On Father’s Day I thought I’d take my 93 year old father for a short walk in the park after lunch, if it didn’t rain. It could work out just right to drive over there after my soccer game, have lunch, and take a quick trip to the park. I could be home by early afternoon. Good for him, good for me.
Except Pop decided at the end of his cheese sandwich and orange-cranberry juice punch that he’d take his nap first. We could do our short walk in about half an hour. I told Crystal, the aide from Tender Hearts and the maker of our cheese sandwiches, that during his nap I’d drive his tractor to a neighboring house to pick up an old plow that belongs to Pop and be back in about half an hour.
Except that it started to rain. I had to stop under a tree for long phone call with my wife and kids. And then I ran out of gas. I had to bum some gas off a neighbor and came home to Pop’s house an hour later than I’d planned. He had his walking boots and rain hat ready. “That was no half hour,” he said. Two things remain sharp in his declining mind, his attention to time and his attention to directions.
As we drove out the driveway in the drizzle, I said, “Let’s try walking the loop around the pond at Swaim Park.” I was thinking about the rain and started to turn left. For him a short walk is the 15 minutes it takes to shuffle the 250 yards down to the mailbox and back, cane in his right hand and his left hand firmly gripping your right arm. Swaim Park is easy, just a 5 minute drive, and the walk is short. Yesterday he’d done the mailbox, but just a few days ago he’d been bedridden with vomiting and the trots. I figured we’d take it easy today, but he said, jabbing his finger toward the passenger window, “Go right, right that way, you know, to that other place, the fields by the river.”
Camp Denison Memorial Park is a set of about ten lacrosse fields circled by a paved walking path, the whole park groomed out of prime farm bottomland along the Little Miami River. The last time I’d walked this path with him was several years ago, before the cane. Maybe there’d be some games going on or something to watch in the rain.
But the park was empty and the rain had backed off to a fine mist and he made it clear we had come to walk. He didn’t wait for my arm, but started off ahead of me at a determined pace. It was now after 3 pm; this afternoon was eating into my plan for chores at home, yet I felt content. Why hadn’t my usual impatience set in? I was still floating on that goal I’d scored that morning, a diving header low into the far corner in the final minutes. Diving headers that beat a defender and a good goalie have always thrilled me, but the magic of that shot gave me the sensation that, at two days shy of 62, I’d stolen a gem of a moment, something more than most men my age can get away with.
About a third of the way around the fields I said, “Let’s aim for that bench, take a rest, and then we can head back to the car.”
He poked his cane to the right and said, “The path goes right down there.”
I said, “That trail goes down to the river. It’s steep coming back up.”
“You’ll help me,” he said, and he tucked his left arm inside my right and gripped his hand firmly in mine, leading me through the trees and down the trail. After many months of his keeping to his house, how could I deny him a look at this river, which he’s seen since he was a boy, usually from the back of a horse?
The river ran fast and high and loud from the rain. I wanted to stop and take it in, but Pop said, “We go left, that way, there!” directing with his cane and turning my arm. He’d not come to gaze at the river.
I said, “But that runs in the woods along the river, Pop, and doesn’t come back up to the field for quite a while. You up for that kind of hike?”
He looked disappointed in me, as though I were not up to the task, and nudged me along the path he knew well. It narrowed from flat and sandy to rutted and twisting. Soon the path vanished and we were up to our knees in weeds. He was not happy about my navigational skills. My father, who in the past few years had deferred to me for decisions like these, was now taking me for a long walk in the woods.
I said, “We’re going to have to bushwhack back to the path, Pop.” He directed with his cane to the left. I cut left and over a windfall trunk with him on my arm, swinging at the weeds to open the way. He said nothing about the poison ivy—he didn’t have the wind to say anything. We regained the path, but it was uneven and he had to work on every placement of his cane and his feet. His weight on my arm increased, and the sound of his breathing grew labored.
We stopped to rest. He looked hot and pale. With no place to sit, soon he was down on his knees and his hands, spit dripping thick, gasping. I wondered who was the fool here. Was this walk a sign of his impatience with his shrinking, housebound life? Was I to protect him from his short memory or walk with him to the edge? He tried to raise himself up. His legs could not bear him, so I crouched beside him and he leaned on my back as I raised us both up. Two steps later he was down on his knees again, grunting and gasping.
He was not recovering, but was he dying? I doubted I could piggy back him all the way to the car. I ran ahead to gauge the distance to the field, about 50 yards. I was not ready to have him die on my watch. He’d made his DNR wishes clear. If this were happening at home, could I have sat with him through his last breaths, just him and me? I called 911 on my cell phone and told the dispatcher where we were, not at all sure anyone could find us. When I got back to him he was standing, leaning on his cane, still pale and huffing. He grabbed my arm, leaned into me, and we took one step, then another, then another.
We’d been sitting for five minutes on a bench by the paved path at the far end of the fields when four life squad men wheeling a gurney reached us. The head man said to Pop, “How’re you feeling, sir?”
“I’m alive!” Pop said, amused.
“I see that—haven’t I met you before?” the head man said.
“I don’t know. My mind’s not good,” Pop said. “I had some trouble down there, but now I’m better.” He said it with the nonchalance of a boy who had just had a near-death experience and wanted us to believe it was no big deal.
The head man, with his hand on Pop’s radial pulse, said, “Didn’t I meet you at the other park by the lakes a couple of years ago? Same thing happened?”
Pop smiled, as though he’d been discovered. “I guess you did!” And then I remembered the same thing had happened when Pop led our son on a walk by that lake, a walk that turned out to be too far, a fainting spell that lasted too long.
Now Pop’s vital signs impressed the squad (HR 76, BP 142/72, easy respirations) and his conversation convinced them he was capable of refusing once again to go to the hospital. We signed some papers to please their lawyers. I drove our car across the lacrosse fields, he got in, and as we drove home he thanked me for the walk. His contentment did not quite match the recent severity of his condition, perhaps one of the blessings of his recent talent for forgetting. But then I wondered if a close brush by the river for him at 93 felt something like a diving header at 62—a steal, the boyish illusion that you can make good of whatever comes to you.