Silent Conversations

Dear Will:

My dad is dying.

He has congestive heart failure and a mild form of leukemia (can leukemia be mild?). A damaged rotator cuff in his right shoulder makes his right arm useless. He has had both knees replaced and is recovering from a recently cracked patella. In other words, he can barely use his arms and legs. (Think of all you that have to depend on others to do for you if you can’t raise and lower your arms or bend your legs.) And a week or so ago, pneumonia sent him to the hospital where he “celebrated” his 86th birthday. Whoopee.

His doctor expects him to “recover” and go home, but it won’t surprise you to learn that my father is about out of patience with being a patient. “I wish I could get some dread disease and just be done with it,” he told me. “This business of falling apart bit by bit is nuts” (which shows that his mind is still sharp). Who can blame him for being fed up with life when the life that is left is so difficult to live?

He has put his affairs in order for the most part to simplify things for my mother when he goes. In fact, when we finally got him into the hospital and settled into his room, he insisted that I immediately retrieve his papers to make sure that there is no ambiguity: He does not want life support or resuscitation. If his body finally gives out, that will be that.

The only real remaining question is how effectively the rest of us will be able to entice him to stick around a bit longer. There is time, but who knows how much? Considering his condition, even if he returns home from the hospital, there may be little more that we can do together—and so we are all left to ponder the final conversations of our remaining time together in mortality. What do you say to each other when words become so precious and time so short?

Sometimes nothing. Before he went into the hospital, I went to visit him in his home. He felt so awful (his pneumonia had not yet been officially diagnosed) that mostly he lay silently in bed. But when I offered to leave him alone to rest, he asked me to stay put. “It’s a comfort to have you there,” he said. And so I sat in silence as we shared a moment in which words were not required.

Selfishly, I hope that once his illness is under control his spirits will lift and he’ll begin to fight for more time. I’d like him to see my daughter’s next ballet recital, to listen to my 10-year-old describe his team’s come-from-behind Little League victory, to discuss with my oldest the implications of what he’s learning in his Evolutionary Biology class at UCLA. I want to sit and watch the ballgame with him from time to time, to call him for advice as I so often do, to listen to him argue politics with my wife and tease my children. These are all things that have always brought him joy and that bring me joy to this day. And I’m not ready to give up that joy just yet.

But if, indeed, his time his short, I can tell you this: He is a good man. He has given 86 good years and created a legacy of integrity and honor. Come what may, he has made this world a better place.

PW

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Something’s Wrong with My Magazine

Dear Will:

It’s official. I have become an old man.

It happened just a few weeks ago. (Yeah, right, you say. You look at my bald head and graying beard, you see me wheezing and hacking after just a couple of trips up and down the basketball court and you think to yourself, Who’s this guy think he’s kidding? He’s been doing the old man thing for years! At which point I say, Hey, whose letter is this anyway? If you don’t like the way I’m telling the story you can write your own!).

So anyway, like I was saying, just recently I became an old man. I looked down at my Sports Illustrated and I, um—how do I put this? Well, I couldn’t see it, see. It was all—what’s the word?—blurry. Like suddenly someone had smudged the lens. I did discover that if I held the magazine just a little farther from my face—PRESTO!—the words came back into focus. But needless to say I was a little shaken up. I was doing that thing the old guys do when they’ve left their reading glasses on the coffee table. It was not pleasant.

That first experience with old man eyes came on me unawares, as if one day I could see just fine and the next day I could not. Unfortunately, since then it’s has gradually gotten even worse. It’s not yet to the point where I have to get me some of those end-of-the-nose glasses that my parents used to wear (Used to? They still do!); but there’s no question the day is coming. Sooner than I’d like. And probably sooner than I’m willing to admit.

They warned me about this several years ago when I had my RK surgery. The doctor told me he would give me less-than-perfect vision in order to help me stave off the inevitable reliance on reading glasses. He said it happens to everyone. At the time I remember thinking: What a rip-off. I already spent my years in glasses. I shouldn’t have to do it again. I hoped he was overstating things. Or that maybe the rules would not apply to me. (The last time I remember hoping the rules would not apply to me was when I learned of the genetic certainty of my bald pate. That one didn’t work out so well either.)

My wife had eye surgery at the same time I did and heard the same, sad speech. So when her eyes went out on her two or three years ago, and she went down to Sav-on to get some of those super attractive granny glasses, I mustered all of the sensitivity I could and . . . teased her about it. I have also with great obnoxiousness poked unmerciful fun at my friends who now must balance glasses on the ends of their noses in order to read the menu. At this point, the word comeuppance seems inadequate to describe what is about to happen to me. And I don’t like it.

So as I await the inevitable trip to the drug store, I will continue to fake it until my arms are no longer long enough to get the job done. Of course, I would appreciate it if we could keep this just between you and me. What my pals and my wife don’t know won’t hurt them, am I right?

Besides: I think I deserve a little compassion. I’m an old man after all.

PW

P.S. Although I may be bald and gray and increasingly blind, I remain more than willing to lend a helping hand where needed. Is there anything I can do for you? Give me a call or drop me a note and let me know.

One of the Greatest Gifts Ever

Dear Will:

My family is going through some nervousness as my sister and her husband (and their five small children) prepare to move to Turkey, where my brother-in-law has accepted a position working as a civilian contractor on a military base. We hope that it will turn out to be a great adventure for them, but we can’t help but feel anxious about their welfare.

Most anxious of all are my parents. My father will be 82 in a couple of weeks, and his body is really starting to show some wear and tear. Just this last week, in fact, he was in the emergency room with a slight case of pneumonia, a frightening condition for someone his age. It gave me a jolt, and when I saw him in his awkward gown and heard his scratchy voice, I could see clearly what I rarely see in full light: he has become an old man.

My sister’s imminent departure has caused my parents to consider the stark and upsetting possibility that after they kiss my sister and her children good-bye, they quite possibly could be doing so for the last time. Three years—the theoretical minimum length of my brother-in-law’s contract—is a really long time when you’re 82. Thus it was perhaps not surprising—even if it was disconcerting—when my dad called me to his home to “go over some things.”

My wife Dana and I were given a brief list of items my parents thought we might consider valuable: paintings mostly, the chair built by my great-grandfather, the clock that my grandparents used to have on their mantle—stuff like that. They said they wanted each of their children (there are seven of us) to pick the top two things we would most like to have once my parents are gone. Dana and I wandered through their house “shopping.” And it felt . . . really . . . strange.

They do have several pieces of art that I like quite a lot, but to be honest they mean nothing to me. The ones with the greatest apparent value are not valuable to me. And asking for any of them seemed trite and cold. I didn’t really want to play along. Nevertheless, I dutifully filled out my “order form,” but I felt like I didn’t really care whether I got the bronze or it went to one of my sisters.

When we were finished, my father showed me the location of his important papers: the will, the trust, the durable power of attorney. We stood in his office and discussed insurance policies and safe deposit boxes and burial arrangements. There was no sense of sadness as he did this, no woe-is-me, I’m-about-to-die melancholy. It was just matter-of-fact and business-like—something that had to be done.

That’s when I spied it: a tiny, 4-inch replica of a red Radio Flyer wagon. My father has had it on his desk my entire life. I can remember visiting his business when I was maybe five and playing with it in his office. He always used to keep a navy blue Superball in it. Just looking at it filled me with tenderness—and that’s when I knew. I reclaimed my form, crossed out my original choices and indicated instead that I wanted only that wagon. To have that symbol of my father on my own desk, for my own children to play with when they come to my office, would be a lot more valuable to me than any work of art ever could be.

Of course, I’m hoping that wagon remains on my father’s desk for many years to come, and that my parents stick around long after we hold a big Welcome Home Party for my sister.  Until then, I’m determined to spend a little more time in my parents home, looking at the paintings, listening to the chime of that old clock, and enjoying my mom and dad, one of greatest gifts God has ever given me.

PW