by Ingrid Lochamire
“Damn it all! What the f— am I doing here?”
It’s my dad’s birthday, andI’ve arrived at his assisted living facility with a stocking cap, some warm gloves and a new pair of long johns, hoping to keep his frail body warm while we travel through the countryside to his dentist appointment. He clearly isn’t impressed when I suggest he wear his warm winter coat. Considering his mood, I sense a revolt coming on.
Ten years ago – even fewer– my Dad’s ornery attitude would have given me a chuckle. Not today. Unleashing his frustration, he spews profanity in my face, honest words that slice and slap. They carve his pain into my flesh.
Yet, Dad feels it more than I. He’s carried it longer and deeper. Before the words leave his lips, I imagine they taste of afather’s trust and a love without bounds gone sour. Indeed, what is he doing here? Eighty-nine years dwindled down to a narrow bed, a lone recliner, mushy peas and carrots,strangers feeding him pills without labels.
No home. No work. No car. No wife. Stripped of purpose and pride. Naked, with nothing to hide.
“I look like a little boy,” Dad grumbles. He pulls the stocking cap down over his ears and eyebrows. “I never wear hats like this. Maybe you do, but I don’t.” Dad gives me an accusing look. “Where’s yourhat?”
With so few choices left in his life, Dad wants to be the one deciding what to wear, even if leaving the long johns laying across his bed means he’ll be shivering while the car warms up.
“Stubborn,” I mutter under my breath.
“What’d you say?”
“You’re a little stubborn, Dad.”
“You bet I am. I dressed myself for 89 years. I don’t need to be told what to wear.”
The cursed stocking cap is a topic of debate throughout the afternoon, and the warm gloves are left conspicuously tossed on the dash of the car. The cap is pulled off as soon as we step into the dental office, exposing Dad’s fuzzy white buzz cut.
His life has been turned upside down in the past year. He and Mom sold the home they loved and moved into a little apartment at the edge of town. After a few good months getting settled, things started going downhill. Mom became sick,and by the end of the summer, she was gone. Dad couldn’t live alone and couldn’t live with any of his kids, so he moved again, into an apartment in a elder care facility in a neighboring town.
It doesn’t matter how cozy the place is, how good and kind his caregivers are or that the food is more than adequate. Dad is not happy.
The final straw for Dad was being told he couldn’t drive. His vision and reflexes are failing. For a man who drove a rural mail route for 25 years and who knows every country road surrounding his hometown like the back of his hand, it feels like he’s lost his identity.
How do you help someone who lives in the past see the goodness in today?
In his mind, his best days are behind him.
After the dentist appointment, we drive to our hometown and stop in at the restaurant where he and Mom ate breakfast nearly every day. The owner has agreed to let us bring a birthday cake this afternoon to share with a few hometown friends in a back room of the café. It’s good to see Dad’s face light up as people begin dropping by.
There is laughter, memories are shared, illnesses compared, handshakes exchanged. The long afternoon winds down,and it’s time to take Dad back to his apartment. The restaurant owner hands Dad a Styrofoam container of chili. I know this will be dinner, warmed up in his apartment so he doesn’t have to go to the common dining room.
An early sunset has set aglow the snow-covered evergreens along our return route. Dad remarks, as he often does, that the tall spruce trees look good lined up like soldiers. We travel the rest of the way in silence, his home territory in the rearview mirror. He’s keenly aware of what he’s leaving behind.
It keeps getting harder – both spending the time together and leaving him to go home. Before I leave, I want to share with Dad my mental list of all the ways he is blessed in the winter of his life, but I know he doesn’t want to hear it.
I can read it in the weary slump of his shoulders. It’s his birthday, and nothing feels right.
Then I realize the best gift I can give Dad on this dark day in December isn’t the warmth of a hat, gloves and long johns, or even the birthday cake shared with friends.
The gift Dad wants most is for me to look into his heart and say honest words too.
“This stinks, doesn’t it Dad?It’s hard,and some days it just stinks.”
He is surprised when I say it, but I can tell he’s also delighted. He chuckles while he hangs up his too-heavy winter coat and lays the hat and gloves on the top shelf of his closet.
“Ah, it ain’t so bad, I guess. Just not what I thought it would be.”
That’s good. I can complain for him and the tables are turned. This feels right – Dad reassuring daughter that things “ain’t so bad.” I turn to go and he reaches for a hug.
“How can I ever pay you back?” he says. Tears well up in his eyes, as they do so often these days.
“You already have, Dad. A long time ago.”
Ingrid Lochamire is a former news reporter and award-winning feature writer for a regional news outlet. She “retired” from journalism to homeschool her four sons, now all graduated. Ingrid and her husband live in a 140-year-old farm house in northeast Indiana, where she shares her own “slice of life” experiences and reflections on her blog and elsewhere. Ingrid’s work has appeared on various websites and in the literary journal Topology. She is a member of Redbud Writers Guild, and her essays have been featured in The Redbud Post. Her self-published book One Man’s Work is a collection of stories from her father’s life.