I took this photo of my dad during one of his many hospital stays just three months before he passed away. Other family members find the photo depressing but for me, it is a reminder of my dad’s indelible spirit – something that had been sorely absent over the last four years since my mom passed away.
It was late winter and he had been in the hospital only a couple of days with yet another infection. When I arrived, the doctors told me he was well enough to go home and after I relayed the news to him, he looked at me wide-eyed and asked “Really? I can go HOME!?” I repeated, “yes, the doctors said you’re well enough to go home.” He sprang up in bed, clapped his hands loudly together, stared at me in amazement and repeatedly asked if it was true. A smile crept across his face and a twinkle came into his eyes and he asked for help getting dressed and wanted to sit by the window as we waited to get discharged. We watched a young family gleefully sledding on a small slope just below his hospital room window.
Due to his progressing dementia, my dad’s behavior had become increasingly hard to predict and I was very surprised at his joyous reaction to this news. He certainly was not happy at the nursing home that he had recently moved into after a brief stint at an assisted living place did not pan out due to his increasing medical needs. It was then it dawned on me that “home” to him was not the nursing home, but the home he shared with my mom for over 25 years. The home he very reluctantly agreed to move out of less than a year earlier even though we had naively promised him he’d be able to stay in it forever.
Home was where he was his best self. It was where he could look out over the ocean and watch the boats on the horizon and lie in bed at night and watch the planes lined up for landing at the nearby airport. It was where he’d make himself his favorite breakfast and leisurely read the Boston Globe from cover to cover or sit in his favorite chair petting his beloved cat sprawled across his lap. It was where he used to have hot dinners waiting for him after returning from an active day volunteering at the yacht club or walking with friends. It was where his model sailboats and trophies were displayed reminding him of his distinguished sailing career. It was where he could walk downstairs, greet friendly neighbors and hop in his car to take a long drive to his favorite fishing streams or visit his childhood home on the north shore.
My dad made it extremely clear that life was not worth living now that he could no longer do the things he loved. Always a very proud man, he was now adrift feeling he had lost his identity and what made him who he was - someone useful, accomplished, who loved teaching others, and who was respected.
After I realized the reason behind his unusual reaction, I said, ‘Yes, you’re going back to the nursing home.’ A look of confusion briefly passed over his face but he still retained his joyous mood and we sat there in silence and savored those stolen moments.
There is much I can say about our current society and how we have come to treat our elderly in their final years. We need to find a better way to help our elders retain their dignity and honor the deep wisdom that lives below the surface of their aged minds. The indigenous West African culture of the Dagara people believe that there is a deep connection between the very young and the very old, for they are both closest to Source. The young have just come from it and the elders are close to returning to it. I believe this to be true.
A few months after that hospital stay, my dad was placed in hospice care and the caregiver told us that towards the end, my dad would likely talk to people we could not see. A few days before his passing, I visited him at the nursing home where he was sitting low in his wheelchair along with the other residence in the common room. I said hello and he greeted me back without looking up and then said in a soft voice, “It is very beautiful here.” I was surprised but grateful to know that he was in a happy place. He then said “Egyptian Full Moon Goddess” which took me aback. I’m not sure where that came from. It was then that I realized my very secular dad was somewhere now beyond the veil. I leaned closer to hear him as he spoke softly, yet very clearly, about all the different kinds of whales in the world. He said the right whale was the largest and most mystical of all and then said “maybe they are right, and the whales will be the last creatures left on earth, if they don’t kill them all.” This struck a cord in me as I remembered hearing the previous day about how the whales were the wisdom keepers of the earth.
A few days later, the hospice nurse informed us that the end was near and my brother and I sat with my dad as he lay in bed petting his beloved cat that passed away earlier in the year. He remarked how pretty she was as he had done so many times when she was alive. He started talking softly as if consulting with someone. and then said more loudly “What do you think Jerry?” My brother and I look at each other in astonishment as Jerry was my dad’s boss and mentor at a critical point in his life and had been gone for over 40 years. Shortly after this my dad slipped deeper to a place we could no longer reach and he passed peacefully a couple of days later with us children by his side. Although aggrieved, we took comfort knowing his deep struggle of the past few years was over and he was now truly Home and at peace.