packed up. There was already an old, battered roller bag from Morrie's original move to Arizona, so I crammed that piece full of old family photos and documents, and stowed both bags in the van.

After a festive dinner, and tying up loose ends of Dad's account with Rowena, I headed back to the hotel. Next morning, I headed back to the group home, picking up my brother on the way. Morrie was "Out on Pluto" as my other brother says, with no clue that he was about to embark on his penultimate adventure. No matter; I refreshed his memory, and Morrie snapped into Army Mode without complaint. We said our goodbyes, and trundled out to the waiting van. Dad happily commented every couple of minutes about the number of buildings and cars that had appeared since he was last here in 1945, followed by inquiring if we were "headed back home to California."

I really wasn't looking forward to transitioning from the Hertz rental car drop-off point to the shuttle bus ride to the terminal, having to lug two big heavy-ass suitcases and keep Morrie moving in train. Fortunately, the gentleman at the Hertz check-in line, Gary, immediately offered to have one of his folks drive us over to the terminal in the van, so we didn't have to unload luggage or anything. That was an unexpected but really welcome courtesy. The fellow who volunteered to drive us to the terminal was a really nice fellow from Northern Iraq, so we chatted about his country's current situation on the ride over.  I only had $20 cash to tip this fellow, which felt like not enough for the service rendered, but such is life.

Good things continued to go our way as I got us checked in at Alaska Airlines. The agent was (as usual for Alaska) very friendly and helpful when I asked if there was any way to get our seats moved together in the First Class cabin. (I had made our return reservations for First Class, figuring this would be the only way to make the flight somewhat tolerable and comfortable for Morrie. I hadn't been able to reserve adjoining seats, though.)  The check-in agent made a change to my seat to improve its location, and then sent a request to the gate agent to work out the rest of the move. Now unencumbered by monster luggage, we slowly made our way to the next potential obstacle; the TSA security checkpoint.

I was kind of worried that Dad's expired Washington State ID card might prove problematic, as that was the only photo identification he had. Once again, fortune smiled upon us as the TSA officer noted Morrie's escort (me) was a federal agent, so the likelihood of Morrie being AQA (Al Qaeda in Arizona) was minimal. They didn't make Morrie remove his shoes or belt, and my own screening was a breeze, so it was off to our gate in plenty of time before boarding. At the gate, yet another outstanding Alaska Airlines representative picked up the second half of the seat assignment request, and with the consent of a very agreeable fellow passenger, we were seated together...Dad in the window seat, and me on the aisle.

When we boarded, Morrie asked me if we were headed to Lowry Field, which was the airfield in Colorado where he had trained as a B-24 turret gunner. When I told him no, that we were going to Fort Lewis, he grinned and said, "Good, cuz that's where my unit is!" It was moments like that one which pretty much erased my guilt over the deception plan.  Once airborne, Morrie was fascinated by the clouds and mountains, which pretty much kept him occupied the entire flight. When lunch was served, he devoured his hot turkey melt sandwich, and settled back for a nap. We did experience one "not for publication" moment on the flight, involving the First Class restroom and a very understanding flight attendant, but it was mostly smooth sailing.

SeaTac Airport proved easy to negotiate, and I had parked close to the Alaska baggage claim skyway, so in a matter of minutes we were cruising down I-5 in the carpool lane. Morrie was astounded at the overcast skies, cool temperature, intermittent rain showers, and most of all, the abundance of greenery. (I could relate, as it was the same way I had felt the day I returned home from Iraq.) We made it to the Veterans Home by late afternoon, and began the lengthy check-in process. It reminded me of the first day of Army Basic Training, minus the yelling drill sergeants. I had to inventory and mark every piece of Morrie's clothing with his serial number, then stow it all in the wardrobe and dresser drawers in his room. The medical staff and activities director did their preliminary intake stuff, which Morrie took in stride after I reminded him again that this was the usual procedure when signing in to a new unit. I had planned to eat dinner with Dad, but when the meal was served I was still busy marking and folding, so the nurses escorted him to meet his new mess hall buddies while I finished up. I had just completed putting everything away and briefing the activities director about Morrie's background when he returned from chow...wearing someone else's travel vest. Turned out it belonged to his neighbor, Ray, who either loaned it to Dad to wear during dinner, or Dad saw it on the back of Ray's chair and decided he liked it. At any rate, Ray came looking for his vest, which had his glasses in one of the pockets. Dad pulled out Ray's specs, and said happily, "I've been looking all over for these!" I stopped him from trying to put them on over his own glasses, and gave both the glasses and vest back to Ray.

By now Dad was completely tuckered out, so I got him ready for bed. He said, "I think I like this place..." before dropping off to sleep. Although I knew he'd need to be re-oriented in the morning, it seemed like an agreeable end to this episode of "Travels With Morrie."


  1. i really enjoyed this piece, Uncle.

    I laughed, i cried, i learned something new. Even without the personal connection to your subject, i think the effect would be the same.

    it is a comfort to know that grandpa has good people holding his hand and telling the little fibs necessary to keep an old guy on track in an increasingly confusing world. love you Grandpa!

  2. Thanks, Nephew...I'll give him a hug for you, and the rest of the family when I see him this weekend.