Friday, January 04, 2019

Family Update - Last Christmas?

Dad Update: Thanks to everyone for reaching out. As conflicted as I am about facebook sometimes, it’s meant a lot to feel a community out there from the various corners of my life, gathering around in these weird moments the family is living through right now.

Dad’s still with us. He not only made it to Christmas, he joined a phone call from my stepmom Debbie the other night to wish me a happy new year.

Will I get to see him again? No telling, really.

The current situation isn’t sustainable. He isn’t really eating, and thus he doesn’t have a lot of energy throughout the day. We’re lucky to get a few bites of this and that off his lunch and dinner trays into his mouth. Pam, the head nurse, says he’s malnourished. But she also says when Dad first moved in, and he still had more of his faculties about him, before his health started taking a turn in the fall, he was making his decisions about how this all was going to go. And that’s how it’s playing out now.
Some of us were worrying, “Are we just having the staff get him up and dressed and groomed and in his wheelchair and down to the Day Program for activities, just to make us feel better and hold onto feeling everything’s still OK? Is it selfish, on our part, or is it doing him some good, too?” Pam says they don’t want someone to be bedridden before they have to be. That brings its own set of problems. She’s been doing this for thirty years. It’s good to get him out of bed. It’s good to get him out of his room, interacting with other people, varying his routine. Of course he likes his bed. We all like our bed. And he still spends most of his day in bed. But for now, this is a good thing.

Will he make his birthday in mid-February? Heck, will he make Father’s Day? Unlikely. But we were a little scared he wasn’t going to make Christmas, so…

It was both great, and deeply strange. He was still very present, and also slipping away.

In previous visits to the nursing home, including the most recent “emergency” visit right after Thanksgiving, Dad would always notice whatever odd T-shirt I was wearing and comment on it, and that led to other discussions based on what the T-shirt was referencing or where I purchased it. And if I ended up needing to cycle through my clothing more than once in a visit, he’d notice if a T-shirt resurfaced. So I’d been purposely bringing the most strange or distinctive T-shirts to spark a conversation. And even last visit, he was still responding to this. This trip, nothing.

And he’s operating on two different planes of reality now. Some of it may be leftover dreaming, harvesting memories somewhere in the back of his mind. Some it is just coming out of left field. I arrived one morning and it was almost as if he was introducing me to “two lifelong friends of mine” who were not there in the room with us. Another morning I asked how he was doing and he responded that he was a little worn out because they’d had him on the bicycle all morning. (Needless to say, he hasn’t been in rehab or physical therapy for several months now, probably since before they moved to this new retirement community in the summer.). He also mentioned that he had a couple of appointments he needed to get to later in the afternoon that day (He did not). But if he’s not about to touch a hot stove, do himself or someone else harm, you just smile and don’t correct him and redirect the conversation to something else.

As for Christmas presents, Dad is suddenly the easiest man in the world to “shop” for. He just desired my presence. My time by his side was all that he needed. “If I can just be here to hold your hand, and get your hugs, that’s more than any dad could ask for. When people asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I couldn’t have told them something like this, all this time with you, because it just seems like such a big thing to ask you for.”

And of course it’s not. And it is. I’m just grateful I had the resources to do it.

I only really cried twice (which, considering the situation, really surprised me. Staying present helped a lot). The first time the tears appeared was in talking with Debbie after a visit with Dad that first day, and she responded, “I know. It’s hard to see him like that.” And I couldn’t get the words out, but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t hard to see him. I just didn’t want him to go.

And then the inevitable ritual of reviewing the latest draft of the obituary with Debbie, which has become kind of a macabre little in-joke. That wasn’t what made me cry. It’s good to be reminded of the details and the scope of his life. And how it’s hard to pin down the right words to encompass ninety years. What got me was the addition of the rough outline of the graveside service. The pastor Debbie has lined up is actually someone they’d met before, someone who now works for the Country Meadows network of retirement homes serving some of the functions that Dad once did. This pastor also has family and ties to the area where the little church is where the ashes will be interred.

Reading the closing prayer kind of snuck up on me:

O Lord, support us all the day long
Until the shadows lengthen
And the evening comes
And the busy world is hushed,
And the fever of life is over,
And our work is done.
Then, in your mercy,
Grant us safe lodging,
And a holy rest,
And peace at the last.


It’s the little things. There’s a tiny artificial tree that Debbie purchased when he went into the nursing home after the stroke five years ago and it became clear he wasn’t coming home for the holidays. And it’s become a little tradition for me to bring the tree down to his room, and make sure the battery pack is loaded, and the little lights work, and then I put tiny little ornaments that Debbie bought onto the little tree. And it sits where he can see it from his bed, whenever he opens his eyes.

This year, one of the stepchildren loaded up music on an iPod for him so he could put on a set of headphones and listen to relaxing music at the end of the day. But he didn’t have any Christmas music loaded yet. So I dug into Debbie’s music collection and loaded up the iPod through my computer, and we took it down to him along with the tree this year.

He put on the headphones, and looked at the tree, and smiled, and said, “Now I have Christmas.”
It’s SO easy to make him happy.

I’m just glad I get the chance to do it.

Because he deserves it.

And I may never see him again.

So Christmas was wonderful, and terrible, and better than any of us expected it to be. So we’re feeling pretty lucky that it happened.

(But I have to admit, the following week down in Pennsylvania with my mom, and brother, and MSNBC, and Aquaman, and Scrabble games where the cat kept trying to eat the letter tiles, and comfort food, and a full-size but slightly off-kilter Christmas tree, and bingeing episodes of the new lady Doctor Who, and the constant neediness of a rescue wiener dog named Radar, was all enormously comforting and familiar - even though I know there’s a clock ticking on that, too, just (hopefully) slower.)