Skidding Down a Slippery Slope (My Dad Goes Home)

Last week was International Book Day. Because we knew my father was skating close to the edge of the end of his life, my mind turned to his love of books, and the role of books in whispering of this ultimate decline. I’ve been trying to write this ever since, but the next day I got the call to come home NOW, and everything has been a mad scramble since. Today is the funeral, and my mind is choking with memories, observations, and insights, which I want to write down, but I need to get this one out of the way, to start.

International Book Day, I was planning for this trip, but we still believed there were days or weeks left. I knew I’d have to leave with short notice so was clearing and preparing a small bag, my mind flittering between that, and things that needed to be done for home and work, spinning in circles, circling, circling, unproductively.

The next morning, it was bitterly dangerously cold. The deep snow was covered with sheer glare ice. I left for work a few minutes late, and the buses all arrived and departed on a schedule of their own that bore only a loose resemblance to the posted schedule. I ended up having to wait a lot, so my mind circled back to my dad, and the first clue I saw of the shape of his end-of-life process.

My dad was super-smart. In college he’d majored in math and physics, and minored in logic, at a Jesuit university in the 1950s where logic was a serious matter, almost as serious as religion. Many of his interests and passions connected back to those core interests in his early life: faith and science.

In 2008, Neil Stephenson published ANATHEM. Neil went to high school in my home town at the same time I did. (No, we never knew each other, but there’s the home town pride anyway.) I’d picked up a love of science fiction from my dad, so try to read Neil’s books.

This one, WOW! I loved it. The first time I read it was a borrowed copy from Scott at work. What a marvelous blend of science fiction, math, logic, physics, and religion!! I just knew my dad HAD to read it! It was as if the book had been written especially to tickle his fancy. I was so excited to make sure I was the one who brought it to him. I bought a copy in hard bound, because paperback wasn’t yet available, and shipped it to him.

Then I waited, watching for the excitement and delight I knew he would share when he read it. The book arrived. I waited a few days. Then I phoned him. He had started the book. Sort of. He tried to read it. He told me he made it a couple pages in, but he couldn’t even finish the first chapter. The book just didn’t make any sense to him.

I froze. This was the first time I really realized that his mind was going. And that a great deal of that mental sharpness was already gone.

I’m pretty sure he knew what was happening. He hid it. He stayed at home much of the time. He didn’t answer the phone, or voicemail, or email. He kept reading, but the books he read got simpler and simpler.

Last autumn, when he broke his hip in a fall, he was placed in a rehab facility. With people around all the time his cognitive impairment became impossible to cover up, but he was still making a good faith effort to do the work needed. But he was slipping, a little more all the time, and it showed. And then his hip broke again. So much pain, and it never again went away.

Riding the bus that morning, thinking about this, I saw it in my mind as a logarithmic curve. The long slope showing a gradual incremental reduction, but you can still get some traction and try to slow it down. As the slope decreases more, the rate of decline increases, until, at the end, there is a cascade, freefalling into a vanishing point.

So it has been with my dad. This last week shifted from decline to plummet. The healthcare workers all told my brother they’ve never seen anything like it.

Friday morning, on my way into the office, I walked past a snowy hill covered with thick ice, parts glaring in the sunlight, parts knotted in shadows from trees and gravestones, like fractals. I thought, this is it. I waited, and worked, anxiously.

Late that morning, I got the call to come now, and exploded into action. The best I could do was a flight the next morning. I went home & started packing. While I was packing, I got the call to say he was gone, maybe eight hours later. My sister who was with him at the time works in healthcare, providing clinical care in a hospital. She’s seen death, she’s been there, but she said she has NEVER seen anything like this. So fast, so very fast.

I see that hill of ice. Cascading down. The glare of light. Light vanishing across an event horizon. A threshold passed, a gate opening. Freefalling into another place, another space.