“Love’s a steady hand waiting for the storm to pass.” – NEEDTOBREATHE
When you sit in a nursing home room with someone under hospice care you notice everything. The loose handle on the large brown portable clothes closet. The dead battery in the clock hung on the wall forever stuck at 7:07. The well-worn sitting chair upholstered in vintage 70’s stripes. The glitch in the cable tv feed that annoyingly causes the picture to stall from time to time. Did Bryce Harper just hit a double or a dribbler to first base? Buffering…
You study the barren beige walls covered with only a monthly events calendar, and you notice the scratches on the dark wood vinyl floors that have housed many in room 108 before him. And then there are the windows. Empty bird feeders hang outside a few of the windows around the facility, and a few random squirrels scamper about. It’s not a serene beach view, but the windows look out onto a green lawn and green trees dancing in the distance. The windows promise a better tomorrow so sometimes I walk over to them and just stand there gazing. I stare out looking at everything and nothing at the same time.
“From my shallow grave, I’ve prayed to find the strength to crawl, the strength to climb.”
They say eyes are windows to the soul. Well my dad’s empty stare and gaping mouth makes me wonder what he sees now. He can’t speak anymore and I know I’ll never have another conversation this side of existence with him about overpaid athletes, or the finer points of a full court man to man press. But I just wonder what those eyes see now when he stares over my shoulder and out the window or stares up at the white ceiling seemingly oblivious to his surroundings.
His current condition is somewhere on the finality scale between sadness and heartbreak. He always said he didn’t want to die in a nursing home, yet here he is after gravity took a knock at his shoulder added to multiple heart surgeries, cancer, and mini-strokes. Cumulatively they have taken a toll on his mind and his body. They’ve turned my hero into a bed-ridden hospice patient waiting on a merciless clock forever stuck at 7:07.
When I visit, I only have so many words. So many well wishes from friends and family and stories to relay and tell. Then, I’m done and we sit in silence as I cue up some of his favorites on my Spotify app on my phone. Yesterday it was The Righteous Brothers, today Motown hits of the 50’s and 60’s, and tomorrow feels like a Kenny Rogers sort of day. I feel bad when I don’t have anything to say that I haven’t said already. It’s like I think that something I’m going to say is magically going to make him rise again like Lazarus and we’ll have another 10 or 15 years to discuss the finer points of pre-flop raises with suited connectors at a poker table. I wonder if the the smile and laugh I saw yesterday is the last one I’m going to see. I’m not ready to say goodbye, but in a way I’ve been preparing for this moment for the last four years since my wife and I moved my mom and dad to NW Arkansas from their retirement home in Norman, Oklahoma. Maybe I was hoping for a better ending. One where he didn’t have to spend the last weeks of his life apart from his wife of 52 years alone surrounded by unfamiliar walls and nurses spoon-feeding him his meds mixed in applesauce.
“Up to the surface, untie my hands. Sorrow had a purpose but it’s time to stand.”
Still I peer into those once vibrant blue eyes that burned with passion and intensity and love. What are they seeing now? Do they just see the same barren walls or ceilings I see? Are the seconds like hours and the minutes like days to him at this point, or are those eyes seeing something entirely else. Maybe they see his parents who have long been deceased or his two brothers that both left their earthly bodies too early in life. Are they seeing his former Tulane University or Phillips 66ers teammates? Do they see his coaching friends that have gone before him in the past 12 months – friends like Jerry Jobe and Billy Tubbs? Is he having conversations with these people in an alternate universe right now? Or do his eyes see anything at all?
If I’m being honest, I have alternating feelings of sadness, anger, and pain. There are times when I have to muster courage just to drive over and sit in this room with him. It seems ridiculous, but those times of avoidance are laden with guilt and shame though I know I have nothing to feel shameful about. But I still feel it. It’s a constant struggle of guilt and shame against those of duty and obligation. The latter two ultimately being driven by love. It’s love that wins, but it’s a game that’s always played at different times and lengths. Love always wins, but much like I always knew the Harlem Globetrotters were going to beat the Washington Generals, the how of it was usually the mystery in it.
“Whatever you do, I will be there. Son, I will follow you anywhere. Into the mystery.”
One of my favorite new songs of 2021 is a song about love and about knowing that you’re not alone in your struggles. Written and sung beautifully as always by Bear Rhinehart of the South Carolina band NEEDTOBREATHE, the song is called “Into the Mystery.” Bear talks about the song’s meaning from an angle of supporting your children as they grow and figure out things in life. I also think the song is for anyone who feels alone right now.
I’ve had the song in my head the past few days and it has brought me comfort as I’ve thought about my dad and what those eyes of his are seeing now. I’ve thought about his support for me, for my sister, for my mom and for all of his friends and players through the years. I’ve thought about his laugh and all those places and things that those eyes have seen over 81 well-lived years. Soon they’ll see his parents and two brothers again, and they’ll see countless teammates and coaching friends. One day not too far in the distance they’ll see his completely healed wife as well. His pain will soon be over and he’ll leave that pain here for his family and friends to absorb. So I pray for my dad right now. I pray for mercy for that skinny kid from the Jersey shore, and I pray that his empty stare and his eyes are seeing something other than a blank wall or a white ceiling right now. I pray the eyes to his soul are staring right now deep into the mystery. If you need comfort right now, I hope this song brings you some as well.
Thank you NEEDTOBREATHE for a beautiful song, and thank you dear reader for reading.