Last night it was my father’s turn. As he lay back in bed he said, “Are you staying?”
I was at a loss for context. “Well, I’m going to stay a few extra days, yes.”
“No,” he says hoarsely. “Are you staying here?”
“Here in the apartment? No. I am in the Guest Room down the hall.”
“Will I stay until you are asleep?” He nods his head. “Sure. I can do that.” He smiles.
I kiss my mother goodnight and, like every night, she says “Thank you for everything.”
These are the parents I have distanced myself from for the last 30 years. Not always for bad reasons, but time moves on and seems to change us all. As I was helping my dad into his pull-ups and pajamas last night he said, “I wish you could do this every night.”
I do not want to do it every night. But, if what I heard was what he meant, he seemed to be saying he needed me–or that at least he preferred me to the home health aide.
In thinking about this trip I thought I might say my goodbyes to my father and maybe try to make peace between us before he died. But it seems our conflict ended awhile ago and a peace treaty has been in effect without my knowing it. The sources of our conflict are now lost in the fog of my father’s physical decline. So the things I thought I had to say, and to accomplish here are lost too, as are thoughts and feelings of mine that I had thought would fall into place afterwards and give me some peace. Instead of peace, those thoughts and feelings are now simply irrelevant.
Instead, like my sister, I have become subsumed by the role of what hospice calls a “home health aide.” We get my parents up and dressed and to meals every lunch and evening–to make sure that they eat. In the evening we get them undressed and settled in bed. We bathe my parents, we make sure they take their pills, we take them outside, help them answer phone calls from their friends. My sister then goes home, takes a nap, gets up at 10pm works on lectures and papers until 1am, then sleeps 4 hours before coming back to do it all again–before going to her job. This is what she does every day, I am only doing this for a week.
My role here, it turns out, is to help my sister get services in place so that she can continue to work a full-time job and care for her family knowing my parents have most of the increased care they need. I am not quite sure what will happen when my parents need more care than they can afford. I guess I will come out again.
It’s tempting to think that during this time I am working off any debt I owe to my father for the distance between us; while he has been absolved of any debt to me by the stroke that left him unclear that there ever was a problem at all. For me there will be no reconciliation between our pasts: I can no longer make him understand my experience of him and its consequences for my adult life. I don’t know that our past even exists for him.
Let me say it plainly: I will get no satisfaction from him. That time and, maybe, both those people are gone–lost to us both. I simply have my life and my memories and he his, and his will pass away soon. Like parallel lines–they and we will never meet.
I guess this is just another of life’s mysteries. And I don’t say this glibly. Over the course of the last 15 months I have encountered the deep mystery of a fundamentally good world created by a fundamentally good God that is also deeply broken. Life is fundamentally good and at the same time tragically broken. The goodness is not erased, the brokenness is undeniable. In fact, to me it seems, to drink Life deeply, to be awake to Life at all requires that I affirm the mystery of life’s goodness and also its terrible brokenness.
Maybe I thought writing a blog would help me solve that mystery. In the same way that every post has to conclude and bring to some closure a reflection on experience, in that same way I would stumble on a resolution to the mystery of life’s goodness and brokenness–by writing about it.
I must have thought writing a blog would be like saying goodbye to my father and reconciling our long misunderstanding of one another–that in such a process I would come to some resolution of our differences. Turns out not.
Turns out our differences will be sustained. And I will continue to love him brokenly and will miss him when he is dead.