Touch: The Journal of Healing



The Evolution of Your Goodbyes

    by Ruth Schiffmann

The day your father forgets your name doesn’t come out of nowhere.  You see it coming over weeks, months, and years.  There’s the day he orders pizza and can’t remember the address of the house he’s lived in for forty-five years.  The morning he drinks orange juice from a spoon.  The afternoon you arrive to find him wearing two pairs of pants, five shirts, and two hats.  With every detail that slips from his grasp you feel the moment that he will forget you approaching like a dreaded, unavoidable fate.

So you try to outrun it.  You do this by cooking in large batches, spooning stews and slotted spoonfuls of vegetables into multi-sectioned plates.  You build towers of stacked covered dishes in your freezer until the next trip to your parents’ house, when you’ll carefully rebuild the towers in their freezer.

After each visit, your father walks you to the car.  He hesitates at the window, holding you close with his gaze, searching for words that he can’t quite find until finally, “I’m glad you came,” he says, and you know that he’s dredged the words from deep in his heart.

Suddenly you’re glad that large, dark sunglasses are in style.  You slip them on and start the engine.  As he heads back to the house, breaking into a jog to make sure he’s at the window before you back down the driveway, your heart hurts knowing that you mean that much to him.  The tears fall, and you’re relieved that from the window where he’s waving to you like a five-year-old, he can only see you smiling from behind movie star sunglasses.

The day comes when you gather the empty plates and head for the door, but he doesn’t join you.  You climb into your car, your chest heavier, your brow knit a little tighter and suddenly, you wish you’d hugged him and told him that you loved him.  But that’s not the kind of family you were.  Or are.  Instead you back down the driveway, look for him at the window, smile and return his exuberant wave.

The months go by and one day you’re stunned when he utters a complete sentence.  You realize how long it’s been since he’s strung words together and wonder where the words have gone, how you could’ve missed them stealing away.  Until you look back, reexamine the visits of a handful of months and recall the struggle in his voice as he fought to keep them from dropping off.

Finally, as you leave one day you can’t help yourself.  You hug him.  He won’t even know it’s unusual, you think.  You’ll hug him and he’ll think that’s what you do.  You wrap your arms around his frail body, feel the sharp angles of his shoulder blades, but he doesn’t hug you back.  Doesn’t know how.

One day as you sit together listening to Elvis, you suggest a walk.  He’s on his feet in an instant, following you to the coat closet.  As you lead his arm into the sleeve of his sweatshirt he reaches out for you.  A hug?  You wonder.  But then you realize, he’s dancing.  With you.  And it doesn’t matter that you are not that kind of family.  A family that dances.  Because he’s smiling and holding your hand and enjoying the music.  So you forget about the walk, take his other hand and dance.

You hold onto the days as long as possible.  You serve him lunch in his recliner, but have to remind him how to pick up his fork and bring it to his mouth.  He falls asleep after a few bites.  It takes two of you to get him from the chair to his bed.  Elvis is singing in the background, but today you’re not dancing.

Eventually, your visits find you signing in at a reception desk, asking strangers to punch numbers into a keypad to unlock doors.  Both of you are content to sit and smile at one another while Frank Sinatra croons “Strangers in the Night.” He hasn’t called you by name in a very long time, but he still brightens at the sight of your face.  As the song ends, your father echoes Frank’s “dooby dooby doo,” and you both laugh.  He holds your gaze and you wish you could read his mind.  When you leave you hug him, tell him you will be back soon, and always, always you say, “I love you.”

© 2010  Ruth Schiffmann

Ruth Schiffmann spent fourteen rewarding years homeschooling her two daughters. As they got older she found herself with more time to write. Caring for her parents throughout her mother’s struggle with depression and her father’s decline into dementia has inspired much of her work. More than two hundred of Ruth’s stories, articles, poems, and essays have appeared both online and in print.  Her blog can be found at

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Touch: The Journal of Healing

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