I pick up the electric shaver. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I say to my Dad. I’ve never shaved a man before and I’m nervous.
My 82 year-old father sits in yet another hospital room, one of many he’s stayed in lately for symptoms of late-stage Parkinson’s disease. He’s unable to use his hands except for the most basic gestures– picking up a sandwich cut into quarters, a slow ascent to scratch his face, grasping the call button for the nurses.
I sit beside him, running the buzzing instrument over his chin and under his nose and across his cheeks. The nurses are busy and have little time for cosmetic assistance. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I repeat. “You couldn’t hurt me,” he assures.
After, Dad looks better, fresher. I pick up his brush, combing his silvery strands back into place. Now he looks groomed, more dignified. “Thank you,” he says with a grateful smile.
I put the shaver away, thinking how life comes full circle. When I was six, my mother was away in the hospital, giving birth to my brother Eric. My father was in charge of getting me ready for school. I vaguely remember him brushing my hair and securing it with a little pink barrette. I remember thinking my mother did it better and neater, but understood this wasn’t Daddy’s job.
Today an orderly brings in his food. I try not to shudder when I pick up the silver lid. Three pureed mounds sit on the plate– a beige one for turkey, a white one for potatoes, and a green mound for peas. These are to prevent my father from choking.
Again, the nurses are busy. I grab a fork and feed him from each pile, washed down with special thickened cranberry juice. His appetite is good and he finishes most of the food, followed by chocolate pudding from a plastic tub.
I talk with Dad as I pick up each forkful, but memories tug at me. As a child he gave me my first taste of chocolate milkshake and buttery popcorn. We all loved hot fudge sundaes. My family’s favorite meal on a summer night was grilled steak with corn on the cob and summer vegetables.
My father loved taking a whole tomato, eating it like an apple. “God, this is good,” he’d murmur, salting each bite. Today I wipe his mouth, feeling sad he can never eat these foods again.
And yet for all his restrictions, I haven’t seen much self-pity. Instead he’s interested in others. “Does Patrick still like his job?” he asks about my oldest son. “Is Paul enjoying culinary classes?” He wants to know about my husband Randy and every detail of home life and pets and our town.
Over the past year, Dad’s been in and out of hospitals four times, mostly for infections. His last stay was two months. He takes all this with stoic calm, although he admits to depression. I don’t blame him. To not be able to move is depressing. To depend on others for everything is depressing. And yet my father maintains a love of life that’s both heartening and poignant.
After an hour, I see him tire. I say goodbye, adding the usual, “I love you.” He always says “I love you” back. I’m lucky, I realize as I walk the labyrinth of corridors back to my car. I don’t have to ask myself if I’ve been a good daughter.
My father made my job easy. He taught me multiplication tables and how to throw a softball. He picked me up from junior high dances, always standing discreetly in the back. He was quick to laugh and listen and forgive. He walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, giving a kiss before taking his seat. He cheered my victories and listened to my worries. All my life I knew my father enjoyed being my father.
I think of the frail man stuck in that hospital room. Shaving his face and brushing his hair are the least I can do for a lifetime of love.
And maybe that’s the secret of being a really good daughter.
You start with a really good father.
(Postscript: My Dad passed away peacefully in July, 2015).
How do you feel about your father? Was the relationship easy? Comments are always welcome. Thanks so much for reading and if you like, please share. Thank you.