The Storm Comes
“Why?” This is the question on everyone’s mind when they find out that you will have, do have, or have had an alpaca farm. How do a pharmacist and a computer programmer, neither of whom have ever lived on a farm, both of whom work for the Federal Government, decide to start an alpaca breeding farm?
I was currently living on a farm, with livestock, and a husband who wanted to start a farm business. Tom had been researching farm options even as I planned to go back to my safe, predictable life as a computer programmer. He briefly researched vineyards, but we were already surrounded by boutique vineyards. He looked into aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, but I couldn’t share his excitement about fish. Finally, he started mentioning alpacas. I found the idea of fluffy, pretty alpacas very tempting, but way too risky. Investing hard-earned money and years of work while taking a chance on wasting it all? I couldn’t see myself doing something crazy like that! I didn’t know then that I was about to be hit with the cosmic two-by-four.
For the last few years, I had been increasingly concerned about my father, Tom. Since his name is the same as my husband’s I’ll call him Col. Tom. He and my mother, Ruth, had retired to Lewes Delaware after a 30+ year military career. Lewes was then an adorable little beach town with many Victorian houses, one main road, a few shops and restaurants, and a ferry terminal from which the ferries sailed to Cape May, New Jersey. It was about two and a half hours from our farm, and I visited often with the kids.
Both of my parents grew up in the 1920’s, during the Great Depression. My dad had been working on the loading docks in Boston when World War II began. He signed up to fight and was sent to Algiers in North Africa. He sometimes remarked that, upon joining the Army, he had the experience of being able to eat as much as he wanted for the first time in his life.
Despite being poor, my dad was an excellent student and very, very smart. He was great at math, but he loved history, poetry, and literature as well. He was crazy about art and dreamed of being a painter one day. He was excited to see the exotic scenery of Algeria and Tunisia, ride camels, and study the customs of the Arabs. It was during the winding down of this campaign that my dad’s commanding officer informed him that he was nominating him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. My dad was sent to Amherst College in Massachusetts to prepare. The rest of his company moved on to Italy. Most of them would die there.
No one in Col. Tom’s family had entertained the idea of going to college. For these grandchildren of tough Irish immigrants, the college was something only rich people did. The war, and one commanding officer, changed the course of my father’s life. He graduated from West Point with honors and a degree in engineering. The Army sent him to several more schools including the famous Defense Language Institute in Monterey California. Col. Tom ended up a PH.d.
He stayed in the Army and lived all over the world. In addition to WWII, Col. Tom served multiple tours in Vietnam. He had a messy dresser drawer full of commendation medals and award certificates. During his long career, he had been a paratrooper, a commanding officer, a professor at West Point, and a base commander. He had lived in Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, Korea, Alaska, Michigan, Texas, San Francisco, Virginia, Brazil, and New York. He had traveled all over Europe, Asia, South America, and other exotic locales, plunking down his easel in spare moments and painting whatever took his fancy. He had painted canvases in Rome, Portugal, Paris, and Madrid, often sporting a corny, Picasso-style beret.
Now my dad was starting to seem confused, agitated, annoyed; a different person than the one I knew. Both of my parents prided themselves on being proper New Englanders. They controlled themselves in all situations, and outward shows of annoyance by either of them had been extremely rare. Maybe most people get more cranky when they are old, but the change in my father was more dramatic.
On my latest visit, my dad had asked me several times how to work his own camera. Each time I answered, he seemed satisfied, but later he asked the same question again. He had recently bought his first computer but could not work it, even after I explained it to him. This purchase especially frightened me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father’s sudden desire to own a computer was because he thought it could be used to make sense of the information that his brain no longer processed correctly.
Col. Tom’s mother had probably died of Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1970s. We did not witness her last year or her death. We were living in Asia then. I’m not sure her type of dementia was ever officially diagnosed, but we knew of erratic, confusing behavior that required her to have a live-in caretaker for several years. By the time of my dad’s illness, we knew that the tendency for Alzheimer’s Disease is partly inherited. I hated the idea of being the one to bring up my father’s declining mental abilities. I didn’t want to face what might be coming, but I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing either. I felt that there must be some treatment that could help him. On the first week in January of 1996, I went to Delaware to pick up my parents and bring them back to stay at our farm.
I had spent several months trying to get my father a neurology appointment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, near my parents’ house, no longer offered any medical treatment for retired military personnel. Bethesda still offered care, but it took multiple phone calls, and weeks or months of waiting, to secure one appointment and only those who lived in the area were eligible. We had to claim my parents as dependents of my husband, who was then active-duty U.S. Public Health Service. This stuck in the craw of my parents, who had seen their country through two wars and had been promised health care by the government they trusted, but there was no way around it.
My father was not yet clear on the true reason for this appointment, I had let him think it was a follow-up from a previous urology appointment, but my mother knew what it was about, and she was angry and resentful. She had loved and admired this man for so long that she couldn’t allow herself to acknowledge what might be happening. I wasn’t sure I could stand to know the truth either. I felt like Pandora with my hand on the lid of the box.
We arrived back in Mt. Airy on Friday afternoon. The fateful appointment was set for Monday morning. The Weather Service was forecasting a few inches of snow that weekend, but nothing our 4-wheel drive van couldn’t handle. The atmosphere in the house was tense, but the kids were thrilled to see Grandma and Grandpa.
The snow began falling hard on Saturday morning and kept on falling. The storm began to look more and more serious. The weather predictions about inches of snow became a foot and then more like two feet. Tom climbed on his tractor and started to clear the driveway. In a few hours, the snow was too deep to push and he had to lift it up in the bucket of the tractor’s front loader and throw it off of the driveway. Hours kept passing and snow kept falling.
I was starting to panic. I had exhausted most of my personal courage in bullying my parents into coming home with me to attend an appointment where we might find out that what we most dreaded had come to pass. What if we couldn’t make the appointment now? Would I start the months of waiting and phone calls over again? And, what if I couldn’t convince my parents to come home with me the next time? Was the Universe just screwing with me now?
I worried about my poor husband, out in the freezing wind and falling snow for what would turn out to be more than eight hours on the tractor. He had never worked a marathon tractoring session like this before. When I had spare worrying time, I worried about the goats. How would they get to the brook to drink if there were two feet of snow in their paddock? Who knows when we could get around to clearing a path to their barn to check on them?
This last fear turned out to be unfounded. While my mother played with the children, Tom tractored snow, and my father and I shoveled pathways from the house to the garage, the goats were calmly engaging in their own survival plan. They single-mindedly walked back and forth from the goat palace to the brook, over and over, all during the storm. They would end up doing this for two full days. In this way, they kept a snowy corridor to their drinking water open. Once again, the goats had proved their superiority as a species.
Tom finally came in, half-frozen and exhausted, just as night began to fall. The tractor was out of diesel fuel. The Weather Service informed us that another snowstorm was approaching rapidly. Our situation was looking hopeless. This was turning out to be a record-breaking storm and now we had no fuel for the tractor.
Sunday morning came. The snow was falling again, but a small miracle had also happened. The diesel fuel fairy had visited. One of the Rogers, our wonderful, generous neighbors, had tied a large container of diesel fuel to an old-fashioned, runner sled and sent it sledding down our driveway. We had not called them, they guessed that we had probably run out. We had fuel!
Tom and I decided to move our van up to the top of the driveway, a few feet from the main road. This is something we had learned to do when the driveway might be impassable for a while. It is far easier to trudge up a snowy or icy driveway on foot than manage to drive most vehicles up it. Tom attaches the van to the tractor with a chain and pulls it up while I steer from inside the van, trying to keep it from sliding off the driveway.
With the van parked safely at the top, I hike down through the lumpy snow and chilly air to the house where my parents and children wait. Tom goes back to his lonely, cold, snow removal job. He moves a few feet forward, lowers the bucket of the front loader, scoops up snow, lifts the bucket in the air, backs the tractor at an angle to one of the snowy walls on either side of him, and dumps the snow over. He does this for almost another full day. Sometime in the afternoon, he trudges back down the driveway to the house with more bad news. The tractor’s axle has broken.
We now have close to four feet of snow on the ground, but the storm is finally stopping, and most of the driveway is cleared. We might be able to shovel the rest by hand. Tom and I climb back up, lugging our snow shovels to the spot near the end of our driveway that is not yet cleared, and begin to dig. It is miserable work. I am sweaty and cold at the same time and my arms are aching from the effort of lifting the snow chest high to throw it high enough to clear the walls. Sometimes I do it wrong and some of the snow plops back down on my head or slides down the neck of my parka. Sometimes the wind blows it back into our faces. We make progress, but soon the sun is setting and the cold is growing. We are not going to make it. We head back down before the dark overtakes us. I try to be thankful that we have not lost our electricity or our roof. Others have not been that lucky. The news is full of stories of roofs caved in from the heavy snow.
Something makes us climb back up the hill early Monday morning to assess our hopeless situation. Another miracle has occurred. Someone has cleared the last part of our driveway of most of the snow, then hooked a chain to our van and yanked it out, adjacent to the road. This time our guardian angel will turn out to be Rogers’ son-in-law Ed, owner of the auto repair garage in town. Tom and I slip and slide excitedly down the driveway to the house to get my father. We are going to keep our appointment!
We will reach the Naval Hospital an hour and a half later only to find it is officially closed. The entire government has been shut down due to the record snowfall. Only some of the lights are on inside, and there are hardly any people around. The huge hospital feels like a ghost town, but we find out that there is a skeleton crew of doctors on duty. Most of them have no patients to care for. This results in my father getting all of the necessary tests in one day. He is seen by the neurologist, X-rays are taken. A CAT scan is performed. Blood is drawn, tested and the results explained to us. The tests last for almost 7 hours. This seems like a very lucky break for us as these tests would normally be spread out over half a dozen appointments, but the marathon of unfamiliar testing begins to seem sinister to my father. He becomes paranoid and agitated as the day wears on.
By the end of the day, we have confirmation that Col. Tom has dementia and the neurologist does not think it is in the beginning stages either, but the middle. My dad has been hiding it well, but now that he is exhausted and disoriented from the long hours of testing, it is all too obvious. We have to talk him into going home with us. He does not trust us, especially me. He will later come to believe that his mental problems are my fault; that it began this day when I took him to people who experimented on his brain. He will begin to hate and fear me, even as I continue to make his appointments and take him back to the same hospital, hoping for a treatment that can stop the progress of his disease. Eventually, he will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease but they will not find a treatment that can slow it.
My father’s descent into madness was not caused by the terrible storm, but the two things are forever connected in my brain. The feeling of being trapped, cold, helpless, while the snow keeps falling and falling merges with the dread of endless waiting in the empty, dark hospital for the confirmation of something I don’t want to know. My dad, the brilliant, brave, artistic Colonel is gone.
It feels unfair that all this effort will lead to nothing except him hating me and believing that I betrayed him. During the next few years, I will often hope for a magical, T.V.-movie ending where my father has a moment of lucidity and tells me, “I know this wasn’t your fault.” This being real life, that moment won’t come.
Slowly I will begin to understand certain things. We do our best, but we are not in control, not of the weather, not of our own fate. Playing it safe does not make us safe. We are never really safe. I knew these things on some level, but since the storm, I really know them. I am ready to take a crazy chance. I’m ready to live a braver life. I am ready to breed alpacas for a living.