My Father’s Hands

Mark 9:2-9 – the 7th Sunday of Epiphany/Transfiguration Sunday – for February 19, 2012

“…This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

(Written after visits with my father on January 31 & February 1. He died a few days later on Monday, February 6, 2012*. This is a longer than usual “And Yet” reflection…please forgive my lack of brevity.)

Dementia has transfigured my father.

Unlike Jesus’ transfiguration, there is no mountaintop or disciples or mysterious appearances of Moses and Elijah.

Perhaps it’s self-serving to suggest there’s anything similar about the changes to my 95-year old father (and to my family because of his illness) with Jesus’ transformative moment in the Gospel stories.

I’m fine with self-serving. Let me manipulate the Gospel for the sake of my own sanity. Let me rationalize the dull thrum of my father’s anguished decline by claiming parallels in the good news of Jesus Christ. As my father nears death, I’ll embrace any insights or interpretations that may add clarity to this unsettling last chapter of his life.

If there’s no mountaintop, I can at least gaze through the second-story window of his memory care facility. It frames a stately evergreen tree. The branches spread across a lawn and patio like a dowager grown happily fat with excess. The tree sways in the breeze, providing a bright contrast to the gray winter days. When I glance through my father’s sliding glass door (bolted shut so he won’t bolt), I imagine the natural coolness the tree creates, even on the hottest summer days, when it shades the basketball court-sized area beneath my father’s window.

My father's hand...holding it on January 31, 2012

I hold my father’s hand, listen to his breathing, watch the branches waltz in the wind.

During my elementary and middle school years, we lived on a street named La Sierra, or the mountains. On summer evenings, home from work, Dad would often smack grounders or short fly balls to me. Our yard was shaped like two squares—one small, one large—pressed together. Dad stood in the small square, the house’s L-shape his backdrop, and swung the bat. Ball after ball dribbled or rocketed toward me, the kid with the glove and the smile in the middle of the big square. How many times did those sessions take place during childhood summers? A hundred. A thousand? Enough to become a treasured memory. I see him now, strong hands gripping the smooth wood of the bat, launching a ball. Did I know then how precious the time was? Of course not . . .

Though a literal or metaphoric Moses and Elijah never appear (as they did in Jesus’ transfiguration), there are helpful aides for my father. Like the revered lawgiver and prophet, the aides come and go. Paid by the hour, and likely paid poorly, the blue-shirted employees brush my father’s teeth, clean his shit and reposition him to avoid bedsores. Their care for him is an endless contest between failure and success. Like a pendulum, he swings from vague compliance to active resistance. Mostly incoherent, there’s no doubt about his intentions when he growls and attempts to shove or grab someone. It’s easier for the aides when my mother visits. Does he really, especially at this stage, know who she is? I can’t say. While we aren’t sure if he has Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia or vascular dementia (my amateur guess is vascular), I’m confident he knows mother is special. But does he know her as his bride of 70 years? If his eyes are open, his gaze follows her like a child sizing up dessert. She matters, and her presence allows for the lawgivers and prophets—those blue-shirted aides—to do their work.

I hold my father’s hand, listen to his breathing, watch the branches waltz in the wind.

When the 1929 stock market crashed and burned, Dad was thirteen. Between that devastating event and when he voluntarily joined the Army Air Corps a year before Pearl Harbor, his work ethics were shaped. Nothing was a given; everything a struggle. Like many of his contemporaries, Dad attended the school of hard-knocks. After World War II, and after securing a boring job with the phone company, Dad struck out on his own to sell life insurance. By all accounts he was a success. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers, Dad came home nearly every night. He made sure to hit those fly balls my way. But he also invited me to ride the Sacramento countryside as he checked his far-flung clients. Some were farmers, their verdant land sprawling across acres of California’s Central Valley. I now know he’d spend years developing relationships with those farmers—and his other clients—long before selling them a dollar of insurance. He’d chat and listen and recall details about their farm or family. At whatever point he made his sales pitch, his words were based on well-earned knowledge instead of market-driven clichés. I see him now, hands firmly wrapped around the steering wheel, guiding his car over narrow roads bisecting lush farmland. Dad would tell me who owned what property, or how, in his last visit, a farmer had become a parent or grandparent.

Jesus’ transfiguration—glorious and dazzling, mythic and momentous—turned his clothes white. Did his face glow? Did his skin shimmer, as if diamonds sparkling in a jewelry case? While the Gospel accounts don’t overwhelm with detail, the disciples were stunned. What they saw and heard (for Mark, Matthew and Luke all had a divine voice proclaim Jesus as “beloved”) not only transfigured the Nazarene, but all who’d follow would be forever transformed. When Peter, James and John hurried down the mountain, warned to keep quiet, the Gospel writers loudly claimed an undeniable belief: yesterday’s disciples and today’s believers, follow one who is beloved of God. There was a “before” and “after.” Is the transfiguration story a literary device, a storyteller’s trick to recycle Moses’ fearfully bright face after encountering God or to foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection? Perhaps. Do I wish to argue the transfiguration’s veracity? Nope. Why not?

Because transfigurations do occur. Faces glow or dim in joy, anger, hope and failure. We blush red. We’re as pale as a ghost. Whether or not we hear divine voices—and the craziest and sanest have—we can never fully describe the transformative events of our lives. We can never explain how it felt to say, or be told, “I love you.” Sure, we’ve shared I love you multiple times, but wasn’t there one person, one moment, where I love you couldn’t be contained by any simple sentence or brilliant metaphor? Or if tragedy rules, where lives are damaged (yes, transfigured) we’ll still, whether a high school dropout or Pulitzer Prize-winner, sound more foolish than articulate. From the greatest victory to the meanest defeat, no transfiguration can be adequately expressed by words.

My father’s transfiguration—far, far from the Gospels’ bedazzled accounts—is as real as it is unsettling.

Dementia robs memories, smiles, conversations and even a routine “thank you.” It is a thief stealing the valuable jewels and household junk, never caring about the differences. Now that swallowing is difficult for him, and soon (weeks, months) will be impossible, it’s “official” my father is dying. A big man—solid, never fat—he sheds weight. His skin is pale, easily bruised. His breathing is more problematic . . . the “oxygenation levels” have decreased according to the hospice nurse. My father is trapped in a hospital bed, a human glacier grinding down his caregiver wife and underpaid aides. Where has his face or body or personality gone? Transfigured? Should I use that word? It seems accurate in the worst sense. But I also think of him as ruined or wrecked.

And yet not . . .

I hold my father’s hand, listen to his breathing, watch the branches waltz in the wind.

My father's hands, ready to support my younger sister...

Almost eleven when my younger sister was born, I recall Dad’s hands cradling her before she could walk or speak. She had wide eyes for joy, was prune-faced when she cried. Her displeasure and discomfort came by interpretation; excitement and contentment were more obvious, though still interpretations. Dad’s hands reached out to help her risk a first step or clapped to support her first words. I remember.

Now, weak and dying, my father is not unlike the child he once supported with his hands, his hard work and shared parenting. Close to death, he is a 95-year old infant. Dementia has made him as helpless as a newborn.

I’ll be brutally, shamefully honest. When I journey to visit, about once a month, I sit beside him and have awful thoughts that sprout like weeds. As the evergreen gently sways outside his window, I wonder: if Dad and I had ever talked about ending his life if an illness as dismal as dementia afflicted him . . . would I follow through? I study his transfigured, ruined face, and gaze at the pillow he awkwardly rests on. What if I placed the soft cushion over his mouth and nose? What if I leaned into him, holding on for dear life and dear death? Once he was a giant, a man who chose to swing a bat that lofted an in-the-yard fly ball . . . but he could’ve slugged it far beyond the fence. Now, though, he’s a feeble old man. I could do it. I could end his lifeless life.

No. We never talked. (But those thoughts creep in, cockroaches in the dark, hungry wolves circling the soul’s campfire.)

I let the thoughts go. On my best days—or maybe my least worst days—I hear a divine voice. Beloved. I follow Jesus. I follow the Beloved. I claim to see others—the stranger, the enemy, the faithless and foolish—as my neighbor.

And therefore, beside this bed, beside my father, I remember.

Not the remembrance of a youth in a backyard game. Not the remembrance of a kid sitting proudly in the passenger seat. Not the remembrance of trusting Dad’s strong hands as he supported my sister. But the remembrance of my faith. My weak faith. My questioning faith. My futile faith. But faith nonetheless that holds onto my God and holds onto my Dad’s hand and believes with all of my broken heart that this man is beloved.

Aren’t we all, in the moments that matter, transfigured? In our days and decades, we confront evolution, revolution and redemption. Or we resist every change . . . and yet we are still changed. Welcome or not, noticed now or later, transformative experiences continuously define and redefine us.

After a blue-shirted aide has left, and while my mother fusses over her husband, cleaning his eyes with a moist washcloth, I ask Dad, “Could you squeeze my hand?”

Branches sway. Voices fade. Somewhere disciples stumble down a mountain.

My father doesn’t respond. He cannot. This cruel illness snatches away his past, present and future. He can no longer grip a bat or steering wheel or my sister. And so, for he is beloved, I cradle Dad’s hand and squeeze. It is not much, but it is what I can do.

 

*Thanks be to God for the life of George Patten, my Mom’s beloved husband for 69 years; the father of Valerie, Larry and Tammy; grandfather of Brian and Rachel.

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28 Comments

  1. Beautifully written with such strong images. Thank you for sharing this – Marilyn Harper posted it. Having both my parents die young (age 40 and 60) and having held my youngest sister (11 years younger as was yours) as she died, it was moving to read someone’s well crafted and Spirit-filled thoughts on an aging parent and death. Many thanks and may your grieving journey bring growth and insight, Tracy in Denver

    1. Hi Larry, Tammy forwarded your tribute to your father to me. It is beautiful and touched me deeply. When I would visit your parents with Valerie, your Dad always loved to hug me when I came and went! He said I was the best hugger EVER! And he would hug me tightly….I always loved his hugs too because he was so tall and me so short (5’2″!) that it felt like I was wrapped in this big warm plush blanket. Those are the memories I cherish and hold tightly in my heart. I just recently heard of his passing. Blessings to you all and Mr. P will be in my prayers.

  2. What a beautiful tribute to your father and writing to aid in dealing with end of life. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Somehow your reflections about your father make me remember my own thoughts of my father in his final years. When you spoke about traveling the farm roads of Sacramento to visit trusted clients/friends of your father’s, I think back to all of the different salesmen/friends who sat at our kitchen table, drinking coffee, chatting about the weather, and conducting necessary business. My father’s hands were cracked and calloused from doing what he called “honest work.” Days in the fields also left him with a white forehead and a brown face, a true farmer’s tan, yet I remembered his hands most.

    When I was three, I sliced my foot in half after jumping off of a chair onto a peanut can. Long story short, after surgery and 128 stitches, a day or two in St. Agnes, it was my father who carried me around the house during the first six weeks. When time came to change the bandages, he unwrapped my foot, applied the ointment, and re-bandaged my tiny foot. Those hard strong hands cradled my little leg and softly eased the old gauze off of the sole of my wound and delicately dressed my damaged foot.

    Years later when I was eating breakfast before school, he would come through the kitchen door shivering from working in the cold field, As he passed me, he would put his cold hand on the back of my neck just to hear me scream. there was nothing that he liked better than to her his daughters scream at one of his pranks.

    I watched those hands hold the newspaper, catch snakes, fix fences, weld equipment, drive a tractor, saddle a horse, and fly a kite. Memories flood my mind,yet these hands are no more. In his final years those work hardened hands softened and became weak and painful from arthritis. From time to time I would catch him grimace and glance down in disgust at the hands that had defined him for so many years, hands that had transformed into feeble remnants of the powerful paws that had once seemed invincible.

    During his final hour my sister Sandy, my daughter Katherine, and I held Dad’s hands as he slipped further and further from this world. His limp hands, increasingly cold as the vitality of his life waned, lay in our warm hands. This once strong man moaned and struggled in the helpless moments of the final hour; when speech no longer mattered, we held hands with this man who had been our anchor.

    The transformation of death changes all of us. I know the change of living without the pater, even though I admit to occasionally resenting my loss. My heart goes out to you as you as you travel through this unfamiliar territory of the patriarch. May you find peace during this trying time. May you find comfort in fond memories of a man who first showed you a father’s love, taught you how to weather tough times, and helped you believe in goodness though his life.

  4. Wow Larry,
    Thanks for sharing that. Immensely powerful. And also wonderfully illuminating. About faith, life, death. Thank you.
    Thoughts and prayers with your mom, yourself, your sisters and all your family at this time.
    Grace and peace.

  5. Larry,
    I read your tribute to your dad and cried–for you, for your mom and family, for those precious memories, in thanks for your raw and honest questions and faith in the tough long walk. I recall other stories you’ve shared and written about this hard journey watching him go–over the years with his dementia. You and Jeanie, your mom, sisters and family are in my thoughts and prayers. Theresa

  6. Hello Larry,
    I’m sorry about your father’s death. What a wonderful tribute to your father.
    Of course you will miss him, but it is a joy to think of him beside our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May God Bless you and your family.
    Peace in Christ,
    Deloris

  7. Final communication and love shared through the clasp of hands. Thanks for sharing your love story!

    Love and Blessings, Linda

  8. Larry, Your tribute to your father was forwarded to me. Your father and I once had a very close relationship. We enjoyed each others company and working together on various Church Boards. We spent many days visiting some of his old customers and business associates. He knew many out of the way places to have lunch. I remember that he always parked his car as far away as possible to prevent scratches and dings. We worked together on many projects. He was the spark that started many new plans. We often had breakfast together and spent the time discussing a new projects. We had a disagreement about how head off a problem with our pastor. We both knew what was needed but did not agree on how to do it. This has always been a thorn in my side. Since then, I often ran into your dad. At our last meeting he asked if I was ready for a breakfast. We were not able to set a date, now its too late. Larry, I am glad that he was more that just another church member, he was a true friend and shall be sorely be missed. Norman and Retta.

    1. Mr. Rasmussen!! Well, that’s how I always addressed you when I was a kid. Thanks for your kind thoughts about Dad. His last years were tough, but I often thought of those wonderful days at church when we were all younger…he and Mom treasured their relationships with you, and so many others.

  9. Larry I am SO glad I took the time to read your ever so honest thoughts about your Father and life and memories and the dementia. What a wonderfully gifted writer you are! Our daughter worked with 12 patients on a dementia ward. She poured her heart and soul into each one and continually implored the other workers to cherish each one as Beloved by God. When she decided she needed to resign, she shared her reasons with each patient whether they seemed to hear or not. Before her last day each person experienced a moment of clarity and each expressed how grateful they were for her exquisite care. She felt as though she was standing on holy ground as they cited specific acts she had done that she had not thought were even noticed, let alone remembered. I share this with you, Larry, because even though your father was not able to squeeze your hand, I believe with all of my heart he deeply treasured your loving presence and was filled with the same warm glowing memories. Shalom to you and your family as you manuever through this new season in all of your lives.

  10. Larry thank you for putting into words some of the pain I, too, am feeling. I have a similar ‘hands’ picture from the day of my father’s death on Jan. 11 of this year. The pain is still fresh and your words were a sweet comfort I needed!

  11. Larry,
    Thank you so much for your precious words. I was able to sit down and read this without tears blinding my sight and treasure every word and image. Love you!!

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