Tuesday, January 1, 2008


I watched as my father scraped the mixture of pureed meat, peas and squash into a pile on the side of his plate and then awkwardly scooped some onto his spoon. With complete concentration and a shaking hand, he moved the spoon slowly toward his mouth. Just as it seemed he would drop the load of mush and have to start over, he brought his mouth down and slipped the spoon in. After swallowing, he started over, again and again. A meal took him well over an hour of hard work. He would let the staff at the nursing home feed him, but obviously preferred to do it himself. The aides seemed proud of his ability to do so.

He was 94. Since his stroke 8 years earlier, his right side was partially paralyzed and he had trouble finding the words to express his thoughts. He had worked hard at the rehabilitation hospital and been able to live at home with help from my mother for several years. Finally, when she turned 90 and his ability to care for himself deteriorated, he went into a nursing home near my sister’s house in Wolfeboro, N.H.

For most of my life, I had seriously misjudged my Dad. My mother is a very strong personality; she dominated the family as I grew up. Dad seemed a background figure: always doing whatever was needed to support what the rest of us were doing. I mistook his selflessness for weakness.

His response to his stroke and the last years of his life not only showed me how strong he was, but also gave me keys to living.

Dad seldom complained and never seemed to spend time resenting his condition or disabilities. I always found him pleasant to be with and interested in me and what I talked to him about. The staff at the nursing home emphasized how he was friendly and appreciative of what they did for him. The called him “Morty” (his name was Morton) and seemed genuinely to like him. He smiled often and sometimes gave them backrubs (as best he could). He apparently enjoyed life enough to want to keep on living it: in his last years he fought off several bouts of influenza that we all thought would kill him.

I think the key to his attitude was acceptance. He accepted that the stroke had impaired him and did not bother spending time and effort resenting that fact or lamenting what he could no longer do. But acceptance did not equate to surrender.

Dad continued to work to do all the things he could. He laboriously fed himself each meal. He crept around the nursing home in his wheelchair, investigating each new or interesting thing and trying to open every locked door. He followed the activities of the portly house cat with interest. He played catch with my sister (a physical education teacher) on her nearly daily visits. He always fussed over Sophie, my sister’s Chocolate Lab when she came to visit. He was unfailingly interested in the doings of his grandchildren. When I told him a story he recalled from my childhood he would get a big grin on his face and say, “I remember that!”

I once asked him how he was doing. He responded, “Pretty well.” Then he added, “For the way I am now.” To me that said it all. He accepted “the way” he was; but instead of resenting his condition, he focused on the “pretty well,” that is, on what was good in his life and what he could still do. His last years had a quality of gracefulness I greatly admire.

In the early morning of November 8, 2004 I was awakened by the ringing of my sister’s telephone. It was the nursing home calling. We had better come very soon. Dad had been unconscious for a couple of days and we knew the end was near. I dressed and drove over. My sister was already there. I held his hand and listened to him breath. He made a small, throat-clearing sound that was unique to him. Soon that sound will be gone from the world forever, I thought. I bit later, his hand twitched in mine and he stopped. Just stopped. No breathing, no movement, no warmth. My father was dead.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I thought that was beautiful.