Eight days before my dad’s last birthday, one of my nephews got married. Rick and I made the six-hour drive from Minnesota to attend the late-summer event, and as we did in those days, we stayed with my parents in their condo.
The lodgings weren’t ideal—we slept on the living room sofa bed, squeezed Zuzu’s kennel in front of the fireplace, and piled our travel bags along the dining room wall. Sofa beds are a better idea than reality, and we tossed and turned most nights. During the night my dad would make multiple trips to the bathroom just beyond our “bedroom”—sometimes requiring help. And the condo thermostat was set at what we called nursing-home warm. But staying there was a good way to spend time with my parents. And the price was right.
As we also did in those days, we chauffeured my parents wherever they needed to go on the days we visited. That particular weekend, it was to the wedding—though whether they needed to go was a matter of some debate in the weeks leading up to the event. My nephew and his bride-to-be had planned an outdoor wedding—with the ceremony in the early afternoon and then an on-site dinner several hours later. We weren’t sure what the exact accommodations would be, but we did know they entailed grassy areas and portable toilets. It was a challenging prospect for people with mobility issues—like my parents.
My mom would be able to manage the terrain with her walker and careful steps, but it was a different story for my dad. The sum total of Dad’s movement in those days was shuffling between the bedroom, his living room recliner, the dining room table, and the bathroom—all of which exhausted him. Venturing beyond the condo into the car was only done when absolutely necessary and always with a lot of grimacing—his for the pain itself, and ours for the heartache of watching.
Dad also had significant memory issues, and we weren’t sure he even remembered his grandson, much less the bride-to-be, whom he’d barely met. Was it worth our effort and, more importantly, his? Would it really matter to Dad if he didn’t attend the ceremony? Perhaps the best place for him that afternoon was his recliner.
But on the morning of the wedding, my dad indicated he wanted to go. So at the appointed hour, Rick and I reluctantly helped him get ready. We wheeled him to the car and helped him maneuver into it, his stiff legs and swollen ankles tucked behind the front passenger seat. I reached over to fasten his seat belt and gave him a smile.
At the venue—the grounds of an old mansion—Rick pulled the car as close to the front-lawn seating area as possible and then, with the help of my brother nearby, moved Dad from the car into his wheelchair. Within a few minutes, Dad was comfortably positioned in the front row reserved for grandparents. Not too many minutes later, a peacock-feather boutonniere was affixed to the cream-colored sweater Dad had worn since the 1980s.
The setting was lovely, encircled by thick foliage that created a private setting and filtered the intensity of the afternoon sun. With few words, Dad took in his surroundings—smiling at those who stopped to say hello, whether he recognized them or not. Then, with the rest of us, he witnessed the vows between his third grandson and a radiant bride.
The ceremony was brief, and when the recessional was finished, the audience was free to go. The chairs emptied quickly as guests dispersed to regather in clusters of friends. The limited-mobility front row of grandparents stayed put, waiting for the newlyweds to return for a few pictures. Rick and I waited nearby for the completion of that requisite activity, our cue to take my parents back to the condo to stay for the duration of the day’s events.
I stood at a distance and watched my dad—camera poised. Knowing such opportunities were fading like fall daylight, I snapped several pictures. I was hoping to capture him, not just the shell hunched in the wheelchair.
When the groom stopped to thank his grandma and grandpa for being there, Grandpa took his hand and stammered words I could not hear. But I didn’t need to hear. I could see it on his face. Clutching the strong, young hand between his gnarled fingers, Dad looked up at the beloved grandson towering over him. His oft-vacant eyes shone, a sweet smile spread across his face.
My camera shutter clicked.
I’m sure my parents gave the new couple a generous gift, but I’m not sure my dad had any awareness of what it was. This presence, this knowing and loving, was his gift—worth more than whatever my mom tucked in a card.