(I originally posted this on facebook but I wanted to spread it around so...)
Dad Update: What a gift the time with my Dad was this week. I wish I could take a picture that would convey what happens when he opens his eyes and sees me. His face just lights up. He smiles and says my name. None of which I thought would be happening at this stage. But despite his memory issues, my Dad seems to be holding on really fiercely to the idea of me as his son. It seems as though my Dad will be just as happy to see me on the day he leaves this life as he was on the day that I entered it. And it gives him such pleasure just to see me and spend time with me, showing up is really all he needed me to do. So I’m very glad that I went.
Since returning, I’m constantly reminded of all the things I do each morning without even thinking that are out of my Dad’s reach. I can get out of bed by myself. I can walk to the bathroom. I can take a shower. I can use a toilet. I can wash and shave my own face, brush my own teeth and gargle. I can brush my own hair. I can dress myself. I can walk around my home without anyone’s assistance. I can prepare meals and feed myself.
When I was a baby and a small child, my father and mother would do these things for me, or help me as I learned to do for myself. If you’re a lucky child, there’s no way you could ever repay your parents for all the many things they’ve done for you. It’s a strange and rare privilege to be able to return the favor, even for a few days. Dad has an amazing staff of caregivers doing most of the heavy lifting for him. But just to be able to sit with him, and help to feed him or hold a glass to his lips so he can drink. It’s a very humbling thing to be given a chance to do.
The day I arrived in the afternoon, he was already pretty done in for the day, but he rallied a little just to be able to say hello. When I asked how he was feeling, he said, “I don’t feel like I get all that much out of my days anymore, son. And I don’t feel like the family gets much out of them either.” My stepmom Debbie and I visited him again at dinnertime. She feels it’s important to show up and help him eat then because it’s the lowest point of the day for him, energy-wise. The company and encouragement help.
The next morning, I accompanied him to what they call the Day Program, a huge room with all sorts of activities, access to an outdoor patio (during warmer weather), and big windows with beautiful views of the grounds. New England scenery is working overtime where they live. The challenge for Dad these days is by the time the nursing staff gets him up and fed and groomed and dressed and, via a Hoyer Lift, into his wheelchair for the journey off the dementia unit and down the hall to the Day Program, he’s pretty much wiped out energy-wise. It takes him a while to get a little bit of a second wind, or just to get his bearings. He wasn’t so much confused as just tired. So he didn’t get much into the day’s art projects, though the singalong grabbed his attention from time to time.
They serve lunch at the Day Program so they parked Dad and me at one of the big windows to look out on the grounds as we ate. Dad loves the view from that window. I started feeding him and they brought me over the New England version of a Philly cheesesteak (which was actually pretty close, and quite tasty). That led to a discussion of this great old hole in the wall place that Dad, my brother Mark and I used to go all the time for real Philly cheesesteaks, and some delightfully bad for you cheese fries. At the mention of this my Dad obviously latched onto a memory because he got a different kind of smile on his face. Debbie was introduced to this restaurant when Dad was first introducing her to my brother and me and she still remembers it - not her kind of food at all, but she was a good sport about playing along with the dining choice. I’m sure the place isn’t even there anymore, but we all carry it around in our heads still. At one point Dad said, “Now when I sit at this window it’s going to be even more special because now I’ll have a memory of having lunch here with my son.”
Every time throughout the day when I would leave him so he could rest, I’d kiss him on the forehead and say “I love you, Dad” and his response was always the same. “I love you, too, son. I’m so proud of you.” And even though he always asks about the two day jobs I hold down to pay the bills, and makes sure to get a full report, he always makes sure to ask about the writing I do if I don’t bring it up first. And when he talks about why he’s proud of me, it’s never the day jobs he mentions, it’s always the playwriting. He’s seen and read so many of my plays that he knows the kind of stories I write. And even though he can’t remember the details of them any more, he talks about them being important because they’re helping people to understand each other, and realize we’re not as different as we think we are. Even if there isn’t a new production of anything in the pipeline, I’m always writing, and he always wants to hear what I’m thinking about.
“I’m happy just to sit with you and listen to you to talk,” he said at one point. So I would sit and hold his hand, or rub his knee or run a hand up and down the side of his arm, because he found it soothing, and just be with him.
The last morning on this visit, I’ll admit I had a good solid cry over breakfast. And walking into Dad’s room that morning, seeing him with his eyes closed, laid out on the bed in the transfer sling they use with the lift, waiting for them to come back and move him, even though he was just resting, the visual brought me up short. Then I walked over, said good morning, and he opened his eyes and smiled at me, and on we went with the morning routine.
One of these visits is going to be the last visit. We just don’t know for sure which one it is, yet. This might have been it. But if he makes it to Christmas, and if we get more time like that at Christmas, that’ll be a good thing, too. And if this visit was the last one, then I know it made him happy, and that’s enough. The last several years, me buying a plane ticket was the major Christmas gift anyway. The man doesn’t need things. He just wants to see his children.
Sometimes, showing up is all you need to do.
Now we just see how many days are left, and make the most of each one we get. Thanks for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers, everyone. It means a lot.