My heart is talking to me tonight. The ache in my chest takes me back to my father, an evening together twenty years ago. We are watching TV in my parent’s living room. Dad’s heart is damaged but it is not what will kill him. The Parkinson’s he has lived with for fifteen years is closing in around him, taking him over. His world is literally bursting into flames, larger and larger doses of medication distorting his perceptions.
His hand flutters up from rest in his lap, gesturing at an eruption of fire on the rug in front of the TV.
“Do you see that?” turning to me in alarm.
“It’s the meds, Dad. The meds.”
I know about fire by now. I have seen my own life burst into flames. First a heart attack, mild by unexpected. Three months later, another. After surgery, another. Not my father’s struggle with tremors that will only get worse, but fire nonetheless.
“It’s okay, Dad,” reaching across to take his hand and smile reassurance.
“Supper’s on,” Barbara calls from the kitchen where she and the kids are helping my mother.
I get out of the chair and stand in front of my dad. He takes my extended hands reluctantly, then hangs on tight, a proud man embarrassed by his inability to get out of a chair unaided.
I step aside when he gets to his feet. He staggers a bit, then reaches some tenuous equilibrium. I walk just behind him as he shuffles around his chair, through the dining room and into the kitchen. We breathe a collective sigh of relief when he plops safely into his seat at the table.
I sit down across from him, a place I have relished since childhood. Eating with my father is a primetime event. He doesn’t just like food – he adores it. I’m not sure he would win an eating contest with our dog Finnigan, but it would be neck and neck at the finish line.
Dad lights up when the platters arrive. His lips move eagerly as his plate is filled, silverware in hand. Then he’s all in, first forkful making its tremulous way mouthward, food falling off as it goes, shaking aggravated by annoyance, scraps tumbling down into his lap. He throws what is left on the fork into his mouth, then glares down into his lap with disgust. The muscles tighten in his jaw. He exhales indignation. He looks up at me, mouth set, and shakes his head in frustration. I get it, Dad. Then the beginning of a grin – How does he do that? – a smirk and a nod, all smile now, eyes flooding with warmth.
We collapse into our chairs in the living room after dinner and listen in silence to the clatter of dishes from the kitchen. We look at each other and smile our good fortune. This is what we have – plenty – in a small room filling up with flames.
And this is what I have now on a still soft night, the easing ache in my chest. The glacial erosion of age on body and brain, lunacy when vanity wants more. Losses to be sure, but small indeed, unlike anything my Dad had to deal with.
My father has passed now, but lives within me.
Can I learn to live with his grace?
What Remains, page 33