My grandmother once told me that the hardest part about getting older was losing everyone who shared a memory with her. We might all know the stories, but we weren’t there at the time, she said. She was 84 when she died. By then she’d outlived most of her friends and all of her sisters and brother.
In a week, my father will turn 84 years old. He’s outlived most of his friends, too. That’s astonishing considering that no one expected my father to live beyond 33. That’s how old he was when he was found to have two brain tumors. We were told their location was so complex the only doctor who would have any chance of successfully removing them was in St. Louis—Dr. Henry Schwartz, at Barnes Hospital. Dr. Schwartz gently told my mother that there was a high probability Daddy would not survive the surgery, and that, if he did, he might need to be institutionalized for the remainder of his life. Yet, it was a certainty that he would die without the surgery.
He survived. He did not require institutionalization. He was severely impaired, at first, and needed a lot of care, which my mother selflessly provided. But then he began to improve. No, he was never the man he was before the surgery, but he was able to return to his life and career as a band director on a limited basis.
My parents had lots of friends. I believe most of them suspected Daddy wouldn’t be with us long—that, as fragile as he was, there was no way he’d survive long-term. They felt sorry for my mom who valiantly rose to the occasion, taking care of Daddy for the next 50 years.
Ironically, most of those friends have died by now. And my mother’s health is failing. But Daddy’s doing fine. He’s healthy and happy. He’s outlived almost all of them.
The surgeries took their toll on him, mentally, though. That once bright mind began slipping. For the last twenty years, he’s drifted away from us in a slow downward spiral. He’s retained his sweetness and charm through it all, but now he’s a mere shell of who he once was.
I still see glimpses. That smile. Those beautiful, soft hands. The kindness. The Southern politeness and propriety. I still get to hold his hand and tell him what’s going on in the family—even though he may not remember who they are.
My father never felt sorry for himself. He counts himself blessed and never complains. Since he requires 24/7 supervision he lives in a nearby nursing home. The other day I took my mom for a visit. They sat together in the day room holding hands.
She asked, “Joe, do you know where you are?” “Yes, I know where I am,” he replied. “Where are you?” she asked. Daddy looked around (and doesn’t really have a clue where he is), but he beamed at her, “I’m somewhere sweet.”
That’s all that counts.