On an otherwise ordinary Thursday night, my dad slept in his own bed in his own home for the last time. He didn’t realize it, and never would. He was to spend Friday night—and all the rest of his nights—in a nearby nursing home.
His memory had been failing for at least a decade but it wasn’t until a warm September evening six years before that I truly became alarmed. In my mind, it was the night he veered off the main highway of life and began weaving erratically down Alzheimer’s Avenue.
He had headed the stats crew for University of Minnesota Gopher football games for forty years, and, as was his custom, he was going to drive the twenty minutes to my townhouse after the game and sleep over rather than drive an additional seventy miles to his home in St. Cloud.
I didn’t expect him until after midnight; at a quarter to one, the phone rang. He was lost. He was calling from the Hopkins House Hotel a couple of miles away. I cheerfully told him that all he had to do was head east on Highway 7. He said he didn’t know which way east was, which startled me. I then heard five words that sent a chill up my spine. In a soft, sweet voice, he said, “I’ll never make it, hon.” I paused for a second, then said, “I’ll be right there.” I drove over and he followed me home.
It was another couple of years before he stopped driving altogether. A year after that, my mom began bringing him to the St. Cloud Veterans Administration Medical Center for adult day care. It was a godsend for both of them. He loved the staff, loved to swim and exercise, and best of all, loved to while away the time working on arts and crafts projects. My parents’ house is filled with these little treasures. I too shared in the bounty; a pink ceramic piggy bank he painted stares happily down at me from a shelf as I write this.
My dad was very happy at the V.A. for a few years. But when he no longer could follow simple instructions and began needing one-on-one attention just to color a picture, the staff gently told my mom that other arrangements needed to be made. My mom hoped to keep my dad at home as long as she could but when he was unable to shower in the morning without help, she knew she had run out of options. With a heavy heart, she drove him to a nursing home that Friday morning.
As my dad’s mind deteriorated, I thought about Roger Delano, who contracted a rare and incurable condition called transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spine that causes paralysis. Delano, who recounted his experience in Self-Realization magazine, said he was unfazed when a doctor told him he would never walk again. Indeed, thanks to his unshakable faith, he was able to walk out of the hospital under his own power nine days later. Here’s what he wrote:
I knew that everything that was happening to me was up to God, that He was the only healer. I felt safe, knowing I was surrounded by the overarching mantle of His perfect care. Whatever God brought to me, I wanted. Even if I retained all of the mobility of a flowerpot, it didn’t matter. I was still the same, the vehicle of expression had changed, that’s all. A flowerpot can still hold a beautiful flower.
Some would say that my dad’s slow descent into oblivion was a tragedy. I prefer to view it as the natural unfolding of a Divine plan, the details of which I am not privy to. From the very start, as his mental capacities diminished, my mother, sister, and I surrendered to the process. Clinging to any expectations would have been counterproductive. Instead, we focused our attention simply on loving him in the moments we had together.
Inevitably, the glimmer of recognition in my dad’s eyes began to flicker and fade. But that was okay. With a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a shoulder rub, I could still communicate with him through the language of the heart. Besides, I knew who he was—and that he would forever be who he always was.
We got the call from the nursing home eight weeks before his seventy-ninth birthday. His eyes were glazing over and he was having difficulty breathing. It was his time to go.
I was fortunate to have a few minutes alone with him as he lay on the bed in his room for the last time. I snuggled up beside him, rested my head on his chest, told him how much I cherished him, and shared some of my favorite memories of our life together. I like to think that, on some level, he was able to hear and understand me.
At one point he jerked up his head, and for a moment, his panicked eyes were filled with terror. In a soothing voice, I told him that it was okay, that I was here, and that everything would be all right. The fear passed from his eyes and he lowered his head to the pillow. I remember feeling honored that I could comfort him in his hour of need.
Soon, the family gathered around his bed and the vigil began. One minute before midnight, the changeless, eternal essence of who he was burst forth, free to soar once again. Hours later, alone and in silent gratitude, I hit my knees and thanked God for giving me the gift of being my father’s son.
POSTSCRIPT 1: A few years after I wrote the above essay, I shared an especially poignant moment with my dad shortly before he passed away.
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