In the last installment of “Virtue and Mischief,” I wrote about my father’s willingness to engage in private, difficult, and (from my perspective) mortifying conversations with me. Over the course of my adolescence we talked about religion, politics, sex, pursuing a calling, and many, many other topics. I found these chats anxiety-inducing as they were occurring, but have come to appreciate them greatly with the passage of time. My friends revealed that their fathers rarely, if ever, did this with them. When I was a teenager I lamented my bad fortune. Now that I am older and a little wiser I thank God for my good.
Dad told me once this penchant of his wasn’t designed just to convey or elicit important information. “No,” he once confided, “I have a strong Polonian impulse, Timothy. It’s extremely difficult for me to keep my mouth shut when I think I have something worth saying. And I always think I have something worth sharing. Plus, it’s a father’s prerogative to embarrass his children. It’s also one of the few perks of the job.” I should note that dad felt it impertinent of me to point out that Polonius (the chatty chief counselor in “Hamlet”) gave terrible advice and ended up being killed by Hamlet, the fellow to whom he delivered his pearls of wisdom.
“Details,” he replied. “Tedious details.”
Flash forward 40 years or so, to Anno Domini 2018, just a couple of days after Christmas. It had been many, many years since we last had one of these father-son talks. Decades, in fact. Krista, the amigos and I were visiting my parents at their retirement community in West Lafayette, Indiana when my father tugged me gently on the arm.
“Timothy, I need to talk to you about some things.” His tone and his countenance revealed the topic was serious and time-sensitive.
“Okay, sure dad.” I followed him back to his study, an area sequestered from the rest of the apartment, secured by an impressive wall of Psychology, Philosophy, and Theology oriented books and a phalanx of various journals.
He pulled out a small, round, metal combination foot-stool and step ladder and placed it in front of me. “Here, sit on this a moment.” He stood, and at 5’ 7” he towered over my seated body. I was in his territory now. My frail 92-year-old father became an imposing 50-year-old man again, and I quickly transformed into an uncertain, geeky 15 year old. How strong the power of history, of family relationships fueled by tens of thousands of prior interactions, of a couple of feet of height differential!
“Timothy,” he said again, “I need you to pay careful attention. Look,” he pointed to two filing cabinets. “Everything is in here. All our financial information. All our legal information. Everything pertaining to our funerals, the disposition of property after we’re gone, all the plans, everything. I’ve organized everything as well as I can, and it’s quite detailed, so that will help you. But even in the best of circumstances, it’s a colossal hassle. I can’t take that away. Sorry. It is what it is.”
“Don’t worry, dad. We’ll take care of it. Relax.”
He proceeded to walk me through all the insurance and financial documents – the location, the details, the parties involved – everything. Then he gently shut the filing cabinets and sat down next to his desk and immediately in front of me.
“But Tim, here’s what I really need to talk with you about. This is…hard for me.”
I shuddered. In my 57 years of life I had never heard him say those words.
“You’re not stupid. You’re perceptive. I know that you know that your mother is slipping a little mentally. She forgets things she’s said or done three minutes prior. And because she’s the one who had more physical problems over the past several years, I always thought that it was likely she would die first. That would have been difficult for me, of course, but….”
“It would have been preferable, under the circumstances. But, Timothy, I’m 92, I’ve been caring for your mother in ways I’ve never had to care for her before, and I’m tired. Really, really tired. It’s not going to be all that long now. And for the first time since I first began contemplating such things, it strikes me as quite possible – likely, maybe – that I’m going to die first … and that’s a scary proposition … because your mother can’t do it alone after I’m gone. She absolutely must be placed in the assisted living wing here. Otherwise, she could burn this place down. She would certainly forget various medications. She needs to be cared for, Timothy. She deserves to be cared for.” My sometimes stoic, hard-as-nails father had tears in his eyes, borne from concern for his bride of 70 years. I noted his emphasis on the word “deserves” and nodded.
“Yeah, dad, I know. We all know. We’ll make sure mom’s taken care of.”
“I know it’s probably silly, but you must promise.”