family & parentinggetting older

My father, in the days before his death

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As everyone knows and fears, our final days resemble our first, in their helplessness, in their inadvertent comedy, and in their nearness to an unknowable existence. I am reminded of these patiently waiting realities every time I visit my father, now 95 years old, at the nursing home, and slowly convey to his mouth quarter-teaspoons of pureed rye bread, carrots, ham, and vanilla pudding.

Taste and touch are his only remaining senses. He has been deaf, or close to it, for about five years now. And he has lost nearly all his sight due to an untreatable form of macular degeneration and the residual damage caused by an accidental splash of acid at the factory where he labored most of his adult life. This happened when his first child, my older sister, was a toddler, and I am told that he cried in the hospital, thinking that he would never again be able to see her. Interestingly, the first sign of dementia that he displayed, a few years back, was his sudden and puzzling inability to remember or recognize her.

From what I have been able to surmise, his sense of smell is gone, too. As a result, his sense of taste is blunted, but he nonetheless wrinkles his nose when I (or to be more accurate, the aides at the nursing home, since I rarely feed him myself) give him something he doesn’t like, such as pureed pears.

If I were to define my father solely in terms of his relationship with food, I could nevertheless draw a fairly accurate portrait of his life. As a child in Europe, he and his siblings survived, in part, by stealing fruit and bolting down raw potatoes right out of the ground. He mimed for me, once, the way he’d brush the dirt off the potato before crunching into it.

He expressed for me his feelings about escaping to this country as a teenager in terms of the puzzlement and joy he felt at America’s bounty, even in the depths of the Depression. At his first meal in an American café, he recounted, he was served a half of a canned peach in syrup and thought how strange it was that in this country people ate raw eggs with a spoon. He also was served his first ham and cheese sandwich at that meal, and remembered it fondly for decades thereafter.

In his early twenties, he took an extended trip to Latin America after a failed romance with an artist’s model (he was a lifelong and highly accomplished Sunday painter of Impressionist-style landscapes, portraits, and nudes.) While in southern Mexico, he contracted dysentery, and forever after hated Mexican food because he associated it with his illness. Nonetheless, in later years, when my sister and brother and I were arguing about where to go for dinner, and “Mexican” won out as it often did, he would shrug in his usual diffident way, and take us there, and eat the food himself. Needless to say, it wasn’t until we were much older that we realized that he’d been doing so solely for us.

We didn’t go out to eat very often, and sometimes missed meals entirely, for complicated reasons. It is sufficient to say that, on the frequent occasions when there was a gap in our meals, my father often stepped in after work and made us chicken soup that was dense with egg noodles, or thick hamburgers, or skirt steaks, or brought home sacks of Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches.

When he finally retired from the hellacious aluminum smelting factory where he worked, he painted every day, and made himself modest dinners, almost always accompanied by coffee and raisin bread, which he loved. The day we decided to put him in a nursing home was the day he put some raisin bread in the oven, forgot about it, and started a small fire that filled the entire floor of his apartment building with smoke.

Up until about two years before he went into the nursing home, he shopped on his own, walking slowly up the steep stairs to his apartment with his few small bags of groceries. He’d had a temporary paralytic condition called Guillain Barre Syndrome in his late seventies, and the shopping was good therapy for his leg muscles. But near the end, when it got to be too much for him, I would take him to the supermarket, and get far more frustrated with his slowness than he ever did with mine, back when I was a toddler.

Now, his days revolve around his beyond-bland meals, sleep, and visits from my sister and me. A couple of years ago, when his dementia was medium-bad, he was given to making florid statements after a meal. One time, he announced to the entire dining room, “Thank you all for this wonderful banquet. I can assure you all that I don’t deserve it.” Another time, he declared, “All of this food is so aristocratic. They must have a kingly chef here. Even the water tastes aristocratic!” It isn’t hard to imagine that these statements were a remnant of his raw-potato past.

These days, he is mostly silent. Today at noon I will visit him for Father’s Day, and thank him for those meals he cooked at home, and the Mexican meals he consumed without protest, and the way in which, through all the obstacles of an anti-Semitic Europe, and a global Depression, and a terrible marriage, and a miserable job in a factory, he still managed to give my brother and sister and me a life that was better than his.

At today’s visit, he’ll eat as an infant eats, and will not understand our Father’s Day wishes, but I would like to imagine that the pureed ham will stir a distant memory of that first American feast, when he was happy, and on the brink of a new existence.

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7 Responses to “My father, in the days before his death”

  1. This is beautifully written, Michael. Pls. see If the link doesn’t work, go to YouTube and look for “What Is It?” You will like it.

  2. Thank you, Michael Antman.

  3. lovely story

  4. Getting older sucks – for the individual and for the individual’s loved ones… but we must deal with what we are dealt. I hope you had a nice day yesterday (despite the terrible weather).

  5. Very touching and beautifully written. I often wonder what memories my kids w/have of me. I am sure it will be things that would surprise me. Do you have any of his paintings?

  6. Thank you, Bill. And happy Father’s Day!

    Yes, I still have many of his paintings. He sold a handful at some small art shows when he was younger, and a few years ago, when he was still living but in the nursing home, we sold a great many at a yard sale. I liked the idea that his paintings would be hanging in the homes of my neighbors in Wilmette and Winnetka. Now, I still have forty or fifty in my basement, and a couple of others hanging in the house, including two portraits of me that I cherish. Various friends and relatives have others.

  7. A beautiful, insightful and touching essay, Michael. Your father would be very proud of you. Well done.

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