His eyes fight the strong urge to stay open as I stroke his hair. He wants to stay awake but the power and comfort of the human touch is too much to bear. When I stop, he opens them again as if to ensure that I am not leaving his side. I continue.
The love I feel for this man is beyond comprehension yet so familiar to a love I once felt for another wonderful man, my father. I wasn’t there the day my father died but I was there on many other days by his side, giving him all the love I had in me and more. I left his side on a Sunday to go back to my family and he died the next day. Thankfully, he did not die alone.
This man whose hair I stroke is my father-in-law; a man I’ve known since my teen years. The man who raised my husband and who along with his wife, produced six of the most caring, compassionate, and hard-working men I know. A legend in his community known for his devotion to the town he loves and to the thousands of children whose lives he touched, while presiding over the town’s baseball leagues. Beloved by many, respected by all.
Watching this larger than life figure succumb to the inevitable and unforgiving force that is aging, is heartbreaking, to say the least. A sight too familiar to me and one no one can truly prepare for.
His mind and memory sharply in tact serving more as a burden than a blessing making him fully aware of his daily weakening and decline. A once fiercely active and independent man who now depends on others for all of his needs. His dignity constantly threatened as he watches his grandchildren treat him differently in their struggle to recognize familiarity and comfort in the grandpa they once knew.
I find my body shaking sometimes with fear and sadness for what is to come. Intellectually, I know it is part of the cycle of life, a stage which is often celebrated and thought of as a journey to another bigger and better life. But right now I can’t find that belief, I only have deep sadness for what was and what is to be.
He is a feisty fighter and stubborn as a mule, having survived recent major surgery to treat his cancer as well as heart surgery years back. They don’t make them like him anymore. He lived through the Depression, never complained about his life, hardly took a vacation and was ahead of his time in his ability to accept other’s differences with integrity and respect. A model citizen and human being.
I cannot help but reflect on two particular memories I have with him. While my husband and I were dating, true to his farmer background, he informed my husband that I was a good catch because I had good “onions”. Little did I know that farming references would be a constant part of his repertoire throughout his life. The other memory is of the time I had to host my first Thanksgiving, as a newlywed. We are a big family but I did not think we were as big as he thought we were until (after offering to buy the turkey for me), he showed up at our door with a 30 pound bird. Needless to say, I cried and called my mother for help as I tried to handle the beast.
The weeks ahead will be extremely difficult as we all navigate the ups and downs we continue to face. I have got to gain the strength to accept what is and to support my husband and his family. I will do anything I can to be there for him. I will continue to offer my love and compassion to a man who I feel blessed to have known for so long. He has loved me unconditionally and opened his arms to me from the day we met. And as long as he allows it, I will continue to stroke the full glorious head of silver hair he has, until he falls peacefully asleep.