As it Turns Out…
Dying is not for the weak. It’s for the very very brave. My dad has a pace maker, a heart stent, erratic blood pressure that requires constant monitoring, (along with a spreadsheet to keep the medications organized). He’s weak and frail and with his recent fall, he’s in pain. The doctor thinks his back is fractured, but it’s too hard to tell from the x-ray, there’s so much arthritis. It hurts to sit, it hurts to stand, it hurts to turn or lie down. His speech is like a slow-moving glacier, his thoughts half-frozen, ideas stuck behind an impenetrable wall. But he’s surviving.
When I visited my dad last week I arranged for nursing care, cleaning help, I gathered resources and information on the aging, I approach my dad’s deterioration with the same methodical gusto I approach one of our international moves or a kid’s science fair project—get all the facts and assemble needed materials. But my dad is neither a move nor a project. After I ordered the hospital bed, arranged the furniture for a walker, cooked freezer meals, rubbed my dad’s feet, I cried and cried and cried. Dying is so much harder than I ever imagined.
My dad has always been my hero and teacher. He gave me life lessons like…
If you think someone is following you, cross the street and walk in the opposite direction.
Always, always, carry pepper spray.
Have your keys in your hand when you leave a store, fumbling for them in your bag makes you an easy target.
If someone has you at gunpoint, run in a zigzag pattern, it makes you harder to hit.
His lessons were not the kind other girls got, but my dad was a military man, Army and Air Force, he was a private investigator too. He was defensive by nature.
There were plenty of other lessons too…
Be kind, you don’t know what someone has been through.
Don’t judge by appearances, that doesn’t tell you who someone is.
Be grateful and generous; always remember that people don’t have what you have.
Compliment others…something so little can make such a difference in someone’s life.
My dad knew these things because he’d grown up “without.” His father was a charming alcoholic, neglectful in his family duties. His mother was equally as neglectful but more abusive. For an entire year of grade school he wore the only two shirts he owned, alternating between them. When kids teased that he wore the same shirt, he’d lie and say, these are my favorites. There were days when the only food in the house was a stick of butter, and nights when Daddy didn’t come home. There was a Christmas without presents.
One day, when I was a teenager, watching some local Christmas choirs perform on TV with my friend Kristen Kutch, I remarked with a snicker, “those are the worst outfits I’ve ever seen.” My dad was in the room and heard me. He wasn’t worried about embarrassing me in front of my friend. “Don’t ever talk that way about someone else, that could be the only clothes they have.” His eyes were stern, his jaw set. I knew he was disappointed. I didn’t understand then, what I do now. He was one of them, he felt the sting of my comment, the shame. He was always kind to people because he knew unkindness. He’d lived the bitter and was passing on the good life to us kids. He didn’t want us to take it for granted and start to believe we were somehow “better.” We were no better, we just had things and that made us lucky, not better.
While home, caring for my dad, he was still giving me advice, words to remember. Sitting in the living room, watching Fox news from his lift chair, he leaned toward me, steadying his gaze on mine and with a slightly coarse voice asked, “What is our motto?” He gave me the answer, “Be brave five minutes longer.”
Be brave five minutes longer.
It’s the phrase that got him through wars, the phrase he uses now to get through each day. He tells me, “I was in Korea and Vietnam, but this is the toughest battle yet.” Each day is a fight. His shoulders are hunched, his hands show bone and vein, his knees give way and he falls, but make no mistake, my dad is a warrior.
There are things my dad would still like to do, places to go, golf games to play, books younger eyes would have liked to study. But there’s only so much time. “Don’t wait,” my dad says, “don’t put off things you want to do.” What I hear him say is this: You don’t get to do everything you want, so make life as interesting as possible. I tell my kids: Stay curious and everything will be interesting.
While caring for my dad, I go for morning walks and listen to the book, “Die Empty.” It’s been in my Audible collection, only now it seems I need it. The author, Todd Henry, advocates to consciously plan each day. Don’t let life just happen; spend time on your most meaningful pursuits.
Seeing what my dad is going through, I ask myself, what do I value above all? Am I devoting time to those pursuits each day, even if it’s just for a few minutes? Todd says it’s not about the end result, but the process. It’s dangerous to wait for the payoff of accomplishing a goal, waiting to be happy. He says if you take joy in the process, you can be happy right NOW.
I want to be happy.
I arrive back home, after my walk, and try to take joy in the time I have with my dad. Just being next to him in the same room, or preparing dinner, or helping him out of his chair makes me grateful. My mom is the one doing the primary care giving and my sister and brother-in-law are always close by lending a hand. I’m grateful for them all.
The hard part is at 87 my dad sometimes feels like a nuisance. He’s aware he takes effort and while I say, “It’s no problem,” or “Here, let me help you with that, I need the exercise,” he’s not without apology. I say no one should feel bad for getting old. Our last steps are as important as our first. These are defining days, the punctuation at the end of a very long sentence, which gives meaning to one’s life. There are still choices to be made, only just as a child isn’t old enough to do everything he or she wants, an elderly person isn’t young enough. It’s the simple things that entertain. Sitting outside with the sun on his face. Listening to Celtic folk music. Eating a small treat. Growing old means you don’t have to apologize.
The days are trying, but nights are the toughest. My dad has flashbacks to the war. One minute he’s in bed, the next he’s in a cave in the Philippines, crawling on his hands and knees down a tunnel trying to escape a smoking grenade. His memories are churned up like tilled earth, the past fresh and raw. Lucky for him, he has plenty of good memories too. We talk about those. He likes to recall when he was a champion archer; he still remembers his first bow, a Smithwick Citation. If you ask about his proudest moments, he might tell you about the Spark-lite he invented, a one handed fire-starter device still sold to the military today. He remembers people, the ones he helped, and the ones who helped him. The thing is, when you live a good life and treat others better than they expect to be treated, people remember you. My dad sometimes gets letters thanking him for things he did, or friends will stop by and sit for a while and tell him what he means to them. What I’ve learned is, it’s important to make memories you’ll want to remember.
After a particularly rough night, when my dad had slipped out of his sleeping chair and my brother-in-law had to be called to come over and help lift him back to bed, I went for a walk. Along the way I noticed a bush striped and bare, just starting to show signs of bloom, pink delicate tips. I thought how odd that a bush, almost ready to burst into life, should look exactly as it does in the fall, before winter, when all the flowers have fallen and nothing is left but spindly arms, reaching heavenward. Two seasons, spring and fall, mirroring each other, the beginning and the end. I felt there was significance. I let the idea take shape, the possibility that my dad wasn’t dying after all, but coming into full bloom, preparing for a new season, not here, but somewhere else, a place without pain and heartache, a place where he could emerge fully into his truest self. I believe God created nature to give us comfort and hope. These days I spend as much time in nature as I can.
I also spent time moving furniture, rearranging the house to make it safer and more manageable for the walker. At one point my dad remarked, “It doesn’t feel like my house.” It wasn’t that he was displeased; rather, the familiar had been comfortable, even if it wasn’t functional. All the surrounding changes, amplified the changes and lack of control he felt inside his aging body. It was hard.
The lesson for me was this…prepare to grow old, because you will. Clear out and make room and accept what’s coming. To borrow a yoga term, “flow” into old age. Make incremental adjustments along the way so it’s not such a shock. Do like my mother-in-law and start collecting “old age gear.” She has a wheelchair, a walker, a toilet seat riser—old age will not take her by surprise. She’s already informed her children, “I’m coming to live with you.”
Caring for others brings clarity to your own life, particularly if the ones you are caring for have given you life first. Being present to help my dad is a memory I will always cherish. He’s always been there to help me and teach me, and as it turns out, he still is.