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A Mother's Day thank you for the care given a father in decline

He had become a child again, and she fed him, clothed him, cleaned him and soothed him, holding his hand until the end.

May 13, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Grace Lopez had to smile back at a man -- her husband of many years -- who was talking to ghosts and screaming at death. Tony and Grace Lopez are shown in 2011.
Grace Lopez had to smile back at a man -- her husband of many years -- who was… (Debra Lopez )

Dear Mom:

It's always been impossible to buy you a gift for Mother's Day or any other occasion, because there's so little you ever wanted or needed, and how many flannel nightgowns can any woman use? There must be half a dozen stores within 10 miles of your house where you set records for returning gifts from family members.

And so we switched to flowers, which even the Queen of Returns can't give back. I hope they've arrived by now.

But here's a little something extra. A Mother's Day column. All the years I've been putting things in the paper, I don't know why I never thought to do it before. The price is certainly right. And for reasons the psychiatrists would have to answer, it's hard for me to say some of the things that are on my mind, but not so hard to write them.

I remember being in college and writing you a letter after your father's funeral, hoping to come up with a phrase or a thought that might ease your pain. I knew you were struggling weeks and months after he was gone, but only now, after so many years, do I understand your loss.

When Dad died in February, I thought I'd be OK. I'd told myself in advance that this was how it had to be, for all of us. Death is natural, and in some cases even merciful, right?

What garbage. There's nothing natural about it.

He was there one day, hungry, cranky, the will to fight stirring in his eyes. And then nothing, his room quiet but for the echo of his last breath. Too soon, the hearse was down the street and out of sight.

Of course, that ride had started much earlier. Remember the conversations about hiding his car keys, when your crazy-eyed Spaniard husband insisted he was driving better than ever?

Yeah, Tony, sure. But that was a one-way street, and you were going the wrong way.

The driving issue was solved soon enough, though, when his legs started to go, leaving him dependent on a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair.

It's cruel, the trick of time. Baptism, graduation, wedding, funeral.

These days, when I call and ask how you're doing, you lie, saying everything's fine. I know that's your way of protecting me, but I also know things can't be fine. They aren't for me, and you were married to him longer than I've been alive.

After Dad died, I got a card from my buddy Ingo that helped me a lot. Remember when we rented the beach house with Ingo and his family, and Dad was out there riding the waves with all the kids, body-surfing and boogie boarding? Ingo told me he'd never forget the look on Dad's face, that pure joy of a man having honest fun with his family.

Not that it was always as perfect and simple as that. After I moved away, there was so little time together. And when we all got back together, a different kind of distance could be felt sometimes, the result of our different lives and sensibilities. No relationships are as complicated as family relationships, but I always felt like I should have found more ways to cut through that, and then it was too late.

What comforts me now is the knowledge that Dad knew, as time ran out, that you and all three of his kids were together and there for him. He was surrounded by love, and for that, I need to say thanks to you and to Deb — and to John, who pitched in when you guys needed help.

I had the easy part, 400 miles away but for the occasional visit, while you and Deb fed him, clothed him, cleaned him, soothed him. You went to the hospital every day, and then the nursing home, and then when he came home, the work got harder.

How ridiculously unfair it was that when you were weak from grief, and not so healthy yourself, you had to find a greater strength than you'd ever known. You had to smile back at a man who was talking to ghosts and screaming at death and sometimes even at the people he loved most.

He had become a child again, and you took care of him the way you once took care of us. When he seemed most lost, you told him stories from your courtship and long life together, singing the songs he loved, stroking his hair and comforting him as he floated at the edge of existence.

I hope you know how much I admire you for holding his hand all the way to the end, and how much strength I took from that.

I can't forget the day I changed the gloves he wore and felt the cold, brittle curl of his hand. It was hard for me to do once, and you did it many, many times.

I can't forget the way he struggled to lift his head and then strained to touch his tongue to the sponge we dipped in water.

What an amazing force that was, his primal desire to survive. He wanted to stay, to be with us, to be with you. It buckled me, watching him fight to the last, but you were strong, at peace, the picture of grace.

I have nothing more to say, on Mother's Day, but thanks.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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