My father, who is a week shy of his 88th birthday, has always been a quiet man. My mother used to reminisce, annoyed, about parties at which he would stand silently in a corner while she attempted to draw him into a conversation. The engineer in him has always been happiest puttering around his workshop, chasing the answer to a puzzle or conducting surgery on a recalcitrant small appliance. Thoughtful and methodical, he has always approached a problem with an analytical mind and a patience that was not a genetic trait passed on to his only daughter.
For a while now, I have watched that meticulous mind slipping – his thought process slowed, easily overwhelmed by too much information, flummoxed by elusive dates and origins and stories. Determined to organize, categorize, grasp, he will ask repeatedly for information he has already received multiple times. I imagine that it frustrates him as much as it does me.
Three weeks ago, his body uncharacteristically followed the path his mind had blazed, one moment upright and supportive, the next, horizontal and helpless. The emergency room doctor sounded the death knell for his left hip, and before I could book a flight, he was in and out of surgery in a hospital OR not an hour’s drive from the small farming community where he grew up and the university where he met and fell in love with my mother.
I am certainly not the first child to watch a parent fail, and my mother’s demise was long and difficult. My parents, God love them, didn’t expect that I would surrender my life to help with her care; that was my dad’s job, and he did it with the same patience, dedication and love with which he approached any challenge.
My father, though, has been different. Rarely ill during the majority of his life, he still drives, golfs, volunteers, dines out, sings in the church choir and regularly walks the hills of his neighborhood. He doesn’t look a day over 75. But he’s due soon for cataract surgery, and a series of too-frequent infections has added a specialist to his appointment schedule. Still, he’s always been independent, and I haven’t had to worry much. Until now.
How does one treat a parent who suffers a seismic life shift? As I tried last week to help him ease back into life at home, I wavered – between taking care of him and prodding him to do more without my help. I have ridden the emotional roller coaster along with him, sensitive to his ebbing optimism, alert for the signs of depression that flare up as the day wears on and he wears down. Along this bumpy road, we have been immeasurably blessed by the support of friends, family, neighbors and strangers – the dozens of doctors, EMTs, nurses, techs, physical therapists, aides and others who have cared for him and reassured me. In many ways, this could have been so much worse.
Saturday – the beds remade, the refrigerator stocked, the neighbors on alert – I packed my suitcase and headed home, exhausted, tears stinging my eyes. He’s so much better, physically, but his surgical scar hides new wounds that lie below the surface. It could go either way – he could rally and reach out, or regress and recede – but either way, it’s largely out of my hands. To watch – powerless, worried and eight states away – feels like the most painful thing I have ever done. But he has chosen his life, and I have chosen mine.
For far too long, I have taken his hardiness for granted, behaving as though he really will live forever. And so his change in fortune last month became mine, as well. At some point, most of us will face our own frailties, our own mortality. His current malaise, I pray, will be temporary. But it foretells of frailties and pain – physical and emotional – still to come. And as the assumption I make becomes one of inevitability, I can only hope that we both can accept that with grace and with love.