He was sitting there in the dayroom, looking small in a new wheelchair that allows him to lean back, draped in a shoulder throw that looked like a watermelon.
Somebody must have thought it would be a good idea, but we quickly replaced it with his jacket.
My father turned 94 on April 11, just a few weeks after having to leave his home of 67 years and getting settled into a nearby nursing home.
He had a bad fall leading to a brain injury several years ago, and he had been getting around-the-clock care at home since my mother died shortly before Christmas in 2018.
His memory has been in such steady decline that he’s probably forgotten home already.
My two brothers and my two sons went to visit him last Saturday, gathered around his wheelchair in chairs absconded from the dining room, grateful that COVID restrictions have been relaxed enough to allow such a visit.
“Hey Daddy. I’m Tony, your oldest son. These are my boys, Russ and Samuel.”
“Oh yeah,” he said.
Whether he remembered who we were after that moment, I can’t say, but I’m certain that he did not remember we had been there within an hour of our departure.
It’s just sad, and there’s no way around it.
I have a copy of the roster of his high school football team from sometime in the mid-1940s. Southern boys weren’t as well-nourished back then: as a 160-pound sophomore, he played right tackle and was the biggest kid on the team.
The next year (they only had 11 grades back then), he played fullback and acquired the nickname “Bull.”
After graduation, he did a stint in the Navy, spending most of his time on the island of Guam. In a trunk at the house, I found his dress blues still packed away in plastic, and a disintegrating grass skirt he brought back for my mother.
His working life was spent in a spinning mill, and he raised a garden well into his eighties.
Now he’s shrunken and frail. He wears adult diapers beneath his pants, needs to be reminded when it’s time to eat, and has no idea what day it is.
But he is a sweetheart, and we are fortunate in that. We had fretted mightily over the move, but he surprised us by adapting rather quickly to nursing home life, where he can shuffle around in his wheelchair and see new things, unlike being stuck in the recliner at home.
He told my brother he liked being around other people. “I don’t know who they are,” he said, “but at least something’s going on.”
I don’t know if that will continue, but it’s good to know that he’s not unhappy, at least for now.
Part of our weekend mission was to go through the house, which my middle brother had purchased to provide funds for his care, and to begin the long process of cleaning out things we have a connection to.
In 1971, I had brought him a wooden carving of a woman with a basket on her head from Indonesia, and he liked it so much that I always brought him something of wood from my travels.
I packed up a rhinoceros from South Africa, a “tree of life” from Ghana, bowls from Belize and El Salvador, a water buffalo from Malaysia, elephants from Thailand, a garden scene from Armenia, fish from Cuba, a small mosaic from Jordan, and an assortment of olive wood carvings from Bethlehem.
There were owls we’d brought to my mother, and a collection of CDs loaded with pictures from my travels that she could look at on a computer I bought for her.
I downloaded pictures she had taken and saved on the computer: more than four gigabytes’ worth. And that’s not to mention stacks of photo albums in virtually every room.
One included pictures of my parents holding me as a baby, both with severe expressions. My grandmother is the only one who looked happy.
I filled most of one box with copies of books that I have written, always giving them a copy, though I suspected that most would go unread.
Samuel collected some pots and pans to use and remember them by.
A weekend like that leaves one with a feeling of deep melancholy, something all of us will experience if we live long enough.
It draws us from our present busyness to venture back in time, not necessarily for long, or even with great nostalgia, but with appreciation.
It calls us to think of what lies ahead for us, and to ponder the day when our children might be sorting through all the stuff we’ve collected, or visiting us in the home.
My boys know what to do if they ever find me covered with a watermelon blanket.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.