We sit in his tiny, assisted-living apartment, my father and I, signing the complimentary Christmas cards he has received from various charities over the past several months and stuffing them into matching envelopes.
“You could afford new Christmas cards,” I tell him.
“Why?” he asks. “It would just be a waste of paper and money.”
“Ah, yes,” I sigh. The “waste not, want not” philosophy. A child of the Great Depression, my father grew up in a small coal mining town in Alabama, where he didn’t celebrate many holidays. He worked hard to do well in school and complete business college before entering the Air Force, his ticket to exploring the world and developing his skills in finance. I know his frugality isn’t wrong. It just seems cheap.
I look around the apartment and I am reminded that my mother is missing. It is almost as though she faded into nothingness during her last few months; her soul was trapped in a dysfunctional body, peering out at us through clear blue eyes. Today, only the faint smell of talcum powder clings to her empty chair.
A calamitous fall, requiring my mother to have hip and neck surgery, had precipitated my parents’ initial move from their home in Alabama to an assisted living facility here in Montana, where I live. Then, my father became ill with high blood pressure and dizzy spells, and they decided to sell their retirement home to live closer to me, their only child.
After her passing, I had been careful not to rearrange too much of the apartment for Dad. All the books I had read on coping with the loss of a loved one indicated we shouldn’t make changes in the first year after her death. Unfortunately, my father had not read any of those books. So, after two major falls and two months in rehab, I was faced with the dilemma of how to keep the apartment homelike, while clearing away familiar furniture to create an environment for him that was safe and unobstructed. After his last stint in rehab, I felt silly for worrying. Dad hadn’t even noticed the changes I’d made: how I moved Mom’s chair or cleared away several end tables. He was more worried about how to work the remote control.
“I’m tired,” my father tells me now, after getting through about fifteen cards. “Could you just finish the rest?”
“Of course,” I say, looking at the stack of cards and envelopes in disappointment. I had hoped that this would be an engaging activity for him. He shuffles back to watch the TV and sits down heavily in his large leather recliner.
I have written my parents’ Christmas letter for the past seven years. It’s usually a cheerful missive, extolling the highlights of my family and reassuring my parents’ friends and relatives they were not only alive, but active in music programs and exercise classes. This year’s letter was different, centering on my mother’s death and the hole it left in our lives. Despite the constant care she needed in her final years, my mother’s death had not eased the sadness that consumed us during her decline. Even my heroic eulogy, declaring she would not want us to be sad, but rather to rejoice in her release from illness and suffering, seems tragic now. Even a valiant life ends in death.
Everyone told me that the first Christmas would be the hardest. In the months after her death, I had hoped that my mother’s friends and family would stay in touch with my father, but they hadn’t. My parents had developed separate social groups throughout their marriage. My mother was the caretaker: taking food to the elderly, visiting the sick, and transporting many to church on Sunday. Before she lost the ability to speak and write, she was the one who called and wrote old friends. My father’s golfing buddies called to check on him occasionally, but they didn’t write. I had hoped that the Christmas cards would let them all know they could maintain contact with him.
Even though they were surrounded by other seniors, my parents were reluctant to make friends in assisted living. Death seemed to lurk in the hallways, either claiming someone or closing in every day. My parents dealt with this reality by laughing at the absurdity of it all, but they didn’t want to get close to anyone. They felt like outsiders among the former ranchers and skiers, but it was also risky to make friends with people who were sick and tired, losing their hearing and memories. Like my parents, most residents here enter believing they will recover and eventually return to a healthy life. Then, slowly, they begin to realize they are not growing any younger and may not be able to live independently outside the facility.
Sometimes I offer to help my father move back to Alabama, thinking it might give him hope. He shakes his head and says, “My life is here now.” Frequently, especially in the spring, I catch him looking out at the Montana snow and I imagine he is thinking of the warm Alabama sunshine and the smell of fresh cut grass. “I’m glad you like it here,” he murmurs, belying an undercurrent of disapproval.
The last time I helped him travel back to his home state had been disastrous. He forgot his insulin and other medication in almost every hotel. He slept poorly and ate too much fried food. “I can never do that again,” he confided wearily on the way home from the airport.
“What?” I asked. “Go home?”
“Travel alone,” he said, shaking his head. “I just can’t do it.”
I thought he was simply tired. “OK,” I said. “You don’t have to.”
When he was younger, there had been nothing my father enjoyed more than walking a new or familiar golf course, evaluating the fairways, and studying the greens. He even built his own golf clubs because he needed longer ones to accommodate his height. It seems fair that he should get to spend his “transition” years doing something he loves, but since my mother died, none of those years are left.
Shortly after his return from that last trip, he boxed up his favorite putter and asked me to send it to his best friend, who was younger and still actively playing golf. I took the box from him, shocked and saddened that he was giving up one of his prized possessions. Watching the box disappear into the depths of the Post Office was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
My father recognized the truth before I was ready to accept it; he couldn’t leave the assisted facility without help, and he never would. Meanwhile, like the residents who still imagined that they would recover someday, I held tightly to the belief that my father could return to his old life, that he would once again live independently and enjoy being on the golf course.
I finish the Christmas cards and put a rubber band around them. The lights on the table top Christmas tree blink on and off. In his adjustable chair, Dad is sleeping with the television blaring. I know not to turn it off, as the silence will immediately wake him. I slip out quietly into the hallway, where a parade of elderly women with walkers meet me outside the door.
“How is your dad today?” they say.
“About the same,” I say.
They nod. “You are a good daughter,” they tell me, gently patting me on the back and arms.
“Thank you,” I say, nodding again, unsure what a good daughter means to them. Is it someone who shows up every day or is it something deeper, like a trusted friend?
On the phone recently, a nurse accidentally called me Dad’s mother. She apologized repeatedly, embarrassed by the mistake, having known for years that I was his daughter. I laughed. I feel like his mother occasionally. Transporting him to and from doctor appointments, paying his bills, and overseeing his diet seem far more like the duties of a mother than those of a daughter. I have always known that I might have to play this role. So, like a new mother, I instinctively protect and nurture, understanding that eventually I will have to let him go.
My own daughters and I have discussed their being “good” when the time comes for me. I have told them I will check myself into assisted living and will not expect them to care for me. They protest, insisting that they will take care of me anyway. I appreciate their naivety, but it is difficult watching a loved one grow old and die. I do not wish that onus on them, but does any parent want to burden their child?
I mail the Christmas cards at the post office on my way home. Snow is gently falling as dusk engulfs our quiet little town. Long before her death, I grieved the loss of my mother, her vibrant presence in my life. Today, I miss my father as well.