Age is catching up with my father. At nearly age 88, his mind is willing but his body is not always capable of keeping up. This was obvious to me when we visited him a few weeks ago. We shuffled off to one of the local dining establishments in his oversize retirement community, and shuffle we did, well to the rear of other pedestrians. My father can no longer run. He can still walk, but he is limited to shuffling. To not find myself bounding ahead of him, I slowed my walk to an unnaturally slow gate. I am hardly moving yet I heard him panting and gasping for breath next to me. He’s not on oxygen but it’s easy to imagine a time not too distant when there are oxygen tubes going up his nostrils and he is carrying an oxygen supply with him wherever he goes.
Dad has COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a fancy way of saying his lungs are slowly dying and so, by extension is he. For men who make it to his advanced age (and most of his peers have long been planted six feet under) COPD is rife. It’s not hard to find people wheeling oxygen canisters down the hallways at Riderwood. COPD is the third largest cause of death in the United States. It’s hard to say exactly how my father developed it, but there were decades when he spent much of his day coughing, hacking and incessantly clearing his throat. Fortunately, he never smoked, but COPD has a lot in common with smokers’ diseases like emphysema. It destroys or plugs with mucus the linings of the lung where blood and air meet, where oxygen comes in and carbon dioxide gets vented. This means you breathe less deeply, and even if you can breathe more deeply, less oxygen will get into the bloodstream.
Dad walks not just slowly, but is also stooped. He does not require a cane or walker, but those may come in time. He can bound up steps first thing in the morning but he tires easily. He and my stepmother spent a night with us recently. Both had issues going down thirteen steps to our guest room. In my stepmother’s case, it was due to her knee replacement, which lets the knee bear weight but without the agility she is used to. And the joint does hurt. Steps need to have firm handrails and not be too high. In my father’s case, it’s due to shortness of breath. Movement is done slowly when it is done at all.
My father has always been blessed with an unquestioning faith and an ability to accept fate without sinking into depression. He accepts that he has COPD, but until I looked up the details I was unaware that it was progressive and (assuming something else does not kill you first) will literally be the death of him. He takes each day as it comes, but you can tell he is struggling. Some part of his happiness is for show. He has always imparted life lessons and as he nears his nineties he is still providing some. The latest one seems to be to not look too far ahead and to take each day for the blessing that it is.
He doesn’t require a wheelchair at airports but seems to accept that it is a good thing to ask for one. The walks to gates and between concourses are long. And travel he must, at least he feels he has to. His only sibling, a younger sister, is losing her memory. She is currently in assisted living with her husband in northern California. He and my stepmother spent the night with us because they still drive, but not at night, and we live close to the airport. They will navigate the Capital Beltway, but only during non rush hours. And it’s my stepmother who usually does the driving, being six years his junior. They can do things the rest of us can do, but just barely. Every week makes their expansive life look like it will shrink a bit. It is likely not too long before they will give up cars altogether and except for rare and chaperoned trips out, retired life will be lived wholly within Riderwood. At some point, my father is likely to die there, or at a nearby hospital.
So an airline trip to San Francisco, then a commuter flight to the city where his sister is at, is a major logistical challenge. My stepmother is there for an important reason: to keep my father safe. She still has her wits about her and unlike my father is not likely to nod off repeatedly during games of Scrabble. With a sound sleep my father can navigate life. Add the stress of flying across the country, shuttling between airplanes and carrying suitcases and it becomes problematic. Also problematic: the chance of contracting something while traveling. A few years ago while visiting his sister he ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. He arrived home a week later than planned. Even then he was fortunate to have my stepmother, then just his girlfriend, to be there and to make sure he received appropriate care.
I keep my fingers crossed for him. Although not a praying man, I feel the need to pray for him. My father has always been such a gentle soul, with series of caretakers like my mother around to support him when life might cause his to slip on the sidewalk cracks. There are far worse ways to die than from COPD, so perhaps it is something of a blessing. He’s unlikely to lose his mind to dementia like his sister. He is unlikely to find his body a neurological mess like my late mother. He probably won’t have to suffer from chronic pain, like my wife spends much of her life. He deserves to keep his mind intact until the end, and it still is intact, although it seems to be running at a slower clock speed.
Meanwhile, with every labored breath I can’t help but reflect on how much time he has left with us and how much I will miss my gentle role model of a man and a father when he is irretrievably gone from us.