My Father Slips Away

Benjie Feldman lived some years before his death with his son and the author of this beautiful tribute. We’ve included photos of the two to show the tenderness that lived between them.

Most of us old guys have lost our dads, and for many of us their passing has left a hole that cannot be filled.

In the next room, my father is dying. At 99, his ancient corpus is, at last, shuffling off its mortal coil.

Nine months ago, my father and my mother, then 98, finally admitted they could no longer live independently, and so, according to a long-standing plan, moved in with my wife Marti and I. Shortly after they arrived, Benjie — I’ve always called my parents by their first names — fell in the dining room for no apparent reason. “I was standing there, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor,” he said when I asked him what happened.

I called the doctor and made an appointment for him. “You’re going to see the doctor tomorrow, if you live that long,” I told him.

“What?” (His hearing has been gone for a couple of years.)

“We’re going to the doctor tomorrow if you’re still alive.”

He shrugged. “Okay. If not, then the day after,” he said, his sterling sense of humor still intact.
The following day, he was, in fact, still alive, so I took him to see the doctor. There were X-rays, blood tests, and an electrocardiogram. As I helped him undress for the X-rays, I couldn’t help but notice how really frail his once-powerful, athletic body was, how his skin was just about translucent, and I felt a rush of compassion for him.

The X-rays showed three fractured ribs and a fractured clavicle — all non-displacement injuries, fortunately, that would heal with time. The cause of his fall was never determined.
In early January, my mother died, and statistically, the prognosis for my father’s continued longevity was not good. With couples who live together as long as they did — 77 years and into their late nineties —  when one dies, the other typically follows soon after.

Still, we hoped that his overall good health would keep him going, and it did — until a few weeks ago, when he fell again, and this time it wasn’t so benign. A couple of days after the fall, he began complaining of discomfort in his left groin, and over the next two weeks, the pain grew worse. My father is not someone given to kvetching, so when he kept talking about the pain, I knew it had to be serious.

An X-ray revealed a hip fracture — the dreaded hip fracture. There was no displacement, but still, at his age, any hip fracture has the potential to prove fatal. The typical progression with such an injury is intense pain, loss of mobility, confinement to bed, decreased appetite, a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and finally, pneumonia.

The doctor recommended surgery, but Benjie wouldn’t hear of it. “Everybody I know who had that surgery, it killed ‘em,” he said in his best Brooklynese. “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna do it at home, not in the hospital.” The doctor had no choice but to respect this stance, so he prescribed painkillers — “I want the good stuff,” Benjie told him — and we agreed to hope for the best.

But the best was not in the cards. The pain in my father’s hip prevented him from putting any weight on his left leg, and he quickly began losing mobility. In just a few days, he was bedridden, and we called in one of the home health workers who took such excellent care of my mother when she was dying; the caretaker began coming for the nighttime hours.

A week ago, my father began receiving home hospice care. The hospice nurse guessed he had anywhere from two weeks to a month.

So now we try to keep him comfortable and wait, while a steady stream of relatives and friends have made their pilgrimages to his bedside to say their farewells. We haven’t had so many visitors in years.

In the meantime, Benjie’s sunny disposition remains unchanged, and he’s sanguine about his fate. Yesterday, only half-joking, he said, “Just put the pillow over my face. Nobody’ll know.”
And this morning, he asked me, “Why is it taking so long to finish?”

“I guess so we can have a few more days together,” I told him.

“That’s good,” he agreed.

Not unexpectedly, my father’s decline has brought me face-to-face with my own mortality. I’ll come to this, too, in time, and when I do, who’ll be there to care for me? And when it’s my time to face the deterioration of my body and mind, will I be able to marshal the same courage, equanimity, and dignity that my father has shown under these circumstances? I can only hope.

I’m trying to cherish every moment with him, knowing that all too soon he’ll be gone. It’ll be hard to lose him. There have been many wealthier men, many more famous, and many better educated. But there has never been a sweeter man than my father. I’m going to miss him terribly.

Editor’s Note: Benjie died on April 14, four days after Jay’s 75th birthday.

Jay Feldman is a widely published writer and the author of several books, including When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes.

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