Scenes from my front-porch idyll:
My mother calls me mid-afternoon from California, and her voice betrays that strained cheer I always hear when she’s about to deliver bad news. “It’s about your father. No, no – nothing terrible. It’s just that his forgetfulness is getting much worse.”
I said, “My sis already told me how he was driving his wife to work and stopped at Wal-Mart so she could quickly buy item. He was supposed to wait for her but he forgot all about it and ditched her there.”
“Well, yes, that wasn’t good. And now he’s having trouble recognizing his friends. [His wife] wants all you kids to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them this year. Even if it means going to Mimi’s Cafe on Thanksgiving.”
“That’s okay, we can always make a real meal the next day, at your house.”
“You know, I’m starting to feel warm-ish toward [his wife]. Not warm, really. Just warm-ish.”
“More than that isn’t in your job description. [Wife #2 was the "other woman" in marriage #1.] But I have to say, I’m sincerely grateful that she’s there. It can’t be easy. Being so far away, I worry less, knowing she’s there.”
This isn’t how I pictured my dad growing old. He’s 77, true, and has lived with inflammatory bowel disease for the past 55 years. Otherwise, though, he’s been quite healthy. As he approached 70, he noticed that his friends who hadn’t already dropped dead suffered from more ailments than he did. He’s got some genes for longevity: His mother (my grandma) died just short of her 103rd birthday. She stayed mentally clear until she was about 98. She and her many sisters all lost her marbles sometime in their nineties. I figured my dad’s mind would stay clear until the rest of him gave out.
The first sign of mental fuzziness was the “damn iPod” story. About two years ago, he bought a new iPod. Soon thereafter, he accidentally knocked it off a shelf onto the floor, where it promptly went kaput. My dad got as much mileage out the story of its demise as he would’ve from actually listening to music on it. I heard him gripe about it 20 or 30 times. He’d go on autoloop – a trick I remembered from my father-in-law, who was already fairly confused when I first met him.
But the woeful tale of the iPod was still something we could laugh about.
Then there was the time when he was supposed to meet my sister for lunch. He called her from outside her house, livid that she was standing him up. “Dad,” she said, “it’s only 10:30.” He was able to laugh about that one, too.
He called me midday on April 19, wanting to wish the Tiger a happy sixth birthday. “Dad,” I said, “his birthday is June 19.” We laughed, chatted briefly (saying nothing about iPods), and hung up.
May 19, he called again. “Where is that little stinker? I want to wish him happy birthday.” “Um, he’s in school … and his birthday’s still not for another month.” We were still laughing.
But these latest incidents? And especially his growing inability to recognize people? Where there’s still laughter it feels forced.
My mom had to hurry off the phone to go play bridge. I held it together until she hung up, and then I sobbed right there on my porch, phone still clutched tight in my hand.
I’m my dad’s executor. This appears deeply illogical at first glance. I live in Ohio. California is a whole continent away. Sure, I’m the eldest, but both of my sibs have better financial skills.
“You know why he picked you for the job,” my sister said a couple of years ago. “It’s because he knows you won’t pull the plug. He saw how you kept that kitty of yours around to the bitter end.”
Now, to be clear, I did take Grey Kitty to the vet, intending to have her euthanized. I didn’t do it because the vet said that he wouldn’t if she were his pet; that she wasn’t in major pain, just thin and weak. I brought her home and she died within the hour.
It must also be said that I cleaned up gallons of poop, usually smeared into the carpet, during the last months of her life. Many people would have called it quits after a few weeks of 24/7 poop patrol. At that time, I had a toddler who was liable to stumble into her leavings.
If my dad wants to hang on, no matter what, I wouldn’t be the one to try and talk him out of it. He knows this.
But what happens if there’s no there there? What if his core self disintegrates? I think of the Dylan Thomas poem:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. …
I’ve always expected my father would be one to rage, rage. That’s what his mother did, for as long as she could. But he won’t be able to muster much rage if his sense of self dissolves before his physical health declines. I supposed that’s what I should wish for him, in some ways: a slow, peaceful letting go of this world.
But not at the cost of losing him even before he dies!
Thomas’ poem ends with a plea that I didn’t understand before. Now I do:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Thomas isn’t describing his father as fighting death; he’s imploring him to do it. He’ll take curses along with blessings, if that’s the price for preserving his father’s life a bit longer.
My dad’s fierce tears are one of the things I love best about him. He is one of the few men of his generation who cries easily. He cries when he’s moved by music. He sobs at funerals. My mother always had to deliver the news of the death of a family pet (including my dad’s dogs, post-separation!) because he can’t hold it together long enough to get the words out. Recently, while I was talking to him on the phone, he started to cry at the mention of his beloved niece, who died ten years ago, and had to hang up. (And I’m very much his daughter; I’m blubbery just writing this, thinking back on that aborted conversation.)
It’s ultimately a selfish wish, isn’t it? The desire to keep our parents with us at all costs? I was slightly mollified when I spoke with my sister yesterday and she said it’s mostly neighbors whose names he’s forgetting. She doesn’t think he’s failing to recognize people who are important in his life. Yet, not long ago, he forgot the name of my husband.
And so I’m left to burn and rave at close of day, while my father settles into unnatural mellowness and the moorings of his being-in-the-world – his very personhood – slowly, inexorably come loose.