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Maureen Hirthler

I’m walking very slowly with my dad down the produce aisle at the local supermarket, past the colorful waxed apples, Mexican mangoes and Rainier cherries, and imagining my life's blood trickling onto the floor from an invisible wound.

As I pass by the misting system spraying the bins of green, red, yellow and orange peppers, past the lady reaching for carrots, past the stock guy balancing the heirloom tomatoes into a precarious stack, I want to scream. The sense of loss is overpowering.

But no one notices as I inwardly watch my life’s blood--my father, age eighty-six--flow away, here in the grocery store.

I feel as if we’ve walked these aisles together forever. When I was a child, my father worked in a supermarket. He taught me how to bag groceries, cut meat, fill displays and manage people. One of my earliest memories is of riding on the checkout conveyor belt; I couldn’t have been more than three. Now, decades later, we shop together again. Here in this store, I feel the passage of time, and the forces of change, most acutely.

This is what I’m thinking as I watch Dad struggle to find the items that he needs. He always brings a half-finished list scrawled on a gray scrap of paper torn from one of his crossword-puzzle books, and he reads it over and over again. He insists on pushing his own cart, although today he's so short of breath that I wonder if we’ll make it to the checkout counter.

I make a mental note to start him on an antibiotic; he frequently gets lung infections brought on by food fragments going down his windpipe. Because he cannot swallow properly, he has a gastrostomy tube in his stomach. Despite the risks, he insists on eating.

Radiation therapy cured his head and neck cancer fifteen years ago, but it left him with many other problems, all getting worse with age and requiring multiple medications. A large squamous-cell cancer eats at his face near his left eye; we fight wet macular degeneration in his right eye with monthly injections. His blood pressure is difficult to control. He has a stent in his left carotid artery, which narrowed after the radiation; he takes one blood thinner for that, and another for his atrial fibrillation. He bleeds a lot. Nerve damage from diabetes makes him unsteady on his feet, and he requires insulin six times a day.

Last week he felt too weak to go to the store, so I went alone.

"Where's your father?" asked the checkout clerk.

"Not a good day," I said.

"Tell him we miss him."

Over the last three years, they've gotten to know him well--shared in the news of his illnesses, his gradual loss of independence, the death of his dog. He has charmed them all.

But I hate taking him shopping or for a haircut or even to a ballgame.

There, I said it.

He looks so diminished--unsteady, unsure, his pride dented like a kicked pail. Not like my father at all.

I'm a coward, I think. I wish I were dead and didn’t have to do this. I can’t stand it.

I want to scream and run away. But there's nowhere to go.

I’ve always been my father’s girl. Growing up as an only child, I had a contentious relationship with my mother, but that’s another story. Dad was the one who drove me to school, listened to my woes and waited up nights until I came home from a date or a party, just in case I needed him. Being here for him now feels only right.

Dad has lived with my husband and me for the last seven years. He’s gone from being completely independent--living alone after my mother died, working at a golf course, walking the beach--to this: housebound and in chronic pain, trying not to be a burden on me. He still manages his money and medicines (correctly most of the time), works crossword puzzles and talks to his favorite brother every night promptly at six, but some days he gets forgetful and confused.

When my husband took a job in Missouri five years ago and we left our previous home in Florida, I decided to retire from medicine and become a writer. I needed more control over my schedule, and I was tired of the battle that it had become to provide good care to my patients.

Switching from being a doctor to being an MFA degree candidate made it easier for me to get Dad to his appointments and to help him fill his days. He enjoys watching me struggle through my classes and is proud of my perfect GPA, although I don’t always let him read my writing.

The only important thing is that we are together. We watch baseball most nights; Dad still calls strikes and balls better than the home-plate umpire. He enjoys taking the helm of our pontoon boat out on the lake; my husband sits beside him to prevent close encounters with swimmers or other boats. We tell one another "I love you" every day.

Last night, at Dad’s request, we played pinochle with my husband and stepson. Dad has played the game his entire adult life; he's a formidable opponent. Or was. Now I bite my cheek and force back tears when he misdeals or makes an error.

My husband catches my eye and smiles gently. I'm bleeding even at home.

I want to hide--not from Dad, never from him--but from it: old age. I despise the losses it is inflicting on us all. How much longer can my husband and I leave him at home alone when we travel? I can’t bear the thought of having to administer his insulin and dozen other meds, of handling his tube feedings and taking care of his hygiene.

Although I hate the idea of doing these things, I hate the thought of not doing them even more, because that will mean that Dad is gone. What will I do then?

As painful as it may be, I prefer to keep our current situation in place as long as possible--even if it means imagining myself slowly bleeding to death, day by day, while I make our last memories from the time remaining to us.

Yesterday he called me downstairs to the deck outside his living room to show me, in the garden, a huge hibiscus bloom the color of sunset.

"I don't know how you grow such beautiful flowers," he said.

With love and tears and time, I think. The same way you raised me...the same way I'm caring for you.


About the author:

Maureen Hirthler is a retired physician who in May will receive an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "I began writing as a way to understand my experiences in emergency medicine and subsequently became interested in the role of narrative in medicine. I hope to teach creative writing as part of a medical-humanities curriculum." She lives with her husband, who is a hand surgeon, and with a wonderful rescue dog named Riversong, and, of course, her dad.

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey

Comments   

# Sara 2018-08-16 01:56
“I’m a coward, I think. I wish I were dead and didn’t have to do this. I can’t stand it.” Such hard words to say, or even think, that you have had the courage to put a voice to. I have always been my father’s girl, and always will be, just as I was always my mother’s girl when she was alive. And I hate how I use the word hate. I hate taking him to the store because it is too hard. And I want to hide, but I can’t. And I can’t imagine how it will be when he’s not here any more, because I’m my father’s girl.
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# Sherri 2016-06-11 23:17
Maureen -
I too am losing my father and as an only child it
Is so very difficult to watch it happen. Unfortunately for me, it's not due to old age but to alcoholism. I relocated my family with his only grandchild in hopes of helping him. No matter the cause, as an only child and daughter, losing your father is never easy. Prayers for you and yours. Sherri Lynn
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# chris murphy 2015-03-23 19:17
Beautifully done and poignant as some others have pointed out. I see many people have pointed to their own parents in their own experiences much the same as Maureen has pointed out. I stand on the other side. A Dad in my 61st year, a family doctor for 25 years who still does deliveries. I am healthy, but I know the score. No one outruns debility. I am the father of two sets of twin girls and as I feared for them growing up, now I fear for them because I am growing "up."
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# C. Collins 2015-03-21 17:32
A heartfelt article. Very relatabIe. Enjoyed reading it.
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# janice 2015-03-21 15:38
There is so much to love about this story as attested by all the comments. Two sentences that especially caught my attention... "I decided to retire from medicine and become a writer. I needed more control over my schedule, and I was tired of the battle that it had become to provide good care to my patients."

How many more good doctors will have to quit medicine (or retiring early) before the battles that defeat them are meaningfully addressed and won?

At least Maureen will still be contributing to her profession by teaching creative writing to doctors and/or future doctors. I'm convinced that practicing clinicians who write are able to practice longer because they're able to keep the big picture in their peripheral vision and address the needs of their souls.
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# Loretta Carter-Mille 2015-03-21 12:10
Maureen's story brought back my experience with my father who died when I was 52, thirty one years ago. Like the writer, I was "daddy's girl",
My dad had been diagnosed with airway cancer. He agreed to head and neck surgery, because I endorsed it. I wanted my father to live. I didn't have the courage to allow my dad a choice based on knowledge of his diagnosis, treatment options, and outcomes.
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# Kathy Puckett 2015-03-21 12:02
Mom is 96. Injuries from a recent fall sent her to the hospital and then to a nursing home, at least for now, and probably always. Mom lived with my sister the last 5 years. Although it has taken a toll on her back and left her exhausted, my sis is having severe loss and guilt feelings because Mom is not Home. I must share this beautiful love story with her.
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# barbara young 2015-03-21 11:34
Tears sprang as I reached the end of this beautiful piece. It was especially moving to someone like me, who is 84 years old.

Early congratulations too on receiving your MFA from the University of Missouri, and every good wish and hope for your subsequent happiness in teaching creative writing to those working in medicine.
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# Gail Crawford 2015-03-21 11:34
When my Dad had moved past being able of move about independently and sat quietly gazing outside or dozing, I cried for his losses and mine. A dear friend said, " your dad has surrendered to this." It has taken me a long time to embrace the surrender, both his and mine. I offer you this lovely, complex word, 'surrender' and wish you both peace.
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# AJD 2015-03-21 09:31
Thank you for publishing this poignant piece.

When the author says, "I want to hide--not from Dad, never from him--but from it: old age. I despise the losses it is inflicting on us all," let's remember that it is not aging per se that is causing his infirmities, but multiple illnesses and the sequelae of his cancer treatments.

Though illnesses are more common as we age, aging itself is not an illness.
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# Nancy Gross 2015-03-21 07:45
Love this piece. Poignant and evocative.
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# Daniel Becker 2015-03-21 07:34
I knew you could grow beautiful flowers. Let me know when your job search begins in earnest.

Danny
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# Fran Brahmi 2015-03-21 06:08
Maureen,
This piece sent chills down my entire body thinking of my own mother and others I have care for and lost. You piece is indelibly written on my thoughts and will not be forgotten.
Thank you for sharing it.
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# Jackie 2015-03-21 00:20
Maureen: This piece says everything that is true about caring for someone you love. It was difficult to read. I will think of you and your dad often.
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# Evelyn 2015-03-20 23:48
Thank you so much for sharing...beaut ifully written...your love for your father comes through so clearly.
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# wolfgang knape 2015-03-20 22:59
This is an absolutely beautiful article, well written
and capturing all the trials and tribulations of
watching a parent growing old.

The last line about the flower is the best...
a wonderful close!
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# Stephen Murphy-Shige 2015-03-20 22:53
Beautiful!
"Although I hate the idea of doing these things, I hate the thought of not doing them even more, because that will mean that Dad is gone. What will I do then?"
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# Claudia 2015-03-20 21:45
Thank you for this lovely, loving piece. It touched me deeply.
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# Charlene 2015-03-20 20:21
Yep,
Thank you for giving my feelings (and many peoples) words.
Thank you Maureen.

C. Edgar RN
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# janice 2015-03-21 15:10
I couldn't agree more.
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# Anne Tumlinson 2015-03-20 20:17
Thank you for this! It's wonderful.
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# Leonard Berry 2015-03-20 19:47
A beautiful story beautifully written.
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# Victoria 2015-03-20 19:42
Maureen
What a beautiful, poignant story of caring for a parent, as someone who's "been there and done that" you're oh so right about missing the pain after they depart. Thanks!
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