My father is failing and the fact really can't be ignored any longer. It's not like he's just now had a sudden stroke or heart attack to force confrontation with this reality, but the march over the past 8 years or so has been unmistakable. Until my father was 70 or 72, he looked, acted, and felt a full 10 or 15 years below his calendar age. His hair was quite dark in that Walter Matheau way; he golfed at least 9 holes, and more often 18, each and every day, rejecting motorized carts to walk the links. He tended an expansive hobby farm that took a full five hours weekly just to mow the lawns. He traveled the globe on exotic vacations that would have tired a man half his age.
But then age began to catch up in a big way. Over the past 8 years he has had a hip replaced, been diagnosed with myesthena gravis, a condition that badly affects his balance and facial muscles and reduces his strength to that of a small child; lifelong athsma and allergy problem has grew into full-blown COPD that now requires full-time oxygen; and in the last year or two, he's had periods of mental fuzziness that have caused doctors to ponder the likelihoood of early stage Alzheimer's.
Early last week, he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, which is considerably more serious with his age and underlying conditions than it would for you or me. And there has been a sudden increase in the periods of apparent dementia that suggests that it is not blood oxygen levels, but truly Alzheimer's that may be at work here. And so I traveled out last last week to the expansive prairie landscape of western Minnesota tonight to learn if he's going to pull through this round of difficulties, and, if so, whether he can remain at home with his wife for a while longer or if a residential care facility (the nice word for "nursing home") is now a reasonable step in the near future.
I was about 14 when my own grandfather, dad's father, died up in a nursing home in the far northwestern corner of Minnesota. Shortly before he passed, I drove up alone with my dad to visit grandpa. It was a sobering experience, since grandpa no longer really recognized us and kept talking about needing to plow the 60 acre field back by the minnow lake. (Grandpa had not been on that family farm for many years.) At my age, it was a startling glimpse of a mortality you don't even contemplate as a young teenager. It was especially hard for my dad to watch his own father, as the spectre of mental decline has been the fate dad has been most afraid of. He said no more than three sentence on the long drive back home that day many years ago, lost in thought. This seems to be a genetic fear, as this is precisely this possible future that most unnerves me.
When I arrived last week to see dad, I found him so weak in the hospital that lifting a cup of water to drink was an exhausting strain. The physical therapist said this was a substantial improvement over the day before, though, and said with steady improvement this week he might still be able to return to his house to live—this time at least. In our first conversation, he rattled on for some time about a helicopter crash in the area, which had, he said, dropped debris on his house, damaging the roof of the garage. Of course, there was no such incident, and gradually I recognized that he had merged the sound of a helicopter from Souix Falls airlifting another patient from the hospital with some story about a plane crash that was being broadcast on CNN. Over the next few days, the mental confusion lifted a little and dad was a little more like himself. But the physical weakness remains, and I found myself at one point running his electric shaver over his face for him—this, for the guy who did not take a sick day in 30 years of teaching school.
These are of course normal life transitions, and each of us will have them with different variations. Your own death is one, of course, but witnessing the decline of loved ones is another big one. When my mother died 17 years ago there came a point during the trauma of it all when it became crystal clear to me that death was precisely the condition under which life itself is made possible. After that I was able to deal with it all fairly philosophically, even spiritually. But even with an intellectual acceptance, the sense of my father now winding down leaves me with a sense of time running out for all of us. There is a little bit of existential terror in all this for me over now approaching the top of the genetic ladder with no further upward step, but it's relieved when I look at the pictures dad keeps on his study shelf: most of them are of his grandkids, my own son and daughter.
My dad hasn't been a perfect man, but he has been a very good one. He's a fairly passive man by nature, and on occasion this has frozen him into failure of action. Sometimes he smiles when a bit of snarling is what's necessary and apropos. But he's been a devoted family man for his whole life, and a fellow whose reputation in every community he's lived in is as a guy unfailingly willing to help others. I remember many times when he did chores for the neighboring farmer when he was injured or sick; a handicapped elderly neighbor could, and did, always call my dad when in difficulty. Dad provided fresh vegetables for our whole neighborhood out the expansive garden he obsessively tended. Many of his former high-school students who now have their own grandchildren still recall with affection his dedication to teaching them algebra and calculus 40 years ago. In his new community where he moved 16 years ago, he's developed the same reputation for helping others willingly and automatically. Of the many local people I talked to over the last few days, every one of them commented on his good heart. Until a few years ago, he was tutoring local farm-kids in their math lessons.
At the end of the film "Saving Private Ryan", the principle character shown many years later while visiting the cemeteries on the beaches of Normandy, turns to his daughter after recalling his life as depicted from the story we have just witnessed and asks "Tell, me, have I been a good man?"
Should my dad ever ask me this, I will say "Yes dad, you surely have been a good man."