Sitting in his easy chair, he leans back and with more effort than it should take, pushes the little foot rest into place. An exhaled breath betrays the weakness now permeating his body. His cardigan is thread bare at the sleeves and hangs open and loose over his shoulders. Tufts of grey hair sprout from under his once white T-shirt and prod the wrinkles of his neck.
Take my advice son, he mutters, “Don’t get old”. His face droops and shoulders sag. “I’ve had enough,” he sighs, the full weight of his 84 years pressing him deep into the chair like a g-force that grows greater with each passing year.
‘When did it come to this?‘ his son is thinking as he looks upon his future sitting in the chair in front of him. Now in his late fifties, eighty doesn’t seem that far off anymore. His father’s advice, ‘Don’t get old‘ runs through his mind. ‘I don’t feel old, but my mirror reflects the truth,’ he admits.
As if he can read his thoughts, the old man says, “You know son, you can dig your heels in and resist getting old but all you’ll get is sore heels”.
Despite his depressing demeanor, he still has funny quips from time to time. Over the years he passed along several life lessons in quick, one-liners that his son remembers. He would plant the seeds of thought and never preached. His son recalls another piece of his father’s advice, ‘There’s a cost for everything you do,’ he told him many years ago. Meaning the choices we make everyday will have a cost to our lives in some way .
‘How is it I remember these things from so long ago?‘ his son wonders.
Then out of the blue, the old man asks, “What happened to Sheena?”
Sheena was his young rambunctious, German Shepard and sole companion that kept him company for those dreadful five years while his wife slowly withered away from the cancer that riddled her body and finally took her in those awful, final months.
His son ponders the question, ‘Is he testing me to see if I will tell the truth about the dog or has he really forgotten what happened?’
He struggles for an answer. Turning to look out the window he sighs, “Sheena was killed on the highway in front of the farm she went to, Dad.” He quickly adds, “But she loved the farm and was happy there,” now regretting he told the truth.
“Oh”, was all the old man said and then drifted away – a blank stare into time.
For five years he nursed her, fed her and provided all manner of care for her but they both refused to leave their home even when the situation became desperate as she wasted away with cancer. Their boys lived so far way that they could only help on the occasional weekend or on vacation time. Even with their rapidly, declining health they still refused to discuss alternatives avoiding the truth. Inevitably, late one afternoon, it all came to a crashing end . He was too ill and too weak to manage her in the wheelchair. The chair tipped and they both spilled to the floor, neither with the strength to get up. It was over. He remembered the utter frustration and tears of hopelessness as they thrashed around together on the floor eventually giving up and simply lying in each others’ arms awaiting rescue.
Within one year of that fateful day she died, they had to sell his house and car, his dog was sent to the farm, he had a cancerous kidney removed, from which his health never recovered, and he was moved to languish in this old folks home. The calamity of his life had struck him down as if he had been beaten with a club.
“Can I get you anything?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
In a hushed voice, barely audible, his father says, “I miss her so much – you can’t bring her back.”
‘Are we talking about the dog or mom?‘ his son thinks.
And then he answers, “I am done with this life. I want to go to her.” he whispers.
‘How do I respond to that?‘ his son is thinking as the seconds pass in silence, and then in an upbeat tone he says, “Not yet Dad, I just retired and I am looking forward to spending more time bantering with you.”
The truth, however, is that he is angry inside. Twenty-two years ago his parents made the choice to move 420 km away to a new home that may as well have been on another planet. In a selfish, life transition with no consideration for family and their grand-kids, they waved goodbye and departed from his life. So many years have passed without the intimate bonds of family that should have been. Through emotional turmoil, his son wrestles with a deep, suppressed resentment over the lost time and separation that has left his mother dead and his father now a worn-out shell near the end of life. The cost for their decision has weighed on him for over 20 years.
They found a place for him at an assisted-living home with all the amenities one could want while waiting to die. He was just five minutes away now but really they were a lifetime apart. His son visits frequently and he tries to be positive but each time the old man sinks further into a depression longing for an impossible return to the past.
A year passes. The phone rings with another call from the home explaining that his father has fallen again. Another visit to his father today, but this time there is an underlying dread for the scene that he knows will unfold. Opening the door, the stale odor of old age wafts over him as he steps into the apartment. Through the glum he can see the silhouette of an old man resigned to his fate slouched in the far reaches of a dim room. His head hangs on his chest with the weight of his thoughts too heavy to bear.
“Hi Dad!” he says in a cheery voice that is out of place.
There is no response at first and then his father manages between laboured breaths, “I want to go… to her now.”
He is too weak to move. The ambulance is called and he is taken to the hospital. His condition worsens over time. A visit every day for several weeks from his sons, assisting with physio, feeding and encouragement, provided false hope that his father would recover enough to enjoy the precious time that was left. But it was not to be. The journey to the end was accelerating.
One afternoon, during a lone visit like the many discouraging visits before, his son sensed this would be the last time. When it was time to leave, he grasped his father’s frail hand and with a light squeeze, leaned over and kissed his forehead and said as he always did, “I love you Dad.”
Through a wheeze, he whispered back, “I love you too, son.”
Fighting tears, that erupted later in the car, he turned, paused and then strode out of the room. His father’s voice resonated to his soul and he wept. ‘That was the first time he ever said he loved me.‘
That was the last time they were together.