By Susanne Severeid
With the holidays upon us and the prospect of travel and social gatherings limited by COVID, my thoughts turn to family, to reflect, and to remember.
My father is now 94.
I look at him and wonder: where did the time go? He must feel the same looking at a daughter who is now in her sixties. Other than moving at the pace of an elderly, bespectacled turtle with a hearing loss– only somewhat improved with VA hearing aids–my dad is simply, per his doctor, “very, very old.” He still has his marbles, knows exactly who I am, fills in details about past vacations and family history, and follows the news. Up till now, he has been able to stay in his own, paid-off home, surrounded by his hutch and favorite easy chair in front of the TV.
We have tried to keep him there as long as possible, but the time has finally come to pack up his few belongings and favorite photos, and donate the piano to a local church. The single wide will be sold and Dad will move in with my brother who, thankfully, has a spare bedroom and is happy to have him. Dad is a practical man and not prone to sentimentality: he of Iowa farmstock, a former Navy man and veteran of WWII. But though he has agreed, we know what a seismic shift this must be for him.
There are tradeoffs to living to be 94. Sure, as they say, it beats the alternative, but losing most, if not all, of your same-age loved ones (as well as younger ones) cuts deeply. I know how ready he is to join his deceased second wife and how much he misses her.
I sat on Dad’s couch one afternoon as my brother and I struggled with decisions we knew lay just around the bend. I looked at my father, hunched with age, his slender frame now no more than skin and bones in his flannel pajamas and fleece slippers. “Dad,” I asked, “What do you want to do?” I meant, about housing. During COVID we weren’t considering a care facility, but we had brochures of another affordable situation we hoped he’d go for.
He flared up with a glint of anger and looked straight at me. ”What I would like to do,” he said forcefully, “is get in my car, drive up to Doc & Al’s, and go fly fishing.” (Doc & Al’s is a campground in the Sierras where we vacationed as a family.) He sank back down, arms resting on his thighs. “I just wish I could do the things I used to be able to do. I can’t do anything anymore.”
It was so pure, that brief outburst of emotion; all I could do was nod and try to understand. The sense of no longer being captain of his own ship. That is not imagined, it is real and the clarity of it made perfect sense to me in that moment.
We patchworked things for a bit longer. Until now arrived, and we could no longer rely on the at-home care he needed. My father is not angry. It’s more like resignation. Accepting something, though, doesn’t make it easy or painless. He can’t bring back his wife or stay in the last home he shared with her; he can’t pull on his waders, tie on his favorite fly, and stride into a river hoping the fish are biting; he can’t get behind the wheel of his car and head off on a spontaneous road trip as he so loved to do.
That car, like his drivers’ license, is gone. And when he says, without bitterness, “I’m just an old man waiting to die,” it is not a whine. It is, simply, his truth. Yet, on a better day he’ll say, “I might live to be a hundred,” or, jokingly, “If I’d known I’d live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” All of which seems to have surprised him more than anyone else. He, the eldest son, who has watched his three brothers die before him.
I wonder what it it’s like when we reach that point where we know that we are at the end of the line? When we can put away the “to do“ lists and look back at the entire arc of our lifetime and say, yes, it is finished.
In a recent phone conversation with my son, I watched as Dad chatted with him clearly enjoying the call. Asked how he was feeling, Dad answered, “Oh fine, fine. But I could be dead tomorrow, you know.” He chuckled. “After all, I am 94.”
Susanne Severeid is an award-winning author, public speaker and performer with a background in international journalism. www.susannesevereid.com