I slide the newspaper toward my dad. It’s the League of Women Voters guide to the local elections. My father is three months away from turning 90. He sits at the dining room table, his coffee cup to his left, his glasses on his nose, and a slightly confused look on his face. My sister has been taking care of him for the past two weeks, since my mom fell and broke her hip.
I feel bad about my sister’s burden. Her days are not so different from those of the remote-schooling parent. A judge, she gets up before 5:00 to do some of her work. Then she scurries around setting up things for my father (meds, meals, clothes, music). Starting at 8:30, she conducts remote legal hearings from the room that has become her office, hoping she doesn’t get any interruptions or intrusions from a slightly confused or distressed gentleman. It’s stressful. My father sometimes wakes up at 2:00 a.m. On occasion, he has gotten dressed, turned on all the lights and proceeded to the dining room to await breakfast. She escorts him back to bed and suggests that “daylight” is a good clue that it’s time to rise.
This weekend, when I visited, she tried to head off one added stress by asking me to help my father with his absentee ballot. It seemed like the least I could do.
So I sit to my father’s right, at a safe social distance. I pass him the voting guide. “What’s this?” he asks.
“It’s the voting guide. I thought I’d help you with your absentee ballot.”
“What?” My father has not heard well for the past 25 years. He has hearing aids, but his hearing loss is pretty profound.
“I found the paper that has the position statements by each candidate.” I remember a time when his hearing loss was just the f-sound and the s-sound. We used to try to craft sentences without those sounds. I think of what I would have substituted for “found” and “statements.” Now he really misses all of the sounds…except musical notes. My daughter nearly fell out of her chair last month when my father, who seemed not to be hearing a word of the conversation, lifted his head at the very first note of an opera overture, and said, “Oh, Don Giovanni.” What?!
“It’s the League of Women Voters publication, Dad.” He’s used this for years, but it doesn’t register today.
“I beg your pardon?” Hearing this, takes me back to when my nephew, then about five, asked why his morfar was always talking about some person named Piggy Parton. We explained that he needed to talk much louder. Then Morfar would stop saying, “I beg your pardon.” My nephew just turned 30.
“Here, read this,” I say, pointing to the top line. Of course, all of this spoken communication is made more challenging by the fact that I have a mask over my face. It’s hard for the youngest kids in school. It’s also really hard for people who have grown accustomed to lipreading. I’m remembering the times my dad took me to the polls, leading me into the curtained booth, letting me watch while he clicked the levers, then lock in the vote with a dramatic swing of the giant handle. No standardized testing bubbles in those days, just clicks, cranks, and curtains.
Today, we have a pretty easy time with the presidential choice, and my dad really likes his congressman, so that too goes smoothly. Then comes the fun stuff. There are six candidates for school board in Montgomery County. You can vote for four. This was a bit tough to get across. I have to admit that my father has also experienced some cognitive loss in recent years. Oddly, it shows in anything mathematical. “Choose four out of six” requires some patience. He recognizes one of the names and fills in a bubble. I point to the words, “choose four.” He shrugs and eventually fills in three more.
Then come the judges. So many judges. I know it matters to him, so I give him plenty of time to read all of the statements. I really do understand why they don’t want judges listing their party affiliation (We’d never want a judge with political views, of course!), but it would have been so much quicker if we had those clues. As it is, we read together, me with my socially distant binoculars, he with what I am just now noticing is a brand new fashion statement for him. He has placed his reading glasses over his regular glasses. Nice look, Dad. I am sure this is not ophthalmologist-approved. However, it seems to be working. Ten minutes later he has made his decisions. He appears to have decoded the subtle language and found the judges he likes. You say judges need bias training? “Yes, that sounds promising,” he mutters.
We’re on the home stretch. It’s only the ballot initiatives and a few proposed constitutional amendments. One ballot initiative says that Maryland should really dive into this sports gambling thing so that New Jersey and Delaware don’t grab all the loot. Of course, they entice us by saying that this will fund the education budget. Bookies for Books! Yay! Dad shrugs and casts his vote.
Now the constitutional amendment. They always write these so cleverly, with triple negatives, fancy words, and compound-complex sentences, showing no consideration for the 90-year-old voter or his son. “The state legislature may not overturn a veto of a bill wherein a governor hasn’t tried to overrule the spending amendment unless it wasn’t passed with a two-thirds majority and doesn’t exceed the spending limitations placed by the governor’s original budget proposal.”
“What?” That’s me, this time.
“What?” he echoes.
“My sentiments exactly. Would you like me to flip a coin?”
“I beg your pardon.”
I know that I will soon have to swear that I have not influenced his voting in any way, so I simply slide the pen, the ballot, and a coin his way. “You choose, Dad.”
He fills in the bubble for “No.” Frankly, I have no idea if that was a wise choice.
This whole process has taken about 45 minutes. My frazzled sister has watched much of it, even though she didn’t want to take part. I think she may have felt compelled to monitor my actions in case she is forced to testify at the voting inquisition. She compliments me on my patience. I say it may be because I have neither had to wake up at 2:00 a.m. nor had to explain why we don’t wear our day clothes over our pajamas.
My dad signs his ballot, and I insert my “helper” affidavit. My sister vows to put it in the mail tomorrow. We’ve all done our civic duties…and I think it’s time for a nap, eh what?