Of Ice Floes and Broken Hearts

Occasionally my father would talk about death. He fantasized about going out on an ice floe, very late in life, and meeting his end. He said there would be no pain. He would simply fall asleep and not wake up.

He had no such luck. At 79, he went to see his cardiologist and was told he needed emergency quintuple bypass surgery. Extended time on a heart and lung machine allowed the repair of his heart but also damage to his brain. He was never the same.

Most devastating for him, he never returned to work. A neighborhood doctor, medicine was one of his great loves.  My mother, his five girls, the woods and his vegetable garden were some of his others.

My mother struggled on in the single-family home my sisters and I had grown up in, but she grew increasingly isolated. Eventually, my parents moved into a continuing care retirement community. My mother stayed in independent living, and my father in a skilled nursing unit.

It was the best solution for them. My mother could once again have a social life — playing cards, working in the CCRC store and singing in the choir. She also could see my father several times a day and keep an eagle eye on his care.

I have been thinking of them even more than usual lately as J continues her accelerating and inexorable decline from Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the many things I learned from my mother is the fierce advocacy needed to ensure quality care even in a good facility. What I learned from both my parents is that love endures even the greatest heartbreaks. I saw right in front of me the beauty of living a long committed life together.

My father, the doctor, would be happy to know how much I appreciate the heart: our living organ that beats from our earliest beginning in the womb until after our last breath. It was built to withstand the greatest pain and still go on loving, perhaps even more strongly than before.

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