My Father’s Life (and death)

When my parents were younger than I am now, they sold their house and moved to a unit in a retirement complex that offered assisted-living services and was attached to nursing home. My father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and while my mother’s health was much better than his, she did have medical issues that had required treatment and short hospital stays in the past. I thought they should stay in their house and try to hire help if needed, but they were persuaded by other family members that the opportunity to purchase a unit in the brand-new facility was too good to pass up. No matter how debilitated one or both of them became, they could be assured of proper care.

Their one-bedroom unit on the lower level of the building that housed the nursing home was small, with windows only on one side, and when I first visited it brought to my mind a kind of cave, a jarring contrast to their modest but sunny hillside house with windows that afforded a spacious view of the wooded river valley below. By that time, the relentless advance of my father’s disease meant that much of my mother’s time was spent helping him get out of bed, go to the bathroom, get dressed, get around the small space without losing his balance and falling. I had thought that “assisted-living” meant that someone would help when my mother was no longer able to perform these tasks, but I was mistaken. When she badly wrenched her back trying to get him into bed, the clock struck midnight, so to speak, and he had to move upstairs to the nursing home.

I almost never heard my father complain, not when I was a kid, not when I was an adult, not when I saw him in the nursing home room he shared with a man I never saw out of his bed and never heard speak. But I know my father hated being there. The first time I visited, an aide got him into a wheelchair and helped me push him to the elevator and down to the dreary little apartment where my mother now lived alone. We would sit at the table eating and talking, although his appetite for either food or conversation seemed to be severely diminished. But when the time came for him to go back, he silently protested, resisting efforts to get his feet into the wheelchair footrests, or whatever they are called. Letting a foot slip off and drag on the floor. Sticking out an arm in what seemed an attempt to block the way through the door. All without saying a word, which greatly frustrated me but also made me almost unbearably sad.

The last time I saw him alive, the nursing home aides had moved him the few feet from his bed to a lounge chair that had been a fixture in my parent’s house for years. I had seen him in it many times, in the living rooms of more than one house, watching the news or some other program on TV, or talking to others in the room—my mother, relatives, friends, my siblings and me. More rarely, he would be reading, and now and then taking a nap. That day in the nursing home he was so thin that he seemed engulfed by the chair. It was disconcerting, because in his younger years he was a strongly-built man, six feet tall and close to 200 pounds. He could easily lift things my brother and I together would struggle with; he had the stamina to work from dawn to dusk on the farm, day after day, year after year until he finally retired.

It was depressing to see him in that familiar chair in those surroundings, a beige room with a vinyl floor and pair of single beds, the one occupied by the man who seemed beyond communicating with his surroundings. My father wasn’t watching the TV on the wall, he wasn’t reading, he wasn’t asleep, he wasn’t doing anything. My mother had told me that he had been having bouts of dementia, so I hoped he recognized me. Mustering as hearty a tone as possible, I said, “Hi Dad. How are you?” He looked at me, and I could see on his gray face a vestige of a wry expression that had sometimes appeared when I was a kid and had softened a sternness that made me fear his displeasure. “What you see is what you get,” he said, and even though I was aware that an expression of mirth might not be appropriate, I laughed.

He was a reserved man, outwardly unemotional, and yes, stern in many ways, but he had a sense of humor. My mother, who was less reserved, much more emotional, didn’t have a sense of humor. Her default reaction to anything said to her was to take it seriously, whereas a tongue-in-cheek remark would often elicit a smile or chuckle from my father. They were married almost sixty-five years, and I sometimes wonder how their marriage survived such a disparity in what I regard as an essential ingredient in my own marriage, in my relationships with siblings and friends.

It’s no great display of insight to observed that a sense of humor is a critical ingredient in wrestling with the vicissitudes of advancing age. Taking yourself with great seriousness is best limited to those years of clambering up the social and economic ladders and jostling with all those trying to distinguish themselves from the crowd of their peers. If you look into the mirror and see that the smooth landscape of youth has been altered by erosions and mottlings and slippages and the disappearance of elements once believed to be the very basis of happiness, you can laugh or cry. I don’t mean that literally, but as a way to regard all the absurd dreams and foolish acts and fatuous pronouncements that make that landscape a record of genuine life and not just a smooth surface on which nothing of significance has yet been written.

That day, after my father made me laugh, I looked at him in his chair and imagined what turned out to be true, that it was the last time I would see him alive. Because my relationship with him had been marked by turmoil when I was an adolescent and young adult, I wanted to see if I could induce him to talk about his relationship with his own father. This subject had always been deeply hidden, at least from my eyes. My mother would later disclose unexpected things my father had told her about my grandfather, but there in the nursing home he brushed the subject aside and, without prompting, delivered a long, highly uncharacteristic complaint about my mother. I don’t remember all the details, but the essence was that he believed my mother had dumped him in the nursing home so that she would be free to gad about without him. Sunk into his lounge chair, a ghost of his former self, I saw him as sour and resentful old man although the expression on his face hadn’t really changed.

Was he joking? Was dementia creating fantastical ideas? I’ll never know. And I never told my mother about this conversation. I don’t believe that she wanted him in the nursing home or did anything to hasten his move there, but in plain fact his presence there improved her social life. She was free to see people he didn’t want to see and go places he didn’t want to go.

W.C. Fields was supposed to have said, “I’m looking for loopholes,” when asked during his dying hours why he was reading the Bible. These and other displays of deathbed wit have an odor of the apocryphal, but looking the end straight in the eye and cracking a joke seems to me to say something positive about the way one has lived his or her life. Each breath from the very beginning leads one closer to the last breath, and I can’t think of a better way to regard that fact than as an absurdity calling for pushing one’s tongue deeply into one’s cheek.

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