I played chess with my Dad for the last time over Christmas break. He had trouble remembering which color he was. He had forgotten how a knight moves. I worked to simplify the game by removing all but a few pieces on each side. But I couldn’t bring myself to win and I found an excuse to end the game early.
I heard from my Mom that Dad qualified for hospice this weekend. We had moved him into the dinning room about 18 months ago. It made life a lot easier for everyone. Getting up and down the steps was an ordeal and my Mom was already dealing with bad hips. A motorized bed and chair helps move my Dad around. He just doesn’t move much anymore.
My Dad has been living with Parkinson’s Disease for about 25 years. Sometimes he fought it, sometimes he accepted it and sometimes it even made him a better man. Calmer, more apt to listen than talk. But mostly Parkinson’s wore him down. It stole his vibrant personality, his booming voice – “have a terrific day!” he would shout to his customers on the phone. He would run up a flight of stairs, never walking. He would laugh uncontrollably during family dinners or road trips. He was a full spectrum human being.
I was home schooled for a year during high school. After being transferred from a lackluster middle school to an accelerated high school I struggled to keep up. Fortunately I was also a year younger than my classmates so taking a year “off” wasn’t such a bad thing. It got me back on track and put me in a better class when I returned. It was during this year at home that I really learned how to play chess (and guitar). My Dad taught me chess in the same way he taught me algebra. He would let me make my moves then talk me through all the things I did right and wrong. It was a frustrating experience as a 14 year old kid but I learned.
Chess became a constant in our relationship. He would always push me to play a game whenever I visited. Most of the time he would beat me. He read books on Chess and played constantly. Often I would get an advantage on him but then lose my lead as he picked off my pieces one at a time. Always taking time at the end of the game to talk through what happened. He would remember specific setups and moves. I’ve never had that kind of memory. I’m wired more for feelings than specifics.
As Parkinson’s and age began to wear on his mind I found myself winning more often. What was once a pretty even battle turned in my favor. He took longer and longer to make his moves. I would sometimes lose patience. Even when he was healthy he would play slower than me, taking time to think through every move. After a while I had learned to watch his eyes and follow his thinking. He taught me the value of strategic planning, visioning many moves ahead. I like to think I taught him something about following your gut.
My Dad savored these moments of focus. He would corner anyone who could play and badger them until they consented to a game. He had several chess sets ready to go throughout the house and a portable set in the car. Always ready to play. I think Chess became a place of solace for my Dad. It kept his mind active and was a welcome escape from the cage his body was becoming.
During that last time we played Chess I felt the weight of his decline hit me full on. It was a quiet trauma. Later that night he pointed at his grandchildren playing in the living room and asked “who are these people?” He wasn’t angry or upset, just curious. Of course I explained that these “people” were his grandchildren. Then I asked him “do you know who I am?” and he responded “my oldest son”. Which is correct. I was somewhat reassured. I didn't ask him my name. I wasn't ready for that answer.
I was prepared for my Dad’s physical decline. I knew that was coming. In fact, we had all expected it to happen a lot faster. When he was diagnosed in his early 50s we were told 15 years was the most likely scenario. Heck, Dad was still driving 7 years ago. Although he probably should not have been. But I didn’t really expect his mind to go. His mind had always been so sharp. A constant in my life. His blue eyes seemed to twinkle with intelligence. No conversation was off limits. As a teenager I used to go to his office and talk for hours. He told me the truth about life, no bullshit. He listened to my stories and withheld judgment, offered advice. He cared.
Losing someone to Parkinson’s is slow motion mourning. The feeling I will have when my Dad passes will probably be a mixture of profound sadness and relief. Maybe even joy. Knowing that he is finally free of that cage, no longer an agile mind trapped in a rigid body. It has been a long goodbye and one that continues. I both dread and anticipate the end. I truly wish him to be at peace. And I can’t imagine my life without him. But I know what kind of life I can live to honor his. And I know I have no time to waste.