“I look like a little boy,” Dad grumbles. He pulls the stocking cap down over his ears and eyebrows. “I never wear hats like this. Maybe you do, but I don’t.” Dad gives me an accusing look. “Where’s your hat.”
It’s blustery outside, it’s his birthday and he has an appointment with the dentist. I’ve brought the hat, some warm gloves and a new pair of long johns with me to dad’s apartment in the nursing home, hoping to keep his frail body warm while we travel through the countryside. He clearly isn’t impressed, and when I suggest he wear his warm winter coat, I sense a revolt coming on.
With so few choices left in his life, Dad wants to be the one deciding what to wear, even if leaving the long johns laying across his bed means he’ll be shivering while the car warms up.
“Stubborn,” I mutter under my breath.
“What’d you say?”
“You’re a little stubborn, Dad.”
“You bet I am. I dressed myself for 88 years. I don’t need to be told what to wear.”
The cursed stocking cap is a topic of debate throughout the afternoon, and the warm gloves are left conspicuously tossed on the dash of the car. The cap is pulled off as soon as we step into the dental office, exposing Dad’s fuzzy white buzz cut.
Dad’s life has been turned upside down in the past year. He and Mom sold the home they loved and moved into a little apartment at the edge of town. After a few good months getting settled, things started going downhill. Mom became sick and by the end of the summer, she was gone. Dad couldn’t live alone and couldn’t live with any of his kids, so he moved again, into an apartment in a nursing facility in a neighboring town.
It doesn’t matter how cozy the place is, how good and kind his caregivers are or that the food is more than adequate. Dad’s not happy.
The final straw for Dad is being told he can’t drive. His vision and reflexes are failing. For a man who drove a rural mail route for 25 years and who knows every country road surrounding his hometown like the back of his hand, it feels like he’s lost his identity.
How do you help someone who lives in a past that no longer exists see the goodness in today? I count my blessings, number them on a page, and wish I could make a list for him. But they wouldn’t measure up. In his mind, the best blessings of his best days are behind him.
We drive to the county seat, our hometown, and stop in at the restaurant where he and Mom ate breakfast nearly every day. The owner has agreed to let us bring a birthday cake this afternoon to share with a few hometown friends in a back room of the café. It’s good to see Dad’s face light up as people begin dropping by.
They’re a blessing, these good friends who take a minute to say “Happy Birthday”. There is laughter, memories are shared, illnesses compared, handshakes exchanged. Blessings, all of it. I make a mental note in Dad’s column.
The long afternoon winds down and it’s time to take Dad back to his apartment. The restaurant owner hands Dad a Styrofoam container of chili. I know this will be dinner, warmed up in his apartment so he doesn’t have to go to the dining room at the nursing home.
An early sunset has set a glow on the snow-covered evergreens along our route back to the nursing home. Dad remarks, as he often does, that the tall spruce trees look good lined up like soldiers. We travel the rest of the way in silence, his home territory in the rearview mirror. He’s keenly aware of what he’s leaving behind.
It keeps getting harder — both spending the time together and leaving him to go home. Before I leave, I want to share with Dad my mental list of all the ways he is blessed in the winter of his life, but I know he doesn’t want to hear it.
I can read it in the weary slump of his shoulders. It’s his birthday, and nothing feels right.
Then I realize the best gift I can give Dad on this dark day in December isn’t the warmth of a hat, gloves and long johns, or even the birthday cake shared with friends. The gift Dad wants most is for me to look into his heart and say it.
“Yeah, this stinks, doesn’t it Dad. It’s hard and some days it just stinks.”
Dad’s surprised I would say it, and he kind of chuckles while he hangs up his too-heavy winter coat and lays the hat and gloves on the top shelf of his closet.
“Ah, it ain’t so bad, I guess. Just not what I thought it would be.”
That’s good. I can complain for him and the tables are turned. This feels right — Dad reassuring daughter that things “ain’t so bad.” Could there be blessings?
I turn to go and he reaches for a hug.
“How can I ever pay you back,” he says. Tears well up in his eyes, as they do so often these days.
“You already have, Dad. A long time ago.”
The days I get with Dad, even the hard ones, are blessings and I know it’s true — I’m counting them down. Each one is precious.