A few months ago my father began a journey that even he had not anticipated in his declining years. What started out as a small wound on his ankle developed into an infection that introduced or perhaps revealed other complications in my father’s general overall health. My father had waged a tenacious battle for recovery despite being admitted to three different hospitals and two different nursing homes with therapy units specializing in respiratory issues; early this morning he passed away.
Dad celebrated his 85th birthday a few days ago while clinging valiantly to life as it teetered precariously with the staccato breaths that afforded him precious little oxygen to match his resolute will to live. It’s a mixed blessing to be strong willed and resilient as we are often prone to endure more pain and needless suffering than we ought.
In the two years since my mother died my father had found certain aspects of living very difficult, as one can imagine. Our weekly telephone conversations underscored not only the usual issues one faces with the loss of a spouse but also brought into focus the general aspects that such a loss can trigger: companionship, expectations, physical limitations, and meaning of life itself. One theme that recurred in our talks centered on expectations; my father often would addend the phrase “This isn’t what I expected in life” or “This is not how I though my life would be”. The caveats he offered were mostly in reference to his life without my mother but also about the changes in his body, the growing and/or persistent infirmities that limited his mobility and usurped his independence–entropy in its most personal and insidious articulation.
Dad has driven to the cemetery where my mother is buried twice a day since she died to visit, to talk as lost loved ones do, to attempt to heal the ache, the void in his heart; he made these treks alone and in all kinds of weather conditions. My father kept these tete a tete’s with my mother faithfully until earlier this spring when he fell while at the cemetery. His arthritic knees failed him, his stubborn nature did not and he dragged himself, crawling mostly, over the rough walkway toward his car when a family member who just happened to be at the cemetery found him. Apparently, this scenario had played out at least one or two times previously with my father managing to get back to his car successfully on his own with no one the wiser for these mishaps. Dad had told me jokingly but probably accurately that he had to think about moving for five minutes before his mind could get his body to obey. His mind was willing and practically as sharp as it ever was; it was his body that had begun a slow and insidious betrayal.
I still recall the trauma of my father being carried out of our house on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance when I was just 4 or 5. We were quarantined for nearly a year and could not leave the house or venture father than our back yard. I am not certain how long dad was hospitalized with polio; I know my mother was summoned twice that I can recall to come to the hospital because the physicians thought he was dying. Dad was fortunate to survive; however, bulbar polio left physical damage in its wake: eating was particularly unsettling and fraught with the constant danger of choking due to the nature of bulbar polio which affects the medulla oblongata and can lead to paralysis, circulatory and respiratory failure. The first few years after dad’s release from the hospital our meals together were never without the possibility that we might lose him when he would gag and struggle as he swallowed a bite of food. Over time we became used to the throat-clearing sound that was dad’s best approximation of a cough. We also grew to recognize the variations in dad’s “coughing” as indicators of the seriousness of his daily coughing events. While polio nearly snatched our father from us, over time he recovered, in my childhood to the strong man he was before his hospitalization.
Polio was not my father’s only adversary; ironically, his older brother was principally responsible for another incident that shattered sibling and familial love and dealt my father another painful blow. My uncle had been in a local bar drinking more than he should with the consequence of his actions ending in an argument with another patron. Drunk and angry, my uncle returned to my grandmother’s house to retrieve a gun and subsequently settle the score with the other inebriate. My family was staying with my grandmother temporarily while my father was searching for new lodging as the house into which we were in the process of moving was destroyed in a fire with all of our belongings in it. When my uncle staggered to exit the house my father intercepted him and was in the process of disarming him. Up to the point of my father’s intercession the episode was mostly comedic, albeit disturbingly so; however, it rapidly escalated to tragedy when my grandmother and mother, for their separate reasons, grabbed onto my father as he was subduing my uncle. Taking the gun away from his older brother would have been a trifle for my father but the interference of two hysterical women created a chaos of emotion, action and reaction. The gun discharged wounding my father in one of his legs; the bullet remained lodged in his leg until he died. My uncle was incarcerated in the state prison in Trenton for the criminally insane where he was given the prevailing therapy at the time: shock treatments. He was later transferred to another facility, Ancora, in central New Jersey. Throughout this time my father dutifully chauffeured his mother nearly every weekend to visit the brother who shot him. Love can be blissful but it can also be rife with ironic agony.
As we age, we become more aware of the impact decisions made earlier in our lives have on us in the present. Wisdom is rarely a young man’s companion, often only befriending us when we have wasted resources which are not renewable. Even if we have been good stewards and have carefully metered our assets–physical, mental, and spiritual–we will be abraded by the mere passage of time, in all of its scientific incarnations. As surely as I write this I know at least part of the fate that awaits me is to join the confederation of memories of all who have lived and moved on before me; and, yet I am haunted by the imprecision of that certainty. For some of us westerners Francis Thompson’s image of the hound of heaven in relentless pursuit of our soul may offer some comfort. Others may weigh metaphor with the growing cache of novel scientific discovery. Wherever we may fit on the spectrum of personal belief our experience validates some of the fundamental theories of physics. None of us has witnessed anyone aging in reverse, traversing old age to infancy, except in the imagination of Hollywood. Anecdotal evidence of the decline we all experience abounds. None of us have been able to reverse the process and we are left staring into an abyss–as Andrew Marvell said in his poem, To His Coy Mistress,
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.