Losing our parents isn't easy for any of us. Whether it's fast or slow, it's a particular kind of excruciating, an unwelcome hallmark of middle age. Our process has been slow; my parents are taking turns declining before leaving us altogether.
One day, Dad called, said he felt confused, that his thinking was fuzzy. Mom was in the hospital recovering from a broken hip (looking back, a sure sign that the leaving had begun) so I went right over.
When I arrived, he was lying down on the couch in their small assisted living apartment. He sat up, and suggested we go downstairs to the library and have a drink. He was wearing a faded bathing suit and a stained polo shirt, and his hair was sticking up on one side, but I knew this was as good as it would get. I helped him put on his stretched out leather boat shoes. He asked for his cane, lurched himself to a stand, and shuffled unsteadily from the couch to the hallway, where his electric wheelchair was parked. He removed the oxygen canula that attached him to the compressor in the apartment, and put on the canula that supplied oxygen from the tank mounted to the back of the chair. We checked the oxygen level on the tank, and finding it low, swapped it out for a fresh one from the case of tanks that were stacked beside the door.
“Lefty-loosey,” I said quietly as I turned the knob. I was always scared of the oxygen, of too much or too little, of the thing blowing up. My father got himself to the front of the chair, and lowered himself into a sitting position. Mobility restored, he zoomed down the hall to the elevator so fast I had to trot to catch up.
Taking the elevator in a wheelchair, however, is not a simple thing. He must drive in, estimate how much room to leave in front of him, and execute a 180-degree pivot in order to be facing forward when the doors open a floor below. In a car, my father was a perfect parallel parker; he has brought his sailboat gently to the dock a thousand times, even in windy conditions. But on this day he misjudged how far the tank stuck out off the back, and when he rotated the chair, the tank crashed into the wall of the elevator, putting a long gash in the wood panel behind. Neither of us acknowledged it; there's only so much aging shame you can take. The door opened and we headed out.
In the library, I removed one of the two chairs by the fire so that Dad could park his wheelchair there instead. I sat beside him. An aide asked if we would like something to drink. Dad ordered a coke, I ordered a ginger ale, wondering why he had omitted his usual vodka. Was it because my mother was away and he knew he had to look after himself?
Was it because he had felt confused? I didn’t ask. His drink came. He took a sip, and then said, “Total confusion.”
“What?” I asked.
“Total confusion,” he repeated.
This was alarming both for it’s content and it’s odd, cryptic nature.
“Who, Dad? Mom?”I asked
“Both,” he said. “We’re both confused, at different times. It goes in and out, we don’t know where we are, or what’s going on.”
Dad has been struggling to breathe from his progressive COPD for months, but had never had any signs of cognitive decline, until lately. Last week, when we left his apartment to go visit my mother, he said he was expecting a phone call, and wanted to bring the remote handset from the apartment into the car with us. (This was not an issue of not understanding technology; my father was the very first person I ever knew to have a car phone, in 1984.) I told him it wouldn’t work, but he shoved it in the pocket of his fleece, adamant that it would.
“I’ll bet you a hundred dollars, “ he said. When it didn’t work, we didn’t discuss it. But the next time I came to visit there was a hundred dollar bill folded in thirds on the coffee table with a note with my name on it.
The library fireplace flickered in front of us. My father reached over and took hold of my wrist, firmly, something he never did. I looked up, alarmed by the weird gesture.
“You need to know,” he said, insistently, looking me in the eyes.
“OK, Dad. I get it,” I said. "Don’t worry. Amy, Steve, Andrew and I all met yesterday about the house and the money and everything. We’ve got it all under control.”
“You need to know,” he repeated, with a hint of softness this time.
“I hear you," I said, looking him in the eyes right back, so that he knew I understood. "We will make all the big decisions. We will take care of Mom. You don’t have to worry.”
“OK, " he said, and gave a huge exhale, and leaned back, visibly relieved. “That’s good.”
My father made a list for himself every morning of every day of his life. It seemed to me he knew he had just checked final item off his list, and handed the baton to the next runner in the relay.
We read quietly together for a little after that, until it was time for me to leave.
“I have to go now,” I said, leaning down to kiss him. “Remember that I am away for the next three days. Don’t peg out while I’m gone.”
He cracked up laughing. I smiled at him. “Or, if you are going to peg out, call me, and let me know first.”
He cackled. “I’ll have my people call your people!”
“Perfect,” I said, and slipped through the door, back into the world of the living.
It’s a confusing time, this period before death - never all one thing or another.
My parents are slipping away and entirely present, grieving and joyful, eclipsed, yet still essentially themselves.
If this story resonates with you, and you would like to share, please find links below.