My mother passed away seven months ago, and my father has seemingly adjusted well to being a widower. My mother used to take care of the social aspect of their lives: birthday cards, thank you cards, anniversaries, outreach phone calls, that sort of thing. She was also, of the two, the more outgoing: at her funeral, people spoke about her winning smile, her gregarious nature.
Now my father has taken up these tasks and done so with some relish, finding comfort in the tasks of making sure the birthday cards arrive on the right date and that notes (consolatory, just-to-say-hi-and-checking-in) go out. Her passing has expanded his network.
The mornings are best for him, he’s said, when he gets to do his chores and visits. The afternoons are slow, he’s said; he tries to read but falls asleep, and there are only so many errands to run in a day.
My sister, who lives the next town over, checks in on him daily, but she has her own load to carry, with a husband undergoing cancer treatments (luckily, he’s not incapacitated by them, and they seem to be doing him some healing good). The Marvelous María Beatriz and I are three hours away, so there isn’t much of the daily we can do with him or for him.
But my dad seems to be okay, to be doing okay.
Each day, though, is another day of getting older for him, and this he knows as well. The MMB and I visited him last weekend: spent the day at Sturbridge Village (which is about 20 minutes from his house) and took him out for dinner. He really enjoyed himself, getting into earnest conversations with the artisans about tinsmithing, musketry, cabinet-making, and reveling in memories of his childhood, which included many of the same chores the villagers of Sturbridge 1830 had, like fighting off the Rhode Island Red rooster protecting his brood to get to the eggs in the coop (it was my father’s job to gather the eggs and clean out the coop) and canning vegetables and other produce on a coal stove in an unair-conditioned kitchen on the second floor. It both amazed him and did not amaze him that a century separated the days of the villagers and his days as a child in New London, Connecticut: after all, we’ve had great hopes
for progress, but many people living in the 21st century really haven’t made it into the 21st century yet.
He is also scheduled for surgery to repair an abdominal aneurism, and there is some concern about whether an irregularity he’s had in his heartbeat for some years puts him at greater risk during the surgery (surgery always being a non-zero risk activity). We can tell he’s a little thrown by this because it highlights his vulnerability as an aging man. He’s always been one to keep active (he is the kind of man who has “do push-ups” on his to-do list), but when we were walking around Sturbridge Village, he had to take more frequent rest stops, admitting at one point that “I’m running out of steam,” and the crick he’s had in his lower spine from a previous injury and surgery seemed to pitch him a few “old man geezer” degrees more forward: a little more stooped, a little slower, a little less sure in his footing.
But we had a great time together and promised that we’ll do this again, perhaps at Mystic Seaport, which is not far from where he grew up. I have no doubt that we will be able to keep that promise with him: the doctors will be properly cautious about his heart, the surgery will proceed without incident, and the old man will heal quickly.
What an enormous distance between our caretaking for this simple and treasured man and the troubles roiling billions of lives throughout the world. At least for him we can do some things. We can’t hold back the tide, but we entertain him, we can soothe him, we can bury him with respect, we can honor his memory. He is DNA-close to us, he is an elder of our tribe, and given how our brains and bodies are built and have evolved, this is a fate that doesn’t feel fated or punishing.
But what bridge over the chasm between that and all the rest? (Much like the question of how quantum physics ever morphs into the physics of big things.) The answer is both obvious and unsatisfying because it requires a continual and exhausting effort to calibrate the compassion given to one man to the people in the concentric circles of intimacy: friends, semi-friends, professional contacts, completely unknown to me. The calibration always falls short, is misdirected, is misunderstood, is dangerous, is completely ineffectual, but there is some moral imperative (coming from where? agreed to by whom?) that we should keep trying to recalibrate, that the world is bettered by our trying (romantic myth? actual fact?).
Right now, I feel that my best efforts of my best self should go towards the MMB and her recovery, my father and his recovery, my brother-in-law and his recovery, my sister and her recovery from her husband’s travails (and her own continuing recovery from cancer), and the cats: a big enough tribe for now. We’ll continue to give our “monthly sustainer donations” to the organizations we support (check: circle of impersonal contacts), and we will revel in making dinner for friends on the back deck (as soon as the weather softens).
When we say goodbye and I embrace my father, I can feel the knobs of his spine and the scratch of his beard against my cheek. This is life-purpose enough at this moment.