Nancy Townsley shares her story about turning 64 and spending time with her 91-year-old dad; having thoughts and discussions about life and legacies and death.
I turned 64 this week, my “Will you still need me, will you still feed me” birthday. A full two-thirds of my time here on this still-barely-spinning globe has come and gone. It’s a sobering realization, one that’s had me reflecting on the significance of the rear-view mirror and sifting through the tea leaves of my future, which of course cannot be fully or even vaguely known.
And it occurred to me for the zillionth time, in the midst of an unexpected turn of events and a profound experience of life at its raw zenith, that real connection in the present moment—no, smartypants, not the Hokey Pokey—actually is what it’s all about.
Now, an important news bulletin: If you want to know how your quite elderly father is really getting along at his senior living community, how he navigates his days and nights, invite him to stay with you, in your own home, for multiple days in a row. Talk about an eye-opener.
A lot of what I previously believed about my dad’s strengths and frailties, his rhythms and deficits, his impulsivities and predilections, was blown to smithereens over the six days leading up to December 13, the anniversary of the day I was born in 1957, the Year of the Fire Rooster. (I have no idea what that means, but perhaps it explains my deep love for the island of Kaua’i, where feral chickens run free.)
I digress. Dad is 91-and-a-half, having originated in Algona, Iowa, on July 30, 1930. He wrestled at 138 pounds in high school, a “good but not great” athlete, as he puts it. He was a Navy pilot and squadron commander, shuttling my family of origin around to various duty stations stateside and abroad over 20 years and retiring from military service in 1973. I credit him for so many good and helpful things, not the least of which was the opportunity to learn Spanish in elementary school when we lived in Puerto Rico, and for telling me I wasn’t crazy when a serious bout of insomnia nearly did me in during my sixteenth year. He sat by my bedside and assured me I’d sleep, eventually—and eventually, I did.
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Now, Dad is old and a bit broken down. His mind and his heart are both tired, owing to the march of time, inexorable as it is, the trauma of a recent fall, and our subsequent learning that he has suffered multiple minor strokes over an unidentifiable period. His decline began around the time Mom passed away from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease eight years ago and, even before that, as he struggled to care for her in the house they’d lived in for three decades.
The mental and emotional and physical work of it took a huge toll. Every one of his golfing buddies was gone, and now his wife of 58 years was, too.
After his dog died in November 2019, mere months before the pandemic hit, he sold his townhome and moved to a facility that has graduated levels of care, though he’s on the “independent living” floor and somewhat proud of that. All of this happened in six weeks or so (see note about Dad’s impulsivity above), and he recently admitted to me that he regrets that decision. If he was lonely before, he’s lonelier now, in that way one is when one feels alone in a crowd.
He hates the food. He may need to go to assisted care. He doesn’t want to die by himself.
Dad’s “trial run” at our house—to see how the four of us, including him, me, my husband, and our golden retriever, felt about living together—was predicated on all that. It was never going to be easy, especially at a marina and in a two-story floating home, but we explored the idea on a tsunami-size wave of emotional urgency, shooing away prudence and practicality like pesky flies.
Those six days and nights turned out to be the most profound gift I could have received as I begin my 65th turn around the sun. I know my father better now—after having lived apart from him for nearly 50 years—than I have in all the intervening ones, through beginnings and endings, joys and heartaches, and imperfect, muffed-up, ineffective attempts at family unity. I know him better because I no longer look at him through a lens dulled by my own need not to see him clearly, to admit he’s headed for the exit in the movie theater of his life, disenchanted with the plot, disinclined to stick around for the credits, wondering why the fellow playing the lead looks so different from the one he used to recognize.
All of it has left me both empty and full, having seen my dad at his most vulnerable, having shared thoughts about death and legacy and meaning and what might or might not be on the other side.
He sleeps 12 or 13 hours out of every 24. He has trouble keeping food down. He is easily overstimulated but struggles up the stairs to be with us anyway. He welcomes our big dog onto his lap but looks relieved when Bernie jumps down and lays quietly at his feet. He wants the coffee hot and the conversation light. He can be, as he calls it, “cantankerous.” He asks for understanding without speaking the words.
When he was ready to return to his apartment, he said he hoped there would be no hard feelings if he didn’t come to live with us. We assured him there would not be. He has since determined he will stay put for now.
All of it has left me both empty and full, having seen my dad at his most vulnerable, having shared thoughts about death and legacy and meaning and what might or might not be on the other side. I’m sad but grateful, recognizing his experience as exactly the same.
And it occurs to me that, so often, we do not know—we mostly do not want to know—the fears and sufferings of our elders, because they reflect back to us the lengths to which we are willing or not willing to go to change our own lives in order to ease their burdens. We prefer to believe that institutional settings address their myriad needs, and as long as they say they’re doing fine, we’re mostly content to leave it at that.
Then, one day your dad tells you he’d rather not die alone, and the entire equation changes, shifting the tectonic plates of every existential mystery, shaking you to your core. The scales fall from your eyes, and you weep.