John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Excerpts from The Last of His Mind



My father sleeps through the December afternoon. He has always resisted a nap, doesn’t believe in them, yet now lies on top of his bed wearing a winter coat and his red fleece hat, snoring lightly. He’s ninety-one. For an hour he doesn’t move, his head tilted back against the pillow and his hands interlaced on his chest. Another hour and the light begins to fade outside. Finally I walk down the hall and tap on the doorjamb. I stand beside the bed, listening to his shallow breaths and watching his old face: his half-open mouth, the crust in the corners of his eyes, his patchy skin and tumultuous eyebrows.

“Dad? Do you want to wake up?”

He opens his good eye but doesn’t say anything, just stares without moving. Outside, the long Vermont dusk is settling. Every Christmas Dad stays in this downstairs bedroom in my brother’s house—but now his eye shifts from chair to window to door and back, making me wonder if he knows where he is. After a couple of minutes he hunches himself up against the headboard. I try not to hurry him, because I’m always groggy myself after a long nap.

Resting in bed, he wears the old pair of slippers Al has given him, wide and brown and flattened at the heels. His feet are too swollen to fit into his shoes, and there’s no chance this year that he will tramp across the meadow with the rest of us through six inches of new powder, as he did last Christmas.

When I turn on the table lamp with its cheerful yellow glow, he sits up and lowers his feet to the floor.

“What time is it?”

“Four-thirty,” I say, reading off the digital clock on the table beside him.

“Is it night?”


His face is still lopsided from sleep, but both eyes are open. He takes off his hat and flexes his bony hands on the edge of the bed. I stand beside him until my brother walks in with some papers. Al has drawn up a couple of documents that will allow him to take over more of Dad’s finances. Someone has to do this, because he can no longer keep up with them on his own. He wants to balance his own checkbook, but I’ve watched him try and he can’t do it. He keeps records but they’re scattered, and he’ll sit at his dining room table for thirty or forty minutes trying to figure out what’s wrong. Dates, names, money, math—it’s all slipping away from him.

Al takes his time. He asks Dad if he’s warm enough, if he’d like a glass of water, and gives him some time to finish waking up. But when he holds out one of the documents and explains how this will make things easier for all of us, Dad balks.

“I’ve given up too much already. I don’t want to sign anything.”

“All this one does,” Al says, “is add my name to your bank account so I can make sure the bills get paid. It’s still your money. There won’t be any change for you at all.”

“There’ll be a big change. I won’t be the one in charge anymore.”

He doesn’t look at us, but he knows what’s going on. His mouth turns down as if we have already deceived him.

“Dad,” I tell him, “you’ll always be in charge. All you have to do is talk to Al and he’ll do whatever you like.”

We’ve never backed our father into a corner like this. We’ve asked him to stop driving and to accept help with his medications, but he’s never had to sign anything. Al stands in front of him with pen and paper, but Dad shakes his head. He stares down at the floor, at the carpet, at his feet in their slippers. “I don’t want to.”

In the boxy silence that follows his refusal, I become aware of my patience, as if it’s a commodity I’m spending. I don’t know how much I have.

Al tries to explain. If checks bounce, he tells Dad, or if bills don’t get paid, it’s a problem for everyone. “I noticed this fall that some of your bills were overdue. It would really make things easier for us if you’d let me pay them.”

Dad looks away. For a long time he doesn’t say anything, and when he finally glances at us I think he’s going to give in. Instead he says, “I want to go home.”

He stares again at his feet. The windows are now black with night.

“I want to go home and take care of my own money and be in my own house.”

“We’ll be going back,” I assure him. “I’m going to drive you back after Christmas.”
“I want to go now.”

How desolate this sounds. I am tied to him. I have brought him here and must take him back, and now have a bleak vision of the two of us sitting in his house on Christmas Eve on snowless Cape Cod, far from my brother and the rest of the family. We would eat some small dinner, sit in his living room and exchange a present. We would read. It makes me lonely just to think about it. Dad’s two favorite times of year are the family reunion in August and Christmas at Al’s in Vermont—yet now he wants to go home.

“I want to keep my house,” he says.

“Your house is yours, Dad. We’re not taking that away.”

But he will not sign anything, not tonight. Al puts the papers back in a folder, and we reassure Dad that both house and money are his, and he can make all decisions about them. Slowly, by talking about our holiday plans, we bring him around. Al’s two boys, Porter and Ted, will be here, some friends and neighbors will stop by, and we’ll telephone our other brother, Joe Jr., and my son, Janir, who’s spending Christmas with his wife’s family. Dad stops talking about going home, but it’s another hour before the stark look leaves his face, of someone hunted and trapped.

Over dinner he’s still not his old self. He sits warily at the table with his hair uncombed and and his eyes restless, looking at his food, then around the room. He turns to my sister-in-law and asks, “But where are the children?”

Al and I look at each other. We were the children, long ago. By now even our own children are adults.

“Tomorrow,” Ellen assures Dad. “Some children will be coming over tomorrow.”

This is true, but I’m sure my father is thinking about children young enough to be swept up in the mystery of Christmas. Back on Cape Cod, before we left his house, he showed me a pair of Christmas cards he’d bought, “one for my great-granddaughter and the other for my great-great-granddaughter.” He has, in fact, only a granddaughter, my brother Joe’s two-year-old Eliza. She’s miracle enough, the first female born to our line since Aunt Annie, Dad’s father’s sister, in 1867.

My father is not the kind to take over a conversation, to assert himself or steer the talk his way. He has things to say about history and politics and economics, and he’ll tell an occasional story, but he has to be drawn into it. During the meal the conversation swirls over his head, until I coax out of him a little vignette he once told me about Oliver Wendell Holmes.

“Well,” Dad says, leaning forward, “I believe he was eighty-six.” As he speaks he rests his palms on the white tablecloth. “He was out for a walk with an old friend in Washington when a woman passed them on the sidewalk. She was young and attractive and beautifully dressed, and she gave the two old gentlemen a smile as she passed by. ‘Ah,’ sighed Holmes to his friend, ‘to be seventy again.’”

Dad’s memory is irregular, and sometimes his language breaks down, but a little story like this flows out intact. It makes me smile, in its defiance of old age. This is the self-reliant father I’ve always known, with his dry humor and bank of anecdotes—not an old man who wakes confused and says he wants to abandon Christmas.

Usually after dinner he sits in the living room, perhaps with the rest of his wine, and at least listens in on the talk. But tonight, as soon as the plates are cleared, he thanks Ellen for the meal, says good night to the rest of us, and shuffles along the downstairs hallway, leaning on his cane. It pierces me, how old he looks, how even now he’s passing out of our lives. His bedroom is carpeted and cheerful, but also the coldest in the house, and he keeps the door open in hopes of warmth. I watch him go into his room. I can see his bed through the open door and keep expecting him to climb into it, but for ten minutes he doesn’t appear. He must be changing into his pajamas, I think, and I don’t want to barge in on him. Twenty minutes and still no sign of him, so I walk down the hall and knock on the jamb.

He’s sitting on the edge of a chair with his long underwear bunched around his ankles and his bare legs shaking. He’s managed to get his pants off but not his socks, and these have stopped him from peeling off his long johns. He looks up at me, then down at his knees.

“I’m having a little trouble here.”

His legs are pale and thin and nearly hairless. I kneel in front of him, feeling awkward, and pull off his socks, then his long underwear. I’ve never dressed or undressed him before.

We get his shirt off and his pajamas on, then a sweater, and he climbs into bed with his legs still shaking. I pull the blanket and quilt up to his chin, and when he’s completely settled he says, “Thank you.”

For the past few days he’s been thanking me constantly. When I serve him a meal, when I bring him his coat, when I open a door for him, he thanks me. The formality of it has started to get on my nerves. He never says Thanks or Great or Okay, it’s always a precise Thank you. It makes me feel like an attendant.

I’d like to sit down on the bed beside him, but I’ve never done anything like that, not since I was a child. I twitch his quilt around and ask, “Dad, how long do you think you’d have sat on that chair before giving me a call?”

“I daresay quite a while.”

I laugh, but he doesn’t. He has never liked to be helped, and only puts up with it when truly stumped.

In the muffled early light I come downstairs thinking of the Christmases of my childhood, when Al and I woke our parents with a string of Christmas bells sewn to a band of cloth. A wave of nostalgia runs through me. Where have those bells gone to? I’m sure Dad would remember them if I appeared at his door with them: their pure high tinkling sound. I look down the hall and see his empty bed.

I find him in his bathroom, where he has tried to get warm by taking a bath. The water now dribbling out of the faucet is barely tepid, and he’s stuck in the smooth tub, unable to stand up in spite of the grab bars Al has installed. Once again he’s shaking from the cold. I don’t know how long he’s been here, and when I ask he doesn’t tell me.

“It’s slippery,” he explains, and waves me off when I reach out to help. “No. I can do it myself.”

“Okay,” I tell him coolly. “See if you can.”

As soon as I say this I’m ashamed—but if he notices my tone he doesn’t show it. He’s already struggling to rise to his feet, but again can’t manage it. After he settles back down, and without asking, I place one foot on the far side of the tub, slip my hands under his arms and lift him to his feet. How skinny he is. Deep pockets have formed below his collarbones, and the skin of his thighs is pleated like the gills of a mushroom. For the first time in decades he’s completely naked in front of me, though he doesn’t seem embarrassed about it or even conscious of the fact. He takes hold of a bar and makes the tricky step out of the tub, explaining what went wrong. “I got in too early,” he says. “Something happened to the water.”

As I help rub some heat into him with a towel I feel his new weakness, his vulnerability. He must know he’s approaching the end of his life, but I want to protect him from this terrible fact. And I want to look after him. At least I do right now. I might not feel the same if I had to clean up his diapers—and that’s where we’re headed, I can see. At some point he’ll be as helpless as a baby. But so far it’s been no different from raising my son: the more I take care of him, the more I love him.



Easter morning, sunny and cool. Many are off in church today, but in my father’s house we are keeping our own counsel. Dad is asleep, though he was awake earlier. Since no one is coming over today and there’s nowhere we have to go, I’ve decided to let him choose when to get up. Every other morning I appear downstairs with a cheery greeting and an offer to heat up the bathroom. But all offers are coercive, and for once I’m not making any.

It’s ten o’clock but I’m letting him sleep. Most days that’s what he does anyway: he eats breakfast and goes back to bed, to sleep or simply lie there. I’ve also decided to try Sandy’s regime, and bring Dad food only when he asks for it.

Noon. In Florida Terri Schiavo is living without food or water. In Rome the pontiff comes to his window but is too ill to speak. On Cape Cod I have corralled my father on one of his passages to the bathroom and given him his medications. His heart rate and blood coagulant level will stay under control, and the Lasix will continue to flush his system. For now the house is still, and Dad goes on sleeping.

I debate every step of this. Will he never ask for something to eat or drink? He’s supposed to take plenty of fluids, but it’s always been a struggle. If a patient is unconscious you just dump the liquid down the tube, but each day I must convince my fully conscious and resistant father to drink a glass of juice or water, then another and another.

My poor dad, up and down, back and forth to the bathroom as the Lasix wrings him dry. I’ve set out some snacks on the dining room table, so each time he passes he might see them. No interest so far. I haven’t said anything about taking a shower or changing his clothes. It’s two in the afternoon. The sun pours in through the newly cleaned windows, but Dad doesn’t seem to notice the outdoors. He walks to the bathroom and returns to his room. He gets onto his bed, pulls the quilt up to his chin and lies there, still as a carving on a sarcophagus. He sleeps.

I’m going crazy, just watching him. I’ve tied myself to his day, to discovering what he wants. The whole debate about Terri Schiavo is over what she would have wanted for herself, and here on this formless Sunday it’s clear that my father wants to lie in bed and not be bothered by anyone. He seems to have given up—but maybe that’s what he has wanted all along. And if he wants to give up, doesn’t he have the right to?

Three o’clock. How long will I let him go without drinking water? I’ve put two full glasses by his bed, but he hasn’t touched them. I pace around the living room, I sit on the couch, I don’t step outside into the beautiful afternoon. I sink with my father.

Five-thirty. The sun is going down, he looks exhausted and I can’t stand it anymore. I’ll make him drink something, then fix a dinner and set it before him. All offers are coercive, and so be it. But the question I’ve asked all day remains unanswered. Should I return to my jaunty self tomorrow morning and make him take a shower, make him change his clothes, invite him to sit down to his breakfast and morning medications, urge him to walk to the mailbox, insist on driving him to the ocean, hound him about drinking more fluids? At what point should I just let him do what he chose to do today: lie in bed without talking or moving.

I remember what the neuropsychologist said about taking Dad to the senior center: Don’t ask him about it, just take him. I resist that, because Dad hates going over there. Yet today, on the one day I give him completely free rein, he winds up with no shower, no breakfast, no lunch, no time outdoors and no conversation. He’s passed what seems to me a lost and unhappy day, stretched out on his bed.

And I have to ask: how much did I do this because I wanted a break myself, a day without responsibilities?