—by Karen G. Bockelman
My favorite photo of my father was taken more than 20 years ago. There he is, staring straight at the camera, his nearly bald head rising above a fringe of faintly visible hair. His round, German face beams. His eyes sparkle behind gold-rimmed glasses.
It is not a professional photograph, taken for work or for a congregational directory, but an informal snapshot, taken in the kitchen of the condominium where he and my stepmother lived. My husband, our young daughter and I were visiting for the weekend. Dad was making his special Saturday morning pancakes, complete with his secret ingredient, a little 7-Up in the me see him anew.
There is nothing particularly unusual about that morning. I’m not sure what prompted taking the picture (or even who took it). But I’m glad we did.
There, in that photo, is the father I remember, full of the wonder and joy with which he lived his life. Unlike some of the rest of us in the family, my dad was a total extrovert—enthusiastic, imaginative, open-minded, open-hearted and endlessly curious about almost everything. All of that shows in the photo. There’s only one flaw—Dad is forever pictured dressed in his favorite pajamas.
Don’t get me wrong—they’re very nice pajamas; blue knit with a thin, darker blue stripe. Well-made and nicely fitting. They were made to last and did— for the next 20 years! I don’t remember seeing him in any other pair. But still, you don’t usually take pictures of grown men in their pajamas. Pajama pictures are for children on Christmas morning.
Not too many years later, the first signs of cognitive impairment appeared—memory problems, confusion, misplaced papers. I began to find unpaid bills and signs of over-the-phone orders for unexpected products. At one point my dad said to me, “These papers come in the mail, and we try to understand them, but we can’t and so we just put them aside.” Dad, who had earned a master’s degree in journalism, who’d had a career as an author, could no longer understand the daily newspaper. He spoke often of the new book he was writing, but his “writing” seemed to be confined to opening new computer files and typing the book title over and over in ever larger font sizes.
Yet the joy and wonder so captured in that photo remained. He joked about his memory problems, saying: “I’ve learned a lot in almost 90 years, so I have a lot to forget.” Each assessment of his cognitive abilities seemed to bring out his impish sense of humor. When asked, “Who is the president?” he was known to respond, “I don’t suppose it’s Abraham Lincoln?” I was present the day he was asked, “Do you know what day of the week it is?” “Well,” he said, “I’ll have to research that, but my usual answer to that question is Thursday.”
As time went on, there were exceptions to his usual cheerful attitude. There were moments of bewilderment and confusion, times when frustration boiled over, even outbursts of anger over things he didn’t understand. When my stepmother broke her hip and was hospitalized for an extended period, it became clear that Dad couldn’t manage alone, even in assisted living. My sister and I took turns staying with him.
I didn’t always handle this “new normal” very well. I, too, got sad and frustrated and angry over the loss of the father I had known. Very early one morning, probably 4 or 5 a.m., as I slept on the couch in the den, I became aware of Dad standing in the doorway. “Is it time for breakfast?” he whispered.
“No, Dad,” I said somewhat sharply. “Breakfast isn’t served for another few hours.”
“Okay,” he said. I saw him turn away to go back to bed. What I saw—really saw—for maybe the first time, was an old man, not walking, but shuffling. Those favorite pajamas hung loosely on a now-shrunken body.
That painful moment, even now, brings tears to my eyes. My memories of the years that followed—increasing dementia, moves to nursing homes and finally a secure memory care unit—have most often been memories of loss, a loss forever captured by that last glimpse of my father in his old pajamas.
But that’s not the end of the story. More recently I rediscovered something my dad had shared years earlier about the coming time when he would have to leave the life he so loved. He described his fascination with Abraham, a man who had wealth, herds, land, servants and a good life before God came to him and told him to leave it all in order to go to a land God would show him. This was a call from God, but without very clear instructions of where that land was—or how to get there.
Abraham took God at his promise and left, but Dad imagined that Abraham surely asked himself many times if it was really God calling him, or just a bad dream due to something he ate. There were times of trouble for Abraham—most of them his own fault—but also exciting times when Abraham might also have said, “What would have happened if I had not trusted God? Just think of what I would have missed.”
Dad wanted the text for his funeral sermon to be based on the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-4). “I would like to think,” he wrote, “that when the time comes for me to stand before that great mystery of the unknown, that I, too, may have the courage of Abraham and trust that God will be there, too. I would like to think it may be something like my grandchildren on Christmas morning, who can hardly wait for the next package to be opened.”
Now I look at that photo of my father in his pajamas. I no longer see him as an old man, physically and mentally diminished. I see a photo of a delighted and delightful pajama-clad man-child on Christmas morning. Here he is waiting for the best present of all.
Karen G. Bockelman is a retired ELCA pastor living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is called as a wife, mother, preacher, writer, church volunteer and workshop presenter.
This article is from the June 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.