By Paul Petruccelli
At 5:30 a.m., the sun has not quite begun its ascent behind my sister’s house, on the other side of the golf course she could never afford to join. It is early June, so the powder blue hydrangeas flanking the back porch steps are reedy and floppy already, and a scattering of petunias has opened up. The new life of the summer season is out in full force.
But my father is dying.
He may have died overnight for all I know. My siblings moved him the other day from the hospital back to his room in the assisted living facility where he and my mother live. So he can spend his last few days in familiar surroundings. This is what we tell ourselves. But the real benefit is that having him there means family and friends can visit him more easily and frequently. Many have done so already. Hospice nurses check on him regularly, adjusting his medications, gently washing his limp body. I doubt he is aware of much of it.
There is really not a lot more anyone can do. My father, who is 87 years old, has suffered from advancing dementia for some time now, relentlessly surrendering hunks of his short-term memory over the past five years or so. He still knows who I am, but not that I’ve been living in Singapore for the past five years. Or why in the world I would have gone there to begin with. He certainly doesn’t remember meeting my fiancée, Lisa, when we were here last fall. I’m not even sure he recalls that Joanne, my first wife, passed away some years ago.
None of this matters. Because those things are really about all of us. And it is most definitely not about us anymore. I’m not sure all of my siblings quite understand this yet. It’s not about helping him last as long as possible. Or urging him to keep fighting. Or praying for a miracle recovery – apparently how my devoutly Catholic mother gets through each day.
There are no miracles. And frankly, any improvement short of a 20-year age reversal would be a curse, not a blessing. His life isn’t fun. It hasn’t been for ages. There are brief moments of happiness, such as when his youngest grandchild visits. But in between these snapshots are countless, terrible periods of confusion, uncertainty, frustration, physical frailty. Surely life loses much of its appeal when you can no longer shower and dress yourself in the morning, or even have the self-awareness to realize that you should; cannot control your bladder or bowels; are unaware that you’re drooling; repeatedly rip out your IV and pull the oxygen feed out of your nose and try to get out of bed and go “home,” only to fall and injure yourself. Again.
Praying for miracles is a selfish fool’s errand. When I first saw him, the day after I landed, his brief, glass-eyed stare offered no hint that he recognized my presence. I was glad to make it home in time to see him, but I would not have wanted him to wait another five seconds for me. I actually prayed on the plane that God would just let his suffering end. And though I knew that was the rational thing to wish for, it struck me as a cold-blooded thought that would horrify my siblings. I am cautious with my comments around the family.
I have never understood what makes me so different from them at times like this. They’re the ones who have the active Catholic faith, who go to church every week and take communion and talk about the sermon. They’re the ones who have the unshakeable belief in my father’s everlasting life in heaven after he dies. Clearly, religious beliefs don’t affect how people react to an impending death. If you believe in heaven, I would think you’d want your loved one to get there soonest, no?
I seem to have a chip in my brain that makes me react to death in an unemotional sort of way. Or am missing the portion of my soul that should make me feel a greater sense of loss, grieve more openly. Nor is this new behavior. It’s how I have always reacted to these events. Death is a fact of life. And dealing with it – accepting it, even welcoming it on behalf of the dying, making the necessary arrangements, moving forward – is unavoidable. If I think of the person and miss them and grieve over the loss, as I did when Joanne died, it will be later, and likely on my own. Maybe I just don’t want my open emotionality to exacerbate someone else’s grief, or fancy myself as some sort of pillar they can lean against. I suspect others may see me as unnaturally stoic, or worse, a loveless, soulless bastard. Can’t be helped, I guess.
I have always loved my father, probably respected him even more, and as a child often feared him. Diminutive in size, he was nevertheless a forceful man, with a brood that expanded methodically from four kids to ten after I came along. He was constantly working two jobs or taking a night class to qualify for the next hoped-for promotion, leaving my homemaker mother to handle many of the burdens of so much childrearing. There was a constant whir of activity in our house, certainly far more yelling and arguing between my parents than was healthy for them or us. And never, ever enough money. I still recall saving up several hundred dollars from my part-time job to pay my overdue high school tuition bill, giving it to my father because he wanted to write a note to accompany it, only to learn a few months later that I had underwritten everyone’s Christmas presents that year.
But he was also a genuine hero to me, who taught me my most important life lessons. And frankly, paying for that Christmas was one of them. It taught me to be more cautious and a little less trusting when it came to money. But it also showed me the lengths to which a good, honest person will sometimes have to go to take care of his family. When it developed that one of my uncles had become an alcoholic, my father and his brother-in-law drove several hours down to my uncle’s place, cleaned him up, got him into rehab. My father came back home, went to a local finance company, and promptly refinanced all of his outstanding loans in order to free up a few thousand dollars to contribute toward the rehab expenses. This was a guy with ten kids and a medium-paying government job, who was bagging groceries on the side. For sure, it was the last thing in the world he needed at the time. But he was very clear – I remember he talked to me about it – that this was family, and this was simply what you did for family.
Experiences like this one taught me the importance of compassion and forgiveness. Life sometimes makes people do unfortunate, even terrible things – count on it. But don’t be too quick to blame people for failings you may one day experience yourself. Consider their motivations, be grateful you aren’t the one in such difficult straits, be generous if you can and, unless they repeatedly abuse your kindness, be forgiving if things go south.
There were other lessons, too. When his mother received a letter from another of my uncles, criticizing the scandalous divorce and remarriage of one of her sons, my father was incensed. He composed an eloquent missive, not so much defending his brother as cautioning my uncle against speaking ill of others, and accusing him of a foolish overconfidence where his own children’s marriages were concerned. When the bank where I worked as a part-time teller turned down my application for a student loan, he spun off another letter, rebuking them for failing to reward a kid who was putting himself through school and had served them conscientiously for more than four years. I got the loan. As soon as they figured out who wrote the letter – he had neglected to sign it.
Like most kids, I believed my father could do just about anything. He could play any sport; it would be many years before we could hit a softball farther than him, and that was only because his strength waned, not because ours grew. He was a solid bowler, a sharp poker player, a decent golfer. But what really amazed me was his ability to build and fix things. He taught me to measure and saw, hammer nails, operate the hand drill and drive screws. I was barely seven when he started letting me help him build things. First the window bench, so four or five of us kids could sit around the table without the need for more chairs. We made “books” – wooden boxes covered in plastic material and tacked on two sides – so the little kids could sit high enough to eat at the table. We recovered kitchen chairs, removing the seats, carefully fitting new material over them and reattaching them, and we reupholstered the chairs in the living room. We built closets and bookshelves, a bedroom and laundry room. We hung shelves and doors, painted houses and repaired gutters. My father taught me how to mix concrete, frame out a driveway, dig fence posts. And when one of the little kids would flush a toy down the toilet, we’d take it up off the floor so I could snake my skinny little hand around and fish out whatever it was.
I am not at all sure how I ended up being the one who got to do all these things with him. Years later, his kids all grown, I would repay him by expanding his recreation room, tearing down the bedroom we’d built and framing out new walls, putting up new wallboard and trim. He wanted a bar, too, so I promised to build him one. It was by far the most complicated thing I’d ever done, a two-level arrangement with a built-in sink, constructed of walnut and sporting a brass foot rail. He marveled that I would even consider undertaking it. He was in his 60s then, and I was struck by how often he began asking me whether something should be done this way or that. Not because his memory was failing – that was much later. Simply because he had reached the age when you begin to lose the confidence of your own counsel. It saddened me to see that go from him. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a little proud that he would seek my advice.
I know he is about to go now. If not today, tomorrow. And I have no clue how to think about that. It seems he has already been gone from me for so long, between his illness and my distance from home. I wish I had the right words for what is about to unfold. Wish I could speak with him one more time, as he really was, and tell him I love him, what a huge presence he has been in my life, the impact he had in this world. I think only Johnny, my brother who died 30 years ago, had the words for him, big enough to capture all of what he was and all of how he affected us. We found the poem in Johnny’s papers after he was gone, and I am sure someone will read it at Dad’s funeral.
Short, Solid as Rock
Massive shoulders and forearms
A hard life
Integrity well-written in his eyes
Learned from all.
Presiding now over his offspring.
Integrity Passed On.
Rest now, Dad. Well done.
About the Author
Paul Petruccelli is a retired corporate lawyer, now living and writing in Portland, Oregon.