I’ll call my ninety-three year old dad on Father’s Day. He’ll call me “Sweetheart” and tell me how much he loves me. And once again, he’ll cry and thank me for making the time.
“I love talking to you, Dad,” I say. And I do. I try to call every other day. But honestly, getting connected often feels the equivalent of fifty push-ups. This happens regularly:
I dial. The phone in his nursing home room, two provinces over, rings seven, ten, twelve, fifteen times. No answer. He may be napping, I think. Or out. Or in the washroom. I’m delighted when he does answer. “Hello?” he says. And I say, “Hi, Dad! It’s so good to hear your voice!”
“Hello!” he says again.
“Hello! Dad?” I repeat, louder. He’s either not wearing his hearing aids, or he’s forgotten to press the speaker button. “Dad! Press the speaker button. I can hear you, can you hear me? Hello! Hello! HELLO!” I yell until I’m hoarse, until I can’t yell any louder. (For obvious reasons, I never have these conversations outdoors.)
He says “hello” several more times, but finally, defeated, one of us hangs up. On a good evening, when I call again (and again) he remembers to punch speaker. Sometimes a kind staff member, passing in the hall, helps him. When I’m too tired for another match of shouted hellos, I call again the next day.
When Daddy does hear me, and we move past hello, most of our conversations center on a) the weather (lots of rain) b) the food (too many salads) c) what part of the Bible he’s reading now (Romans, lately) and d) who has (or hasn’t) visited. Oh, and how, when he finds the key to the door of “this place I’m incarcerated in,” he’s getting out. Finding work. Getting married again.
Two things amaze me about Dad these days: what he’s forgotten, and what he remembers. Sometimes he’s as clear as a mountain stream. He still quotes Bible verses. But yesterday he told me we still had horses when I was little because we couldn’t afford a tractor. He’s looking at buying a John Deere tractor now, he said.
However, Dad didn’t raise us on a farm. He’s been a city boy since before he married my mother in 1952. He’s grown increasingly confused since we lost her a few years ago. Our family never had horses and we didn’t need a tractor in our Vancouver suburb. But Dad’s rural roots run deep. So does his work ethic and his longing for the traditional home life he has known all his life.
Somewhere, buried under the smog of confusion and dementia, waits the strong, articulate, happy father I’ve always known. I believe that one day God, in his perfect time, will give Dad that key to the freedom he longs for, in the Heaven described in the Bible Dad loves and reads so frequently.
Until then, as long as possible, I’ll call. Wait out the string of hellos. Just to hear him call me Sweetheart.