I was a long distance caregiver to my father. I lived in Vermont where my son was in high school. My father lived in California with my step mother who gave him great care. But as he began suffering from multiple physical as well as mental health problems, he needed more than any one person could give. Over many years of his frailty, I visited him at home, I visited when he lived with my sister and her family, and I visited him at his nursing home where he lived for the last year of his life. My father died the day after his 80th birthday, very old considering that his father and brother all died in their 60’s.
Dad’s aging accelerated when he had open heart surgery at the age of 70. When I arrived at the hospital after the surgery, he was sitting in a chair by the side of his bed chewing on chipped ice. A nurse came into his room and told him, “Fresh open hearts shouldn’t eat ice”.
Startled that she referred to him as a “fresh open heart” instead of calling him by name, I paced out to the nurse’s station and up and down the hall. Is he labeled so that they don’t have to relate to him as a whole human being, who is born, ages, and dies? As we age, do we become what we are named? Or does the name land on who we are? But then I felt, for me, the real challenge is not the name, but how to open my heart to be with my dear father: warm, aware, and spacious beyond the name of things.
So I walked back into the room, sat with him, and sneaked him an occasional piece of ice. “Don’t chew it,” I told him. “Just let it melt and slide down your throat.”