Today, April 26, would have been my Dad's 87th birthday. 5 years ago I rushed to Zurich, my hometown, to my Dad's bed side, a month earlier as planned, and ended up staying at his side much of the following 3 months. While uncommunicative most of his life, he had asked me clearly to stay. So I did, and gave up my long anticipated first trip to Ghana, Africa. It was my privilege to support my Dad in his time of need and his last phase.
Let me tell you, Swiss public institutions for the elderly are a lot better then the one's, public ones, I know in my community in the United States. Still it was hard. I would observe my Dad in spasm, report it to the staff, and be met with disbelief and an outright wrong diagnosis. It took 3 weeks to finally get the main honcho to diagnose my Dad's intestinal spasms correctly and not attribute them to epileptic seizures and/or part of the Parkinson symptoms. Until then everybody simply did not pay enough attention to actually notice his pain and he was in a state, unable to express himself, maybe unwilling to cause trouble. It was my honor to be his spokes person for the last few weeks of his life.
He had trouble swallowing and excessive mucous was congesting him, so I asked to leave out the dairy products. You would think that the Swiss cooks never had heard of dairy! Still the soups had butter and the deserts had whipped cream, delicious, but not helpful. Only 2 days without and he breathed easier and felt a lot more comfortable.
I asked to keep him more hydrated with herbal teas I would leave in a special thermos for him on his bed side. I did not realize then at first that even offering tea costs! It took maybe a month, maybe longer before the staff actually started to use the thermos and his mouth showed less dryness. Hydration really is crucial to the functioning of the body and brain.
It got really rough when I had to decide on my Dad's treatment plan. As I had just talked to the attending doctor on her visit at his bed side, my Dad told me with great clarity that he wanted everything done to him. Meaning he did not want us to give up on him, but he did not understand the implications. Who am I to decide over life and death!
My Dad had this moments of lucidity, moments where out of character he would share things with me. Suddenly he mentioned his having fallen in love, heavily in love, he told me. That was it, no more, not a word. Was he thinking of my mom who had passed on suddenly a few years earlier? Somehow I suspect he was reminiscing of his youth, a time long before he would meet my Mom.
My Dad had upset me severely a few years earlier when he refused to take another trip and seemed to give no hoot about my Mom's desire to travel more, maybe visit me across the ocean. His selfish concerns and disregard of my Mom's longings upset me enough to confront him one day, on a rare occasion as the two of us were hanging in a coffee shop. So it really surprised me when he announced to me that it may be time for him to take another trip. He did not elaborate, just that cryptic statement that I believe was part of his acceptance of his dying process. My mom had dragged him all around the world to far away exotic places, ever since the late sixties.
My Mom's glamor job for me would have been to play the part of a glorified waitress on an airplane, a Stewardess, to travel to far away places, but always to return home. (I did travel far, but never returned!) I found this image which must have been taken by my Dad, I assume, in Tunisia, on their first big vacation together, without me. (I stayed home alone, in 6th grade, a bit afraid of the dark at night, but not too much. With my best friend over, we would fry ourselves heavily spiced pieces of meat late at night, the extent to which I then took my unsupervised freedom.)
For my planned trip to Accra I had bought my self my very first digital point and shoot camera, an Olympus, because I knew the brand from the collection of cameras my Dad had kept. His interest peaked as it occurred to me to show him my new gadget and this dying man came alive again for a few moments. This is the very first image I took with that new camera on his bedside while holding his hand. It now symbolizes a whole lot for me. Things like the intimacy of holding hands, of caring and sharing, but also holding on and fear, things both me and my Dad were plenty familiar with.
5 years ago on his last birthday, I had asked my Dad how old he thought he was and his response after long deliberation and not a little uncertainty was, maybe, just maybe 30 years old! This made me smile and made me think of how we depict ourselves and others often in the peak of our lives. My Mom too I believe envisioned herself rising from the dead, on resurrection day, as a young, vibrant woman. So this is my Dad, as a young man, maybe in his early twenties. He remains a mystery to me in so many ways as he had never been one to talk about himself, his feelings, his beliefs, his work or his past. I treasure the peace we found together at last.