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Shambhala Sun | January 2014


Dad's Happiness

In her widowed father’s pale, hopeful face, ANN NICHOLS saw that everything her mother had fallen for in a Cambridge apartment fifty years earlier was still alive in him. Why should he be limited to a life without the possibility of romance? 

Ten years ago my mother developed congestive heart failure and eventually required a kidney transplant. Although she struggled to maintain their schedule of social events, travel, and post-retirement wish fulfillment, she eventually gave in to a slow invalid life that infuriated her on a daily basis. My father assumed the role of caretaker, taking her to medical appointments and sleeping in hard plastic hospital chairs. Through his own Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and radiation, he sorted her pills and tried to cook things that would tempt her flagging appetite.

Last October, she died. We were all there—my brother and I on either side of her and my father stroking her thin, white hair. As her breaths grew slower, I practiced the Buddhist meditation practice of tonglen, taking in her suffering and sending her peace and love. I knew that as the waves of her pain receded, mine were rushing in.

Although I’d never worried about being the child of divorce, I had fretted since childhood about losing my parents to death. And losing my mother was in every way as hard as I feared it would be. It was, it seemed, an end to everything that had been my family.

Within a month of my mother’s death, my father had a recurrence of cancer and a third surgery. There were complications, and for three months he could neither speak nor swallow. After ten days in the hospital, he was sent home with a tube in his stomach through which he was to consume highly caloric, almond-scented liquid. The tremors in his hands and his general weakness made it impossible for him to feed himself. He could not pour the formula neatly into the 60cc syringe; he could not grind up his medications and mix them with the formula. I moved back to my childhood home and became his live-in nurse.

For those months we existed in a gentle, routine-bound cocoon. Physical therapists, speech therapists, nurses, and the occasional visitor came and went, but mostly it was just the two of us. I missed my own house, my husband, my son, and my dogs, but it was healing to be in that house as I tested the depths of my grief. Every four hours I fed my father, and between feedings I cleaned out my mother’s closet, her drawers, and her office. I wore her slippers, used her lip balm, and slept in one of her sweaters. I meditated daily: observe the pain, let it be, let it pass.

One night after the 11 p.m. feeding, my father noticed that I’d been crying. “Do you want to talk about your mother?” he asked, as I coiled up the protruding plastic tubing and cinched it with Velcro. “I’m afraid I haven’t been very good about that.”

I shook my head and kissed his forehead. “No,” I said. “I talk to her all the time.”

He nodded, and I left him to drift into Percocet sleep.

Sometime in the final month of my nursing stint, my father mentioned a woman he’d met in the neighborhood.

Read the full article inside the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Illustration (detail) by Tara Hardy

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