All these years later, details of my parent’s hospital stay are vague. They were there for about a month and then within a week of each other, were discharged to the same rehabilitation facility.
They had not seen each other in all that time and we’d said nothing to her about Dad’s stroke or condition. Initially though, she never mentioned him and still sometimes forgot who we were.
One day, as she was getting used to the new surroundings and we were becoming more familiar to her, she got very still and serious. Out of nowhere she said, “Daddy (she always called him Daddy) is dead, isn’t he?”
We discussed with their doctors how and when it would be appropriate to tell her. They thought it best not to bring up anything to upset the progress of either one, so we said he had the flu. We had no idea what her reaction would be to the truth of his condition, particularly that he could no longer speak.
Journal entry (April 12, 1996): Talked to Carl last night. It’s time to tell Mom about Dad. She cried yesterday after reading a card Melissa (Carl’s daughter) sent about their upcoming 50th anniversary. Mom told Carl there wouldn’t be an anniversary, because “one of us is dead”. Carl told her that wasn’t true and she had to believe him. It’s time.
The day after writing that journal entry, my brothers and I gathered in our father’s room to get him ready, hair combed and a real shave. Stroke and all, my dad was seventy-seven years old, yet looked closer to sixty. Except for the ‘Thomas belly’, he was on the thin side, what might be described as scrappy looking. We all had smiles to see him sitting up in bed, wearing his own clothes, wide awake, electric with excitement. We went to get his wife.
Before walking Mom to his room, we spent time preparing her, explaining how he still wasn’t feeling too well, couldn’t get out of bed. We told her he was unable to talk, but he loved her very much and couldn’t wait to see her. She heard nothing except that he was waiting to see her. Giddily, she pulled on my hand to hurry up.
Mom’s surgery had left a deep indentation on the left side of her head and her hair was still mostly fuzz. It radically changed her appearance. So as not to upset Dad, I wrapped her head with a red bandana and thought how young it made her look and somehow, beautiful.
The curtain was partially pulled around his bed when we walked in. She paused at the door and put her hand to her mouth like a little girl with a wish she wants badly to come true. Walking forward, she took hesitant steps, stopping often, holding tight to my hand.
They would soon celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, but at that moment, you’d think they were meeting for the first time. We held our breath as she peeked around the curtain. Next, she was happily shrieking and clapping. She didn’t go right up to him though, but held back for a few moments; maybe to be sure it was really him. We all waited, gave them room. The entire staff (including dining hall and maintenance) crowded around the doorway.
I can still conjure the image of her taking his hand, each looking directly at the other, then slight nods and a brief, chaste kiss. The hallway exploded. My brothers and I hugged each other, feeling (perhaps for the first time) like things might possibly work out.
Then, looking toward his window, the first thing she said to him was, “You have a better view than I do.”
What tears me up most when I think back to that day is how much he must have wanted to say to her and could not. In the end, he was practically apoplectic and she, bewildered. To this day, she sometimes says, “Your father doesn’t have much to say to me anymore.”
My dad died a year ago last May. I can still hear him…