Eleven days ago I got a phone call I’d been anticipating and dreading. It was my stepmom Mary calling to stay that I needed to come to Seattle because my 85-year-old dad, Dex, was very ill and possibly dying. That afternoon, I booked a flight with my frequent flyer miles, and I was on a plane less than 24 hours later.
When I arrived at their house, it did indeed appear as dire a picture as Mary had painted over the phone. My dad could not walk and could barely stand, his mental faculties were equally unsteady, and it was clear from the state of the house that they had been living in Crisis Mode for quite some time. Fortunately, I am good in Crisis Mode, so I put on my metaphorical hard hat and got to work organizing their lives and providing support and respite for my emotionally and physically fatigued step-mom.
My dad is now in the hospital recovering from surgery received at the hands of a nationally-known specialist, we are making plans for his rehabilitation and eventual return home, and the home he will next see is scrubbed and organized and nearly back to its usual orderly condition. And poor Mary has stopped looking as if she might fall asleep standing up at any moment.
It has been a long and tiring 10 days here, but I have been grateful for the occupation of my lengthy to-do list. I do not do well sitting idly when sadness and loss are hovering nearby. So I have kept busy. When Dex slept or was lost in his tv shows, I attacked all manner of assignments with a kind of furious energy and determination that seems solely reserved for these situations. Many of the things on my to-do list had nothing to do with my dad’s illness or recovery and everything to do with maintaining some semblance of normality around the house.
And throughout my fixing and painting and scrubbing and laundering, my mind has spun backward and reviewed, much like a movie reel, the intersection of my life with the man I consider my father. The story of our relationship and how my former step-father has stayed my “dad” is recounted in this post from two years ago: http://thatprecariousgait.com/2012/06/17/volunteer-dads/.
But what has struck me most during these 10 days is that the biggest lesson he taught me was one that he delivered by example. Dex is an unfailing gentleman. He is the kind of man who, even after sweating in the yard pruning the shrubs, can sit on the patio with a scotch on the rocks and appear ready to greet the Queen of England for tea. He would come off the court after a long tennis match with perfectly white clothes and not a hair out of place. Some have thought him stiff, or snobby, but he’s truly not. He loves a bawdy joke, “in the appropriate context,” and his sexual conquests are legendary. But he also felt that being a gentleman wasn’t a suit you put on for special occasions, it was simply who you are (or aren’t, as the case may be). I never heard him be petty or sexist, and in his older age, he struggled to keep up with technology and understand and accept ideas like gay marriage. He never forgot a “please” or a “thank you,” and he always believed in helping a friend or neighbor in need. He adored my mother’s mother, a simple woman with an 8th-grade education, and always called her “one of the finest ladies I’ve had the honor to know.”
Now, all of that is well and good and not altogether remarkable in a younger, healthy man. But what I’ve seen this month is the proof of how deeply those convictions run in him.
When he fell in the bathroom over a week ago and couldn’t get up, Mary and I had to call over a neighbor to help. Dex was sprawled, completely undignified and in terrible pain, on the floor of the bathroom when the neighbor arrived. Dex worked mightily to help us help him into his wheelchair, and when we’d all grunted and pushed and finally launched him into the chair, he turned to the neighbor and said, through teeth gritted by pain, “Thank you kindly, John. That was much appreciated.” Later, in the hospital the evening after his surgery, the nurse came by to run some tests for what had to have felt like the 30 millionith time, but Dex just quietly cooperated and then thanked her for taking care of him. And that’s how it’s been. No complaining, no being irritable and taking it out on us, just appreciation for our care-giving and companionship. Really, it’s kind of mind-blowing.
As I’ve been organizing and making phone calls and cooking, I have willed myself to remember this, to allow what was his earliest lesson to me also be his legacy: just as he was a gentleman, he wanted me to be a lady. Not a stiff prude or a humorless shrew, but the kind of woman that other people respected and whose reputation among those who knew her spoke for itself. I have not always lived up to that ideal, but I have done better than I might have without his strong influence in my life. I’m not foolish enough to make those kind of emotional, deathbed resolutions that none of us can possibly keep, but I know that I will return home later this week and try to hold tight to his example.
Thanks to this skilled surgeon, it is likely that my dad will survive this particular crisis. But he is 85 and I have no illusions of his future. Regardless of how much time he has left on this earth, I am simply glad that I had the opportunity to be here, with him and Mary, during this time, to see him and soak up the essence of his nature, and provide some re-payment of the comfort he has provided me so many times in my life.
My dad loves the Pacific Northwest. It is his ancestral home. He loves to ride the ferries and watch the water. We talk about the colors of the sky here and how different they are from Colorado. We talk about the orcas and the otters and what a blessing it is to catch glimpses of them. We talk about how deeply spiritual this place is and how you can almost feel the native ancestors infusing the air and water with meaning.
But mostly we just sit. And hold hands. And remember.