This past week, we honored the nine-year-anniversary of my father’s passing as we do every year—with a hamburger. Dad loved his burgers, and consuming one while sharing favorite tales of our time together is a soothing ritual. I wrote the following while sitting watch at his bedside the day before he dies.
My 86-year-old dad is dying. I’m sitting in my parent’s candlelit bedroom listening to him breathe, loud and rasping. Then suddenly, he’s quiet for long seconds—I find myself holding my breath—until he gasps and starts the rumble again.
He’s prone in a hospital bed tucked in a bay window alcove in the master bedroom. Outside is a panorama of the mountains he’s loved since making a late-life move to Nevada with my mom. I don’t know that he can actually see the peaks or the fire-red trees and chubby quail in the back yard through his glazed eyes, but we believe he knows he’s at home.
On the other side of the room, my mom sleeps in the queen-size bed they shared until a few days ago. In sixty-three years of marriage, they’ve rarely slept apart. She burbles gently, exhausted yet comforted in the knowledge that her three daughters are maintaining a vigil.
My father has Parkinson’s disease and early-onset Alzheimer’s. Over the past five years, the tall, handsome pipe-smoking gentleman with a gift of gab and enduring style slowly crumpled into a shuffling, hunched, nearly deaf old man. His world shrank from one filled with travel, gardening, playing cards, dining out, going to church, watching sports, and reveling in his family to one that moved in painfully slow, walker-aided steps between bed, tv room, and garden patio. Though we persisted in trying to engage him in games and conversation, he seemed to prefer sitting passively in front of old movies and sports matches.
My mother, despite her own health issues, was his determined champion. She was patient through conversations that typically required repeating at least twice before any degree of comprehension. When he could no longer manage restaurants and church services, she brought the world to him. Friends, family, and his priest were regular and loving visitors.
Dad once consumed several newspapers from cover to cover every day, amazing us with a wide range of knowledge, especially sports. As his memory declined, he would focus on mastering a single story and then discussing it with everyone he might talk to that day.
We could look at him, saddened by his diminishment. Yet he still expressed enjoyment in small everyday things—a good hamburger, a beautiful rose, a cat curled up in his lap. We believed his quality of life still tipped the scale to the positive.
All that changed ten days ago when he couldn’t get out of bed, and the doctor told us his systems were slowly failing. We brought in a caretaker named Terri—she was our angel—who took over his personal care and feeding. Three days ago, it was time to get hospice involved. His lucid moments have declined. Yet he continues to amaze us with his recognition and joyful if garbled, response to visiting friends.
Mostly dad sleeps. He can’t swallow, so his body regularly contorts in Parkinsonian spasms. Luci, the cat, nestles next to him, occasionally licking his hand.
We recognize that his time is near. Life has closed in, and he’s no longer playing to the positive. Is he struggling to stay or struggling to leave?
We love you, dad. When you’re ready, go in peace.