Dad's Last Christmas The nursing home was an easy drive down pleasant back streets. The first day of winter was right around the corner, but there had been no real snow to speak of as yet. The streets were bone dry and seemed unusually clean. No dirty remains of plowed snow. No leaves blown into the gutter and clinging to the creases in ever disintegrating bits. All I had to do was bring Dad the smallest token. A crisp apple to cut up for him or a few of his favorite ginger snap cookies. Maybe bring Jake to lie on his bed where Dad would stroke the soft black fur, his hand tingling with the memory of dogs past. “There’s nothing like a dog,” he always used to say. Dad’s decline had been rapid after surgery for an aortic aneurysm in October. Deemed a success by his brash young surgeon, the procedure had left Dad completely changed. For the first few weeks he was still able to speak, haltingly and with little clarity, and could manage a few shuffling steps when bracketed by the nursing home’s strongest therapists. He was often agitated, thrashing and yelling at anyone nearby, with a tone of bitterness and panic I had never heard from him before. Usually he was lost somewhere. Someone had forgotten to pick him up or he had missed the last bus. This man who was always at the center of our extended family, who ran into someone he knew no matter where he went, was now stranded alone and helpless, just beyond our reach. By Thanksgiving, he could no longer walk and barely spoke. The doctors gave us no hope of a recovery and all we could expect was further decline as we prayed for a peaceful passing. Oddly, dad seemed to have grown taller with his mental and physical decline. Maybe it was because he had gotten so terribly rigid, “stiff as a board” we would say, which was somehow fitting since he had worked for fifty-one years in a lumber yard. The aides would have to manually bend him to get him to sit down. I never saw anyone look so tall in a wheelchair. As I got closer to the nursing home, I noticed a deflated Santa lying crumpled on a patch of frozen grass. I had barely even begun my own decorating that usually would be near completion at this point in preparation for our caroling party, a tradition I had adopted from Mom and Dad, right down to the red scarf and black top hat my Dad had always worn. I hadn’t even baked any Christmas cookies from the recipes on Mom’s greased-stained index cards. The move from Pennsylvania to Boston, Mom to assisted living and Dad to the nursing home, had been all-consuming. I was running on fumes as I pulled into the small parking lot in front of the low brick building. Glancing at the snack-size packet of Oreos on the seat next to me, the only offering I was able to find, my eyes started to fill. “No time for tears,” I said to myself. After entering the code on the number pad next to the glass entrance door, I curled my fingers around the cold metal handle and with a deep breath swung the door open in a wide arc and stepped inside. Dad’s room was at the end of a long hall and with each step I braced myself for what I would find. Even though I visited every day and knew only too well the reality of Dad’s diminished state, a hope buried deep inside leapt to my throat as I made the final turn to enter his room. Dad lay stiffly in the bed, his straight arms pressed tightly to his sides. His eyes popped open at my loud “Hi Dad” but he did not turn his head. So I positioned myself directly in front of him so he could take me in. “You found me! You found me!” For the past month, these were the only words Dad was able to put together. “Yes, Dad,” I said, and then, as usual, “I will always find you.” A smile of recognition, a flash of contentment, then he was gone again. Behind his deep-set brown eyes he was vacant, seeming to reside somewhere deep down in a frozen shell, inaccessible. “Come out,” I wanted to shout. “Is anyone in there?” Touch was my best tool, so I took one of his large hands with the stubby fingers in mine and stroked it with my thumb. “I’m here, Dad,” I wanted him to know. “I’m here.” I talked some, too, about the holidays, about when my brother was coming in, tried to remind him of his grandchildren’s names. There was no reaction, but at least he did not seem agitated or lost. When I tired of talking, I just sat holding his hand, letting his eyes close. It was easier for both of us this way. “How were we going to pull this Christmas off?” I wondered. For the first time, we wouldn’t all be returning to the family homestead, the house where he and we grew up, where mom and Dad spent fifty-three years of their marriage and where I had celebrated every Christmas of my life. For the first time in their long marriage, Mom and Dad were not even living together. Maybe we could still make these holidays work though. We could move the festivities to his bedside, bring the food and familiar decorations to spread out on the window ledge, hang garlands over the bed. We could even bring the stockings Mom stored so carefully from year to year. Sure, we could do all that. But as I sat there, feeling the warmth of his hand in mine and watching the barely perceptible movement of his chest beneath the taut sheet, I knew that it wouldn’t work. Because the real problem was that Dad was not, well, Dad. There was some Dad there, to be sure. That’s why the apple or ginger snaps would be a hit. And he did always know me, his face lighting up with an enormous smile of recognition, tinged with relief as he realized I had found him. Sometimes he confused me with my mother, lovingly calling me Ruthie, not too hard to understand since I look just like her. With her own health issues, it was hard to get her out to visit him, so I liked that I could bring her to him in this way. But how could we have Christmas without Dad, the real Dad? The Dad who always told the best stories, stories we never tired of hearing because of his joy in the telling? The Dad who ran football plays with us on Saturday afternoons, the “statue of liberty” and the “bootleg”? The Dad who wept every Christmas Eve as I played carols on the organ? Searching his face for the Dad I missed so terribly, my eyes were drawn to the spot between his two bushy eyebrows where three deep furrows signaled his mood. This day he looked mad and disappointed, the same look he would give me when I was a little girl and had misbehaved, except then he would also look down and shake his head until all I wanted was to do something that would immediately make him proud of me again. I gently loosened my hand from his and stood up, leaning over him to smooth his troubled brow with the tips of my fingers. He did not stir, but gradually his face relaxed as his eyes fluttered open and then closed again. With him resting more peacefully, I went down the hall to get him a tall glass of ice with ginger ale from the family kitchen. When I came back, I touched his shoulder to wake him, then held the bent straw to his mouth for him to sip, a moment of pure pleasure as the sweet cold filled his mouth and he swallowed hard. After several sips, he closed his eyes and dozed off again. As I stroked the stiff white hairs on his thick knuckles, I heard from a distance quiet singing, the gentle harmonies of a choir. Gradually the music got louder. It was live and coming closer, towards us. “O come all ye faithful … “ The familiar carol washed over me. Softly pulling my hand away from Dad’s, I slipped quietly to the doorway. In the hall a few doors down stood a group of about eight people with small songbooks in their hands, facing into an open doorway to serenade those in the dining room. I glanced over to see if Dad was still sleeping peacefully, then leaned against the door jamb, trying to get as comfortable as possible to listen. The carols were all the familiar standards, songs my Dad had sung in his booming voice as he led us around town in his top hat and red scarf. Songs I had played on the organ. I tried to sing along, but tears choked my voice. I let them come, let myself be lost in this moment. “Don’t cry, honey.” Dad’s voice, clear as it ever was. “We had some good Christmases, didn’t we?” He looked at me and smiled. He was right there, right behind those deep brown eyes, present to me, to this moment. Taking care of me as he had always done. “Don’t cry. I’ve had a very good life. I don’t have any regrets.” I walked over and took his hand again. He lifted it, trying to wipe away my tears and I bent closer so he could reach. Turning my head to meet his gaze, I saw Dad’s eyes looking back, the same eyes that glistened behind his beaming smile as he walked me down the aisle, the eyes that twinkled so brightly as his booming voice regaled us with one of his stories. The chorus was singing “Silent Night” and I stepped back to the doorway to see if they were going to come down to Dad’s room but they were slowly heading back the other way. I quickly returned to Dad’s bed, hoping maybe we could sing the final verse together before the choir finished. He stirred ever so slightly at the motion. “You found me! You found me!”
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Debra Rose Brillati (she/her) received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha in January 2022. She is currently working on a book-length composite memoir about her Italian and German immigrant families and her youth in a coal mining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing about family relationships–their joys, sorrows, and surprises–and the political and social issues that impact the human condition.