Friday will be the 5th anniversary of my dad’s death.
Looking back, there are a couple of moments over the course of his nearly two years in the nursing home suffering from dementia, and going through the drawn out process of dying, that are now colored with regret, at least in my mind.
The first arose during one of my afternoon visits to his bedside on the fourth floor in the nursing home on Beretania and Artesian Street where he spent his final two years. This would have been in the final months of his life, as he was spending more time asleep and less time awake and functioning. I had to work to keep him connected with the moment.
I was also spending a lot of time sorting through the stacks of loose papers and boxes of photos retrieved from his small room at the home in Kahala where my parents lived together for nearly 70 years. My practice was to take a couple of pictures, or an old letter or clipping, when I visited, and ask him about it, trying to stimulate parts of his brain that could still yield important bits and pieces of his long life. Almost until the end, his memory of distant events and people remained incredibly sharp even while the present was lost in a swirl of confusion and short-term memory loss.
On this afternoon, I asked him about several photos dating from his 1933 adventure hitchhiking across the country with a good friend to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, then on to visit other friends–especially a girlfriend, I believe–in Michigan.
On this afternoon, I raised the head of his bed so that he was almost in a sitting position. After placing his glasses on, somewhat awkwardly, I passed him photos, slowly, one at a time. He held up each of them, feeling the texture of the paper, looking to see if there were notes on the back, holding them up close to examine details, turning to them catch the afternoon light at different angles. After fixing the moment in his mind, he started talking. Slowly, in a soft, gravely voice, he told of getting lucky, catching a couple of long rides, then spending a day waiting beside a highway before getting their next lift. As he spoke, I had the impression that there might have been several different sets of memories that were mixed in his mind. But I wasn’t seeking historical accuracy. I was just using the pictures as a way to connect with that bit of himself and whatever history that was still intact. As he shared recollections, I tried to probe with simple questions. How did that feel? Were you worried? How long did it take? We parried back and forth in slow motion.
At some point, though, he surprised me. He had stopped, relaxed back onto his pillow, his hand, still holding one of the photos, dropped to his side on the bed. His eyes closed briefly, then looked ahead, not really looking at me.
“Ask me anything,” he said in that same tired voice. “Ask me anything. I’ll tell you.”
And I froze.
One one level, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
But we were never an “ask me anything” family. Far from it.
For us, it was more “ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.”
There were, I came to realize over the years, huge black holes in our family’s life, dead areas that we learned to walk past, to talk around, or to just pretend weren’t there. Some were obvious things that we somehow normalized but never spoke of, others hidden but simmering sources of emotion, anger, that only welled up years later when my parents were in their waning years.
As a kid, I didn’t recognize or pay attention to such gaps in the family matrix, or about fuzzy areas in their relationship that should have been warning signs.
My awareness came later, as an adult. And, at that point, I had adopted a working rule. These were their choices, affecting most directly their lives. Don’t judge, because you are not responsible for their lives and their choices, I told myself repeatedly over the years. Don’t take sides, don’t be drawn in, maintain a safe distance.
So when my dad extended the invitation to ask about anything I wanted to know, I immediately thought of a long list of questions. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to start asking. I don’t know if I was protecting him, protecting my mother, or protecting myself. Probably some combination of all those.
And so I didn’t respond. I just let the silence flow over and around us. He slowly closed his eyes, and faded into sleep.
I stayed for a few minutes, thinking of the opportunity lost, the things, the people, and situations I’ll never have a chance to ask about. And then I picked up my computer bag, slung it over my shoulder, and made my way past the men in the other three beds, towards the hallway, and on to the elevator and the parking lot downstairs.
I didn’t look back.