Recently I was reviewing some photographs on my desktop computer, trying to analyze how to control the thousands of digital photographs that I have. Before I knew it, one photograph simply stopped me and diverted my attention. It’s a simple photograph, one I took in the nursing home while Dad was in rehab.
If I were there for a period of time, I tended to pull a chair up close enough to Dad’s bed to rest my feet on it. He might be sleeping and I would be waiting for him to awaken. He might be resting, and I just followed suit.
This photograph is a selfie — one I took. Usually a selfie is of one’s own face; this is of my feet. Why? Because it captured such an ordinary moment that was very typical. Perhaps I was sensing just how short our time left together was to be, or perhaps I just thought it was a fun photo.
In any case, here’s the photo. Look at it. Then I’ll talk about it.
For as long as I can recall, our family has been a very “touchy” family. We hugged a lot. We kissed a lot. We’d hold hands sometimes. One thing that was so typical of Dad is captured here in this photograph. If I were tired, and my feet hurt, he’d give me a foot-rub. With high arches, I find that my feet often ache.
Dad would do this for me, but also for Mother and Phil and Kay. After I moved in with Dad, I regularly gave him foot massages, especially useful the less he walked and the more bedbound he became.
Here, in this instance, I was just normally resting my feet while he was, I thought, sleeping. I was reading. Obviously, he felt the weight of my foot on the bed. Before I knew it, his hand had reached out to hold my foot. He was barely awake; his eyes weren’t even open. But that hand reached out to touch my foot.
How often we forget the power of touch, of contact. In the shared room he occupied in the skilled nursing unit of the nursing home, Dad must have felt irritated at times. I could tell. Sometimes he was really grouchy — to me. Rarely to the staff. Used to privacy and a measure of self-control, here he had neither, really.
At first he spent time reading. We had a television and cable hookup, but he seldom watched anything after a couple of weeks. I have photographs of him, with glasses on, reading a letter from my cousin Mike about some family farm business. He was sharp and interested. Within a few weeks, though, he was content to let me tell him about things. He didn’t read much.
He gradually withdrew more and more. His first week home from rehab was a good one. Though he didn’t read, he watched a bit of television, but lost interest quickly. He visited with our friends and neighbors who dropped by.
The second week, though, was a landslide downhill. Withdrawal into pain, into some other consciousness. He spent lots of time sleeping. He also spent time in pain. The pain meds never really did work well.
But the one thing that never changed: he loved for us to sit by him, to hold his hand. That human connection was still something he wanted, even to the end.
As he drifted in and out of sleep and consciousness, we’d sit by him, rub his forehead, stroke his face, his arms. We’d kiss him and tell him we loved him. No moments for such communication were lost. I know that I cherished every moment, and I’m certain that Kay did as well. Sensing how he was moving away from us, we took advantage of every moment, storing up memories that now have to last for the rest of lives.
We talked and laughed. We watched him turn inward more and more, sleep more and more, moan more.
That last weekend, I spent much time holding his arms, touching him. I had to. I was bandaging and re-bandaging his dialysis shunt, which kept bleeding. I changed sheets. I changed his clothes.
On Sunday we called in hospice, and finally the morphine helped, for a while. On Monday, with the help of hospice, I had to up the morphine in order to control his pain, which had ratcheted up again.
By the last day I hope he was aware of us holding him, even if that holding were meant to keep him from hurting himself. He talked to his mother, wanting to know if they could go home. He’d look right at me and talk to his mother. I answered him that “Yes, we can. It’s okay.”
Strange how that photograph has affected me. I’ve been a bit weepy on and off since then. Mainly, though, I’ve been sad, and melancholy. And grateful, too, for the kind of parents who were never ashamed to show us their love, to tell us that we were loved. More important, perhaps, their actions always embodied that love. Indeed, our larger family retains the kinds of connections we do not out of obligation but out of love and affection.
I’ve driven a lot lately. Maybe that’s one reason that tonight my feet hurt — the arches ache and I guess I’ll need to start taking my restless less syndrome medicine again for a while. That’ll have to do now.
I’d give anything right now if I could put my feet up for him to rub.