Friday, January 27, 2017

My Old Man

Twenty years ago, in an obscure regional magazine, I published a story about my dad. It was called "My Old Man" and it was funny and affectionate and my wife calls it her favorite piece of mine. I am, I think, rightly proud of it.

My old man, as described in that story, is a different old man than the one I come here to visit. There remain some indications he's the same man. He's funny and has the same goofy grin widening his cheeks when he says something he knows people will laugh at. He still sits with his arms folded or purses his lips, steeples his fingers, and puts them in front of his mouth when he's relaxing, often after a meal. He still doesn't want to be seen without his teeth in and a "nice" shirt and pair of slacks on. With shoes, not slippers. He's a favorite of the nurses and aides at his nursing facility, partly because he rarely complains and partly because he will spend days smiling at nothing.

In a deeper, more important way, he is a different person. He's like the hospice patients I visit. When I see him and he's asleep, I sit quietly in a chair next to him, touching his shoulder, holding his hand. When he starts to make sounds, like my dogs when they dream, I gently rub his shoulder, his hands, and he has the same reaction as them. He remains asleep and settles, calmed, relaxed, his breathing that of someone sliding into a warm tub. The flecks of dead skin on his cheeks or the dried milk on his lips remind me he has joined ranks of the elderly who have either forgotten to wipe their faces after eating or no longer care. He loses control of his emotions, on occasion, possibly as a result of his strokes, possibly because of the UTIs his body collects like stamps. It rarely lasts long, a flash of fear and hopelessness, tears, and then he's forgotten it. He's smiling again, at nothing again.

It took me decades to come to love the Old Man I grew up with. He was a good man although like most children I wasn't always aware of it. Frankly, it wasn't until my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and he became her primary caregiver that I realized just how good he was capable of being. When I began to visit him in the nursing facility, I was faced with a different Old Man, one who was more frail and, at that time, not even certain of who I was. He has improved, partly physically and partly mentally, to the extent he can occasionally use a walker instead of a wheelchair and he usually recognizes my face and voice. But he tires easily and I can't spend more than a couple hours with him before he's got to sleep, and doesn't want to see me until the next day. He is, in some ways, the same Old Man I've loved, but in a more profound way I've had to come to love a new Old Man.

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