By Seth Kahan
My father lay on the hospital bed. At 84 he was weak and vulnerable. Not the man I had been estranged from these last 30+ years.
When I was young he had been my best friend. He reached out to hold onto my soul as we struggled together with my family’s mental illness. He steadied me as I swam through my teenage years, full of rebellion and idealism. He came and got me when I was swallowed by a cult in my 20s, and gently lifted me up and back onto my own two feet.
Then followed the mysterious absence, the abdication of his throne, the great vacuum in my soul From my late 20s to most recently—I am 58—he was conspicuously absent. He showed up to be a grandfather to my children and gave them his heart. But, when I turned toward him and asked for guidance, he said only, “You look like you’re doing pretty well to me.” With that sentence, he turned and walked away, out of my emotional life. What I didn’t understand at the time was that depression was robbing his energy. His soul sunk down into his body and was barely visible.
Now, here I was at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, my father clearly near the end of his life. I had come to help my sisters choose the nursing home he would be released to.
For the last year or so I had been supplementing his pension to help pay for assisted living. After 30 years of relative absence, I was paying to help this man whose only recurring words to me were, “I have to get out of here. I am bored. I want to live in my own apartment.” This man who could not keep his meds straight, could not walk without assistance, spent his days in bed sleeping and watching television. Even so, he was conscious of his dementia’s onset. His decline appeared to rob him only of his mental agility and short-term memory. He recognized me and all the members of his family. He recalled details and interacted with lucidity.
I, on the other hand, was solely aware of pain and anxiety mixed with primal love for my father. I often felt confused or upset when I thought of him. Loneliness, unwanted loneliness from the only man in the world who was my dad.
I edged into the hospital room. He turned to look at me, then broke into a smile. I bent over and hugged him, kissed him, said, “I love you.” He said it too, adding my name.
He had never lasted more than 20 minutes on these visits. His energy would fade just as quickly as it would shine. This time he asked for me to pour him a soda.
He wasn’t hungry, again. Once more he refused the hospital food. He had spent the majority of his adult life tremendously overweight and hungry. Now he wasn’t touching the bagels, licorice, jerky, crackers, and candy in the box on the floor—all his favorites. He was the smallest I can recall seeing him.
I had come with a particular question in mind. It came out of my mouth with an unexpected ease and patience, “Did we have family in the Holocaust?”
“Yes,” he replied, “Many.”
“Who were they? I never knew or heard any stories.”
“I don’t know. I was only six when World War II started. But we had a lot of family in Eastern Europe, family we never heard from again. They all went into concentration camps.”
“What do you remember from your childhood?”
“My Uncle Maxie. He was a big man. A prizefighter. He always wanted me to fight. He beat me up. I was no good at it. He was the only one who paid attention to me in the family. Everyone else said, ‘Bob, you’re so smart.’ And the conversations ended there. They didn’t talk to me. All I remember is the color of the carpet. I can remember what kind of floors they had in their houses because I crawled around on them when I was little. Nobody talked to me. They weren’t talkers.”
That was how we started to unfold the memory-stitched quilt of his life, one random panel at a time. We went smoothly from one section to another in no particular order.
When I was little he was a university professor. It was the 1960s. Drugs and rock and roll were part of our lives. My mother was crazy with schizophrenia. It added to the madness in our home. Janis Joplin and my mother’s anger fits. Hare Krishna monks singing on campus and The Who blaring “Tommy” in our living room at 2 am.
“Do you remember turning me on to grass?” He smiled. “Tell me what happened.”
“We were driving to one of your students’ gatherings out to a park outside of Austin at night. You asked me if I had friends who were smoking pot, if I had tried it, if I knew what it was. I told you I had heard of it, thought my friends were smoking, but never tried it. ‘Well,’ you said, ‘there might be some there tonight. You might want to try it and see what you think.’”
He looked across his blanket at me from the hospital bed, “How old were you?”
“Twelve or thirteen.” He smiled and turned away, closing his eyes.
He put his hand on my arm and held me while we spoke. We reminisced about my childhood. We laughed about how he would wake me up in the middle of the night playing the Woodstock Fish Cheer full blast on our stereo when I was 11, “Give me an F! Give me a U! Give me a C! Give me a K! What’s that spell?! What’s the spell?! What’s that spell!!!”
He told me about his work as an advertising executive on Madison Avenue in the 50s, and how his father was a furrier in New York in the 30s and 40s.He recalled his adventures In Bulgaria where he met his second wife, and their travels through Greece.
For two hours the conversation flowed back and forth with incredible ease. It seemed to give him energy and he held my arm through much of it, like I was helping him walk down a long hallway.
When he began to fade, he started to say how good he felt that he was not alone. I hugged him, kissed his face and said goodbye.
As I walked out of his room, he named our family members with his eyes closed: my two sisters, me, my wife and the names of my two children. His last words before he drifted off to sleep peacefully, “I am not alone.” There was peace around us for the first time in a very long time.
—Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. But he can still hang out and tell stories.
I met Seth in 1975 at Franklin College, where his father was part of the journalism faculty and Seth was the too-bright teenager hanging out on campus because his rural hoosier high school had nothing to offer him. I am grateful to have in my life friends like Seth. – Sarah White