losing my father
I had a free hour on Tuesday, around lunchtime, so I decided to visit my father in his nursing home. My father’s facility is within walking distance of the hospital that I work in. The proximity of the nursing home to my work, to me, is both a blessing and a curse. Some days I can’t decide which it is.
I stopped by my hospital’s gift shop on my way to visit Dad. I planned to bring him a gift, maybe some candy or a muffin. In years past, I might have selected a paperback, a newspaper, or a book of crossword puzzles and brainteasers. He still has his vision – with the help of bifocals – but he can no longer process the words that he reads. The man who once devoured several books a week – especially anything written by Ken Follett, John Jakes, or Louis L’Amour — can’t comprehend a restaurant menu, much less a newspaper or magazine. After searching the shelves in the small gift shop filled with flowers and balloons and knickknacks, I selected a stuffed animal – a cuddly spotted leopard — and a bag of salted peanuts.
When I entered his darkened room on the second floor of the nursing home, he was lying flat in his bed, wearing a hospital gown. His eyes were closed, and he wore a pained expression. He either sensed my presence or heard me pull up a chair, and he opened his eyes. He looked startled and panicked.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” he said. There was urgency in his voice and he reached a hand out to grab mine. I raised the head of his bed some, so he could be closer to me.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you think has happened?”
“I was in an accident, a head on collision with someone,” he said. “But I don’t know what’s wrong. They won’t tell me. Something is wrong here.” He touched the right side of his forehead with his hand.
I reassured him that he was okay, that he had not been in an accident. That he must have been dreaming about an accident from the past or something he’d seen on television. He looked at me, then beyond me, and finally he shook his head as if to shake off the cobwebs coating his memories.
“Here, Dad, I’ve brought you a gift,” I showed him the stuffed animal and the peanuts. He took the leopard from me and hugged it, his eyes bright. I placed the peanuts on his tray table, but within his reach.
He petted the soft toy, running his fingers over the pink nose and glass eyes. He hugged it again, then set it next to the bag of peanuts. He turned to look at me.
“How long have I been here?” he asked.
“Almost three months, Dad.” But it seems like forever. It seems like it will be forever.
“Why? What’s wrong with me?” he asked, his voice filled with equal parts despair and confusion. “I just wish I knew what was wrong with me.”
“It’s your brain, Dad,” I explained gently. “It’s like Alzheimer’s. You have something like Alzheimer’s, like your mom had. Do you remember that she used to wander? And that’s why she was in a nursing home? It’s something like that, just like what she had.”
He looked at me in disbelief. He didn’t say anything right away. He turned away from me, and then turned back, his greenish-hazel eyes locking with mine.
“I hate that,” he said.
My eyes filled with tears. “Me too, Dad. I hate it too. We all hate it.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes. I stared at the television that sits on his dresser. The television is eternally tuned to the same channel since his remote control went missing a few weeks ago. I can’t tell you how many old reruns of Friends I have watched since May. That day it was on a cartoon – maybe King of the Hill or Family Guy? It was obnoxious and not something he ever would have watched.
“How old am I?” he asked.
This was the first he’d ever asked me that. Normally his memory for the past is very strong, even now. I told him that he was seventy-seven. That he will be seventy-eight in December.
“I’m not done yet,” he said, his voice cracking, full of emotion. He broke down in tears.
“I know, Dad,” I said. “I know you’re not.”
We held hands for a while. I watched the scenes from Family Guy – or maybe King of the Hill – scroll across the television screen. He didn’t say anything for a while, just stared at the television and at the open door to his room. I don’t think he was seeing either. He was in his head, remembering…or maybe forgetting.
He gave my hand a squeeze and then let go. He took the stuffed leopard in his hands and hugged it to his chest, stroking the animal’s back. He reached for the bag of peanuts.
“Let’s have a snack,” he said, a smile lighting up his face. “Want some?”