Under Surveillance

Dad’s law enforcement career spanned more than forty years and was driven by his firm work ethic and stern determination. How this affected his later life and especially his retirement should have been totally predictable. Within a week of cleaning out his desk, he hit the streets, looking for work. He knew what he needed. He knew what he wanted.

So, it was no surprise when he’d quickly become bored as the bailiff in the court of a local circuit judge. Too much down time, standing around waiting for something to happen, he’d explained. As a clerk in a hardware store, he’d found an organizational bonanza. As a bank currier he’d routinely made a loan officer’s day by getting those important bank documents from one branch to another in record time.

Whatever it was, he had to be busy. He had to be useful. I knew I’d be able to spot him the minute I entered the nursing home. And sure enough, there he was taking care of business. The nurse’s station was the hub of all activity and it was also his command central, offering him a clear view of everybody and everything. He was constantly looking around, making note of details that might be meaningful at some unknown time in the future.

I’d stopped just to let him know I’d made it to town. He always worried when he knew I was on the road alone. He gave me a quick “just a minute” gesture and then flagged down Mac, the social worker.

“Say, Mac, you might want to have the front door buzzer looked at. It went off again this morning. “
“Hey, Corky. Thanks a lot. I’ll have maintenance look at it right away. “

As his oldest child, no one knew his need for order better than me. I’d fought him on every decision he made as a parent and disagreed with him on every issue, especially politics. I patiently waited my turn as he subtly got the attention of Marie, the nurse in charge.

“Marie, did things go okay with Martin down in 12E? I heard there was some trouble last night.”
“Thanks for asking, Corky. Everything is as good as it can be. You know how those things go.”

Marie and Dad nodded knowingly to each other as she hurried off. Dad and I then made our way to the aviary and settled in for a short chat before I headed to my parents’ house to help Mom with supper.

As he did, whenever entering any room, he positioned himself where he had the best vantage point. I’d long ago accepted his habit of scanning the room and also knew he wasn’t missing any of the fine points of our conversation.

After just a few minutes, Marie interrupted our visit. Dad’s bewilderment was heartbreaking to watch as she began to dispense his medication, then take her stethoscope off her shoulder and begin to search for his pulse. He surrendered to her requests with a sigh and a far off look.

Dad went to the nursing home at age 87 and for over two years, he dealt courageously with this, his most difficult life transition. My sister, Karla, his durable power of attorney, visited nearly every day. She’d said that Mac had recently reported Dad’s many attempts to leave the building, setting off the alarm at all hours of the day and night.

As his confusion increased, he’d begun telling elaborate stories of working all night, investigating crimes in Sheboygan and Manitowoc County. Since these were the actual places where he’d worked as a police officer, I assumed he was having vivid dreams about his past. Or, perhaps doing a life review.

But then, Karla said he’d begun to believe the nursing home had hired him to take care of security. That’s really why he was there. He wasn’t a frail, elderly man who’d outlived his usefulness. No sir! He was a vital part of day-to-day operations. Suddenly, it all made sense, how I’d always find Dad sitting on the edges of the nurse’s station. Watching. Patrolling.

He’d keep Mac informed of anything out of the ordinary. And Mac, bless his heart, always treated Dad with respect, telling him to go ahead with his investigations and thanking him for keeping the place safe. The caring attitude of all staff was apparent in how they didn’t inject the sad, hard truth into his fantasy.

I’d never heard anyone say “no, Corky, you’re a retired policeman, not our security. Now let’s go down to the lounge for juice and cookies. “   I vividly recall how Manuel, the nursing assistant, had responded.

“Gee, Corky, if you worked all night you must be real tired. Tell yah what. I’ll wheel you down to your room for a little nap. And don’t you worry. I’ll be sure to come get you in time for lunch.”

As time passed and Dad’s reality shifted, he made a call to Mom who was living alone in their home across town. He had a serious question to ask, and he was worried.

“Ma, I’m kind of tired. I think I’d like to quit this security thing.” The ever responsible breadwinner asked, “do you think we can afford it, if I quit?” Mom gave him an equally serious reply.
“Yes, Corky. We can afford it. If you want to quit, why don’t you. You’ve worked hard for so many years and should take it easy now.” I thought her response was perfect and told her so.

Dad and Karla had several serious conversations on the subject. When she was sure this is what Dad wanted, she helped him put on his good jacket and removed the worn out stocking cap he wore day and night. Then she brushed his hair and wheeled him down to Mac’s office.

“It was amazing,” Karla recalled. “I guess I should have known, but it was still surprising. Dad just suddenly became so professional and serious. And Mac was so nice to him.”
“Gosh,” Mac said. “I think it’s okay if you quit, Corky. Thanks for all your hard work. We sure do appreciate what you’ve done.”
“Will you be able to find someone else?” Dad asked. “I guess I could stay on if you really need me.”
“No, no, Corky. We’ll find someone. They probably won’t be as good as you’ve been, but we’ll find someone. Don’t you worry.”

From there, Karla wheeled Dad down to the lounge for a snack and he began tackling his final job: becoming a nursing home resident. Several months after Dad died, Karla dropped off treats for the nursing home staff. When she saw Mac, it took only a second for them to lapse into reminiscing. Mac commented how much he missed Corky. When Karla recalled the day Dad had quit his security job, another memorable incident came to Mac’s mind. He chuckled, recalling the day the corporate office had sent a new representative to do one of their periodic inspections.

“Corky knew,” Mac snickered. “He knew right away she wasn’t one of the regular workers. He made a beeline for my office and reported there was a ‘suspicious person’ in the building. I told him to keep an eye on her for me. Your dad spent the whole day following that woman around. And you should have seen how uncomfortable she was. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that but it kept your dad pretty busy that day. And, you know, anything that makes the corporate types uneasy is just fine with me.”

As kids, Dad’s police work complicated our efforts to get away with anything. The boot camp that was our childhood home was bravely endured by all of us. We became accustomed to always being under surveillance. Meals at a certain time and don’t ever be late. A strict adherence to schedules. No compromise even when an unexpected fun opportunity arose.

His certainty about right and wrong provided me with many parent/child conflict memories. But, it wasn’t until much, much later that I realized how his persistence had affected me. Parents are, after all, the most powerful role models. Dad taught by example to have opinions and not be afraid to defend them. What I thought of as bothersome in the past, I’ve now come to value.

Surviving my strict childhood and adolescence, I am profoundly grateful for the strong work ethic and morally sound behavior he demonstrated. Even as he headed down that foggy, uncertain highway, he never seemed unsure of what he cared about and what was the right thing to do. From husband, father, policeman and nursing home security guard, he was true to his values right up to the end.

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