In the last months before my father died from complications of Parkinson’s Syndrome, he was out of it much of the time. When I would visit him at the nursing home, he would give me a smile of recognition. I knew he was happy to see me, but there was no give and take, no ping pong of conversation. When the weather permitted, he would sit outside on the patio to each lunch, where he would break our hearts by trying to put his napkin in his mouth.
“Daddy, that’s not food,” I would say, taking it from him. He would try to spear imaginary food on his plate with a fork. “Daddy, let me help you,” I would say. He would sit, strapped in the wheelchair, face tilted slightly to soak up the sun, a Patriots or Bruins cap askew on his balding head, a bib tied around his neck, bits of food sprinkling his salt and pepper beard.
We knew what to expect when we came in for a visit. Dad would be in the bed, slanting awkwardly to the right. Years before, I used to tell him he was “listing to starboard” reminding him of his boating days, but that was when he could laugh at the reference and could straighten himself out.
In those last weeks, I had the urge to fix him like I fixed my babies when they fell asleep awkwardly in their car seats, but he was too heavy, and so we relied on the aides to come with extra pillows to prop him up. If no one was around, he stayed slanted, yet amazingly, like a baby, he slept peacefully.
In those last weeks, sometimes he would wake up when we came in for a visit, sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he would be comfortable and at ease, sometimes he would be distressed and tell us, “You gotta get me out of here.” Sometimes we would be graced with a smile or a chuckle at something funny we said. It seems his most prominent personality trait, his sense of humor, was one of the last things to go, and when he no longer laughed, there seemed no point to his living.
But it’s not over until it’s over. One Friday night in the last couple of weeks of his life, Mike and I visited my dad late, around 8:00 PM, just after attending Shabbat services at our temple. We struggled with whether to just go home after services, because we were tired, and it was late for a visit to the nursing home. In the end we decided to go. And there he was, in his room, sitting up in the wheelchair, and he greeted us, smiling. “Where’ve you been?” he called to us, clearly asking why we were visiting so late.
“Daddy, you’re up!”
“Where’d you expect I’d be?” he answered back. And so it went. We had a conversation. Maybe it was about the sports game on the TV in the background, maybe it was about his surprise that we were coming from services. I’m not exactly sure what it was about, but it was an actual conversation. There was life in his eyes. He had energy. His essence beamed. We joked. He got the jokes and laughed. We were sarcastic. He got the sarcasm. We asked him what he was watching on TV. He knew.
“Daddy, you’ve had us worried,” I said to him.
“Because you’ve been pretty out of it lately.”
And when we said goodbye and I love you that night, I knew he understood what we said. And when he told us he loved us, we knew it wasn’t just a rote repetition of words that had no meaning for him. As we left the nursing home that night, it felt surreal, like we had been dreaming his condition the last few months.
The next day, all traces of the man in the wheelchair the evening before had vanished. Dad was in the bed, out of it, body again slanted awkwardly, his right side propped up by pillows. The television was on, but no one was watching. He did not wake up when I got there, did not smile, and we never really had another real conversation, not one that made any sense.
On Father’s Day I remember my dad’s last gift to me. Out of the blue, he gave us an hour of clarity and energy that I will cherish. Today, that gift helps me remember the real dad, the guy with the great smile that made everyone laugh, the guy who could show us how much he loved us.