His steps were slow, as if lifting bricks instead of shoes, and he leaned just a bit on my brotherâ€™s arm. He wore a thin blue jacket and tried his darndest to stand straight and tall like the proud Norwegian of his youth.
I stood at the front door watching his progress up the November slicked sidewalk with mixed emotions. I was pleased and excited that this year, like so many of the past, he had chosen to make the seventy-mile trip to share our Thanksgiving dinner. And yet watching his frail movements forced me to acknowledge the passage of time, and to wonder how many more Thanksgiving meals were in my fatherâ€™s future.
Swallowing back those thoughts with a disguised throat clearing, I hugged him as he entered our home knowing his stroke wouldnâ€™t allow him to hug back. The best he could offer was a light half squeeze with his good arm, and I lingered in the moment. Dad was never a hugger anyway. He used to prefer giving gentle back-patsâ€¦usually three quick tapsâ€¦or a hardy handshake.Â Those were more in keeping with his stoic upbringing, but no less meaningful.
It was difficult to avoid contrasting my father as he stood before me in 2012, and the father I knew growing up. I find myself behaving in ways that support the man of my childhood and resist the man who seems foreign in his aging.
For instance, as I prepared the meal, I relished the idea of my father loading his plate with all his favorites, and then going back for second, and sometimes even third, helpings. He was always a hard worker and the calories never stuck on his frameâ€”a genetic factor thatÂ unfortunately was not passed on to me. Dad loved to eat, and eat he did. As a depression baby he knew hunger in his childhood, and there was a part of him that swore his children would never want in that department. We didnâ€™t. His credo was, â€œEat all you want, but eat all you take.â€ Waste was not acceptable.
But on this day I was saddened to see how little food he actually ateâ€¦a small taste of potatoes and gravy, a tiny bit of turkey and dressing, a teaspoon of cranberry sauce, and of course, a piece of his beloved lefse buttered and folded into bite-sized portions.
And what of his dignity as he asked me if I had something he could use as a bib? A bib? For my father who built skyscrapers and had abnormal strength? For my father –the man I thought could do anything?Â Yes, a bib. My brother apologized for forgetting Dadâ€™s bib at home, so apparently this is the new normal. As hard as Dad tried to eat neatly, his stroke- induced physical limits would equate to a mess on his clothing, so I improvised with a hand towel and two paper clips. It worked if he didnâ€™t move around much.
Later, when the pie and ice cream were served, he traded in his fork for a spoon. It was too hard to chase his food around with a fork. He needed scooping options. â€œOh, of course,â€ I said, mentally kicking myself for being so obtuse and for possibly embarrassing him yet again.
There are so many limitations one never thinks of until he or she is faced with the realities of a strokeâ€¦or of a parent who no longer fits titan memories forged in childhood.
My brother and Dad decided it was time to leave when snowflakes started hitting the windows with an icy hiss. Their car is old and the drive long in the fading light of November days. I placed a bag filled to the top with leftover food in their backseat, and then offered to help Dad make his way out. â€œNo,â€ my brother said, â€œWe have our system down pat.â€ My brother does a magnificent job of hovering without being noticed by my dadâ€™s pride, whereas I tend towards full-on mothering.Â I throw out too many, â€œBe carefulâ€™s!â€ and too many, â€œLet me helpâ€™s.â€ Dad doesnâ€™t want that.
He straightens himself once again and depends on his cane to manage the step down from the front door and onto the sidewalk. I once again give him the odd half-hug and mummer â€œI love you.â€ He nods.Â â€œWill I see you at Christmas?â€ he says. I look into those brown eyes that have seen so much over eight decades.
â€œI pray I will, Dad. I pray I will.â€
Watching a parent physically decline is a special kind of agony. There is nothing to replace the anticipatory sadness of their absence. It’s a strange type of reversal that now you want to make everything all right for them. Think of the times your father felt that way about you! You write so beautifully and your loving pain was clear in every word.
Know that you are not alone in this journey. I tried to remember that it was a privilege to still have my parents and to be allowed to be part of their final stages of life. Your father knows he is loved and that he is not alone. It really is all there is that matters.
You experienced such turbulence as your parents left this earth, and yet you doggedly refused to allow the pain and frustration to usurp your commitment to them. I know what it cost you in terms of your own health, and yet I don’t believe you’re wired to act in any other manner but full-scale, hardcore, total love. That’s the person you are, and the one I admire so.
Thank you for reminding me that parent-child relationships switch back and forth as time allows, and as phases of life play out. I always wonder if I tell my dad, “I love you” enough. Is there ever enough?
I still want to say it one more time . . . .
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