My father is 83 years old.
I forget that sometimes, or perhaps I choose to ignore the affect those many years have on him. In my mind, my dad remains the vital and vibrant man who moved to Arizona eight years ago. He’s not, and I struggle to understand – or appreciate – the distinction between his desire and ability.
My father is 83 years old. He’s his mother’s last living child, having lived longer than both of his parents and all of his brothers and sisters. The life he’s lived – that he’s made – is a testimony to his drive and persistence, and to the honor that was imbedded by his beloved Marine Corps.
He’s 83 years old and still enjoys drinking beer, playing poker and watching a young woman cross the street.
I forget what those 83 years mean, or maybe I just choose to remember what he was just a few short years ago. That’s a memory easy to believe because he’s so often alert and aware when we talk; it’s easier to overlook his difficulty walking or getting out of a car, or those disoriented telephone conversations. It’s easier to cling to a façade that he’s doing well, simpler to overlook the things I choose to ignore.
I asked my dad for help on Friday, and he said yes.
I asked if he could build some simple banner stands for a client, if he felt comfortable taking on a little project. I thought he’d enjoy doing this simple little task, happy to be helping me and selfishly, I was relieved that he would release from this burden.
I promised to return Sunday to go over the project, deliver him plans and answer any questions, and he was eager. So eager, in fact, that he telephoned me three times on Saturday to ask questions and share his preparations.
But Sunday was difficult. My dad struggled to understand the project, had difficulty following my instructions and just couldn’t comprehend any of the plan’s dimensions. As we went over the project a second time, he began to get frustrated…and confused. We spent more than a hour reviewing the project but I could see his understanding falling further and further away, until I finally asked him if he would feel more comfortable with someone else doing this work. “No…no son, I can do this.” So we started over, discussing the project, repeating different parts over and over again but the results remained the same, or worse; My dad just couldn’t maintain focus. I could see that he was frustrated and discouraged. He was coming to the realization that he had no idea of what we were discussing.
So I asked again if someone else should handle this project. He slowly raised his head and looked at me, with tears in his eyes he said “I used to be able to do this, to understand this. If you’d have asked me a couple of years ago…I could do this. But, I don’t think I can do this for you.”
Just like that, I’d selfishly broken his heart.
I got up and hugged him and – for the second time in my life – my father began to cry on my shoulder, crushed with the recognition of one more thing he can no longer do.
It’s easy to remember a vital and vibrant father, selfishly simple. Easy to believe weekly dinners and three-or-four phone calls during the week are enough. It’s comforting to tell myself my father prefers his independence, that he takes pride in doing things for himself. Easy to be angered by his stubbornness, his insistence on the solitary decisions he’s beginning to make for his future. And, it’s easier telling myself that I’m taking good care of him, but I’m not.
“I’m sorry dad.” I said when leaving a while later.
“I’m sorry too, son, that I can’t do this for you. But sorrier more for myself”
That…was the hardest part.