Remembering Dad on Fathers’ Day

“Aging can be a growing into the light.”
–Henri Nouwen

During the latter years of his life, my father, Robert Perry, was drawn down a path of numerous losses, beginning with the death of my mother, his beloved spouse for over forty-four years. They had shared a meaningful, interconnected life of much hard work and some play, raising two daughters, and battling my mother’s persistently poor health. When she died, he struggled with enormous grief, and in spite of his earnest attempts to pursue a satisfying life without her, his life had simply lost its luster.

Six years later my father decided to sell the house they had once lived in together, leaving behind many memorable possessions. His new, small apartment served him well for several years, but breath-taking emphysema hastened the decline of his general health until he could no longer live alone. He sobbed uncontrollably the day he left his apartment for a nursing home, grieving the loss of freedom to make his own decisions, to come and go as he pleased, to live independently. Letting go was excruciating.

Dad 1985-croppedSoon after entering the nursing home, Dad slipped and fell in the bathroom, fracturing a hip that never healed and never allowed him to walk again. Confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life, he could depend only on others to assist him with his most basic needs: getting in and out of bed, getting dressed, arriving for meals, taking proper medications. Meanwhile, his body grew weaker over the years, shedding precious pounds it could not afford to lose. Little by little, life was losing its vitality, its energy, its flavor.

But I noticed that this season of grieving had produced abundant fruits of growth. Though painful losses had incessantly intruded upon his life, his spirit expanded in remarkable ways. Gradually he had grown into a more gentle, kind, and patient man. He did not demand more of others just because he could do less. He expressed genuine appreciation for even the small gestures of others’ kindness, and his sense of humor made others smile. Though his plentiful, persistent losses caused him deep, groaning pain, my father had grown into the light. What he did not realize was that, in spite of our difficult past, he graciously shared that light with me and with those who cared for him.

“If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having.”
–Henry Miller

When I visited the nursing home to see my father in his small, comfortable room, he was usually wearing a maroon cardigan that warmed the constant chill of his body. Most of the time he did not feel well, but he smiled anyway, delighted to see me. His quiet, calm presence drew me in. His thought processes, like his physical movements, had slowed down so that our conversations were interspersed with frequent silences. These silences were neither awkward nor alienating; rather, they transcended the barriers and limitations of language. Like seeds scattered upon the soil, our shared silences cultivated a harvest of what I had always craved most in our relationship: friendship, love, and intimacy. These were his gifts to me, effortlessly given from the center of his being.

At the close of each visit as I gathered my belongings, I felt within me a profound, penetrating peace. Without realizing it, he demonstrated to me that the peace the world cannot give is not achieved by our accomplishments, false masks, clever strategies, or a life without challenges. This is the peace that originates in the still, tiny nucleus of our being, where we are both painfully and joyfully human.

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