It was a cold winter night many years ago that I went out to see my Dad who was still living at home by himself. My mother had been moved over a year earlier and my father was still far from ready for assisted living.
Back then, I would drive to the house 5 to 6 days a week to check up on him.
I pulled into the driveway that night and saw that the house was in total darkness save for a small light in the kitchen. I could see my father inside, his shadow gliding back and forth like a disembodied entity.
His eccentricities were increasingly more pronounced and peculiar by the day so the sight of him pacing didn’t alarm me…much.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the back door was that he had his coat on.
“And where are you going?” I said, smiling.
“Nowhere,” he laughed, “just felt like putting my coat on, is all.”
The words drifted out of his mouth in little puffs of frost.
The chill then hit me like a speeding freight train; his heat was off.
I went into the dining room and looked at the thermostat.
He’d pushed it all the way up praying for a bit of relief.
Holy Jesus on a Cross, I thought, he’s freezing and I’m the world’s biggest schmuck.
Long story short, he was out of heating oil.
I immediately called the oil company (open 24/7 during winter, thank God) and told them what happened. They assured me they would be there within the hour, which they were.
I made my father some hot tea as we sat waiting for Mr. Heat to arrive.
A full tank of oil and a newly lit pilot light later and heat began rising out of the previously icy baseboards.
Once my brain thawed, all the ‘what ifs’ started racing an Indy 500 inside my head.
What if I hadn’t stopped out tonight?
What if he’d left the house in search of warmth and got lost?
I knew it wasn’t my fault but it was my responsibility and I felt in a small way that I had failed him.
Therein lies the paradox that is Alzheimer’s; caregivers feel all the intense guilt and sense of loss that their loved one will never be aware of.
Riddled with shame, I decided to stay a bit longer than usual.
I knew he’d had no supper due to the ‘house turned igloo’ so I offered to make him something to eat, which he politely declined (like I knew he would).
He sat in the warm den and watched TV while I scrambled some eggs and made some toast.
He came into the kitchen sniffing and said, “Mmm, that smells good.”
“Want some?” I asked.
After his second helping of eggs he looked at me and said, “That was really good. I was starving.”
I smiled and said, “I know, Dad.”
It’s ancient water under the bridge but I still think about that night and feel that pang of shame. This was the guy that worked every stinking day of his life so I could have clothes, a nice baseball glove and cleats (like all the other kids), food on the table, heat in the winter; all the necessities of life and more.
He made sure I never knew the meaning of the word ‘want’.
I drove home that night waiting for that Aha! moment that would hopefully make some sense out of what had just happened.
If the moment came, I’d sadly missed it.
While the memory of that night remains a self-imposed penance, I take comfort in knowing I was able to make his night a bit warmer than the freezing world around him.
I hope that night left him feeling more than warmth.
I pray he felt love.