Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The last time I wrote about my father, alive




It’s Wednesday night and I'm on "nightwatch" at Mom and Dad's.

My dog Birdie is snoozing, stretched across the living room rug, an Oriental to match all the other rugs in this house. The rugs are a fitting accent to the shelves filled with old books, and all those things that remind me of my childhood surrounded by pretty, pre-Ikea, inherited things.

I just put my dad to bed: A practice in patience, of finagling him out of his clothes and into his "overnight underpants" and his pajamas. The trick is to catch him before he buttons all the buttons you just unbuttoned on his shirt, and unbuttons all the buttons you just fastened on his pajama top.

I took him into the bathroom and helped him brush his teeth, put his dentures into their overnight Efferdent "bath." He brushes what's left of his teeth for minute after minute, taking solace in one of the few things he remembers well how to do. How many times has he brushed those teeth? He brushes and brushes and brushes, each time remembering and forgetting how long he has been doing it. Was it just a few strokes ago, or 100 strokes?

He sits on the edge of his bed and  I take off his slippers and his glasses. He smooths his hand over and over the sheets, approving of how warm it feels where the electric blanket has done its work. I have to cajole him into lying down.

“Put your head down, Dad. Don’t you want to lie down in that cozy bed and go to sleep."
“Yes, I do,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

He finally does lay down, curling his knees into his torso,  rolling away from me and onto his right side. I lift the blanket to ease his feet under.

He looks so much like a child, his head on the pillow, the covers pulled up to his chin. I can’t help but pet him. I put my hand on his forehead like I do with my children. I stroke his hair a bit. All the while, I'm fearing he might call me out for treating him like a baby. But he doesn't.

“Nighty night,” I say; the exact words my mother used with me the countless times she put me to bed.

“Have a nice sleep,” I say, turning off the light then leaning over to stroke and kiss his forehead one last time. I’ve never had the urge to touch my father so much as I do now.

“Thank you for taking care of me,” he says.
“It’s my pleasure,” Dad, “I like taking care of you.”
“And it’s my pleasure to be taken care of by you,” he says.

The arrangement works. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to see my father this way.



In the Bromley bar a while back, after Esther’s final ski race of the year, he went mute as he so often does in noisy places. He just sat there, back erect and awkward, smiling and staring. Not following the conversation, not leading it either. Just being.

And when he's like this, I wonder if he's uncomfortable. Is he confused to the point of feeling anxiety that he can't remember how to express? I imagine he’s experiencing that feeling of being close to succumbing to sleep, when your mind starts to scatter and split into shards, too many thought snippets headed in too many different directions to keep track of. When you find yourself thinking and sometimes saying words aloud you don’t even know the meaning of, and you cannot keep hold of one simple, unshiftable thought for long enough to feel it in your hand, or on your tongue, or nestled safely between your temporal lobes.

Just the other night, while I was trying to fall asleep again in the middle of the night --an angst- ridden time when my mind is unguarded and the demons tend to prowl -- I thought of the divine poetry that is my father having Alzheimer's and my mother remaining lucid.

My mother can handle old age. She's self forgiving. Grace is within her grasp at all times, so hammered into her as the only way to be-- graceful, gracious, pleasant, patient-- and can therefore experience the losses, the failures and flaws of old age without raging against them.

My father, on the other hand, has never relented in his expectations of human perfection. If he were fully present, able to experience what's happening to his mind and his body-- the loss of memory, muscle tone, balance, coordination, continence-- in a lucid state, he would be in a constant state of self-directed rage and inner tantrum.

I know this because I can imagine this. I know this because I am my father’s daughter and I have mini inner tantrums, sometimes daily, brought on by my own perceived flaws: My inability to glide seamlessly through life and part the seas without making mistake after seeming mistake.



Back at my father's bedside once again, after hearing him muttering, "sonofabitch!" and shifting restlessly in his bed, I began the game of coaxing him into the bathroom. After getting him to swing his legs over and sit upright, I took his still-strong hands and pulled him to standing. 

"Where did you come from," he said.
"You," I answered. "I'm Doug Shaw's daughter."
"You are?" he said, surprise in his voice and wonder in his eyes.
"But you're so big and strong."








24 comments:

jill said...

Love. That is all. Thank you for sharing. xo

Anonymous said...

Beautiful Betsy!

Kristi said...

Beautiful and sad. Thank you for sharing

Ron Dufresne said...

Well done. You can picture every word.

Jenny Davey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenny Davey said...

What they said - again.

I saw my grandfather in March, and we held hands for the longest time. I feared it would be our last embrace; I didn't want to release him.

Mikey said...

Very Poignant Betsy. Between you and Andy you have really captured the true essence of Doug. So real I felt I was there with you. Regards Mike

Anonymous said...

I've wondered where you have been but I imagined ... So hard, so sad. My mother had senility. Why don't you write a book about your entire life? I just love your prose. It is so beautiful. K from BCN.

Laura said...

Beautiful. I went through this with my mom. Not a day goes by that I don't wish i could talk with her again

Anonymous said...

I just read of your father's passing on your Baby Center blog and I came here.... I am so sorry for your loss, Betsy. Thank you for being willing to share with us this journey. Hugs your kids and husband and dog and mom and siblings a lot during this time. Hugs to you from a reader that's been reading your blog for years and years now.

mooserbeans said...

So beautifully written. I often think that my father passed away so young (52) because he would have just been furious at the betrayal your body experiences when you grow older. I am so sorry for your loss. I know how hard it is to lose a parent.

Emma said...

What a beautiful tribute to your dad. I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm sure you brought him great comfort. I watched my mother care for my grandfather in the years before he died, it was incredibly hard on her, both emotionally and physically, so please make sure you are taking care of yourself.

Unknown said...

Hi Betsy, this is Sandra from Babycenter. just wanted to say that I'm so sorry for your loss Betsy. You are a beautiful writer, and a beautiful person. I always look for your posts, simply to study your prose. It's . . . well, perfect. Made even more so because the content so often is as well. The content being, well, you. Loving thoughts to you and your family. The end of life is so strange. It is almost like whoever designed this place, wants us to learn abject humility by the end. I'm glad you were able to be there for your father in his last years. That is such a gift you gave to him.

Lara said...

Oh Betsy I'm so sorry for your loss. I noticed your absence on BabyCenter and feared this was the reason. This piece is beautifully written and how fortunate you and your dad were to have each other. Peace to you and your family.

Kathleen Trail said...

Oh goodness... I'm a wreck reading this. Like Lara, I've been worried about your absence too, but I'm so glad you've had the time to spend with your dad and the presence of mind and heart to appreciate the beauty in all this sadness. Peace be with you all.

Betsy said...

You all are so sweet. I don't deserve your loyalty. My absence here is connected to my absence at BabyCenter. My job over there has become more editing oriented,a good thing, but also a much more time consuming thing. By the time I'm done sitting at my computer getting my job done, I have little left to offer over here. Well I have tons to offer, but not a lot of energy to write it down and no desire to look at a screen to do so. Miraculously, I wrote this down in a notebook while at my parents. And more miraculously still, I found it again. I have lots of notebooks... (:
With any luck, I will write again, about what actually happened to my dad, soon.

jill said...

Betsy- you absolutely DO deserve all this loyalty. Don't undersell yourself, you are everything and more....

mizzee said...

I'm so sorry to hear of your Dad's passing, Betsy, and what gorgeous prose, as always. Sending you all much love and strenght. xo

Emilyplays said...

Betsy, that was so beautifully written, I felt the strength and humanity. Sending love to you and your family. Grief and loss is so hard. Hard is an inadequate word. Be gentle with yourself -

arlene giddings said...

this was so beautifully written...
thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Please write again Betsy. We are all listening, waiting to read your beautiful prose. About your father, your life. What you write and your way of expressing your thoughts are captivating. K from BCN

Betsy said...

Thank you, K from BCN. I just posted something new, albeit short and sweet. This seems to be a quarterly blog. (: Thanks for your loyal patience.

Irishmama7 said...

Betsy I just found this today. I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this piece with us. Thank you for the glimpses you always share. Hugs and thoughts for you and your family.

Betsy said...

Thank you Irishmama7. We're still adapting to his absence but feeling grateful as well.