My father will turn 93 this year. With any luck. His journey since turning 70 has not been easy. That was the year we noticed his cheek had been eaten away by cancer. After three surgeries they finally excised the beast. But they went so deep they severed a nerve, and he lost feeling in his mouth. He’s had trouble chewing and swallowing ever since, despite a succession of surgeries to widen his throat. But his spirit never flagged, and he never complained.
Over the years he lost a lot of weight and his strength diminished. His legs are brittle and weak. He gradually gave up physical activity and has trouble walking.
Now it’s his mind that is failing. He grapples with the past, and can’t grasp the future. But he is present. And he’s the most delightful present he’s ever been. Full of childlike enthusiasm for the little things. Ask him how he’s doing and the answer is always the same, “great.” There’s only one thing that worries him: COVID-19. So I made it my mission to get him (and my mother) vaccinated, and recently ventured to that halfway house to heaven, Florida. My daughter joined me from her home in Spain, so it was an emotional family reunion (yes, we all tested prior to arrival.)
Florida was as disorganized as any state, maybe more. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared the first wave of shots would be given to anyone over 65. Say what? That’s half the state, and the centers were immediately overwhelmed. We got on four different vaccine lists that were nothing more than black holes. But then I overheard a friend of my mom’s mention a vaccination site far away that she had successfully crashed without an appointment. I immediately said, “We’re going.” The next morning we set out on a mission I expected we would fail.
At the check-in, I said we had an appointment. They asked to see the email receipt. I said we didn’t have it. They waved us through anyway and they got the shots. Hallelujah. One down and one to go. Should we feel bad for jumping the line? As far as I was concerned, the state had made it a free-for-all, and it was every man (and woman) for themselves.
That night we had a celebratory dinner. I blasted “Stayin Alive” by the Bee Gees and got Dad on his feet, where I held him while we danced around the kitchen. It was tender and beautiful, and we had a lot of laughs too.
Dad spends up to 20 hours a day in bed. It’s his happy, safe place. No one looks more comfortable – or adorable, his thin frame enveloped in a sea of pillows and comforters. The TV is on 24/7, and he has no idea what’s on. But he likes the background noise. I would sit and stare at him for long stretches, wondering what was going on behind those mostly vacant eyes that had once been so vibrant. He struggles to get his thoughts out, often losing his train and squinting in confusion. But never – not once – does he get frustrated and lash out. And oh, he loves to have his back scratched. The mere mention and he bolts upright, “oohing and ahhing” with the kind of moans usually reserved for carnal acts.
Time is winding down. My only goal is to extend his quality of life as long as possible. Which first and foremost means preventing a fall. Got him canes, walkers, and a wheelchair. Installed handles all over the house. We bathe him, dress him, feed him, and tell him stories about the past that sometimes sparks the fuse of memory and delight.
I am blessed to spend so many meaningful moments with Pops now. In some ways it’s the best of times, this slowing down and precious fade from light. My daughter and I are witnessing our own mortality, and she knows she’s next in the caregiver role. We’ll be heading back soon—just after the second vaccine. We’ll celebrate again. He has dodged so many bullets to make it this far, and god willing, this will be his biggest.
Billy hosts “Laguna Talks” Thursdays at 8 p.m. on KXFM Radio.