After my mother died, I began what turned out to be a long, mostly leisurely, sometimes difficult, but always holy walk with my father through the last twelve years of his life. That walk both deepened and stretched our relationship. There were wonderful times—the familiar rotation of family birthdays, a couple of unique trips abroad, shared meals listening to parts of his story I’d not heard before. It was easy to see those moments as holy.
There were also difficult times, especially in the last two years: moving him from independent to assisted living; convincing him to give up his car; getting him to accept a move into the health care wing of the progressive care facility he had chosen as his home after Mother’s death. Yet even those hard moments were sacred, for they were part of the winding down of my father’s life, a long life well lived.
There was also the matter of his failing short term memory, frequently a source of anxiety for him and sometimes for me, too. I made him what we jokingly called a “Reality-Check Book”—a three-ring binder with plastic sleeves of photos and information about his children and grandchildren, places he had lived and worked, things he had done. I also included photographs of Mother and of some of his friends. Another page reassured him that his finances were in order, that my brother and I had his checkbook and were paying his bills. I told the staff about the Reality-Check Book so they could refer him to it when he became confused or anxious.
His last eight weeks were the hardest. A series of strokes made it difficult for him to walk, then to feed himself, then to swallow even pureed foods. I visited nearly every day at dinner hour to try to feed him, reassure him, walk with him through several WWI flashbacks. He had never talked about the war, so I didn’t know much about his experiences. The flashbacks frightened both of us. But they too were sacred moments. Be not afraid, I kept telling both of us.
I stayed by his side his last three days. By then, he was not eating, drinking, or speaking, but he could hear. For long stretches, I was silent, reading or crocheting. Sometimes I talked, telling him I loved him, thanking him for all he had given me, the lessons he had taught me—including how to age gracefully. I also read to him from a book of poetry he and my mother had given me that included poems I knew he loved. I read them over and over. At one point, he became agitated. The nurses couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say, but I knew: He wanted me to leave, to go home and tend to my family. “No, Dad,” I said. “I want to be with you. My family is fine. I am staying here.”
Early in the evening of the night he died, my brother and husband came. They turned on the TV to watch a basketball game in which Dad’s alma mater was playing. I later wrote a poem about that time, itself a holy night. Here’s how the poem ends:
Too weak to watch, my father listened.
I knew from the way his lips moved once or twice,
the game was better than medicine:
Again he was one of the guys immersed in locker room energy,
fierce and proud, not an old man dying in front of his daughter's eyes.
Tech won. The guys said good-bye and bowed out.
I read him some poems then lowered the light,
kissed him, and nodded off. While I dozed, he took flight.