KEN STICKNEY — Sharing the house with ghosts

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, August 21, 2019

My flight from Houston on Tuesday was to deliver me home, which, no matter how far I roam or where I set up shop, remains New England. That’s true after 43 years in the Deep South and Southwest, all of them spent in Gulf Coast states. (I’ve missed only Florida, which I don’t regret.)

Every trip home over the last four decades has had some theme: fun with Mom and Dad, introducing my fiancée, weddings and, alas, funerals. Mom died in 2013 after a sustained fight with Alzheimer’s and dementia; Dad was her caregiver. Dad’s living in a memory care unit now.

That’s made the themes of the last 10 years’ trips more uniform. For the most part, they’ve been about holding on, surviving with family intact, tending to parents, helping where we can, taking the role of caring for them, rather than having them care for us. Inevitably, we — my three brothers and I — will lose. They will pass away and we will follow.

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My older brother has borne the largest burden. He’s the executor of their estate, and he and my sister-in-law have made the most frequent and work-intensive trips. My trip will be in that fashion: Cleaning out what’s left in his house, preparing the home for eventual sale, should my father need more resources. Care for the elderly doesn’t come cheap.

This time, my wife and oldest daughter are coming, too. Someone will sit with my father every day while the other two will clean out closets and the cellar. That’s the mission.

One daughter told me she’d love to come up; could we plan one night at the Boston Pops? But it’s not that kind of trip anymore. Now, there are more gravesites than family members. Now, there is more toil than tourism. The New England I knew is simply vanishing from me.

A few years back, preparing to fly home, I confessed to my wife that it saddened me to see the old home — my parents bought it in 1960 — decay and the family, my parents and our extended family, decline. Go, she urged me: It will never be better than it is now. She was right.

There were days when my mother, in her declining years, scarcely remembered me. There were days when she thought I was an intruder or maybe death itself. Now my father, I fear, will struggle to remember me and my wife and child when we visit. But it will never be better than it will be this week. Of that much I can be certain.

There’s this, though: Each trip reminds me that my trips home will become more rare. Family will dwindle from large to small to gone. I’ve got one visit planned with cousins; I’m eager for that.

When my father’s time passes, I may never return. I won’t smell the Atlantic air, or walk cobblestone streets or step into the hard sand. All of that has been part of who I am. I won’t climb New Hampshire mountain trails or eat fresh Atlantic cod or walk through the North End. Fenway Park? Well, I gave that up with the ’94 baseball strike. I can hold a grudge.

New England, for my children, will be those precious touches with their grandparents, who loved them dearly. Those are sweet memories. But home to them will be places like Tuscaloosa and New Orleans and Lafayette. New England to them will be where Dad grew up. I made my choices without regrets.

This week, the New England household will be me and my wife and a child. Just us, and so many ghosts.

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.