I began the day interviewing a friend, who’s a philosophy professor, about the endurance of Shakespeare’s works over more than four centuries.  We sat and drank coffee, and she talked about his genius for creating and portraying rounded characters who arouse our understanding — and often, our sympathy.

As I’d known it would, our conversation ended with a discussion of her own recent, great loss, with her husband’s death a few months ago.  Amazing to shift from more of an abstract conversation to talking of something that almost seemed alive and visible at the table — this still-fresh grief.  I think we all understand it will be a part of her forever.  At this point, she still has so much to do — the “business” of death.  But she knows there’s a time beyond that when she will have to decide what to do with the rest of her life.  I’d guess that these business details and minutiae are some kind of comfort to her and it will be difficult to move beyond them.  They’re like chemotherapy is with cancer — difficult and miserable, but a distraction from the larger, more painful reality of loss.

Then I drove 60 miles to the small town where our father is being cared for.  He was sitting in a chair, eating, when I came in.  As usual, he looked happy to see me, even though he doesn’t know who I am.  His poor face had been badly scraped during his fall and was still red and raw.

Around him, other patients shuffle from place to place or sit, staring.  The worst off are lying, bedridden, in their rooms.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to work with patients who are slowly — or, in some cases, quickly — losing their minds; I think the people who work where Daddy lives are saints.  He’s been there for seven years and has been cared for lovingly, always treated like an individual and not a disease.

But today, I had to tell the home manager that we would have to move Daddy to Austin.  It’s simply too far away for us to manage right now; we need him nearer to us at a time when — his doctor assures me — his failures would come closer and closer together.

The home manager started to cry when I told her that.  “I always knew we were going to have this conversation,” she said.  “We’re going to miss him so much.  Can we come and see him where he’ll be in Austin?”

Of course, of course, I kept saying.  I felt terrible for them and Daddy both, terrible that I was having to do something like this, but knowing it was the only thing I could do.

So I sat with Daddy longer, and patted his hands, which are so much thinner than they used to be (those big hands that played softball without a glove).  “You are loved by a lot of people,” I told him.  He smiled back at me.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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