One afternoon in the late 1990s, before I moved to Alaska, I stopped by my parents’ house on my way home from work (I lived down the street). They weren’t home, so I let myself in and waited. When they arrived, my dad said they’d been to see his doctor. He plopped down in the rocking chair facing me and said he had Parkinson’s Disease. I asked, “What’s that?” He said it was the reason his hands were always shaking.
I shrugged off the diagnosis. I didn’t want my dad to be sick—Or worse, to be dying. Besides, he seemed fine except for the tremors. When I got home , I looked up the disease on the web. I hoped it wasn’t genetic. I didn’t want to have it, too.
As the disease progressed, Dad gave up his cane for a wheelchair. He began to slur his words, so it was difficult for us to understand him. When I’d call from Alaska, we’d speak for a few minutes before he’d hand Mom the phone. I exhausted him with my chatter. He’d tell me I talked too fast and would ask, “How much coffee have you had today?” The disease made him sensitive to noise. When my boisterous grandson visited, Dad would say, “He’s so loud!” Then he’d retreat to his bedroom.
After about four years, Dad became bedridden. A hospital bed was moved in, and hospice nurses and aides visited twice a week. My mom was his main caregiver, though, and he was wearing her out. He couldn’t stand for her to leave the house. He insisted she get a cell phone, and he would call her whenever she was out to tell her to come home.
The medication Dad took made him hallucinate. He’d see people who were long dead or the cocker spaniel he had when he was a boy. He slept with the light on. He had a meltdown once when the electricity went out during a storm, so one of my brothers gave our parents battery-operated lanterns and a generator.
During one of my annual Christmas visits to Valdosta, the nurse told us my dad said he was ready to die. He’d been bedridden for two or three years by this time. I understood he was suffering, but I selfishly wasn’t ready to let him go.
On the last day of my visit in January 2006, a few days after New Year’s Day, I told Dad I’d be back in March. He said, “Okay.” I had a feeling I shouldn’t wait until my annual Christmas visit this time. I hugged him and told him “good bye.” I turned around in the bedroom doorway and waved at him, choking back tears. Then, I went to the den, told my mom “good bye,” and left to catch my flight back to Anchorage. That’s the last time I saw my dad. He died a few weeks later, on February 21, less than a month before his 81st birthday. I was the only one of his five children not with him when he died.
I was lucky to have my dad in my life for as long as I did. I still miss him.