“They’re in full voice now,” comments my Dad, Jacob Berend ten Hove, about the croaking frogs in the small rivulet valley below the back patio of his home, as we watch the last rippling rays of a lovely Inland Empire sunset fade over the Southern California Coastal Mountains to our west. The desert frogs are a daily evening presence, invisible yet vocally dominating. Sometimes it sounds like hundreds of ‘em.
For some weeks I’ve been living out of a suitcase in the guest room of my Dad’s one-level house here in The Colony, a nice retirement community in Murrieta. I’m his 24/7 caretaker since he went on home hospice in early February. Lately, as his heart slowly fades in effectiveness, his fingers are showing more purple and his blood pressure and oxygen levels are way down. Yet he keeps on keeping’ on, even though he’s not eaten anything solid for two months. Happily, he’s not in much pain and he also hardly ever complains.
It’s a curious daily routine we’ve evolved, as I have to help him with everything now, even sitting up. He likes to change scenery almost every day, so I dress him (among other things) and move him into the great room, where, over the course of each mid-day, he makes a play at reading the newspaper or newsletters, watches a spring training baseball game or tennis, takes a nap, entertains a visitor or two (he has some excellent regular friends!), naps some more, and listens to his favorite cable music station pump out “Beautiful Instrumentals.”
He drinks a few glasses of this and that around a small bowl of soup maybe (and/or his glorious ice cream), while I cover bases to gain ground on one project or another, anticipating what will need to be accomplished after his final breath. (I am the last one left in my family of six, and his executor.) I have also been keeping current with congregational activities back home and my weekly contributions thereto (but am now on Family Leave during April).
I frequently go out on the patio by myself to take in the satisfying westward view. On many day clouds are nowhere in sight (which is rather hard to fathom for this Pacific Northwesterner) and late in the day there might be just a soft orange glow to the darkening sky. On other days, like this one, there is more cloudage that creates swirling, multi-hued patterns, the kind of display that people everywhere appreciate about sunsets.
From our perch we watch for the murder of crows that always flies by, from right to left, on their regular daily schedule. Pretty amazing, actually, the frogs below and those birds above—every evening, reliably. “Commuter birds,” Dad calls them. At these evening times my thoughts can drift to the parallel experience of the sun setting on my Dad’s journey of 97+ years.
In the time given to me to be his live-in companion, there have been easy, smooth, cloudless days as I attend to straightforward needs and we reflect a bit together on what we cherish. And then there are the swirlier days of discomfort, exertion, direct care of the challengingly intimate kind, with dynamic needs that color and discolor the day. The former have outpaced the latter, happily, but amid ups and downs I feel the steady presence of the sunset as an invaluable, if inescapable companion.
I think I have, for a long time,been getting ready to be in this role
I know many others can well empathize. This particular close-up honoring of a parent’s last chapter has been rehearsed many times over ever since elder suns have been setting among us, which would be always. It has been hard to be away from my Bainbridge Island life, and rather overwhelming to deal with all the details of closing out his world, but I cherish the bonding and unequivocal love that have flourished here. In some significant ways, I think I have, for a long time, been getting ready to be in this role.
Tonight we happily lingered with the frogs and sky for about an hour to watch the view fade, as we have many times before, and as he and his spouse Marion used to do (before she had to go elsewhere for Alzheimer’s care a few years ago). I will draw upon a chorus of these moments to accompany and serenade me well beyond his fatherly departure.
As we observe the landscape darken further, he remarks that tonight there haven’t been the usual number of airplane lights flying toward us from the western horizon that hovers around greater Los Angeles. But there goes one now, and we watch it slowly, steadily approach us then disappear overhead above the patio roofline. Ever so softly he says to it, “Good-bye.”
P.S. My Dad asked that there be no memorial service after he dies, because he wanted one before he died. So we hosted a “Farewell Celebration,” to great acclaim and enjoyment, including his.
Jaco ten Hove is co-minister (with spouse Barbara) since 2008 at Cedars Church, Unitarian Universalist (http://cedarsuuchurch.org)