Winter Conversation, Spring Conversion

Time is running out
my father said last night
his words dropped with regret
into our casual conversation about the weather
It’s the hard, inevitable truth
that lives in every moment,
propels us forward
with such urgency
and denial, as if we could outrun the clock
On my walk today I imagine
this neighborhood a thousand years from now
tourists scavenging for a shard of glass, a remnant
of this time
They’ll piece together what they can of us
All of this means so much
and nothing at all.
I wrote this poem last December, in the moments immediately following my weekly Sunday evening long-distance chat with my elderly parents. My dad, still full of life, devouring a novel a week, routinely swimming laps at the Y, and keeping up as best he could with yard work, saw the end closing in.
I, on the other hand, was blind, preferring to live in the moment and not think of the inevitable drawing down that happens to us all – even to big, strong, fathers who’ve lived long, productive lives.
Over the years, he’d reminded me many times, “I’m not going to the home. Just take me out in the yard and shoot me instead.” I’d reassure him that no matter what, we would always take care of him, just as he had always taken care of us.
The decline came quickly. A bout with pneumonia, a series of small strokes, and suddenly, his worst fear was realized. My mom, battling cancer and unable to take care of him, agreed that he needed professional help. He was moved to a rehab center, and then from the rehab center to a long-term care facility, and I was 3,000 miles away, wracked with guilt and sorrow.
“It’s awful,” my sister would say. “He’s so sad. He’s not dad.” A month into his move to the home I arranged a trip back east to see him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair when I got there, connected to an oxygen tank, eyes focused on a small TV on the dresser. This small, cramped room with its linoleum floor and single bed and silent roommate behind an ever-closed curtain was now his home. My stomach heaved. My sister was right – this was not dad. This was not home.
I entered the room slowly. “Hi dad,” I said, touching his shoulder. His head dropped and I watched him crumble. “I don’t belong here. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not bad. I shouldn’t be here.” He shook silently; I turned away. Outside in the hallway, nurses and aides bustled about, phones rang, the intercom squawked. My dad continued to cry softly.
How does it happen, I wondered, that a life comes to this?
Over the next few days, I visited often, heartsick at the reality of his situation. I agreed with him – he didn’t belong here, but what choice did he have? I ran through all the other options and found that nothing else made sense. This didn’t make sense either.
And then, too quickly, I had to say goodbye, leave and fly back to my home, my family, my life. That was a month ago.
My sister keeps me updated with daily email reports from the home front. First, the news that as she wheeled him through the solarium (really, just a hallway lined with plants and comfy chairs that gets good sunlight), he said with great enthusiasm, “I love this room!” Then, the news that he made a friend, Al, the guy down the hall who saves him a place at his table in the dining room. Then the energetic recounting of his wins at cards, and horse racing, and wheel of fortune. Last night, he told her, like a seventh grader, that he was “popular.” All the other residents and the staff like him best. He grinned from ear to ear as he told her.
His days are busy, filled with new friends and activities. He is no longer sitting alone, waiting for the end. He is alive in the moment, making the best of the hand he’s been dealt.
The human spirit is resiliently amazing. Hanging outside the door of every room at my dad’s new residence is a short biography of each person who lives there. Stories of lives spent traveling the world, running companies, raising big families, serving God. While I was visiting, my sister and I walked the halls, reading the biographies, trying to connect them to the frail, wheelchair bound people inside. All those life experiences and memories, loves and losses, joys and sorrows, have led each one of them to their here and now reality. They are not simply echoes of their former selves; they continue to grow, and change, and be. This is life too, and they have transitioned to this time and place, sharing this journey together.
I’ve been trying to think of my dad’s experience there as not unlike being in a college dorm for the first time, away from the only other home you’ve known, unfamiliar with the food, the routines, and the not yet friends who share your circumstance. There’s an inevitable adjustment, and then the big choice – embrace this time and party with all your might, or give up, drop out, miss out, leave.
The last time I talked to my dad he said quite confidently, “I’m not ready to go yet. I don’t want to go.” In the end, we choose life, because we can, because we must.
All of this means so much. It’s everything.

About katemccarrollmoore

Kate Moore’s passion is literacy, and she serves as a mentor teacher and staff developer throughout the greater Bay Area. Kate served three terms as the City of San Ramon's Poet Laureate (2012-2018); she also teaches poetry writing workshops and is an instructor in the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership (MATL) program at St. Mary’s College of California. She was honored as SRVUSD Teacher of the Year in 2007 and San Ramon Chamber of Commerce Educator of the Year in 2009. Kate holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice from California State University, East Bay, an M.A. in Teacher Leadership from St. Mary’s and a B.A. in English Education from SUNY Albany. She and Bob Moore are the proud parents of four beautiful grown daughters, and the smitten grandparents of six beautiful children who fill them with hope for the future.
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