“Hey, let’s try something.” We’re standing in warm waist deep water a few feet from the shore of Flathead lake in mid-July. “Grab a rock and we’ll see how far we can carry it under water.” It’s a part of the lake I know well. The lake bottom tips away from shore at a pretty steep angle, and the bottom is all rock. Close to the shore the rocks are small and there are gravel beaches. As the lake bottom recedes from view, the rocks become boulders, and then a few hundred feet out, the lake bottom falls away in what becomes a steep drop off.
We search around for a while and find some rocks that seem large enough to hold a person to the lake bottom, but not so large that they’d be too heavy to carry. We take deep breaths and on a count of three, we go. Now, my dear friend is in good athletic condition. He’ll outlast anyone I’ve ever met skiing up the side of a mountain. But water is my superpower. I’ve always been a better than average swimmer, but I had no idea I’d be so good at this task.
It’s an utterly useless thing, carrying a heavy rock underwater for relatively long distances. Somewhere in my periphery, I sense that my friend has bailed for the surface. I have much farther to go. In this case, the bottom walk takes me out to the very edge of the drop-off. I have to clear my ears several times on the way. I’m not walking upright. I’m bent over, one arm cradling my rock like a football, the other brushing from rock to rock, balancing as I bound from one boulder to the other.
I reach the drop-off ahead, a green black engulfment. Lungs finally out of gas, I hurl the rock over the edge, blockading thoughts of lurking abyss terrors from my mind as I push for the surface. It’s dark. I realize that the darkness means depth, and that the surface must be very far away. Looking up, I can see the surface, a wrinkled mess, much farther above me than I would have guessed. I’m a hundred yards or more from the shore. I push and kick, the little orb of sun reflected and twisting in the bedraggled blue sky above the water’s surface. I push to that thin membrane. To light. To warmth. To air. To air.
I visited my dad today at the nursing home where he’s being taken care of. It’s a nice place. The staff is friendly. His room is lovely. Lots of natural light. At this point, there isn’t much that can be done for him other than to keep him as comfortable as possible. His speech has diminished to a whisper. His gait is halting, and we’re not far off from a wheelchair. His cheeks are gaunt and pale as the staff valiantly struggles to keep weight on him.
Visits are a little touch and go. It wasn’t but a few days ago that when I visited with my mom, Dad very firmly, in his quiet way, told us in no uncertain terms, “your work has been good, and we’re grateful, but now it’s time for you to go.” He wouldn’t talk to us or acknowledge us in any way. We just had to turn around and leave. It was very hard on my mother. But that’s just where he’s at. Some days he knows who we are. Sometimes he doesn’t. Some days we show up and he’s just asleep, and we turn around and come back another day.
We’ve learned that our visits are actually more about us and our desire to honor him than they are about what he might want or need. Our visits make very few ripples in the miasma of his days and nights. We try. We rub his shoulders until he tells us to stop. We talk with him about children and work and pruning fruit trees. He mutters about circles in the floor that are running out of money. We help him to the bathroom. He is in a different land, fighting a different battle. There are no familiar patterns now. There are no more PT exercises. There are no more doctors appointments. There isn’t anything the neurologist can do. There are no more stories to be told. There isn’t a shared frame of reference what-so-ever. Sometimes I believe that understanding my father’s perception of his universe is like trying to understand how an extraterrestrial might perceive the world.
We moved him to the home the first week of February. For many good and understandable reasons, he hasn’t been outside the facility since that time. But the home does have a pretty nice rear patio area and a couple hundred of feet of lovely sidewalk. It was sixty and sunny today. It’s been a week since the snow disappeared from shady spots. The air is clean and crisp. The halls of the nursing home are a dark and unintelligible line of closed doors. And I know it wasn’t something asked for. I know it wasn’t something that my father necessarily needed. I know his ability to walk has diminished to the point where a few hundred feet of shuffling will wear him out. But at the end of the hallway is a point of light, a portal to air. To air.
I couldn’t resist pushing toward that small square of light and air. I was in luck. Dad was feeling relatively good when I showed up and was game for getting out of bed. Once up, I carefully led him down the hall. Brighter and brighter came the door’s rectangle window leading to the patio. To air, dear father, to air. We stepped over the threshold and the weak Spring sun fell on our faces. It was warm and sweet – not too hot, not too cold. We shuffled until we found a pair of sturdy deck chairs. We sat and faced the sun.
My father closed his eyes and for a moment in the pale raking of light, I could believe we were sharing something – the warmth of nine-minute-old photons. We sat, silently. A moment passed and then another. Then my father squinted at me and said in his breathy, quiet voice, “I think it’s time to go inside.”
Inwardly, I smiled wryly at my overly poetic and ultimately misguided nobility, my desire, still, to find a way to bridge the gap into what I imagine is the swirling chaos of his consciousness. It’s hard to realize that there isn’t a way into the world he inhabits now. There will be no further connection. There is no universal translator. Nothing about it will make sense. If our presence is comforting, that is good. If our presence isn’t comforting, we should leave. There isn’t a shimmering membrane reflecting the sun past which we can breathe again.
I took his hand and we carefully stood and shuffled back inside.