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. Continue reading →