My father, Augustus Currie Monroe, has always had an extraordinary capacity to endure pain. When I was a child, we were loading the dishwasher together one evening and I heard a low moan. I looked over and saw that his thumb was impaled on a dishwasher prong, which had gone beneath the nail all the way up to the cuticle. He was stuck there. He slowly pulled his thumb off the prong, ran some water over it to wash off the blood, wrapped it up and kept loading the dishwasher. He didn’t say a word.
A couple of years ago, he had a huge red sack of fluid dangling from his elbow. He said the swelling was from a spider bite. My sister was so horrified when she saw it that she started to cry, begging him to go to a doctor.
“Daddy, please let somebody look at it,” she pleaded. But he refused to go. He said it would clear up and wouldn’t discuss it further. And whatever it was, it eventually did go away.
So it should have come as no surprise to my sister or me that Daddy refused to go to a doctor when his spine began to collapse.
Illustration by Jeffrey Smith
We knew something was wrong for a couple of years. As a younger man, Daddy stood six-foot-three and took outlandishly long strides when he walked. My mother, Winifred Black Monroe, was more than a foot shorter. When my sister and I were small, we all had to scramble to keep up with Daddy’s long legs, like chickens running after a rooster. His gait changed dramatically as he entered his 80s. He began to take tiny, splayfooted steps, almost shuffling, and he listed from side to side like Charlie Chaplin. I asked what was wrong. Sometimes he blamed his knee, sometimes his back. When I asked if he had seen a doctor, he said it would clear up.
My father, at 83, can be what we call “mule-headed.” He is as stubborn as the animals he plowed behind on a farm in the sand hills of eastern North Carolina during the Great Depression, which he still calls “Hoover Days.” When he doesn’t want to discuss an issue, he is a wall of silence, deaf and mute. He wouldn’t discuss his back problems and he wouldn’t discuss assisted living. He was a civil engineer and had carefully plotted out the end of his life: He would drop dead one day and that would be it.
That’s not the way it turned out. He had made many plans, but none of them included the scenario that found my sister and me scrambling crazily to get our father emergency medical care against his wishes and to rush my ailing mother into assisted living, even as she suspected we were treating her shabbily. We did it on the fly, under enormous stress. We found what so many of our contemporaries are discovering: The Greatest Generation is moving into walkers, diapers and assisted living, and they’re not going gently.