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.