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facts & arguments

There was little I could do for dad, nothing I could buy him. But I found a way to connect, Susan Whelehan writes

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Have you ever noticed how public someone's body becomes when they're dying? People want to hold their hand or touch their face, when they had never made a practice of it before. It's sort of like when you're pregnant, and people who don't even know your last name want to touch your belly.

Maybe touch brings us closer to both mysteries. You could have spent your life fully dressed so that the only one who laid eyes on your nakedness was when you looked in the bathroom mirror, but, in the hospital, your backside is exposed to the world as you shuffle to the washroom, leaning on the mobile pole that holds your drip.

My father was a private man who always dressed well. Well, aside from golf pants. At those times, he could have been an extra in the movie Caddyshack. Other than those pants, he always wore nice-looking clothes. He had a shoe-shine kit that came out on weekends to polish his wing tips for work and our shoes for church. For much of the year, he wore a top coat and a fedora, with a feather in the band. I wish I had one of those hats now.

His father had died when Dad was 13. They weren't a family prone to physical affection. It didn't come naturally to him. He would smooch me on the cheek and pat my back with the baby burp method, but we never really hugged. We never held hands once I learned to cross the road by myself.

Dad spent the last four years of his life in a nursing home. It was hard. It was a very nice nursing home but it was still hard. I'd call several times a week and he was always grateful, mentioned who had visited, what he'd had for dinner and wondered when I'd be able to visit again. I made the seven-hour round trip drive at least once a month to have lunch with him, listen to his stories, tell him about his grandsons if they weren't with me, and wheel him around outside. He loved watching the birds.

Dad was pretty much bedridden for the last few months of his life. There was little I could do for him at that stage. There was nothing I could buy for him. He had even stopped reading the paper. On one of my last visits, his feet were sticking out from under the sheets at the foot of the bed. They were well lived-in feet. Eighty-five-year-old feet. One turned in, a trait passed down to grandchildren. And those toes … Holy! Those nails! What were they all about? I had never seen anything like them. I couldn't believe they were his. I couldn't imagine touching them. Couldn't the staff do something for him? Shouldn't the staff do something for him? And then I wondered who the last person was to care for his feet other than himself? I guess it was his mother some 80 years ago.

I asked him if he had ever had a foot massage.

"You've gotta be kidding me."

No, I wasn't. I told him that I got mine massaged a couple of times a year when I had a pedicure and that it feels heavenly. And the next thing I heard was myself asking if I could massage them. I couldn't quite believe I had asked. And I couldn't quite believe that he agreed. My father.

I found some lotion in the drawer of the bedside table and squirted it onto my palms. It smelled almost like baby lotion. I drew back the sheets, pulled up a chair, and put one foot in my hand. As I massaged it he closed his eyes and relaxed. I imagined all the places they had carried him: to the beach as a child, elementary school down the street, his own father's funeral, the high-school football field, Notre Dame, the army, down the aisle with my mom, to the office to earn a living, the bedroom floors he had walked all those nights with all his babies, the school halls for endless parent interviews, the theatre aisles and playing fields to watch us perform, cheer us on and stand proudly at the end of every event.

They took him to the golf course, in those infamous pants, the racetrack, Monday night card games. They took him to one Al-Anon meeting and never took him back.

They took my mom to parties, charity events and endless medical appointments. They took him to her funeral. The following month, for Easter, they drove all seven of us in the station wagon to Niagara Falls for an overnight to try to make it special. It was.

Over the next decades, they walked him down the aisle a second time, drove us all to university, stood in the courtroom with the bail money when one of us got caught with pot, danced at our weddings, returned to the theatre aisles and sports arenas for his grandchildren and attended his second wife's funeral. After that, they stumbled and didn't want to work too well any more. His last years they rested on the footrests of his wheelchair.

And now, I was able to thank them, toes and all. To thank him with my touch. He let me do this. He let me love him this way.

Susan Whelehan lives in Toronto.