What Christmas gift do you give someone whose plan is to die soon?
That’s what I struggled with for weeks before Christmas this year.
You could offer my dad, 85, a million dollars right now, and he’d say, “What good’s that gonna do me? I’ll be gone by summer.”
My parents live alone, isolated in Arnold, three hours from San Ramon. All the neighbor friends their age have died or moved away. All their close friends have died.
Dad has severe leg pain and can’t walk unassisted. Mom can’t remember where her bedroom is at times and, yet, they refuse to move.
Their home is now a prison of their own making.
My brother and I arranged to bring a caregiver to the house. That’s helping. A little. She makes sure they take their meds, gives Dad showers, cuts his hair and takes Mom for walks.
Mom loves her. Dad gripes about the cost.
I dreaded making the long, windy drive to see them this Christmas Eve. Scared I would experience a rewind of last Thanksgiving when Mom thought I was her niece and they bickered constantly like the anything-goes guests on Jerry Springer.
Instead, I was happily surprised to see Dad’s coloring looking better. He was still a bit grumpy, but not nearly as bad as Thanksgiving. Maybe the interaction with the caregiver was helping?
Mom was still forgetful but not as bewildered as she seemed a few weeks before.
Dad sat on the big brown leather chair he almost never leaves now, staring at a blaring 49er game on the television.
I handed him his present, wrapped in red paper.
“That big thing’s for me?” he said, smiling.
He had no idea how I struggled for weeks, trying to think of a gift for him. I even asked a friend for help. He suggested I give him something to remember the good old days.
So as I was in my bed late one night, reading this incredibly challenging book on the super string theory, which I totally wasn’t understanding. However, reading it somehow mysteriously helped my ADD Silly String brain switch gears to come up with the perfect gift idea: A simple radio/CD player.
Something to listen to instead of the TV all day. Small enough to be right next to him in the living room. He could listen to CDs or the radio, check the weather, sports shows.
But what would Dad think? Lately he doesn’t think anything’s a good idea.
Watching him unwrap the gift, my stomach tightened. Will he hate it?
Dad smiled. "Hey, look at that."
I helped him get it out of the box and Dad acted very pleased.
I let my Mom open the CD’s. I bought Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra, thinking of what my friend advised, to give him something to remember old times.
My hope originally was that Dad would turn the TV off and we could spend some peaceful time together listening to music. But, no. The game continued to roar as loud as ever on the TV while Johnny and Dad sang together.
And Folsom Prison Blues isn't exactly a Christmas song. “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” Dad crooned from his chair.
Funny thing? He looked as happy as I’ve seen him in more than a year singing that song.
It seemed like it was going to be a pretty happy Christmas for us after all. But right before I had to leave, Dad said something to Mom to make her cry.
I spent our last few minutes together, hugging and consoling her. “He doesn’t mean it, Mom. It’s the pain talking, not Dad.”
“I know it,” she said, wiping tears. “I love him so much. He’s so good to me.”
The 65 years they’ve been together seems to have blurred the line between love and hate.
I carried her tears home with me but tried to think mostly of Dad singing along with his old pal, the Man in Black.
I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine,
Since, I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin' on,
But that train keeps a-rollin',
On down to San Antone.