My Father's Keeper

“Fever of unknown origin." I’ve seen a copy the death certificate, the words inscribed in barely legible handwriting, a fragile testament to how far the practice of medicine has progressed in less than one lifetime. My grandfather, father of my father, a man he never met, victim of a simple bacterial infection and bad timing, dying just a few years prior the advent of penicillin.

I consider myself to be blessed in innumerable ways, not the least of which is by the continued relative good health of my parents, even as they both close in on 80 years of age. Yes, there has been sickness and surgery: my mother’s victorious battle against breast cancer and much earlier brush with death from a highly contagious blood-borne disease; my father finally getting his runaway blood pressure under control and the surgeries for shoulder and gall bladder problems. There have been others, but they have both always bounced back, albeit a little slower each time.

My father is an icon of a good but imperfect man.  If my mother was the captain of our family ship, he was the keel, anchor, and rudder.  He worked two, often three, jobs to raise four children while insuring my mother could remain home and focus her attention on us. He is a man of quick temper but complete forgiveness. He has strong opinions and virtually no interest in those that differ from his own. My father believes that “Thou Shall Not Be Lazy” was really the first commandment and has little patience for those who refuse to work as hard as he does. He has never shirked from responsibility or shrank in the face of a challenge.

But he is now old. For the last several decades, I’ve referred to him as “Old Man” whenever we would talk. I still do, but it’s no longer a joke shared between father and youngest son, and has instead become a tacit affirmation of a reality that neither of us wants to acknowledge directly. I am fortunate in that I am able to enjoy my father’s company fairly often, but that same frequent familiarity also tends to blind me to how old he has become. That stark reality was brought home to me beginning this Christmas eve, when our family tradition brings us all together at an evening communion service. My mother, as is her custom when there is “family business” to be relayed, pulled me aside before the service began. I could see the worry and concern in her still-lovely blue eyes as she leaned close, “Your father isn’t well. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong, but he has pain and fever. He told me we’d deal with it after Christmas.”

The week between Christmas and New Year’s was lost in a thick flurry of doctor’s visits, tests, needles, and waiting. A diagnosis was made, requisite treatment applied, but still, I could see the pain remained. He didn't complain, as that would be contrary to his nature, but it was still there. His walk had an unsteadiness that I don’t believe was there before. I could hear a subtle, sharp intake of breath when he would rise from a chair. I noticed he carried his arm pushed protectively against his right side, where the pain originated. I could see and smell the sheen of sweat on his forehead from the lingering fever.

So began another round of visits, further tests, and more waiting, all of which culminated in the words, “Infection and fever of unknown origin.” For my father, I know that the word “cancer” would have been in some ways preferable. Medicine has changed in eight decades, but the secret fear harbored by a boy... then a man... has not. In my almost 50 years of life, I’ve only seen fear in my father’s eyes once before, and then it was less a fear for himself than for his family when my mother had been closing to dying. The fear I see now is intensely personal.

I’m standing at the foot of the hospital bed where my father lies, my ears are attuned to the doctor as he outlines the recommended treatment, but my eyes are focused on my father. He deliberately avoids looking at my mother sitting in the chair next to him, and his eyes quickly find my own. I see the fear there, but also an unmistakable message; an echo of forgotten tribal customs woven into our shared DNA. In that moment, the dull walls of the hospital room transform into a primeval forest, and we take the last step of an ancient ritual that began almost a decade before. Our eyes communicate words that our voices could never properly articulate, and with a barely perceptible nod of his head, the torch is quietly and permanently passed.

Perhaps it was only my imagination, but I know I heard the bed shift slightly beneath him as the burdens he had rightfully and nobly carried for his entire adult life were lifted. Over the preceding decades, my father had worked to instill in me the knowledge, strength and compassion required, and though I know there are things I will do differently, burdens I will put down as unnecessary, there are even more where his example will remain the only reference needed. I am my father, yet I am not. I am less, and also more. Though I am somewhat unsure that I am ready to properly tend to all my that my father has placed in my care, I find great comfort in his belief that I am.

My first test, one that I was fully prepared to face, was to allay the fear and uncertainty in my father's eyes. He is old now, and though he has made all the necessary preparations, he is not ready to die. One of my gifts, one that differentiates me from my father, is words... both written and spoken. I used that gift over the ensuing days and hours, smoothing a balm of comfort and hope over both my parents in an effort to relieve the anxiety that was insistently eating away at them both. He... they... are old now. Death lurks... patiently inescapable... but not here. Not yet.

Thankfully, medicine has changed more than the man-boy in 80 years, and though the diagnosis remains “Infection and fever of unknown origin,” the prognosis is now markedly different. All indications are that the doctor’s actions are having the intended effect, and my father is improving, resting comfortably and unburdened.

With the immediate crisis contained, I finally found some quiet time for reflection... an opportunity for assessment and appraisal... to determine what is that I know, what I believe. I have always trusted my father and his judgement, so though I know and accept that I am an imperfect man, I believe that I am a good man.

I am not my father... I am my father’s keeper.
OverWritten OverWritten
46-50, M
10 Responses Jan 6, 2013

Beautiful story.

Myfather died when I was only 11. I revered and worshipped him even though we did not get close. you are very fortunate to have him.

Your story truly touched my heart and it is apparent you are aware of how blessed you both are to have such a close relationship.

Thank you. So beautifully written, so mature, yet vulnerable. Your love, compassion, and understanding shine through. I am glad to read in your reply to WomanBliss that your father is now on the road to recovery. May this new year continue to bring good news and good health to your family. Aging parents become so vulnerable, in so many ways.......

Yes, that vulnerability is probably the toughest part for us, as the children. Roles change, reversing in many cases, yet the foundation of the relationship remains the same. It can be challenging.

Thank you for the kind words, and I'm pleased to report that my father continues to improve.

This is a beautiful written tribute to a man you admire. As I care for my patients.. I am sometimes fully aware it is not the treatment I prescribe, but the families love and devotion that brings a patient back from the bowels of death. As I watch them circling the drain, unable to pull it out of the hat....a family member comes and does what few of us admit they can do. Family is everything!! It is the very foundation of life and never to be taken for granted, Great job!!!

Thank you for the wonderful comment, and I couldn't agree more.

A wonderful post, beautifully written. I have lost both of my parents in the last decade or so and I too have reflected often on the meaning and impact this has had on my own life. I hope your father regains and enjoys a quality of life that enables you both to have many more years to appreciate each other.

Thank for the kind thoughts. We've had a rough few weeks... lots of up and down... but it appears that he's now firmly on the road to recovery.

That's really excellent news. My best wishes to you and your family.

It so nice that there are people who can treasure their father. To carry on in your father's foot steps.
I love your experience and this article just brings back memories....I wish I had a father like yours.

Thank you. I consider myself to be fortunate in many ways.

It made me cry.
All I can say...
Really beautiful.
Your father is proud.
You are a good man.

Thank you. For the sentiments and the comment.

I find similarities to what you are saying and what happened with my brother when my dad got sick and passed. During that time, my brother made this transition. Somehow it just happened and everyone that saw how he handled all the arrangements and decisions were so impressed and surprised. There is an instinct I think. Your father is a proud one I'm sure. Enjoy him as long as you can. Sable every moment and let him know what you think of him.

I had, and still have, my own gardens to tend, but he and I always make an effort to get together or at least talk on the phone. Like any father and son, we have our differences, but the similarities always prevail.

Thanks for the kind comment.

I hear the love of a son for his father. Beautiful. My prayers go out to you, blessings to you and yours.

Yes, I enjoy reading you. Your writing is delightful!

Thank you... on both counts. As of this afternoon, he is doing quite well... on all counts.

Thank you for sharing this intensely personal experience with us.

You're welcome, and thanks for reading and commenting, here and elsewhere.