Two hours before my father died three years ago at age 85, my sister and I dismissed the home hospice aide and called for Hana.
Even after 10 days of watching dad wither, we were wholly unprepared for the awful moment when he would leave us for good. Hana, as always, seemed to come out of nowhere and set things right.
She lowered the shade, turned off some lights and adjusted the height of the bed. “Rub his feet,” she urged, as she spread moisture cream on his yellowed face. “He can hear you. You can talk to him.”
By the time Hana left, the three of us had shared thoughts about the difficult weeks leading up to that moment, read a prayer together and raised a glass of sherry. At her suggestion, we even allowed my father some. For months, we had suspected that her influence on our declining father, and especially on his finances, had become too strong. At this moment, though, we welcomed whatever powers she could muster. This was our family now: Elderly parent, paid caregiver and two daughters visiting from far away.
Hana (whose name has been changed here) had entered the household as a background player four years earlier, a helper-for-hire who prepared meals and left a pot of soup on the stove “for later.” Thanks to her, Dad’s refrigerator, once barren save for a few take-out containers, brimmed with food of all colors. She drove him to his ever-more-frequent doctor appointments and called me with the reports. When the newspaper’s weekly TV schedule arrived, she promptly marked the football games and movies she had come to know Dad would want to watch.
Soon, Hana’s husband began spending afternoons at the house and making basic home repairs. When Dad entertained, the couple came as invited guests. And as he advanced into his 80s and entered a new reality of falls and memory lapses, Hana began bunking on the couch to see that he made it peacefully to morning.
Talk of assisted living was quickly extinguished because, after all, didn’t everyone have a right to remain in his own damn home? Dad certainly did. Our family model was altered for good.
While Hana remained a mainstay, other helpers would eventually be needed to fill what became three full daily shifts. Caribbean and West African accents filled the house, along with attitudes ranging from loving commitment to visible resentment toward the work of keeping someone else’s family alive. Small colonies of aides’ shopping bags, filled with folded clothes, cropped up behind the furniture, subtly changing the look of our family home.
Speaking for Dad
At some point, “Do you want to talk to Hana?” became Dad’s usual, and unsettling, first question when we called. Our birthday gifts arrived in the mail from stores he never visited, with Love, Dad, penned in an unfamiliar cursive. For him, my visits, though still appreciated, lacked their former urgency.
Our requests that he get out of the house for a walk, see his doctor or visit friends annoyed him, so we learned to channel those suggestions through Hana. She alone convinced him to start using his walker, months after we’d purchased it. It was Hana who found a doctor that made house calls. As Dad grew more brittle, she filled his hours and offered us solace.
And she alone stayed the course as my father’s invective-filled rants drove less hardy aides from the house, their only sin having been trying to help. When yet another one quit, Hana, speaking like a knowing older sister, would say, “You know how your father is.”
I remember the days before Hana arrived. I could spend an hour struggling to help Dad traverse a city block, because the cane he insisted on using supported his worn out-body about as well as a matchstick. I remember how he’d look at me with such defeat when I’d say, “I need to go home now,” at the end of an afternoon or weekend visit. There were doctors who could no longer speak to me about my father’s condition because he had withdrawn consent. The visiting nurse service we’d arranged stopped coming because he refused the physical therapy and grooming assistance they prescribed.
And then there were the police officers who would call to tell me that Dad had dialed 911 after falling once again. One had come by so frequently that he was able to remark that Dad had rearranged some of the furniture.
Someone recommended that we get off-the-books help — this tall woman, Hana — and my father approved. Dressed in designer slacks and knit jackets, she had an ambiance more Lord & Taylor than Meals on Wheels. As a caregiver, she stood among the best, but I think Hana succeeded so well in Dad’s universe because she had a way of making it clear that he was the head of the household.
No doubt, his giving her extra cash reinforced that impression.
Dad lived with a level of cognitive impairment that had not been fully diagnosed, in part because of his persistent resistance to having it formally checked. But legally, he was not mentally unsound. We did not have power of attorney and could not manage his finances.
It was a surprise, then, when his bank called us to say Hana had attempted to cash a six-figure “gift” from my father. Earlier, Hana had told us she’d declined his offer to pay for her cancer-related surgery. In reality, she’d accepted the money. He’d wanted her to have it, she told me. Caring for him had been hard. She needed the operation.
The bank froze Dad’s account and alerted the police, but no criminal charges could be filed since there was no actual victim – my father was a willing participant.
Not long after this episode, his health rapidly declined. Finally, a hospice team arrived, taking the place of the regular caregivers. And yet even though we’d begun to sense the scope of our father’s payouts to Hana and realized that her role in our lives had metastasized, we called her that last night to relieve the hospice aide so she could help us see him to the end. We needed her.
After Dad’s death, though, we changed the locks and hired a lawyer. Our accountant uncovered check after check, written by Hana, signed by my father and marked “Household.” A few such checks one month eventually grew to dozens, representing tens of thousands of dollars as Dad’s health failed. His willingness to sign his name, it seemed to me, coincided with an overwhelming need to be close to at least one human being who understood him.
Memory of that hour Hana spent helping to ease us toward my father’s death was still vivid as my sister and I sat in court a year later watching her testify in our civil suit that this check was a “bonus,” that one “vacation pay,” and so on. Here we were again: Dad’s two adult daughters and the person who probably knew him best.
Eventually, Hana paid us a small settlement to put the matter to rest. But before that, as our lawyers politely duked it out, the thought occurred to me that my father must have been laughing at his warring, sparring family for thinking we could actually outsource our love.