My whole young life, I remember my father getting up before dawn and going for his daily run, long before any of the rest of us in the house were up. When I would stagger to the kitchen a couple of hours later, he would be whistling and humming, happy and energetic, teasing about my laziness. After age 70, his daily run changed to a daily walk, and he added yoga and pilates to his routines. He stayed active and mobile, priding himself on exercising every day. He was an athlete – an Olympic Gold Medalist – and his physical activity has always been one of the most important parts of his life and self-expression.
About a year ago, he had a stroke, and his mobility and mental acuity has been in a steady decline since then. After his stroke, he made some halfhearted attempts to come back into his routines of daily physical activity – those years of physical habit ingrained into his self-identity – but the truth of the matter is, he has been slowing down over the course of the last year.
I know these are inevitable changes toward the end of life, if we live into our late 80’s, 90’s and beyond (he is is almost 87), but it still is not easy to see and experience as a daughter. This too, I know is a part of life’s journey for many of us – to see our parents aging and declining. To feel the shifting of roles as we move from being taken care of to being caretaker. As many of you have experienced, it is not an easy phase of life.
With recent medical issues arising, including dementia, I flew to Utah last week to spend time with him and help my sister who lives near him. It was a wonderful week, helping, supporting, but mostly just being with him. Each day we had one outing (that was about all he could handle). I took him to the movie about Winston Churchill, a bookstore, out to his favorite restaurant. It was sweet and tender, to be shifting into a new relationship – one where I was taking him on outings and picking up the check. There was the bittersweetness of helping him in and out of the car, buckling his seat belt in the way I have for small children over the last decade of being a mom, something he must have done for me hundreds of times when I was small.
The changes are significant. He is happy and mostly goes with the flow, but can’t hear well, doesn’t remember what happened 10 minutes ago, and can barely make it across the room without me feeling like he is treacherously perched on a cliff’s edge, about to tumble off at any moment.
He used to be a voracious reader. Novels, mysteries, history, anything about sports or the Olympics, World War II, biographies of historical figures. He would read almost anything, go quickly from one book to the next, share his opinions about what he was reading. He would frequently gift books with a scrawled note in the front pages to the recipient.
Now he picks up a book, opens the pages, reads a sentence, closes the book, arranges it on the coffee table, picks it up again, opens a page, closes it. He rotates the same books around his apartment and likes to look at them, touch them. The books move around, get centered on the table and re-centered, picked up, looked at and flipped through, but rarely read and never discussed. He still loves being surrounded by his books. He will give you a tour of his bookshelves, tell you again and again that this shelf is for his books about the founding fathers, this shelf for books about the Olympics. He will take favorite books off the shelves, carry them around, touch them, open them occasionally.
A few months ago, I could hold a conversation on the phone with him. Now he has forgotten how to use a phone. Last year he flew on an airplane by himself and came to see me. He stayed in my house, climbed the stairs, walked with me onto the playground at my kid’s school to pick them up one day. We went out to eat, he visited the yoga studio, he asked me about my life. Now he would never be able to travel by himself, and never be able to climb the stairs in my house, and this visit there were no questions about my life, my kids, my work. He seemed happy to see me, but not surprised or curious about my being here after just a month ago visiting.
One day, I showed up in his apartment and he was napping, so I just sat and waited for a bit. When he woke, he looked right at me and asked if mom was here. My mom passed away almost 6 years ago.
“Did you have a dream about mom, dad?”
“Did you have a dream about mom? You just asked if she was here.”
A few minutes later:
“Was mom here?”
His confusion is endearing. He is content to go with the flow when he doesn’t remember something. A few seconds later, and he has even forgotten that he was confused. He laughs frequently.
I went into his bedroom and all his ties were laid out neatly on the bed.
“Why are your ties on the bed, Dad?”
“Your ties. They’re all on the bed. Did you want to wear a tie?” He has always hated ties.
“I have no idea.” And he bends over, hands on his knees, laughing, staggers over to the bed and flops down, cracking himself up.
I am grateful to have this time with my father. While he is still aware enough to know me, to have some sense of the world around him. He is changing weekly, daily. He is a real-life reminder for me of impermanence. That all things change. That we are each subject to aging, physical and mental decline. This is the reality of having a human body and a human mind.
There is grief. I know that he is still around, still here in body, but I am grieving the loss of the active, vital, and present father I once had. I am grateful to have this time with him, but I keep thinking about the dad I remember even just a couple of years ago, that was always on the go. This feels like the energetic dad I have always known is shrinking inward. He wants to nap, stare off into space, is fatigued by a simple outing. But he is quite content as he is.
I said goodbye to him on my last afternoon visiting, not sure if he would be here next time I would be able to return, or in what state. I felt the heaviness of grief, the weight of sadness of letting go of my father, at least of the father I have known. Even if he continues on for some time – months or even years (he is quite stubborn), I am having to say goodbye to my dad as I know him. All things change. All things are impermanent.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
If I have a prayer these days, it is only that I may find peace with the ever-present flow of change within this river of life.
PS: We all experience grief in our life. It doesn’t always have to do with losing someone to death. Sometimes we grieve how something or someone has changed, we grieve a relationship ending, we grieve the loss of a dream, an idea, something that we have believed about ourselves.
If you are experiencing grief, big or small, please consider joining teacher Kate Fontana for a 5 week series beginning next week – Journeying with Grief. Read some recent writing from Kate here about the experience of grief and her own journey, or find out more about this series here.