Hunting Memories

December 22, 2017

I guess I thought this first Christmas without Dad would be the same–just with him absent.  As if he were in another room, or perhaps away on the annual hunting trips he took with his father and uncles and cousin in the Adirondack mountains.

He took an entire week of his vacation every year to hunt, only a few times coming home with a deer.  The longer he hunted, the older he got, the less interested he seemed to be in the hunt and the more invested he became in just being in the woods.  He used to tell the story of unexpectedly coming upon his father one afternoon on the back of the mountain.  How he stood and watched my grandfather sitting with his back up against a Hemlock tree in the sun sleeping.  And how after that, hemlocks always made him think of his father, asleep there in the autumn woods.

He would come home changed.  He would have grown a beard, or the scratchy start of one.  He would be tousled and strange like an ascetic who could not communicate what it was that he had been seeking or had found.  He spoke of the dinners his cousin would make: huge (beef) steaks marinated for days and cooked outside.  A strange kind of asceticism, perhaps.  But the long days out of doors had worked something in him: gratitude, I think.  Gratitude for his silent father and the company of men.  And gratitude for the wonder of the woods: of moving for hours by compass and sun on the back of the mountain;  doing the work of  listening and watching, being part of the forest itself.

He would say in later years, that he was relieved when he did not see deer and have to decide whether or not to shoot.  And that after his father was gone, every year, he would look for a hemlock tree to sit beneath and sleep.  As if what he was hunting were not deer at all, but some communion with the memories the woods held.

These are my father’s memories.  –And, yes, my memories of his memories.  So I walk with him –or after him–in those woods.  Now it is my turn to look for a place to sit in the sun and commune both with what is gone and what is left.

It really had not occurred to me before this, that this would be a different holiday altogether.  That along with my father, and my parents’ home, that a time was gone, too.  And while some of the traditions of the holiday remained for us to enact, we were the ephemera now.  We were what was passing, while the forest of the holidays would remain.

Is this what it is like to age?  To see discrete lives within the times we live?  –Like a patch of sun beneath a great hemlock tree, a patch of brief ground illuminated, then gone?


Hospice and Change

The hospice people came today to see my parents. A chaplain, a nurse and a home health aide were all in the apartment at once. My mother who has short-term memory loss (different from Alzheimer’s or dementia) and is easily confused found it overwhelming. I found it extremely helpful though unsettling. And my father, for the most part, slept through it sitting in his chair.

My Mom, though she says she is confused, intuits that this is a big change. And I think she intuits that the change will mean loss–loss of my father. She tries to understand, but is easily suspicious when I am speaking with anyone out of her earshot. She has every right to be. None of the things we were talking about today were easy and all meant big changes, even for her.

The hospice people feel the days of Dad making his way painstakingly around the apartment with his “rollator” and around the facility with his scooter are numbered. They helped me understand what a strain it is for him to walk and encouraged us not to insist or encourage him to go to the dining room to eat. They have ordered him a wheelchair. So today we ate all our meals in their apartment which was way too much change for my mom.

Last night my dad had said to me, as he inched his way to the bed with his rollator, “You don’t know how painful this is for me.” And I said, “Walking? Is that what’s painful?”  “Yes,” he whispered.  That’s a lot for my dad to say.

The wheelchair which is to have a high back to support him is supposed to arrive tomorrow. I have a feeling it is not going to be an easy day. My mother lost it tonight when I brought in a box of adult pull-ups hospice had delivered. Who sent them?  Did Dad know they were being sent?  Who are these people? What is going on?

I have compassion for her–and I hope I have empathy most of the time. But I almost needed a Time-Out around dinner time. My dad handles it the way he always has, which is to put his head down and let the women duke it out.  Instead I offered to take all 3 dinner trays down to the kitchen–one at a time! This gave me the maximum time out of the apartment and also endeared me to the kitchen staff.

Then my mother sat down at the jigsaw puzzle which is too hard for her now, and we started working on it together like nothing had ever happened.

When she got into bed tonight, she thanked me, as she has every night, “for everything.”

As I finished adjusting the pillows behind my dad tonight, he said, “Wait.” I waited. “I love you,” he said.  “I love you too, Dad– always,” I answered.

He continued, “And I love Mom.”  I waited. “And I love Nancy.”

–“But you love me more (–than Nancy)!” I said.

He smiled and whispered, “I didn’t say that.”

“But you wanted to,” I said. And turned off the light.






Saying Goodbye

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.”

“Stay until…sleep?”

“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.