The Lucky Man
In loving memory of my father who passed away on his 84th birthday, October 28th, 2010
When I arrived, he was out of bed and sitting in an armless, straight-backed chair just inside the open door of his room at the geriatric psych unit. Slumped forward with the restraints fastened securely around his waist, he held his head in his hands, dressed in an outfit of mismatched, easy-off-and-on washable clothing that furthered the effect of a man who had lost his mind. He was moaning.
Almost five months earlier at three in the morning he had catapulted head first off of the upstairs landing of my parent’s home in the middle of the night, falling to the kitchen floor below onto his head. The EMT wondered out loud as the crew loaded my father onto the gurney, what an elderly couple was doing living in an unsafe house like this one. Elderly? Unsafe? Our parents? The ambulance whisked our dad up to the hospital and my twin and I followed behind in the car with our mom. Life turns on a dime.
When we arrived at the emergency room, he was talking in a lively-sounding voice to the doctor. On a stainless metal tray next to the head of the examining table I saw the small silver hoop earring he usually wore in his right ear lying in a smear of bright red blood. His ear piercing had been a present from his adoring daughters on his eightieth birthday. I remembered the astonished look on the face of the pretty young stylist as she led the tall, handsome, eighty-year-old-goat of a customer to her chair for the procedure. He flirted with her shamelessly.
We thought that he would recover. He was, after all, a strong man, still going to the gym, wielding the chain saw, clearing brush, living an active life. The only one of us who actually foresaw what was coming was my nurse sister and she, summoning up immense inner fortitude, kindly said little. Dad did make it home from the hospital for a few days, but when more wheels fell off the wagon, he was sent back to the psych ward where they could keep him restrained and get his medications adjusted before sending him back to the adult home, where he repeatedly attempted to stand up and walk somewhere. Sitting on a bench together in the back yard of the home one afternoon he had told me that he would rather be dead than live there. It was a nightmare.
Over the years my dad had described himself as a lucky man. He said he was lucky to have lived in post-WWII America, a time when jobs grew on trees and opportunities were plentiful. He was lucky to have had the GI Bill to help with medical school, lucky to have met and married my mother who said, “yes” long before he had much to offer her, when he was merely the church janitor playing boogie woogie on the basement piano and dropping college classes just before he failed them. He was lucky and then he wasn’t.
He hadn’t noticed my arrival at the psych unit. I questioned the nurse about the moaning and she told me that he had been doing it all morning long as if his ‘soul was sick’. Her assessment enraged me for some reason. I restrained myself from slugging her and pulled a chair up close to my moaning father.
“Hi, Dad,” I said squeezing his hand. He looked up for a second then slumped over again. I started talking to him about the weather. Fall had arrived. His birthday was coming. Eighty-four!
Of all his successes and contributions (he was a member-in-good-standing of a civic minded generation, so different from mine), I think his finest gift was his way with people, especially the outsiders, the folks who were never invited to the prom, so to speak, the last ones standing when sides were chosen in a softball game, the people who hurt on the inside and no one noticed. He noticed and seemed to have the Midas touch when it came to giving attention to those who needed it. He had a lot to give, but I suspect that he, also, knew that it really doesn’t take much to help someone feel better. It really doesn’t take much, just a little time, a little attention, just a gesture, a few words.
Sitting there that morning, I didn’t know that he would be dead soon. I didn’t know he would die on his upcoming birthday, October 28th. I didn’t know that I would be at his bedside to witness the pulse of his big heart throb one last time at the base of his skinny neck, ushering in a void that would permanently lodge in my heart.
Squeezing his hand again, I rattled on about some minor success I had enjoyed the day before, exclaiming to him, “Dad, you would have been so proud of me…”, at which point he suddenly raised his head, looked directly into my eyes and interrupted me in a strong reassuring voice, “I am proud of you!”, he said, then slumped back over in his chair.
It really doesn’t take much. No, it really doesn’t take much.