Everything is difficult, my father declared today as he stared down at the utensils that separated him from from his food. Can I help you then? I inquired. He looked at me through his long, wiry eyebrows and nodded yes. Pride is no longer a thing for him.
He doesn’t say much these days, but he did greet me today with smiling eyes and what, for him, I now consider a “booming” hello. Anything more than an incoherent whisper feels like a win.
Quiet as he is, he’s still chattier and more intact than 90% of the elders that surround him in his assisted living facility. He should be in skilled nursing, really, but it’s a small town and a nice place and he’s been there since he left the hospital post-stroke, so as long as they can accommodate his needs, he’ll remain there. It’s nearly a three hour drive for me, but is minutes from my brother (his Power of Attorney), so I suck it up and drive down monthly for a 1-2 hour visit. I recognize I could stay longer, but with as few means of communication we have left, those minutes go by pretty slowly. And, as happy as I am to see him, the grief of sitting with the physically and cognitively debilitated man formerly known as my dad still shakes me every time.
My father kept trying to share his meatloaf and green beans with me today. While I typically decline (somehow I always end up there during a meal time), I accepted a couple of bites, both happy to be fed and to be sharing a meal with my father.
While he seems unimpressed with the facilities culinary offerings, my father was never a great cook, or much of a cook at all. He favored eggs “scrambled” in the microwave, what he called “Shtuff” (a concoction which amounted to ground beef thrown into boxed mac n cheese), Friday night pizza topped with popcorn (also microwaved), and lunch meat. Good god did the man love lunch meat. Bologna peanut butter roll-ups, turkey, ham, roast beef, salami–whatever was on sale, or not. Together we’d dig in fresh out of the deli line or roll some up for a late night snack while watching TV. He also hoarded sale cold cuts in the freezer. Wherever he was to end up, my father did not want to be in some sort of a meatless bind.
Today, though, my dad just scooped up his sub-par meatloaf as best as he could and fumbled it into his mouth with his good hand. And after I shoveled a couple of green beans in and angled his sippy cup full of choke-resistant fruit punch gel for a “drink,” I watched him enjoy, and drop into his lap, a whole piece of lemon cream pie. I smiled.
I visited my father alone today for the first time in six months, with no brother or girlfriend to serve as a buffer. I went in with mild anxiety about that, but I also came armed with my charm, my father’s favorite skill of mine, and a book.
If you’d asked me a year ago what book I’d elect to read to my father when he was unable to read for himself, I’d be at a loss. For starters, I think I’d be in denial that the need would ever arise. While I’ve known of his health issues and related risks for some time, I for some reason never imagined that my father’s beautiful brain would ever be compromised. I guess I thought maybe he’d die of another heart attack or that his body would just give way to his decades-long depression. I never guessed he’d lose his ability to read or process thoughts, or worse yet, to create his art.
My father was a newspaper addict who valued convenience over quality. He’d work crosswords on the regular, just like his mother, and had shelves loaded with loads of books and dust, but other than the Joy of Sex edition that I used to sneak peaks at as a teen, I never saw evidence of him paging through much else but the USA Today.
I selected Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on a whim, or perhaps, as the result of a psychic connection with my girlfriend (who thankfully had it available on her bookcase), and though it had been recommended to me long ago by a good friend before today, I’d never even opened it.
This afternoon, following lunch, I wheeled my father away to a quiet corner of the lounge and pulled out the book. I thought maybe I could read this to you, I said. He shrugged, seemingly unimpressed. I started and read a few pages, at times fumbling with the verbose text, before looking up. He seemed captive. I shyly asked, how do you like it? And he replied, I like hearing you read, followed by, I like watching your teeth.
I got them from you, I teased him. I spent the next half hour reading out loud to my strange old man with a warmth in my heart.