by Karen McGee
Goodbye for a while. I stood in front of you as you sang these words each morning before leaving for work.
“Gooooooood,” you’d twist around, hand in front your mouth, holding out the first syllable for what, at times, seemed like five minutes and other times lasted a mere five seconds. Holding my breath, my fists clenched and my feet jittery, I tried to anticipate the booming “BYE!!!!” you’d belt out as you flung your arms wide open and released the kiss, filling the room with enough love and laughter to last until you came home. I’d jump, scream, and, ultimately, laugh with relief as you sang the final phrase, “for a while.”
I relished the startle of your goodbye, because back then it was always only for a while—your return home was a given. As I grew older, the length of the time between our goodbyes expanded and contracted in keeping with the normal rhythm of life—college, jobs, weddings, kids—but your return was never in doubt.
Then the insidious synapse swindler settled into your brain, stealing you from me slowly in its cunning, and sometimes, winsome way. It teased me with momentary returns that startled me in the same way your unpredictable “BYE!!!” did all those years ago.
“The speed camera just got you,” you stated matter-of-factly on our way to your doctor’s appointment. I glanced in the rearview mirror, spotted the white rectangular box with its Cyclops eye aimed straight at my rear license plate, and smiled, glad to have you beside me for as long as your neurons cooperated.
The you I knew was nowhere to be found when I’d arrived to pick you up earlier that morning. Instead, keys misplaced three times between the bedroom and the front door and two trips to the bathroom—with the change of clothes that inevitably followed each time—turned a two-minute walk to the car into a forty-five-minute slog.
Six months later, your returns had become fewer and farther between, but, at times, startled with the ferocity of a sudden summer storm. The you I knew reappeared as I was settling you into your room on the dementia unit.
I had left you briefly—my beautiful father who could still light up a room with your brilliant smile and movie-star good looks—to sign the intake papers, and had come back to find you totally confused and wearing a plastic bib over your navy-and-white checked button-down shirt.
“It’s come to this?” you asked with a pained and frightened look of incredulity.
Despite the clarifying conversations around your end-of-life wishes, these coruscating moments of lucidity felt like a knife in my heart. While I treasured the presence of the you I knew, I began to pray you wouldn’t understand what was happening as you mentally and physically crumbled before my eyes.
Three weeks later I was fighting to get you out of that place and into the peaceful setting of a hospice down the street. While Alzheimer’s was destroying you from the top down, necrotizing wounds on your ankles were attacking you from the bottom up, and cancer was eating you from the inside out.
“We were a good team, weren’t we, Karesy?” you lovingly asked in what would be your final return.
I was kneeling at your feet on the bathroom floor trying to remove the soiled sweatpants and pull-up diaper I had worked so hard to get onto you just minutes earlier. I struggled to hold back tears of frustration and sadness, and this ultimate startle helped soothe my spirit, as yours prepared to take flight.
Goodbye for a while, Dad. We made a great team.