By ANNE UNDERWOOD
Dad called it “part of the adventure of life.” In March 2009, at the age of 87, he moved out of his retirement community in Baltimore, bundled himself into his Prius and drove down to Griffin, Ga., where he’d rented an apartment. There was a woman involved, of course — a lovely woman named Gloria, whom he’d met on eHarmony.com.
Ever the practical daughter, I reacted at first with horror. Instead of having a support staff to help him, he would have to do his own cooking, cleaning and shopping — major tasks at any age, and all the more so for Dad, who was suffering from heart failure. I wondered who would care for him when he inevitably declined, and I doubted he could really afford this move. Dad brushed off all my warnings, insisting that he would be fine.
When I first wrote about his impending move in this blog, some readers were concerned, as I was, about the potential pitfalls. Others expressed outright admiration. “I hope I am as courageous, wise and unafraid” at his age, said one reader. “Bravo!” said another.
But the wisdom of this move was open to speculation at the time. A year later, I know how it all turned out.
Dad loved his adopted home, and, with Gloria’s help, he created a beautiful and tranquil living space in an apartment near hers. Gloria held a grand “Welcome to Georgia” party for him. And Dad quickly endeared himself to his neighbors and shopkeepers around town, who were drawn to his soft-spoken courtesy and deep kindness.
But his journal, as I later learned, betrayed a deeper understanding of his problems than he ever would admit to me — or to Gloria, for that matter. His stamina was rapidly flagging. Even before setting out for Georgia, he wrote, “Truly I don’t have the energy for this move. Need for money and (long-term) care impending.” In fact, he teetered when he walked, and every few steps he had to stop and rest. From mid-October on, he was, as he put it, “deflating.”
His finances were no healthier. As soon as he arrived, he began spending money fitting out his new apartment, framing pictures, buying new furniture and helping Gloria with her own household expenses — but he skimped on blood-sugar test strips for his borderline diabetes. I was appalled when he said he wasn’t going to buy a hearing aid until he could pay off the installments on his furniture. I sent a check, which he used to pay other debts.
Nor did his romance fulfill his deepest desires. Not content with mere friendship, Dad was searching for the ideal union of body and soul that had escaped him in his two marriages. He embraced this final quest with passion and urgency. But it was a romantic quest no woman could realistically have fulfilled. Anyone else his age would have been thrilled to have found such a deep and caring friendship so late in life. Not Dad. “The dream died,” he finally told me, admitting to a deep depression.
Perhaps with more time and better health, he could have made it work. But by this point, he was failing — “so tired, I . . .” read his incomplete journal entry on Nov. 11.
The next day he entered the hospital.
I flew down to Georgia. For hours every day, I read to him —everything from articles in Newsweek and The Nation to Greg Mortenson’s new book, “From Stones Into Schools” and “Winnie the Pooh” (which Dad had read to me as a child). I brought a portable CD player to the hospital and played his favorite recordings for him. I spoon-fed him meals and just watched him rest. Dad never gave up, even on the worst days. He always expressed eagerness to move on to “the next stage” — by which, when questioned, he said he meant rehab and then home. He talked often about what his life would be like when he got back to his apartment.
It was not to be.
Dad died on Dec. 21. In his cardiologist’s assessment, the move had probably shortened his life. But was it wrong for Dad to have moved to Georgia? I cannot make that statement. One afternoon while I sat vigil, he clearly said Gloria’s name in his sleep. And on his deathbed, his final words — mouthed despite a respirator tube down his throat — were addressed to her: “I love you.”
For an hour after Dad’s heart monitor flat-lined, Gloria and I sat with his body. We read him poems, talked to him and recited psalms, in case some last pulses of electricity remained in that amazing mind of his. We continued talking to him, even when the nurse came in to unhook the IV’s, pull out the respirator and shut off the machines. The funeral home director arrived.
As we followed the stretcher out into the bracing night air, I couldn’t help being proud of Dad and the courageous life he had lived. And just in case, as Dad firmly believed, there should be some sort of afterlife, I silently wished him farewell on his journey. This, too, I thought, is “part of the adventure of life.”