Counting Dad’s Days

Week 1 & Week 2

Dad’s medications were already organized by the time I arrived at the house, dispensed into two identical trays which had been labeled with a Sharpie: Week 1 and Week 2.

I noticed the organizers on the dining room table, and for a moment wondered which of my sisters had filled the plastic compartments — my older sister Mary Lynn, who’s a nurse — or my youngest sister, Susan, who’s a hospice chaplain? I didn’t ask because it didn’t matter. And there was so much else to know.

How to help Dad in and out of his hospital bed, for starters. Mom had asked us to move Dad into his chair, now that he’d woken up from a nap. The hospice people had shown Susan how to move Dad safely. We used a wide webbed belt that clipped around Dad’s chest and had large cloth loops attached. The loops would give us something to grab onto. So Dad sat up and Susan clipped the belt around him. Then we got positioned, one of us on either side of our father.

“Slide your whole forearm under his armpit, like this, and use your other hand to grab the loop, like this, and 1-2-3-UP!”

Hold. Pivot. Re-position. And gently release him into the chair. Get him comfortable with pillows.

“Do we leave the belt on?” I asked. “Or should I slip it off?”

“Leave it,” said Dad. “For next time.”

“Does it remind you of that passage in the gospel of John?” I asked Dad. “About getting old and having a belt put on you?”

Dad didn’t respond at first, and I thought I’d been obtuse.

“I’ve been thinking about that passage all day,” Dad said. “About going where you do not wish to go.”

I kissed his cheek. Then I looked around and blinked. The small den was crowded with unfamiliar equipment. Besides the hospital bed, there was a snakes-nest of oxygen tubing, a wheelchair, a portable commode, and an adjustable bedside table.

When had all this happened? Something was wrong with time. Time had stopped. Or maybe time was spinning, like a frozen computer.

Hadn’t I been with my parents just two months ago? I counted the weeks in my head. Yes, exactly eight weeks ago. We’d spent hours in this room, only there was no hospital bed. Dad had been sitting in his comfortable chair playing Scrabble on his Kindle. He would look up to ask if some combination of letters was a word and I would shake my head No. Then he’d say it was, and play it with a crow of triumph.

Eight weeks ago. No oxygen tubes. No hospital bed. No hoisting him around with a belt.

Once Dad was settled, sister Susan told me to follow her. She picked up the Week 2 organizer and stowed it in the bathroom closet, saying that Week 2 was a long way away. Then she quizzed me to make sure I knew what she’d done. Maybe she had noticed the dazed look in my eyes.

Then we sat down at the dining room table and she picked up the Week 1 tray. There were five compartments for each day: mealtimes, bedtime, and “as needed.”

“Mary Lynn and I filled this the other day,” Susan said. “But everything has already changed. We’re going to discontinue most of his regular meds. There’s no point with taking heart meds and cancer meds. All that matters now is the pain meds.”

She pushed Week 1 aside and picked up a small bottle.

“This is liquid morphine. It’s very fast-acting.” She showed me the measurements along the side of the flat syringe. “I’m still not real comfortable using this, so it helps if there are two of us. You can hold it while I draw it up.”

I had been silent, stunned by her words. Now our eyes met and I wanted to be helpful. After all, I’m a pastor too. I’ve been around death before.

“Then we drop the morphine on his tongue?” I asked.

“Not the tongue — aim for the back of the mouth. So it doesn’t drip out. Every drop is precious.”

Susan closed up the morphine and set it beside Week 1.

I stared at the plastic box. It didn’t matter who Sharpied those words, or who filled the compartments. Week 1 was a guess, nothing more. A hope. An approximation. A matter of dispute.

Week 1 was a futile effort to organize what could not be organized.

Not one of us could number Dad’s days.

Belt or no belt, Dad would have to go where he had to go, where he did not wish to go.

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I'm an essayist, memoirist, and Presbyterian pastor. My books are both spiritual memoirs -- "Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land" and "Ruined."

I welcome your comments.

2 thoughts on “Counting Dad’s Days

  1. Ruth, I am so glad you write and I miss your sermons. You are so eloquent and powerful with your words! They go right to my heart. I spent last summer in PA with my sister Pat as her husband struggled through his last couple months of his battle with lung cancer. You brought me right back to the last few days, except we had no belt. I recall, too well, the pain and despair, trying to hold onto a loved one, with or without a belt. I also remember the day he let me sister know it was time to let go and to let him go where no one wanted him to go.

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