Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

For the past few months I’ve thought about little else, and I think about it gingerly: Dylan Thomas meant something more noble than this.

* * *

My eighty-three-year-old father is doing plenty of raging. My mother calls five, six, seven times a day. He won’t feed me. He won’t help me cut our pills. He says he’s going to leave and never come back. He’s outside walking, he says he’s going to walk himself to death. He doesn’t want to unlock the door for the caregiver in the morning. You have to do something. I can’t live like this.

I drive two hundred miles, but everything is “fine” when I arrive. Everyone smiles and laughs, and my mother says she was overreacting, they just need “a little” help. I return home and make panicked phone calls. The family physician of thirty years tells me it’s just old age. I don’t know what to tell you, hon. I’m no geriatric specialist, but I’m pretty sure a list taped to the bathroom mirror telling you to put your pants on after your underwear isn’t part of a normal old age.

The Alzheimer’s Association is sympathetic but impotent. Though they’re confident from my father’s symptoms that he’s suffering from dementia (four to five on the seven point scale), they tell me there’s nothing I can do if his primary care physician withholds a diagnosis. (It’s just old age. I don’t know what to tell you, hon.) And since he is still his own agent (over the months I will grow to despise that word), if he refuses to see another doctor there’s nothing I can do about that either. Although you should stop him from driving. And keep him away from his finances. Somehow. Wait for a crisis, one of the social workers says. Something like a letter from the DMV. Then you’ll be able to act.

The crisis comes three weeks later. It involves three sheriff’s cars, sedation, and a two week involuntary psychiatric hold.

* * *

This is when I’m accustomed to hearing I’ve done a good thing:

  • Donating to food bank boxes during the holidays.
  • Corralling a lost dog and tracking down its owner.
  • Helping an elderly neighbor keep her computer running.
  • Tucking an injured squirrel into a towel-lined box and driving it to the wildlife rehabilitation center.

This is when I’m not accustomed to hearing it:

  • Filing a DMV request for reexamination to strip my father of his last cherished bit of now perilous independence.
  • Calling the police to have him picked up and hospitalized after he storms out of the house threatening to walk in front of a car and end his miserable existence.
  • Making preparations to sell the house my emotionally and physically crippled parents desperately want to remain at to pay for the expensive assisted living they need but desperately want to escape.

* * *

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Four nights before Halloween my husband and brother tail my father as he totters down the neat gridded streets of his suburban neighborhood, coordinating their movements by cell phone. They slip from shadow to shadow like thieves, avoiding the sickly yellow pools of light beneath the high pressure sodium streetlights. My father casts furtive glances behind him in his flight, and if he sees them either speeds up to escape or drops back in a fury.

“Stop following me!” he shouts at my husband. He points at a nearby house. “I’m going to knock on their door and tell them that you’re following me!”

“You do that, Don,” my husband replies placidly. Maybe they’ll call the police and we can get you some help.

At first he hovers near home, storming in every few minutes to demand his keys. My frightened mother insists that she doesn’t have them, doesn’t know where they are. In a moment when he has retreated to the kitchen to slam the cabinet doors she reaches into her shirt pocket and hands them to me. “You keep them. Then I don’t have to lie to him.”

“I’ll help you look for your keys,” I say when he returns.

She has them,” he snarls. “But she doesn’t care about me. Nobody cares about me.”

“That’s not true!” my mother cries. “I love you! I’ve always loved you.”

I suspect from his wild expression that he can’t hear her, not really. I cautiously rise from where I crouch next to her in case his anger takes a physical form again. He’d thrown a flashlight at her that morning. By afternoon she insists I had misunderstood her and he had thrown a “jacket,” but shattered bits of plastic and glass tell a different story. Three of the spokes on her wheelchair are broken, and seeing his face contorted in fury I fear that I know how. “Let’s look for the keys,” I say. “Let’s start in the kitchen.”

He lunges toward me but I stand my ground as impassively as I can manage. “You never get angry, do you?” He spits the words like a curse. “You’re always so – always – always calm.” I wonder if he sees me through murky waters of decades past, staring down his anger, picking up overturned furniture when rage exhausted itself, the rage that is drowning him now. “None of you care about me. I’m going. I’m leaving. I’ll walk myself to death. Maybe I’ll get pneumonia. Maybe I can find a car and. Find a car and walk in front of it.”

Find a car and walk in front of it. Those words, or others like them, were what I was waiting to hear.

He flees to the back door. He can barely fumble it open, barely work the wheelchair lift, barely unlatch the back gate. I let him go. My brother and my husband are lurking in the shadows, watchful. They can keep him safe until the sheriff arrives.

Wait for a crisis, the social worker said. Then you’ll be able to act.

* * *

The last time I see my father that October night he is handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, kicking the seat and raving at the deputies. My mother can’t be left alone in the house and I have sent her terrified young caregiver home, so I can do no more than watch from the front door, and little enough of that if I don’t want to risk her hearing him. Later my husband fills in the unhappy tale.

“Stop kicking my car or I’ll pepper spray you,” a deputy says. “I mean it.” He doesn’t mean it. “Look, I wouldn’t kick your car. Don’t kick mine.”

My father glares at the deputy. His eyes are red-rimmed from fatigue and frustration, and at times under the glare of the street lamps his pupils glint red as well, making him look demon-possessed. In a moment of terrible lucidity he says, “I wouldn’t lock you up in the back of my car.”

Over the months that follow those moments of lucidity will be the most difficult part of his condition to deal with. Like the day in the quaintly named “Heartland Village” that I try to engage him in a jigsaw puzzle. He picks up a piece in a desultory way. “I can’t focus.”

“He needs his glasses,” my mother prompts. They have moved into the same retirement community in order to be some species of together, although she is of too sound mind to live in the key-coded and alarmed Alzheimer’s wing. We encourage her not to spend all of her time there, but she does and complains that the twisted, horrible place is making the otherwise normal people crazy. “He needs his glasses, but the caregivers lost them.”

I have already learned that “losing” an item is often a synonym for “don’t want the resident to have it.” But I dutifully track the glasses down and give them to him. He puts them on, pushes a few pieces around, takes them off and hands them back to me. “I can see them.” He struggles for words to express himself. “I know. I know I should want. Should want – to do the puzzle. But I can’t. Can’t – can’t – make myself want to.” He looks at me, his voice plaintive. “Why can’t I make myself want to?”

I put the glasses away. “I’m not sure.”

* * *

My brother has already shepherded two grandparents through failing health. A devout Christian, he won them over to belief at the end of their lives – our grandfather, he proudly relates, via a deathbed fax. He embarks on the same program with our mother, bringing little inspirational notes and, a few days after the sheriff has taken her husband of sixty-one years away to an uncertain future, a printout of the entire book of Habakkuk. He tells her of its theme of journeying from doubt to redemption, tells her that God would help her if she would only let Him, and she shrinks in on herself in the way she does when she has reached an emotional breaking point. I cut the visit short and walk he and his wife outside.

This doesn’t escape his notice. “Why do you think she’s so upset?”

I am a little upset myself. “Because you keep telling her God will be there for her, that if she would only open herself to God’s presence she would be comforted. But she doesn’t feel comforted, so she thinks she isn’t trying hard enough. She thinks she’s a bad person.”

He looks hurt, but I’m not in the mood to reassure him. His wife lays a hand on his arm. “Maybe we should take that a little slower.”

In the weeks after he keeps trying – usually more gently – to fan a spark of faith in her, but he has little to say to my father. Perhaps because he finds it difficult to wrap his cloak of theological comfort around someone whose brain is collapsing in on itself like a rotten chestnut.

* * *

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My parents’ retirement community is an “all-stages Alzheimer’s” facility, and there is only one circumstance under which they will terminate a patient’s residence. When shortly before Christmas I receive a call telling me that my father has struck a caregiver and thrown a glass of water in another’s face, I know we are slouching near it. Don’t worry, they say. We’ll adjust his medication. But your mother is a trigger for his anger, so we’re asking her to spend less time in Heartland.

On a grey and rainy afternoon shortly after the new year the phone rings again. No action on your part is required, but your father punched his roommate in the stomach and the face and we have an emergency call in to his physician asking for guidance.

And again that evening during dinner. Your father ate and is sleeping. I have directed the caregiver staff not to wake him.

And when the sun came out the next morning. An evaluation team decided last night at 9:15 to take him back to Stepping Stones. Stepping Stones. Another quaint name, hiding the somewhat chillier reality of the nearby hospital’s geropsychiatric ward. I pack my bags and head down to L.A.

My father is sitting in a wheelchair by the nursing station, remnants of turkey, carrots and rice on a tray in front of him. Red grapes and cantaloupe – two of his favorite foods – lie untouched, a plastic cup of iced tea half drunk. I think, perhaps, he recognizes my brother and I. “How are you?” I say reflexively, knowing half way through the sentence that it was probably a mistake.

He frowns. “Don’t ask.”

My brother has wandered off to see why he is eating lunch alone in the middle of the hallway rather than with the other patients. I kneel next to him, and a friendly orderly scurries to bring me a chair. “What’s wrong?”

He waves his left hand, which is as snowy white as the towel wrapped across his shoulders. His right hand is red and swollen, with two thick scabs just behind his knuckles. It looks as if he has been hitting more than caregivers and a roommate. “It’s hard. Hard. Hard to get a job in this – these times.” He looks up at me, resentment flickering behind the haze of medications keeping  him calm. “You two don’t have trouble. Trouble getting jobs.” He stares down at the plate of food. “I have a job. But it’s terrible.”

My brother is back. (They have our father by the nurse’s station to make sure he eats, and doesn’t hide or throw his food.) “What is your job?” he asks.

He nods at the plate. “This. This – selling this. Sales are okay. But not great.” He lapses into a long, struggling silence. “I’m discouraged.” His eyes are red-rimmed, from crying I think. “It hurts. I’ve lost – I’ve lost. Things are – things are terrible. And there’s no hope. Things won’t – things won’t get better. I’m discouraged. It hurts.” He looks up at us. “You have things – things – to do. You should go. Go. Do them.”

“We are doing a thing,” my brother says. “We’re visiting with you. That’s what we want to be doing.”

He takes our father’s hand, and I rest mine on his shoulder. Three more times we try to engage him. Three more times with increasing frustration he tells us to go, and finally we do. My brother thinks he doesn’t want us to see him in this condition. I think he doesn’t want to see us in our condition, healthy and active, with things to do and the will and capacity to do them. But words are slipping away from him, and we’ll never know for sure.

* * *

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Stepping Stones puts him on less gentle drugs than Heartland Village. In addition to donepezil for dementia he takes trazodone for insomnia and Depakote sprinkle and risperidone for bipolar disorder. The blend works for a few days, but then comes the inevitable call from a harried-sounding nurse. He’s been aggressive and combative with the staff. He is speaking, but what he says makes no sense. We’ve been walking with him to try to calm him down, but we’ll need to adjust his medication. I worked with him when he was here before, but he – she cuts off whatever she was going to say. Call back Thursday and we’ll have a better long term prognosis.

I know a long term prognosis. Loss of speech. Loss of ambulation. Difficulty swallowing. Pneumonia. He will rage until his body betrays him as his mind already has done. And then he will die.

And I will be left to rage for him, at such a bitter, cruel end, wishing he could have gone gentler into a good night.