He lay there in his hospital bed, 96 years old, embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated. “I’m afraid I’ve had an accident”, he said, the words coming slowly.
Sixteen years ago, my father-in-law, Roy-chan, had asked if he could come live with us. Out of the blue he’d asked, as I was watching our daughter and son-in-law drive down the driveway on their way to their honeymoon. Roy-chan was here from California for the wedding, and he had no idea that as he asked, I was choked up with tears.
Without hesitation, Nolemana and I said yes. At the time, at age eighty-four, Roy-chan was healthy and active, and within a couple of months, had moved in to his own quarters downstairs in our light-filled daylight basement. We were now a family of three in our home. He planted a vegetable garden and fruit trees, built himself a large floor loom when he decided that buying one too expensive, and was active in church.
Yet over the years, as might be expected, his strength had gradually diminished, and in 2001, during the final months of his life, he was mainly confined to his hospital bed, and I became his primary caregiver.
Deathly afraid he’d end up in a nursing home with tubes snaking out of his nose and mouth, he’d gladly agreed to have hospice come and give us a hand. I’d promised him that we would keep him at home as long as we were physically and medically able to care for him. His gratitude knew no bounds.
Roy-chan and I had spent many happy Thursdays together. Thursdays were our day. I’d drive him wherever he wanted or needed to go: The library, grocery store, doctor appointments. We’d always end up having lunch out somewhere (his treat). Every week I’d say to him, “Tell me a story, Dad”, and while we were driving, this usually fairly reticent man would tell me about growing up on a farm. My favorite story was the one about the time he, his father, and his brother had to move their outhouse to a new location, and Roy-chan, not seeing the edge of the corner of the outhouse’s former location, stepped into all the muck up to his waist…yuk!! (I must admit to feeling very sorry for his mother, who had to wash his overalls!) I loved hearing him talk about the time when he worked at Lockheed, and how one time, one of the Wright brothers came to visit, and was taken up in a Constellation plane and allowed to fly it.
In our times together, I got know the man I called my dad-in-love better than his own kids knew him. I treasured our times together, and the bond between us grew stronger week by week.
Roy-chan’s interests were many, and I searched out places we could go that would bring him joy. We went to The Great Oregon Steam-up, the draft horse plowing exhibition, airplane cruise-ins, and even an orchid show in downtown Portland.
We grew comfortable with each other. I learned to accept his occasional crankiness when he was frustrated, tired, or wearied by his growing dependence on others. In turn, he learned to be more patient with my questions about his life “back then”. We learned to laugh together, and he became more relaxed about talking about things that no one had ever asked him about before.
I referred to us as The Dynamic Duo, and treasured our times together. He was my hānai dad, helping me to fill the place left so empty by my own dad’s suicide.
All too soon, our Thursdays together came to an end. Roy-chan’s heart was giving out, and he gradually went from going on our drives and being able to use his walker to being completely bedfast. My days became filled with caring for him as well as working full-time in our home business. Nolemana would help in the evenings, but because appraising houses required him to be gone during the day, Roy-chan’s care was mostly my responsibility. I loved him; I didn’t mind, although my days were exhausting and nights interrupted by his angina attacks, which frequently required calls to 911. I rarely left the house. But it was okay; I loved him.
I prayed, “Oh God, help me to do this. Thank you for giving me the strength, the compassion, the patience. But please God, there’s one thing, just one thing, I won’t be able to do. I’m willing to do anything else, but please don’t let me have to clean Roy-chan up if he can’t get to the commode next to his bed. I just know I can’t do that.”
And now, I heard Roy-chan’s voice saying, “I’m afraid I had an accident.” And it wasn’t just shi-shi, either.
I was at a crossroads. What was I going to do? Roy-chan’s hospice nurse was due in three hours. Could we just wait? “Oh God”, I prayed, “this is the one thing I said I couldn’t do!” And in that moment, I had a flash of illumination. What would Jesus do? Would he just leave Roy-chan there? What if it were Jesus lying there? Would I just leave him there?
I knew what I had to do. Taking a deep breath I said, “Dad, I’ve never done this before, and I know how embarrassing this is for you, but if you’re willing, so am I. We’ll get through it together. We can wait for Scott if you’d prefer, but I know you’re pretty uncomfortable.” He wanted to go ahead. And we did. It was as if the room were filled with light. I cleaned him up, rolling him from side to side. I didn’t throw up. I didn’t gag. Roy-chan was calm. And when we were pau, and he was all clean, he said to me words I will never forget: “You know, I give you a lot of credit. I know that wasn’t easy, but you did it. Thank you.” With tears rolling down my cheeks, I leaned over and kissed his cheek. “We did it, Dad”, I said. “We did it.”
And we did it, again and again. It wasn’t the same as going to the Steam-Up or an orchid show, but the bond we had forged in all our Thursdays together somehow became even stronger, until the day Roy-chan slipped from this life to the next, and into the arms of Jesus, here at home, with me holding his hand and Nolemana by his side. I hadn’t thought I could do something that difficult, but with God’s help, I did.
Noble? I don’t think so. Noble is too big. It speaks of giving your life for your country or saving someone’s life. But it was beyond my ordinary, beyond what I thought I could do. It was a gift to Roy-chan, a gift to relieve his suffering — but now, sixteen years later, I realize the gift was also for myself, giving me the knowledge that I can do more than I think I can do. And maybe, that’s what God had in mind all along.