Friday, January 13, 2012

Lessons from My Old Man

The frail old man wants to bandage the tips of his sore fingers. Every time he bathes the bandages come off and he must do this again.

He hunts for the cardboard box he keeps to contain all manner of bandaids, tape and scissors, then drops into his recliner where the light is good.

Dad has developed a habit of making little noises when he putters. Not song, or talking to himself. Not grunts, either. Pleasant noises that mark the rhythm of his movements. He makes them now.

With great care, he selects and unwraps a bandaid and painstakingly sets it to cover the tip of a finger. He rummages through his box again for a roll of tape. He picks up his magnifying glass to locate the end, which he then sticks precisely to the table edge. Using the bandaid wrapper as a measure, he takes pains to cut the tape to the precise length he needs. And another. Then a third. Two pieces get wrapped to cover the end of his digit in a criss-cross. The third he wraps around his finger so as to cover and protect the ends of the two. Full concentration. Little noises of activity and peaceable presence to a task that takes time and expends much of his limited energy. His arthritic fingers fumble with the small pieces and the awkwardness of one-handed work until three digits are covered. I am witness to remarkable ingenuity in his little tricks to address the difficulties loss of dexterity and deteriorating eyesight bring.

Infinitely patient. No haste. Fully engaged. Creative.

When he finishes, the sore fingertips are neatly wrapped. Not yet satisfied, he asks me to cut one small overlap. He puts his things away, and drops into a doze in his chair. Energy spent.

I am 56. Dad is 30 years older than me. You do the math. Lung cancer—untreatable and advancing—numbers his days. Dad still gets around, but it grows more difficult. He still understands, but it matters less and less as hours and days turn to haze and the quiet battle to simply wash, eat and visit with whoever comes by. I rarely see him online anymore. Hospice has entered the picture.

Since Mom’s death, I have walked with Dad--far more in seven years than in all the rest of my life. We’ve had some crazy adventures. I spent another few days with him in December, and came away moved by two simple things. Lessons. Ways of being that are worthy of imitation. Ways of loving to hope for in my advancing years.

The first is drawn from Dad’s character. As we age, our bodies are less and less able to do what our mind believes should happen with ease. Speed, balance, eyesight, dexterity.

Those changes advance on me. When my fingers fumble, or my mind can no longer focus on five things at once, or my body just won’t go that fast or lift that much, I get angry. Groaning impatience, and frustration that breeds hurry that breeds more fumbling mishaps. A particular flashpoint is when I am in a hurry and my fingers just can’t untangle the knot, or negotiate the complex one-handed effort to button or snap or insert. “WHY. CAN’T. I?” my inner child screams as I fumble faster.

I am touched profoundly by Dad’s kindness to himself. Self-care accomplished with calm intention. Quiet, methodical, gentle. Lord, my dad is teaching me something of infinite value.

The second “lesson” derives from watching others with Dad. As I boarded my plane to leave my heart was full of ways that I hope someone will love me as I grow older. I hope that my children and other caregivers will give me time. I hope they walk slowly alongside me while I shop for my bits and pieces of comfort and hospitality. I hope they sit with me and do nothing but savor the being together. I hope they let me tell again stories I love but have already told…a lot. I hope they will let me do those things for myself that I still have patience to do, even though they could do them so much better and faster for me.

I hope to be accompanied into old age by people who value the journey.

Thanks, Dad, for all the ways you allow me to go this journey with you. I love you.

4 comments:

Susan said...

Jeri: This is poignant & simply beautiful. We are entering that stage of life where we become the caregivers rather than the child and somedays I feel like we are walking in a minefield! As your dad ages with grace, he's lucky to have you and you, him.

Kathleen Overby said...

"I am touched profoundly by Dad’s kindness to himself. Self-care accomplished with calm intention. Quiet, methodical, gentle.". iLove this.

keneva said...

Beautifully written and all I would pray for myself as I age - gracefully I trust!

Jeri said...

Thanks for the kind words. Walking with Dad in recent years has been a completely unlooked-for blessing. It is painful to be so far from him in these days.