When I came home to look after my dad, I had multiple notions about how our time would be spent together. I assumed we would share afternoons reminiscing over vacations and birthday parties. I imagined we'd enjoy one more city excursion to explore our favorite haunts like the Art Institute and Field Museum. Whatever we did, I was intent on making the most of every second we had together.
But my dad had other plans in mind.
Or really, his body did. My dad was always game for a trip downtown. But just weeks after his diagnosis, he was already too weak to walk for more than a minute or two without having to rest and catch his breath.
So I focused on getting in as many meaningful chats as I could. During those first few weeks, I would launch into a daily "Dad, remember when we…" story to which he would smile, offer a "I sure do" and then fall silent.
I didn't understand. Why didn't he want to relive those stories? This was it. There wasn't going to be another time to talk about the million memories we had together.
Instead, my father watched TV. A lot of it.
Granted, he no longer had the energy to leave the house very much, but I thought that at least we could spend our days remembering the happy times. I noticed that he often would pull out photographs and gaze at them, but when I would talk about those memories, his silence would inevitably cut short the conversation.
It finally dawned on me that my insistence to talk about the past was doing more harm than good. Though it provided me with some solace to remember all the memories I had with my dad, it became clear that it was almost painful for him to relive them. The only conclusion I could come to was that remembering the past served only to reflect how different everything was in the present.
So I shut up. With nowhere to go and nothing to say, though, I found myself spending a lot of time watching TV with my dad. We quickly settled into a routine. Each afternoon, we tuned into "Jeopardy!" Once the afternoon news was over, it was on to "Wheel of Fortune." Then we would switch over to PBS and catch an episode of "Antiques Roadshow," "History Detectives" or "Rick Steves' Europe."
Some nights my dad remained quiet or would fall asleep. But, more often than not, our TV binges turned into discussions about why a rickety old hutch could be worth thousands of dollars or how you could confirm the veracity of a Beatles autograph. Soon enough, we would call out our own appraisals of the knickknacks that the antiques experts examined and debate whether Rome was worth the hype.
That was our nightly ritual.
When someone you love is terminally ill, I think it's easy to become almost obsessed with making the time you have with them count. In the movies, terminally ill characters still somehow have the stamina to build houses or go on cross-country road trips with their family and friends. The reality, though, is that when you're dying of cancer, you may not have the physical or emotional strength to even get up from the couch.
I'm so glad for all those hours I logged in front of the television with my father. We never really got around to reminiscing over old memories, but that's because we were creating new ones. Though our ritual might appear dull or insignificant to some, I will always treasure it. Life-changing trips and talks are great, but so are the nights spent vegging out to PBS. All that matters is that you're doing it together.