A tech carries sections of a hospital bed up the stairs to Dad’s room. He assembles it and connects a pressure mattress. Its pump emits a low intermittent hum, as it keeps the mattress inflated to the required firmness. Next, he demonstrates the controls – up, down, back, forward, knee support, height. This is how to raise the safety sides. Like a baby’s cot.
Dad doesn’t watch the setup. He’s in his recliner, dappled winter light falling across his face. He drifts in and out of sleep. I tuck a blanket around his wasting frame. He shifts, makes a small sound, then resettles. Nearby, a clock ticks by the days. I close the door gently, then open it a crack. Just in case. I look in on him multiple times. Each time, I hold my breath, worried his might have changed.
After nearly 96 years of work, his heart relies on a defibrillator, the wonder of implanted technology. A monitor on a bedside table wirelessly sends regular data to his cardiologist. Just in case.
Mornings are made up of helping Dad move about the house, administering medications, organising breakfast, settling him for the day. Nights reverse the same. In between, time is punctuated by activities to make life bearable.
This is the rhythm of our days.
Moist eyed, Dad says: “I live my life looking backwards because all I have now are memories.” I fight back tears.
Each day, another bit of independence falls away. His piano accordion, once his faithful daily companion, is silent. Dad can barely lift it. Its weight is nothing compared to the heaviness he carries for the loss of his music; music that connects him to my late mother; music that permeates all my childhood recollections. “Music keeps my brain awake,” he muses. Recalling the remark prompts me to scroll through my music library, searching for a song that might waken me; help articulate myriad feelings numbed by the relentlessness of being a caregiver.
Soon I’m enveloped by Rob Thomas’s gentle piano and paced lyrics. They evoke the inevitable passage of time. Slowly, my emotions loosen, untangle, and find voice – sadness, loss, helplessness. Memories echo within them, the future dampened by their murmurings. If feelings have colour, mine are dark. Is it the silence of Dad’s piano accordion, or his increasing tears that have turned them from bold life-affirming shades to an interminable black that infuses every hour? I crave the light of joy, the bright exhilaration of excitement, the peaceful hues of serenity, the shininess of hope. But, there is nothing to do except keep moving forward.
Each night, I help Dad to bed. Each night, he’s frailer; smaller, somehow.
“I dreamed about your mum last night,” he says as I struggle to edge his socks past his swollen ankles and feet. “She was in her childhood home. She wanted me to stay with her.”
I tell him it’s a beautiful dream. He hangs his head and sobs. I hug him and feel him trembling.
“Never mind,” he says, wiping his eyes. “Never mind.”
Some bone-weary days, I turn to my favourite childhood photographs of Dad and me. He’s 33 years old; fit, with movie star looks. In one, he sits on the grass, and my three-year-old arms circle his neck tightly. In another, I perch on his shoulders. Dad laughs in both. I can’t remember the last time he laughed. Now, I can only cling to the memories of shared laughter woven through our years together. I hold to how blessed I am to still have him in my life. And, every night as I settle him in bed, I tell him I love him. Just in case.
I want to tell Dad not to be afraid, but I’m afraid myself. I assuage the fear by reminding myself we are together, bearing witness to each other’s journey through these final days. Mournful days, yes, but replete with cherished memories, and above all, with love.
Dad nods off again. I rearrange the blanket, brush back wisps of white hair, and kiss the papery pink skin of his forehead.
The room fills with the bed pump’s hum.
Stereo Story #655
Salvatore Romita passed away on Wednesday 17 November, 2021, aged 95.