My father’s world bursts into flames, larger and larger doses of medicine in a losing battle with Parkinsons. His hand flutters up from rest in his lap, gesturing in alarm at the eruption of flames on the rug in front of the TV across the living room.

“Do you see that?”, turning to me in distress.

“It’s the meds, Dad. The meds.”

I know about fire by now. I have seen my own life burst into flames. A heart attack, mild but unexpected. Three months later, another. And another. Not my father’s slow-motion descent – imprisonment in his withering neurology, the tremors that will only get worse.

Fire none-the-less.

“It’s ok, Dad,” reaching across to take his hand, smile some reassurance.

“Supper’s on,” Barbara calls from the kitchen where she and the kids are helping my mom.

I get out of my chair and stand in front of my dad. I extend my hands. He takes them 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 on his feet. He staggers a bit at first, 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 down into his chair. An unsteady voyage to be sure, but no head-banging dive in the direction of the Frigidaire.

I sit down at the table 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 food. I’m not sure if he would win an eating contest with our dog Finnegan, 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, utensils in hand. He’s all in now, first forkful making its tremorous 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 directly at me, mouth set, shaking his head in frustration. I get it, Dad. Then the beginning of a grin – How does he do that? – eyes softening as it takes over his face. A smirk, a good-natured nod, another. All smile now, eyes flooding with warmth.

After dinner, over-eaters both, we collapse into our chairs in the living room. We listen in silence to the clatter of dishes from the kitchen, and smile our good fortune. This is what we have – plenty – in a small room filling up with flames.

4 Responses to HEART

  1. Kendra Shepherd October 28, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    Wonderful, Mr. Otterbacher!

  2. Mark Osbourne October 28, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    Uncle John, I can picture the scene every step of the way. Even though that wasn’t Grandpa at his best, thanks for the memory of him. I still miss him.

  3. Ann October 31, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    Beautiful writer John, having lived that with Dad as well, i was able to imagine this as you live with the flames of Parkinsons!

  4. Al Walczak November 15, 2014 at 12:48 pm #


    Thanks for sharing this. My relationship with my 88-year-old father is transforming into something like you’ve illustrated. Sharing a moment in time, as you’ve done, accomplishes more than what I could try to describe of that changing relationship. My father keeps the power but his body is changing. It is as hard for him to accept the need for my assistance as it is for me to have to give it. Yet, the privilege and honor that accompany those acts are humbling to me. I sense he is sincerely appreciative, but I think as much for the manner in which the help is offered, as the help itself. It is a tough rope to walk, with no other guide but love. I too am thankful for this inevitable part of life, oddly, in a way that defies description. Thanks for showing how you live it.