The Long Journey

I woke up somewhere over England. My mouth felt like I had walked through a desert sand storm. Everyone else in the cabin was asleep and the stewardesses were not within my eyesight. I waited silently for them to start the breakfast service. When, after an eternity, they did, I asked for a glass of Seltzer water, downed it and asked for another. I had a third, and orange juice and coffee within short order.

The Stockholm airport, the rental car place, the Volvo wagon and the highway hadn’t changed much. My father, now bed-bound and nonverbal, had.

As I entered his room, so familiar after three and a half years in the dementia unit, I saw a face that was radically changed from my last visit. No longer able to eat, barely taking sips of fluids for the past week, the father I greeted was even thinner than I had understood from my mother’s description.

His eyes locked on to mine and his lips moved in the way I was told they always move, but they made the movement you would make if you say my name in Swedish.

The nurse affectionately stroked his head, combed his long, silver hair and offered him Seltzer water from a heavily soaked oral sponge swab. Again and again, his mouth closed eagerly around the swab and he sucked hard on it and gulped down the still slightly fizzy liquid.

For half an hour, my father never took his eyes off me. Over and over his lips formed my name. I told him I was well, explained why my wife wasn’t able to make it this time, told him about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Finally, he fell asleep with my hand on his. Every once in a while he woke up, looked straight into my eyes with his sunken-in, clear blue ones. He looked restless. I told him I loved him and told him what I had heard about my mother’s condition. It wasn’t until I said I was doing well and that I was happy that he finally seemed to relax.

I spent a few hours with my father before driving over to the hospital to see my mother. I drove through the town where I was born, where I lived for the first six years of my life and always returned to visit my parents after they retired in 1986. They chose to move back ‘home’ to where they spent their youth and where all their family still lives.

I happened to pass the pink stucco apartment building that housed my preschool; it is now a funeral parlor. I still remember walking across town to preschool there.

At the hospital, my mother, too, looked little. We kissed and hugged. She asked about my father, cried and thanked me for stopping there first.

The first leg of what seems to hold the promise of being a very long journey for the three of us is over.

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.


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