Can a father’s life and love be summed up by a few mementos?
Several weeks before my father passed away in his bed at a local rehabilitation home, the facility’s activities director gave me an assignment: gather a few symbolic items for his memory box.
This memory box would hang outside the door of the room Dad shared with a cantankerous, 92-year-old, bedridden patient who every so often chased the nursing aides out of the room without ever leaving his bed. Most of the time, this man seemed to exist in a state of wretched sleep that was interrupted only by his blood-curdling wails as nurses gently cleaned his wounds.
During these times, I’d lean in and whisper into Dad’s ear: “I think God put us here so we could pray for this poor man.” I’d trace the sign of the cross on his forehead and murmur a fragment of the rosary until Dad eased into sweet sleep.
How lucky we were to have our long visits and conversations (even the one-sided ones when Dad could no longer string together more than two words). How lucky we were to have had a second chance to truly understand one another — a mama’s girl doesn’t always get to grow closer to the father who played a benign but sometimes muted role in her daily life.
Now, in his twilight, we could pick up where we left off so many years ago, when he was that larger-than-life figure who taught me nifty English words during old TV sitcoms, taught me to drive, took me to my first jazz concert (Stan Getz), took me on an unforgettable ride aboard a tiny prop plane over 1960s Miami and its squat houses, snaking resorts and canals that so perfectly mirrored the clouds.
The man who lay in that penumbral state on the other side of the divider curtain seemed to have no one. I knew nothing about him, except for what I could conjure from his memory box. From the paper shapes cheerfully constructed in the box, most likely by the genial activities director herself, I learned the man loved to fish.
That memory box – like the one across the hall boasting another resident’s love of singing and the one nearby announcing another patient’s passion for cooking – served various purposes. It provided a decorative touch to the small ward. It served as a marker for ambling patients. And, in the case of my father’s grumpy neighbor, it stood as a kind of cheat sheet for those who didn’t know the man.
But my dad needed no cheat sheet. His children were with him most every day, and we were happy to tell the world about him.
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