I arrived on Sunday evening in Rhode Island and traveled immediately to see my father at Briarcliffe Gardens. He was sound asleep when I arrived, curled up in a ball. I spoke with my sister and half-brother who were there in the room, and then went to stay overnight with my stepmother.
I lay in bed awake that night for hours, praying, remembering, preparing myself to share with dad my gratitude, to seek and offer forgiveness, and to tell him I loved him.
The next morning I returned to Briarcliffe, and he was awake. I felt afraid. I let him know it was me. As I stroked his face, he opened his eyes and looked at me with a very faint smile. Then he closed his eyes. After spending some time with the nurse talking about his condition, I asked if I could be alone with him.
I thought of my wife’s reminder that this was my one chance to speak my piece. I pulled my handwritten “litany of gratitude” out of my jacket pocket, and crawled into bed with him. This once hulking man was now so tiny, so fragile. I was almost afraid to touch his thin, bruised skin. I said to him, “Dad, it’s me. Tommy, your son.” He opened his eyes and winked, the way he only did to me. Then he whispered, “Hey kid.” That’s what he always called me growing up.
I said, “Dad, I want to say a few things. The most important things I’ve ever said to you.” He looked at me and then closed his eyes again. The silence, interrupted only by his shallow breathing, was deafening. I read my pages of thanksgiving; I asked him to forgive my many failings as a son; I forgave him for his failings; I told him that I loved him. He was still, I was heaving with emotion.
There was silence for about a minute, and I wondered if he had even heard me. I knew his dementia had in so many ways sealed him off from the world. But he opened his eyes and looked at me, for a good minute. And then for the first time he turned his body toward me, wincing in pain. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, he reached up with his right arm and gestured for me to come closer to his face. I sat up and put my face near his face. With his hand, swollen with edema, he pulled my head down to his chest – still in great pain – and said in a hushed tone, “I love you forever, son. Forever.”
In that instant, the whole world seemed to vanish. My world was a father, a son. The entire meaning of life was compressed into that moment, into that tiny bed. It was a past, now forgiven. It was a present, now given. And neither could ever be taken away from me, or from him. Even by death. In that room, all of the technical aspects of medical care – bags and tubes, wires and patches – fell down in worship of the one thing necessary. Love.
Because, in the final analysis, love alone is the measure.
Tom Neal, Ph.D, is Aging with Dignity Faith & Ethics Advisor