Friday, January 21, 2011

Thanks, Dad

It was spring, 1990. Life welcomed me to middle age and offered up the challenges and opportunities that one finds there when he arrives.

Our lives were immersed in home and career building. Our parents were aging, but not elderly, and our children were transitioning into their early high school years, discovering the joys and apprehensions that define those memorable times.

On a late spring day, Mom called to tell me that Dad was being admitted to Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie. The diagnosis was vague, but he was having chest pain, something that he had experienced numerous times in the past. He was an early member of the "zipper club" having had open-heart by-pass surgery in 1978. His chest bore the scars of a surgeon's knife marking him as a survivor of a, then, relatively new procedure. His quality of life was adequate and he rose to the challenges that often accompany cardiac patients.

Dad was a quiet man. In his retirement he enjoyed pampering the rose bushes that graced their patio outside their apartment. He had a touch. Roses showed off in his presence doing everything they could do to dazzle the eye. Dad's conversations were usually brief. He was content to be a listener rather than a conversation starter. Kind, but reserved.

Dad was admitted to Ball for observation. We were confident that it would be a short stay and life would continue as we expected.

One week became two, two weeks became three and soon, it was mid-July. Dad's condition had deteriorated rapidly and he settled in as an acute care patient at BMH. Hopes of dismissal to his rose gardening activities dissolved. His heart was failing, a tumor was discovered, and he became beneficiary to sterile procedures, the hum of IV infusion pumps, and the anxious vigil of family as we watched our father slip away by inches.

Terminal illness reshapes a family. Questions change when the prognosis is obvious. Each of us mourned the anticipated loss of Dad in our own way. His sickness took away his welcoming smile and replaced it with a pallor visited upon the infirm and dying. Sleeping was his plan of the day. Conversation with him was not optional. He was a sick and dying man.

My middle age years were defined by graying temples. In an effort to hang on to my youth, I allowed my barber to "touch up" those areas with a color that closely matched the rest of my hair. Although he did an adequate job, I was self conscious. Having never considered myself a vain person, I had committed a vain act. A fa├žade; a cover-up; a faux tint to a natural event. My wife said forget it; no one would notice.

Our trip to Ball Memorial was uneventful. We rode the elevator to Dad's floor; a trip that we had made numerous times that summer. Lately the visits mostly involved us sitting by his bedside watching him sleep. He was unresponsive…sleeping death most days.

Other family was in the room when we arrived greeting us with hugs and sad smiles that accompany a death watch. No one noticed my changed hair color. Nothing was said. My deception was working.

I walked to Dad's bedside where he lay on his back sleeping. Oxygen tubes filled his nasal canals. His mouth drooped slightly as he slept. Leaning over his bedrail, I gently kissed him on his forehead.

"Hi, Dad," I said. "How are you doin' today?" not expecting a response.

His eyes flickered slightly and he opened them for the first time in days and he looked straight at me.

"David", he said, "what have you done to your hair?"

Dad died the following September and I still miss him 21 years later.

The last real conversation that I had with Dad convinced me that we accept what is handed to us. Gray hair, infirmity, difficult days, and warm sunny days are part of what shape us. My hair is gray today; the barber's dye disappeared with my next haircut the summer that Dad died.

Thanks, Dad, for setting me straight.