I offered my daughter a treat to go visit my dad the other day. He's been in the nursing home, slowly dying of dementia for two and a half years now — about half her life. She's used to going.
But in the last year or so, we'd developed a ritual of bringing candy for the two of them to share. He always loved sweets. She has the same sweet-tooth and despite the fact that he didn't know it was his granddaughter holding up the gummi bear or Raisinette, he took it and seemed at least to enjoy it.
Until about a month ago.
We tried to feed him some candy after we roused him from a nap as he sat in a wheel chair in the day room of his nursing home. He wouldn't even open his mouth, and only opened one eye.
His hospice aide told us, “Oh, Mr. Pines doesn't eat solid food anymore. If he has something in his mouth he just moves it from side to side, he doesn't know what to do with it. “
I thought I'd become immune to heartbreak from this disease. Or at least my heart had developed a pretty thick callous. But this pierced through. “He's on pureed food now, “ she told me, gently. Another indignity on the pile. One of the last, I expect. I mean, there's almost no dignity left. There's certainly almost nothing of my Dad left.
After that visit, I thought I'd never bring my daughter again. It would be too painful. But for who?
Then after a few weeks, I decided it was time for us to go back. I thought after that last horrifying visit, I would need to cajole her. I pre-emptively offered a bribe. I said, "Gramps can't eat the candy anymore, remember, but I'll get you a treat after." She was thrilled, but didn't seem to need the incentive. I guess I figured she'd need something to soften the blow.
He was sleeping when we got there, mouth agape. But he did open his eyes. Isabelle held his hand for a minute. I kissed his forehead and told him I loved him. What more is there to do?
I learn from my daughter everyday. What is this lesson, though? Resilience? Innocence? Should I be more like her, in the moment, not worrying about what’s coming next?
For my dad we know what’s coming next and I no longer worry about it, for him. I worry about it for me. I thought I was doing a good job shielding my daughter from the pain of his imminent demise but she told my aunt, just this weekend, that Gramps was going to die soon. I worry that I share too much with her being a single mom with one child. Too much of my stress and grief brimming over, spilling out in tears, sometimes misplaced frustration. But that is life, too. Along with her sunny disposition, her guilelessness, her seeming endless well-spring of optimism and sunlight, there are shadows. Always shadows to give the light its due.
So, who were the sweets for? The bribery to get through the dark passage? She certainly enjoyed them but she is my treat, my light against the ever encroaching darkness. Sometimes I worry if this is too big a burden for those small shoulders. But, in the end, it's a journey we both have to take, and it will be better if we hold hands along the way.
Will the next visit be the last? I don’t know, but the candy will help.
Sara Pines is a producer and show editor at NBC's TODAY show and a contributor to the blog TodayMoms.com as Today's Sandwich Mom. She is the single mother of a beautiful five year old girl and a native New Yorker. You can follow her on Twitter @sarampines.