Waiting in the director’s office for our tour to begin, I noticed that my father had dressed for this occasion with some care. He’d added a sweater vest and bolo tie to his normal pants and polo shirt, and selected -- from his sizable baseball cap collection – a blue one bearing the New York Mets insignia. He wore bifocals, and a hearing aid tucked into each ear, but with a recent haircut and this morning’s close shave, he looked almost dapper.
Yet when I moved a bit nearer, I saw that his sweater was stained with food. “You might want to put that vest in the laundry after today, Dad,” I suggested, carefully.
He shrugged. “I didn’t notice.” He also didn’t notice that his apartment, on the other side of town, was often dusty, the kitchen countertops spattered. A woman came to clean now and then, and he didn’t see much point in paying her to come more often, because he couldn’t see the dirt.
I admired the way he’d put together a life since my mother died seven years earlier. He had good friends. He played cards a couple of nights a week, faithfully attended services and discussions at his synagogue, shopped and cooked (or defrosted, mostly) for himself. He was the guy who went out and bought the newspapers each morning for the neighbors in his apartment building, in southern New Jersey, who no longer drove. With prescriptions to keep his cholesterol and blood sugar in line, he was relatively healthy.
My sister and I proudly complained about how hard it was to reach him on the phone. “Up and around!” he always said, when we finally did. “Keeping busy!”
Yet how long could we be this fortunate? How long could he keep driving to the supermarket, handle his checkbook, remember to take three or four different medications each day? Already, he’d given up driving north to visit us; three hours on the Jersey Turnpike had become too tiring.
Sooner or later, we knew, he would need more help. He’d just turned 83 that fall. Something – eyesight, heart, memory – was increasingly likely to fail. My mother had seemed fine too, slowing but still engaged with life, until suddenly an exploratory laparoscopy found metastasized cancer, and we had to learn a lot in a hurry about hospice care.
I’d been dreading the next phase ever since. Nobody wants to be facing these questions. We talk sometimes about a role reversal, the children becoming the parents, but it’s a flawed analogy. Our elders are not children; they don’t have to do what we think best. There’s no t-shirt that proclaims, “Because I’m the Daughter, That’s Why.” And this passage, unlike childrearing, will not result in eventual independence.
Still, we want to do the very best we can for the people who did the best they could for us. Looking ahead, I felt afraid – but I also wanted to understand, to feel prepared, to find a way to give my father comfort, security, dignity. His life may have begun winding down, but there could still be years of good times, friendships, laughs and love ahead.