Humans of TCGMC: Buck Hakes

Buck Hakes

Buck Hakes, after years of being a caretaker for his parents, who are now deceased, followed his dreams around the world in this month’s inspirational tale of self-discovery.

I came home to Indiana in 2009 because mom had Parkinson’s and dad had Alzheimer’s. Mom was still doing okay at that point, but dad was really starting to fade, and I could tell that mom was so wrung out trying to deal with it by herself. For two years, I was able to take care of them while I worked in customer service at the “call center from hell.” Then, five years full time.

What was it like, taking care of them?

It was… interesting. It brought out sides of their personalities that I didn’t know before. Dad had always been a perfectionist. He was one of the first accredited male nurses in the state of Indiana. He was a professor of nursing at Ball State University, and he was a great father, too. But he really mellowed, and he got very sweet and childlike when he went to the memory care unit. And Mom and I were like partners in caring for him, and in helping prop each other up.

When I moved back in, he still recognized us, he still knew where he was. For a while, he would get very obsessed with members of his family, and he would ask what happened to this person and that person. I finally wrote him up a little report: “Your name is Richard Hakes, you live here in Indiana, your wife is ___, etc.” I did it for all the people he was asking about. Unfortunately, most of them were dead. If I had known better, I probably would’ve come up with some reason why they weren’t around, and not troubled him with thinking, “Oh no, my brother died…” It also said “You have a disease called Alzheimers, which makes you forget these things.” It ended with, “We all love you very much.” 

I think he stopped recognizing mom first. He knew her, but he didn’t recognize her as his wife. It was after I moved back that he stopped sharing a bedroom with her. It was like, “This lady wants me to spend the night with her, and I’m a married man!” And you don’t know how heart wrenching it was to hear him call out looking for his wife, when she was right there. Then, there was the day that he didn’t recognize me. One day, when I was driving him to the library, he turned to me and very shyly said, “What relation to me are you, again?” I had to say, “I’m your son,” and he said, “Oh, okay.”

And, of course, you knew that was coming, but I’m guessing it didn’t make it any better when it did. He passed 7 years ago, but this is still living fresh in your head. 

Yes. And see, this is the hard part. The summer of 2016, we lost my dad, my older brother, and my mom in the space of a month. I don’t know how my sister and I even got through that month. In total, I spent 7 years taking care of my parents. And I was honored to do it. They had done so much for me, and I was there for them when they needed it. It was a radical act of love.

I didn’t just lose my parents and my brother; I lost my job because I was taking care of them full-time. And in the space of a month, that was all gone. And then I started wondering, “Who am I, again?” For 8 months, I was non-functional. I basically just sat in the house all day. I was afraid to touch anything, to change anything. My niece left a pair of shoes underneath the coffee table, and 8 months later, when they came up, the shoes were still there. I just couldn’t think of a future. It took me forever, But then, I finally decided to do something big and crazy. The inheritance wasn’t enough to retire on, but I paid for tuition at the Le Cordon Bleu School of Pastry in Wellington, New Zealand.

Well here we go!

New Zealand was somewhere I’d always wanted to see. And I’ve always been a baker – I had my own baking business in high school! I always wondered if I could make it as a professional baker. Unfortunately, I found out that patisserie is not about baking! It’s really about decorating and making fancy desserts. I flunked out of the first course, around the Christmas holidays. But I’d already paid for a bus trip around the country, and I thought, ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna do it.” I got to see the entire country for 2 weeks. The thing about New Zealand is that, no matter where you go, you’re never that far away from gorgeous, wild scenery. It’s the most biologically and geologically diverse place on earth.

I realized that Le Cordon Bleu had a bread program in Ottawa, and so I transferred there. It was exactly what I needed. And this time I did graduate, so I am a certified Le Cordon Bleu bread baker. 

After that I went back to Auckland [New Zealand] and theoretically I was looking for work, but I was just healing. I got past a lot of stuff. It was a long time without anything hanging over me. That took about 7 months altogether, until the money ran out and I had to come home again. I tried to get jobs in L.A. for baking, but they involved being on your feet for 12 hours a day, and I couldn’t do that physically. Finally, I gave up the idea of making a living at baking, but I did it! I proved that I could do it. I graduated from the program. I had success. What was the next chapter?

It turned out to be Minneapolis. My friend Colleen was here, and she told me I could crash in her basement until I figured things out. I arrived in June of 2019, and I almost immediately got my job with the bank. I worked through my first winter, and then the world locked down for another year-and-a-half. Finally, in late 2020 I got out of the basement, moved into my own place, and got a car. Around that time, I started singing with the Chorus at its 2021 holiday concert.

I do my work, I try to get out and do things, but I have a tendency to isolate. It’s very hard for me to meet people, and the Chorus has been a big help in that. That’s the other big topic, along with the caregiving – I’m on the spectrum. I’m not sure if that’s a shock to you.

I hadn’t given it thought, but, of course, it doesn’t make a difference. But what led you to think you might be on the spectrum? You were an adult when you got diagnosed.

I just don’t think like other people – not in a good or bad way, just different. I have a hard time making and maintaining eye contact. I can do it, but it’s a strain. Most of my life tends to be inside my head. I either don’t talk to people, or else I blurt out things without meaning to, or I info-dump – like I’m doing right now! I have a mind for trivia, I can tell you every Warner Brothers character actor from the 1930’s, but I have a terrible time remembering the names of people around me, especially new people I meet. Plus I’m an empath and an emotional sponge, so I can get overwhelmed among crowds. These are things that have gotten better over the years, as I’ve learned to be among people much more. But I don’t know how much of it is adapting, and how much is masking. 

When I moved to Los Angeles [when I was younger] to pursue acting, and to New Zealand and to Canada to pursue baking, people said, “That’s such a brave thing to do.” But the thing is, I always feel like I’m a foreigner in a strange land, among people whose customs I’m not entirely up on, and I have to constantly watch myself and be on guard not to do something unintentionally inappropriate or offensive. I yearn for connection with people, but it feels like I’m stuck behind the glass. It’s like an actor learning a role. But I have to wonder if I’m erasing the real me underneath.

And yet, it seems like you’re being your most authentic self. You took action and went for your dreams. That is brave. And now you’re on a new adventure.

As my friend Bob said just after that terrible month in 2016, “the universe is telling you to close the book on that chapter in your life.” And for several years, I was just adrift. But Minneapolis has been very good to me so far. I’m hoping to build an authentic life for myself, find like-minded people, and hopefully be creative again, because I used to do quite a bit of writing and acting. The chorus has been a big part of that. I thank you, I thank all the chorus people. I’m not there yet, but I’m eternally hopeful that I’ll find who I really am, and maybe even find love or romance. If only there were a procedure for it! I need instructions!

Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.

Check out the archive of previous interviews!

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