The right disaster comes
at the right moment
to break us open to the helplessness
that an opening of the heart requires.
It has been three months since I have been home to see my father. I have been busy living my own cluttered life two hours away. Thursday afternoon, when he wakes from his nap to find me there in his living room, I am familiar; there is recognition in his eyes, but also blurriness. “Who’s this?” he asks.
“Honey, it’s Mary Ann, your daughter.” This is a weird, unwelcome feeling, to be not fully known by him.
Mary Ann Stratton grew up the youngest of six children on a small farm in southern Colorado where her father was a state veterinarian. She is currently living in Denver, Colorado where she teaches middle school Language Arts. This article was originally published in the San Diego Psychologist.
At dinner his eyes dart around the restaurant, and he nods yes, every time Mary Elin leans over and whispers in his ear, “Are you feeling nervous?” A few times, he brings the small bread plate to his mouth and tries to bite the bread off of it. Between spoonfuls of bean soup, he mumbles incoherently. Afterwards, with him settled on the couch, Mary Elin and I stand together in the kitchen. She says that she can see that I am dying inside, that she is sorry she didn’t have a chance to warn me. She tells me he has been rapidly digressing in the last ten days or so. Have I missed it, my last chance to talk with my father? Because now, this is my father…my father who speaks, but doesn’t make sense. My father who cannot manage whole words, only parts so that as hard as I listen, I cannot understand.
The next day we are on our own. This is how I am used to being with him, just the two of us, going to the donut shop, doing the chores. I make his three-course breakfast as Mary Elin has instructed: a tiny bowl of raisin bran, a cut-up orange, half an English muffin with crunchy peanut butter. I smile. His tastes have not changed. He eats half the orange, a third of the muffin, a spoonful of cereal (it is hard for him to hold the spoon.) He does manage to drink most of the strawberry Ensure. Breakfast takes nearly an hour. We meet Margie and Darryl at the donut shop; he mumbles and we try to include him. We listen intently, nod, comment as though we understand. “Is that right, Dad? Well how about that.” Is this better or worse? How can we know? Where is he?
Next, we head off to feed the horses. On the way I point out familiar sights. “The river’s getting high.” “There’s the old log cabin you used to live in. Remember Dad?” He doesn’t look, but nods. When we pull into the driveway in front of the horse’s pen, I ask him if he wants to get out or just watch me. Too many words. I ask a smaller question. “Do you just want to watch me, Dad?”
I go to the barn, pile hay into the wheelbarrow. I want to make sure that I am giving them enough, so I put in as much as the wheelbarrow will hold. I guess I have taken too long because when I come out, he’s trying to get out of my car, to make himself useful perhaps, or to check on me. The door is open and one foot is searching for the ground, but the seatbelt holds him. I rush to him, unfasten him, walk him toward the house. Even though I ask, he doesn’t say where we are going. He walks us to the water, and I turn it on, put the hose into the barrel; he tugs on the spout, but doesn’t have the strength to move it. I turn it off and walk him back to the car.
I talk less on the drive home, try to be ok with this unfamiliar silence. We have an hour before lunch with Mary Elin. We will nap and I will read aloud from his book of animal stories. I pull as close to the door as possible, walk him into the house, ask if he wants to lay down. He says yes. I tell him to go ahead and lay down; we are only a couple of feet from the couch. I tell him that I am going to move my car to the street. He says ok. It takes me less than a minute. But when I come back in he is on the ground; he isn’t moving. He is so still; his body, twisted. He is face down on the steps with his feet in the kitchen, his head in the living room. I run to him. Oh God! Oh God! He is breathing, his eyes are twitching, I tell him he will be okay. I run for the phone, grab the phone numbers. I dial Margie. No answer. Dial Mary Elin. No answer. All the while talking, “You’re okay Dad. It’s okay. I’m calling Mary Elin. It’s going to be okay.” Is it? He jerks. His eyes open. He groans. I lean in. “You’re ok dad. I’m going to roll you over.” I spoon him, and roll him onto his back. Put a pillow under his head. Oh my God! His skin is bursting, pulled tight and thin over a giant black egg coming out of his forehead. It looks like someone has taken a baseball bat to his head. I see blood. Where is it coming from? His knuckles are ripped open, again. Later our ER nurse will tell us that one is just about ripped to the bone. But with hands like his, skin as thin as paper, there is nothing to be done.
I decide it is time to call 911. As I reach for the phone, it rings. Thank God. It is Mary Elin. “Hey, how you guys doing?”
“Dad fell. He hit his head.” My voice is quivering, close to hysterics.
She tells me not to panic, tells me she is close. Now we wait. His eyes flicker. He moans. I rub his arms, tell him how sorry I am. Over and over I say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry Papa. I’m sorry I let you fall down.” I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to do anything that will make this worse. I sing to him. I sing, I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover, I sing Amazing Grace, I sing Lord of the Dance. Mary Elin comes, calls for an ambulance. When they arrive, she answers their questions; each answer sends a knife through my heart.
“He has Alzheimer’s.”
“Dr. Stratton, where does it hurt?
“He hasn’t been very responsive lately. Maybe just yes or no questions.”
“Burt, wiggle your toes. Are his feet usually bent like this?”
“He has rheumatoid arthritis.”
“He must have been going down the stairs.”
“This used to be the garage. There is just cement beneath the carpet.”
As they move us out of the way to slide him on a backboard, she sits beside me on the couch, looks at me, and when our eyes meet the words rush out with a flood of tears, “I’m sorry.” She forces my face up, her hand beneath my chin. “Listen to me,” she says, “This is not your fault. This could have happened to any of us.” I sob. “Listen.” She holds my face steady, “This is not your fault.” I nod. I am grateful. Forgiveness is comforting. Later, I will work on forgiving myself.
Longing is the core of mystery.
Longing itself brings the cure.
The only rule is, suffer the pain.
There are no broken bones, no bleeds into the brain. He is beat up; he has probably suffered a concussion. He will have a doozy of a headache, he will be sore, dizzy, nauseous, probably for a couple of weeks, but from this fall, he will recover. We take him home, give him a spoonful of Vicadin, and watch for the next several hours as he mumbles, groans, as his legs and arms flail, as his hands shake. Margie lies on one side of him on the bed, and I sit on the other side. I am grateful for her. She shows me the way. “You know how they say to wrap babies tightly so they’ll feel safe. I try to do that with him, hold him real tight.” She squeezes. I smile. Nod. I am grateful. She shows me the way. I think it’s important to touch the biggest organ, the skin, and she rubs our father’s sunken belly. I hear a sob escape her, see her shaking against him. I rub his arm, her back. We are fragile. When I come back from getting a washcloth, she is saying the Our Father. And here, we return to ourselves. She begins the Hail Mary, and I join in, “Holy Mary, Mother of God. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” And together, “Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.” Dad mumbles and shakes and flails.
But listen to me: for one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.
That night I sleep on the edge of sleep, wake to each rearranging of crooked old bones, newly battered, because every movement brings a painful moan. A new day breaks. Dad shuffles to the couch, where he will spend the day, his days. Mostly, he sleeps, occasionally wakes, attempts to make it to the bathroom, or to get down a few spoonfuls of Dairy Queen Malt. He is unclear. He holds his head in his hands, tells us that it hurts. In the early afternoon, we walk him to the back patio. He sits and sleeps. Small, sporadic drops of rain fall. We bring out the Indian drum and a rattle. We sing and play. He smiles at us, shakes the rattle. For half a minute, my father breaks through the clouds.
A few hours later, he wakes again on the couch, makes it to the bathroom, drinks some root beer. The two of us sit close together on one end of the couch and watch ice-skating. He cannot always distinguish the non-reality of television. Ice-skating is benign, although sometimes he flinches when they leap into the air. He is afraid of falling. He tires, leans into me, rubs my arm. I lay my head soft on his, whisper I love you over and over, feel the smallness of him against me. And here every wall that separates us suddenly slips away. Love comes so easy. Here is my father cradled against me. Suffering has given us this moment. There is this crack of light.