Thursday, October 19, 2006

An Exercise

I was going to buy him a cat. He had been in the nursing home for years; too many one might say, but the medical care he received made him healthier and stronger. It was hard to give him the proper care anywhere else.

Papa had made for himself an “office” in the gathering room on “A” wing. He would pull his wheelchair up to a lowboy dresser that someone had donated and diddle with his papers. He and I had filled the top drawer with office supplies: a box of cards, a handful of pens, stamps, scissors and his address book. He would spend hours writing cards to the people he had known in his lifetime. He liked to be busy and as long as I knew him, I knew of his work ethic. He wrote to people from the hospital where he had been a purchasing agent for 30 years, people from his old community, people from church, relatives. In that book though, there were a lot of scratched out names. He would sit and look at those names and tell me stories; “I remember when Billy Rae was just a kid in dungarees. He passed last year.” He was aware of his own mortality. He would hold my hand as he cried.

He had lost so much, really. He lost his autonomy; he had lost his home. He couldn’t even maintain personal dignity, as his bladder would betray him. He was ashamed of having to wear an adult diaper. In the end he had lost his identity, as he couldn’t remember his full name. He eventually gave up writing his cards, but couldn’t give up shuffling them around. He actually wore them out moving them around and trimming off the corners. He lost his purpose. He would cry out that he didn’t even know why he was alive anymore. But only at times. Most of the time he reverted to what I realized was his essential self; a sunny-souled man who loved people and knew he was loved. When I entered the room, his face would brighten up, he’d reach out and he’d say, “Come over here and give me some sugar!”

I was going to buy him a cat the week he died. The nursing home had adopted a new policy of allowing pets – a couple of cats and dogs per hall and birds in cages, goldfish and hamsters. It was a cheap substitute for human touch (without which we really will wither and die.) He had refused to leave his bed for a couple of days and he hadn’t eaten. I cajoled him into eating a Dairy Queen strawberry shake earlier in the week, but he didn’t want any on this particular day. It wasn’t that he wasn’t aware but he just was somehow beyond me. He lay prone in his bed. I was used to him tucking me in bed at night and it was strange to see him there. I sat with him a while that day and then on the next. We didn’t say much. There was no need or compulsion to talk. I would hold his hand and stroke his shiny bald head and sing a bit. He wanted me to read from the book of John.

We got the call around 6:00 in the morning a week after he took to his bed. He had died between the 5:00 and 6:00 rounds. The next days were a blur. I don’t even remember getting his possessions from the nursing home or the funeral. I know that I saved a handful of worn-out greeting cards with all their corners trimmed off and a pair of brass handled office scissors. I keep them in my own office.

I have watched so many of those I love age and die. So many funerals; maybe 12 or 15 in the last 10 years. Each showed their essential nature before they died; Leslie’s generosity, my Dad’s passion and fire, my mother’s compassion and gentleness, Aunt Mary’s greed, Lou’s vanity. What will my essential nature be?


This was written as an exercise to create a dialogue between William James' concept of the healthy-soul and the sick-soul and Joan Erikson's Ninth Stage of Life (the Dystonic Stage).

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