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From Afghanistan to America: Caregiving, nationalities and sentimental hopes
This is the map my father drew to plan his trip out east with Leo

My father’s caregiver Leo (short for Leonid) is from the country of Belarus, the nation that is directly east of Poland and formerly part of the Soviet Union. Leo was once a soldier in the Soviet Army that fought in Afghanistan. According to Leo, his unit was dropped off at the border with simple instructions: “Go kill people. We’ll pick you up in 5 years.”

Leo lives legally in the United States now, possessed of all the documents he needs to reside and work in Chicago and Illinois. He is a great fan of this country, and he does not think the United States should spend another minute in Afghanistan. “It is a bad place,” he says in broken English, shaking his head at the thought of his adopted country’s long-running war there. When Leo tries to explain the political reasons why no country should ever fight in Afghanistan, he begins talking so fast it is impossible to keep up with his meaning in the broken English he uses to communicate. So I nod my head and agree with Leo, because one figures he has to know more than the average citizen on the subject. He fought and killed there, after all.

Leo became my father’s caregiver early last year when his Ukrainian wife Olga left us rather suddenly. Olga departed to take over a caregiving job for her sister whose husband found out he has cancer. They returned to Ukraine for treatment because they have no health insurance here in America. But that meant there was no real warning about the impending transfer of duties from Olga to Leo. Leo just showed up one day and informed me, “I take care of your dad now.”

I’d met Leo on a number of times because he visited Olga frequently at my dad's house and had served as substitute caregiver for my father on many occasions. So I basically trusted him. One learns in dealing with Eastern Europeans that their lives are generally more complicated than the typical American. Dual citizenship, if it is available depending on the laws of each country, alone has a way of creating complications on life. Then there are obligations to family members "back home," along with the currency, both monetary and social, of negotiating patterns of life here in Chicago. There are people from all over Eastern Europe in the Chicago region, and the languages alone can be dizzying to a dopey American with no training in Polish, Russian or Ukrainian. Without some studious effort, one cannot even separate the nations from the native languages they speak.

So you set some standards, negotiate the basics and determine what you can about someone through little tests of human nature. Under my management this system has worked some 10 years in caring for my father after his stroke 1o years ago and my mother's death from cancer and stroke in 2005. And I don't think we're alone in depending on Eastern Europeans as an important caregiving resource, both officially and unofficially, here in America. 

To his credit, our "new" caregiver Leo had taken a course and gotten officially certified with coursework papers to prove it. So the transition from Olga to Leo was apparently planned by them all along. Perhaps Olga simply needed a change. My father can be a difficult man to manage at times. He's lost the ability to function with language due to apraxia and aphasia, so he can't form many words. When he does get frustrated he can be quite threatening. Olga worked with him for 3 years. Faithfully. Everyone has their limits. 

Fortunately, Leo and dad seemed to hit it off well. Their mutual love for garage sales gave them a hobby they could share together. Dad seemed to like the company of a another man around the house. They did man things together, even visiting the local Hooters restaurant once a month for dinner. While my father can’t say much, he did learn to say the word “HOOTERS” with a big smile on his face.

As the relationship between Leo and my father developed, they hatched a scheme to go on a vacation together. Dad picked out a series of relatives he'd like to visit in the eastern states; cousins, sisters, sons. Then there were Civil War sites he wanted to tour, like Gettysburg, and some national parks and the Biltmore Hotel in one of those states. I never knew what that Biltmore thing was all about. Some things are just best not to ask. Overall, given my father’s progressive spirit despite his physical disabilities, the trip he’d planned with Leo seemed manageable. They’d be staying with relatives or camping in hotels the whole way. Two guys on a rideabout. 

Dad also drew a map of all the states on his itinerary. The stroke has taken away use of his right (and writing) hand but he’s taught himself to write and draw pretty well with his left. He’s even taken up painting with watercolors and acrylics, and his work is pretty good. Three of his sons are artists, but dad never did too much to drawing for pleasure or profit. Idle time does however have a way of pulling hidden talents forth. 

A week before dad and Leo were set to depart, it suddenly occurred to me that my dad had no real way of letting anyone know that he was planning to visit. Plus he has always been lousy at that aspect of the social graces. So I checked with dad to see if everyone knew he was coming, and he said, “No…”, then gave me that shrug he uses when he expects me to take care of something. 

So I called his sister in upstate New York and she told me with a trace of disgust in her voice, “That’s so typical of your father. He never liked to let anyone know he was going to visit.” And it’s true. My dad used to pull the same trick on my wife and I all the time. Showing up unannounced.

But for the trip it meant I had to make a round of hurried phone calls to everyone on his itinerary. I even wound up coordinating the visit of one of his younger sisters who had decided she would drive up from the Philly area to meet up with dad in upstate New York because her condo is on the 2nd floor with no real wheelchair access and she was concerned dad and Leo could not even get into the house up the steep stairs. So in many ways, and over a few obstacles, things really did seem to be coming together. 

But it turned out there were complications in my father’s proposed schedule that were intractable. My brother in Pennsylvania was scheduled to be out of town that week. So was my cousin in North Carolina. So I told dad he had to scratch those off his list.

When we finally arrived at an agreed-upon schedule, Leo and dad prepared to depart in early July for their first stop in Kent, Ohio to stay with my younger brother. Then the very next day Leo and dad drove to visit Niagara Falls, New York.

Dad hadn’t seen the falls in some 50 years, and when they drove up on the United States side my father was somewhat disappointed. He immediately ascertained that the real action and most interesting places to visit were on the Canadian side. I knew that was true too, having stopped there a few years back with my family for an afternoon of touristy hanging around.

But when it comes to crossing over to Canada at Niagara Falls these days, times have changed. The passport restrictions are considerably tighter, for one thing. So when Leo called in a panic because Stew wanted to cross over to Canada, I told my father over the phone that they simply could not go. “Dad, you don’t have a passport with you. And if Leo goes over to Canada, he won’t be able to come back into America. They might even arrest him for all I know, and deport him to Belarus...”

But my father would not listen to such logic. He was yelling into the phone. “NO NO NO NO!” as loud as he could yell. Which was pretty loud.

I thought of Leo, standing next to my father in his wheelchair, trying to show my father a good time in his waning years. And I thought of Leo, the Belarussian soldier from the Soviet Union, potentially stuck at the border trying to explain in broken English why he’d come into Canada with no passport and no Green card. Would they indeed deport him on the spot? That would leave my stroke-ridden father lost and alone in Canada with no passport, no ability to drive and no way to tell anyone what he was doing there. These are the dire imaginings one executes while trying to negotiate an emotional situation over cell phones. But I held my ground and stood by Leo. Because my father can be one irrational dude. 

It took several minutes of cajoling for my father to settle down. He was still yelling in the background when Leo took the cell phone back and essentially begged me for help in the situation. You could hear the panic in his voice. The real knowledge of the world coming through. I assured him there was no way he should be compelled to enter Canada. Not at any cost. Not even if my father should threaten to wheel his chair over Niagara Falls. “Leo,” I told him, “Just turn around. Take dad back to the car.”

And he did. By that point my father was so emotionally drained he only wanted to go home. And Leo, who’d once faced down death in Afghanistan, was so shaken and saddened by the scene that he too wanted to go home.

So much for the summer adventure. So much for the map my father had planned with visits to his sisters, one of his sons and the Civil War sites he'd not yet seen in his life. The journey was over.

And it was my father's fault, in some respects. In other ways, perhaps not. Maybe it was my fault for not anticipating the whole border incident. But I've been good at blaming myself for things that are out of my control my whole life. You simply don't have the time or wisdom to think of all the possibilities in life. 

If you look at the grand picture in life and negotiations, that lack of control might be how nations get into wars, and why they can't get out. It's too hard to think it all through and predict the outcomes. So you make a judgement call to the best of your abilities, in war or peace. But is most often wise to err on the side of peace if you can, and go home when you must. 

Of course sometimes as a nation you wind up caregiving for a country that is broken, or even one that you yourself broke, when you should know better. Soon enough it gets tricky even knowing out what your responsibilities are, much less how to handle a crisis. Then at some point, everything becomes a crisis. Then you really know it's time to come home. 

And that's what exactly what my father and Leo did.  

They drove back to Ohio that day and stayed overnight with my younger brother in Kent, who fed Leo some beers. Leo proceeded to grab a guitar and play, and it turns out he can sing and play pretty well, so the night turned into a happy scene. My father spent the early evening fishing in the ponds out front of my brother's house and caught some pretty big bass. So it ended up feeling like a vacation after all. It reminded me of my one of my favorite quotes from the book Ambiguous Adventure: "The purity of the moment is made from the absence of time." (Cheik Hamidou Kane). 

The next morning Leo and dad drove back to Chicago.

It remained for me to make a series of frantic phones calls to everyone on dad’s trip list to let them know he’d cancelled the plans. His sister from Philly was just about to get on the expressway when I reached her by cell phone. She was grateful for the call but decided to go visit her sister anyway.

When informed that my father had aborted the mission, my father's cousin Bob simply said, "Well, you did your best." 

It all seems like a long time ago, last summer.

Meanwhile, during the second week of May 2012, my father’s 1988 Grand Marquis had yet another breakdown. Rather than plunk another $1500 into the vehicle that was sucking up repair costs right and left, he opted to visit with the sales guy at the Ford dealership instead. Dad picked out a used 2009 Volkswagon van that can hold the electric wheelchair he and Leo recently picked up at a garage sale. The wheelchair really works, and they both saw the potential for a change in lifestyle and getting around. Who can blame them? 

So Leo picked up a couple onloading ramps from Home Depot so the chair can wheel right into the back of the van. We don’t know what they have up their sleeves with all that new equipment. But one does have to hope it has nothing to do with either Canada or Mexico.




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What a story!

“Just turn around. Take dad back to the car.”

Oh, Christopher, what a situation for you to deal with--over the phone! What a great job you did in diminishing Leo's panic. 

It's amazing what can be accomplished if you can insert reason into the scene. 

Here's a belated pat on the back.

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Thank goodness for the Leos

Thank goodness for the Leos and Olgas of this world, and thanks for sharing this story.