This piece became even more meaningful after my dad’s death two days after the events described here.
The usual tremor of anxiety accompanies arrival at the nursing home. Parking the car, signing in, marks a crossing into the unknown. Will you be sleeping? Wandering about? Staring at the television? Once over the threshold, in the scene, I can relax a bit. But more and more often now, we find you sitting quietly in your wheelchair in the dining room or by the nurses’ station, your silver hair visible from the entry way. You still have quite a lot of it, and one of the staff remarked to me right after you moved in, “We love his hair!”
For Father’s Day, we have brought along our dog, Carly. Though unspoken, I know all three of us are hoping for that flash of recognition in your face, but you don’t respond to the sight of her. Such moments are increasingly rare, and I miss that mischievous twinkling in your eyes. Later, as we sit outside in the patio area, Carly happens by your wheelchair, and you reach down to pat her head and rub her ears. Clearly it’s a reflexive gesture, and Kieran and I exchange glances, smiling. Joe thought that you might enjoy giving Carly a treat, but when he hands one to you, this time your reflex is to bring it up to your own mouth. Oops! Stern-eyed, you look none too pleased when Joe removes it from your hand and gives it to the dog.
My dear husband makes valiant attempts at a facsimile of conversation on these visits, delivering a light-hearted monologue about his students or our kids or the weather, and I so appreciate the caring behind his efforts. Despite the roar of the nearby air conditioning compressors, I find it meditative just to be sitting together. I breathe there with you, fervently hoping the weeks and months when you paced the halls, a heartbreaking enactment of your repeated requests to “go home,” are behind us now.
Outwardly, your further diminishment would seem to be a greater heartbreak. You can no longer walk. I shudder to contemplate how the food spills on your clothes and wheelchair might have occurred. And now your front is draped with an adult-sized terry cloth bib, perhaps because you have begun to drool more frequently.
Yet I see a kind of beauty in this total lack of pretense. Masks created by anger, shame, or fear are dissolved; any impulse to pretend that everything is just fine, has disappeared. You are real to me in a way that you have never been before, precious in your vulnerability, and I am reminded of the final stanza of Yehuda Amichai’s poem A Man Doesn’t Have Time In His Life:
He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.