Later in the afternoon, after my brother left to go back to New York City, I took Dad to the jazz band concert. The walls of the Great Room and the atrium had been decorated with cutouts of orange pumpkins and red and yellow leaves, with garlands of yellow leaves hanging over the doorways. While the musicians played their familiar songs, a golden retriever roamed about gently nudging anyone who seemed inclined to pet him. Three residents danced with an aide. Other residents sang along and clapped. In May the band had struck me as second or even third rate, the sort of band you’d encounter playing in a local dive, but now I saw in them only kind and generous musicians. My father drifted off, and I rested a hand on his arm. I felt moved, privileged even, to be a witness in this small community. The magazines in the rack by the doorway were old, months out of date, but what did that matter? The nursing home existed outside time. The dancing residents no longer seemed pitiable. How amazing, I thought, that, with all that they’ve lost, they still want to dance! I was aware—I was always aware—that these were the lucky elderly, my father among them. Their bodies were failing, but they had the resources to be well cared for and treated with respect by a well-trained staff. Everyone should have this if they need it, I thought, as I had always thought. I remembered how, early in the summer, my husband had described the nursing home as “a place where people were waiting to die.” But I hadn’t wanted to see it that way then, and now, even in my deepest feelings, I could no longer find that bleakness.

 

In December my father turned ninety. My brother and I arranged a small celebration in the nursing home. His brother drove up from Virginia with his wife, my husband and I came from Maine, my brother and his family from New York, and one of my cousins, as well as Dad’s lawyer, his stepdaughter and her husband, from nearby. A few years earlier my father had given me his baby journal that, contrary to tradition, his father, not his mother, had kept, and several old albums with photographs of his childhood, his years at Cornell, his marriage to our mother, and our own childhoods. Dad, of course, couldn’t see them, but I arranged them on a table for guests to leaf through. This was who he’d been. This was what his life had meant. Dad sat in his wheelchair, eating a little ice cream and cake, still knowing everyone, remembering details of their lives, making a joke or two, exhausted by the attention. His was a stripped-down, diminished self, but at his core still him. My brother credited the medication, but I felt a more mysterious element was also at work, perhaps a resiliency in the human soul. Our father couldn’t, of course, repair his broken body, but it seemed to me that he’d somehow found a way to repair his spirit and gracefully accept what his life had become. The next day, as I left to go back to Maine, he told me he’d miss me. He died just a month later.

 

A week after his death, my brother and I returned to the nursing home to clean out his room. We packed up some of his clothes, and then those things we’d brought from our own homes to make the room more personal. We took from the walls two landscapes painted by our great-grandmother that had once hung in our childhood home, and a large photograph that our father had taken of us as children sitting by Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park. We put in boxes several woodcarvings Dad had collected on trips to Germany, the radio, a wood carving of the clock tower at Cornell, the biography of George Washington on CD that he didn’t like, and many family photographs.

Then we stopped at his apartment to visit our stepmother and collect Dad’s mail. She was herself quite ill with heart disease, and though she’d visited Dad occasionally over the summer and fall, she found the nursing home, and our father’s dementia, too overwhelming to stay for long. We’d tried to get her more involved, but she was happy to leave all decisions about his care to us.

While we talked, I thought of how, the previous summer, I used to arrive at the nursing home to find my father sitting alone in his room, staring ahead. Now he was dead. “They ought to be able to give you a pill,” he said of his doctors, “and let you go. But they can’t do that.” I’d thought, then, of the Eskimos I’d read about who, when their elders were dying and too weak to travel, would place them on an ice floe and send them out to sea, into a quiet, peaceful death. I thought of Marge Piercy’s poem, “End of Days,” about how we take our cats when they are dying to the vet, where they receive an injection and die in our arms, while we die alone in hospitals. Why, the poet asks, are we so much kinder to our pets than to our parents and ourselves?

Would I have wanted a sudden exit for my father the previous spring, if it were legal?

I couldn’t say. But I understood that being so intimately involved with Dad’s care during his eight months in the nursing home, trying to find ways for him to feel loved and valued, had given my brother and me a place in his life that we hadn’t known since our childhood. The past year, difficult as it was, had been a gift. For that I was grateful.

 

In February my brother and I returned to the nursing home a final time to attend a memorial service for all the residents who had died during the past two months. It was held in the Great Room, now decorated with large cutouts of red hearts and cupids for Valentine’s Day. The chaplain associated with the nursing home led the service. We sat in folding chairs and sang a couple of hymns, and the chaplain talked about the dead as being with God, which meant that they were still with us, their spirits around and in us, as God was around and in us. It had been a hard winter. Since just before Christmas, twelve residents had died. The chaplain named each of the dead, asking after each name if someone would share a brief memory. “Who remembers Jack?” he asked, and my brother nudged me, and I stood up and spoke of my father’s lifelong passion for jazz, how jazz had been like a sanctuary for him, and how, though he was blind and confined to his wheelchair, he could still listen to the music. I said that we were grateful that he’d been here, so well cared for, in a place where a jazz band played every Wednesday and Sunday. Afterward there was a reception, with punch and sandwiches and cookies. We talked in small groups as Pam, the woman who had sat at Dad’s table for dinner, wandered about, still with her lovely smile, precariously carrying a plate of cucumber sandwiches that threatened to spill each time she offered them.

Then it was time to leave. We thanked the staff and made our way through the atrium, the windows darkening in the early dusk of winter. One of the aides let us out through the atrium’s locked doors. As my brother went ahead to get the car, I paused in the entrance for a final glance at the sign evoking Dr. Hunt, then stepped out into the cold February air. Snow lay deep on the grounds—it would be harder now to elope.

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