My Papa’s Hands Still Guide Me
I am now officially part of the Sandwich Generation. My oldest child graduated from college and is working, my middle child is living away at college, and my youngest is in high school. I am re-launching my career after years as a stay-at-home mom. My nest is beginning to empty out. While I’ve witnessed my children take flight, I’ve seen my parents and parents-in-law begin to cocoon. I’ve witnessed these elders, whose advice I often sought, begin to age, become ill, and within the past five years both my mother and mother-in-law have passed away.
This challenging phase of life involves difficult decisions and emotional reflections. How did I become middle-aged so fast? Within the blink of an eye my children have gone from shy self-conscious little girls to bright, independent, beautiful women. My husband and I don’t look like the same young and energetic couple in our wedding pictures. Experience and wisdom have taken their toll, but we‘ve been blessed, and I wouldn’t change anything that brought us to this point. Going from honeymoon to empty nest has been a blur, but I almost can’t believe that there was a time when I lived without this sweet family that we created.
Then I look at my parents, those two once seemingly larger than life people.
They provided a solid foundation for me to grow despite their personal daily struggles and their many hardships as new U.S. immigrants. My mother provided the light by which we navigated with her extroverted personality and huge heart. My dad provided the boat on which we sailed with his gentle strength and quiet perseverance. How did they go from having carried me and held my hands through so many of my childhood challenges and insecurities to becoming so frail and dependent? How is it that I came to live hundreds—at one time, thousands—of miles away from them and only visit them once a year?
My mother passed away five years ago, just shy of her 80th birthday, after a four-year battle with cancer. The illness ravaged her body and her soul needed to be free. My poor father didn’t expect his wife of 55 years, who was 11 years younger than him, to be the first to pass away. It took my father about three years to stop crying over the loss of his best friend. It was very out of character for him to cry in front of us. At any given moment, his face would redden, crinkle up, and he’d just whimper. It was difficult to see my dad that way. On special occasions, when I’d call to wish him happy holidays, he’d say, “I can’t enjoy anything without my dear wife.” My father just turned 97 this past month.
My second oldest brother lives with my dad, and is his main caregiver. My other siblings and I try to visit my dad and brother as much as possible. I live the furthest away from my dad. He lives in another state, and I feel guilty that I don’t visit him more often. As my children need me less and are leaving home, I’m getting a glimpse of what my dad might be feeling without his children around him. My own husband travels every few months to Egypt to oversee the care of his own ailing father and to manage my father-in-law’s assets. When my husband leaves for months at a time, I get a glimpse of what it’s like to live without my own best friend.
During every visit now I see changes in my father. His body is more hunched over. When I hug him, he seems to be shrinking and I feel like I’m holding a delicate child. His once sparkling blue eyes are muted. His right eye no longer sees due to an improperly performed procedure that was meant to save some of his eyesight. The “good” left eye only has peripheral vision and is getting weaker. However, he still manages to walk around the house and takes care of himself in dressing and eating. His voice is weak and his words are often unclear. He walks with a slow unsteady shuffle, with a cane or leans on one of us. Recently, what has struck me the most is the incessant trembling of his hands.
Every time I visit and see my dad in this weakened state, I reflect on how much he has changed from the dad I knew and admired when I was growing up. His hands and my mother’s hands are somehow symbolic of their care for me as child. I remember my parents’ hands as they taught me so many things. From tying my shoes to buttoning my shirt to zipping up a bag to cooking a meal, my parents’ hands provided me with these lessons. Their hands were once so steady and strong. They helped to carry me and guide me. They hugged me and reassured me. Their hands were my source of security, and showed me that they loved me. As I reflect on how my parents took care of me, my father’s trembling hands remind me that it’s time for me to reciprocate his kindness and use my hands to be his strength.
My Montessori training helped me learn many things about my childhood, including explaining the importance of our hands. Dr. Montessori says that the hands are a “prehensile organ of the mind.” The importance given to hands as the tool of the brain is why most of the materials in a Montessori classroom are intended to help the fingers and hands become stronger and more dexterous. The more used and efficient the hands are the more effective the mind is in realizing its potential. Therefore, much of what I learned in childhood necessitated that I focus on my parents’ hands and why I remember their hands so distinctly and fondly.
And so, my father’s dexterity with his own hands manifested the genius that lay beneath his talent. I see my father’s trembling hands belying his many admirable traits. His is a success story of perseverance and hard work. As the eldest of nine children, Papa had a great deal of responsibility placed on his shoulders. He chose to become a doctor not only because he had the aptitude, but it was also a profession that would allow him to help his entire family physically and financially. His parents relied on their oldest son, to help them carry the burden of caring for their large household, instilling in him that education was paramount, and so was taking care of one’s family.
My dad became a surgeon, a scientist, and a professor. He was well known in Egypt and treated many celebrities of the day as a heart surgeon. When he came to the U.S., he became a surgeon and a researcher for spinal cord injury patients. He only retired in his eighties because of age related macular degeneration, which prevented him from seeing the fine detail needed for surgery.
Years later, when I returned to live in Egypt as an adult with my husband and children, I came across several of my father’s former medical students who were now prominent doctors themselves. They all praised my father as a genuinely caring teacher and a skilled surgeon. What especially surprised me was hearing over and over again from many of these doctors on different occasions how they admired the dexterity of my father’s hands in surgery. They told me that he made the incisions and stitches so delicately and carefully that they would hardly show. They saw my dad as an artist among surgeons, using his hands to heal so many.
During my last visit, while I had tried to hide my despair over the increased trembling of his hands, my father once again taught me a lesson. I found out that his trembling hands did not indicate that all hope was lost. One afternoon, Papa told me that he’d recently received a letter from France from the daughter of a friend informing him that her mother had passed away. The mother was Madame Bouquet. My father had met Monsieur and Madame Bouquet when he was doing his medical residency in Europe and later he introduced them to my mom when my parents honeymooned there. My dad wanted me to help him write a letter of condolence in French to Madame Bouquet’s daughter.
It has been awhile since I used my French language skills. But my dad said he had a book with sample letters written in French that we could get ideas from. My dad actually knows seven languages, but he said since his handwriting is not so steady nowadays due to his trembling hands, he wanted to dictate the letter to me. The book of sample letters was printed in the early 1900’s and was inscribed with a little note of endearment written in French from my Lebanese maternal great grandfather to my dad.
Papa placed the book on his electronic desktop magnifier, which projected the words on a large screen. He’d already found a sample letter he liked and turned to the page he’d marked. It was amazing to me that he still remembered his French enough to be able to paraphrase and to determine the appropriateness of an idiom. I couldn’t keep up with his dictation. I’d ask him to spell many of the words; worried I’d missed a vowel or two. When he finished dictating the letter, he proofread what I’d written on the magnifier.
So, stay with me here. I know this is a long run on sentence, but that experience of a few minutes’ dictation encapsulates so much about my father and my amazement at this person who has had such a huge influence on me: My almost century old father, who is nearly blind, sits in his study, in 2017, in his home in the U.S.A. using an electronic magnifier, proofreading a condolence letter he composed in French, with the help of a 100 year old book, given to him by his mother-in-law’s father (from Lebanon), and consoling a 60 year old women in France (whom he knew since she was a child) relaying how he and my mother, (Egyptians on their honeymoon) were very fond of both her parents, whom my father first met in France, in 1952 (her parents were his neighbors while he was a visiting medical resident) and asked her to please pass on his condolences to her brother (whom he also knew since his childhood) and the rest of the family in France. C’est magnifique, n’est past?
And that’s it, from “Ma chère (My dear)” to “Affectueusement (Affectionately),” my dad knew what to say. And there I sat, in awe and dumbfounded. My hands were not shaking like my dads and unlike him I could see clearly the letters I wrote in the condolence card. I wrote slowly and deliberately in my best cursive handwriting, but I wasn’t entirely sure of the vocabulary or the grammar. I would ask my dad is it “i-e-u” or “e-a-u”? Do I place an accent on that vowel? Is that word masculine or feminine? Does it end with two “e’s”? And my dad answered me confidently, while he read from his electronic magnifier, letter by letter, word by word, with a perfect French accent. Papa, you still amaze me.
I remain impressed by my dad’s accomplishments and how far he’s come in those 97 years. And yet, it’s his strength of character that continues to influence me. While I grapple with my own difficulties with aging and worry about his generation and my children’s, I find that my dad still offers me lessons to learn. Despite my worries about my dad becoming more frail, he continues to be a role model for how I should live my life.
He still goes to the office twice a week to do scientific research with the help of an assistant who drives him to the office and back and looks up information for him online. He has another electronic magnifier at the office to help him read and write. Since his retirement, he has published a number of scientific research papers and two medical books.
My father has never been one to sit still. He believes that his hands should never be idle. His oft quoted German saying while I was growing up was “Wenn man muss, muss man” meaning “If you must, you must.” My dad doesn’t like to ask for help, but he needs to, so that makes for a bit of a difficult situation. My brother is always nearby and anticipates our dad’s every move. And if there’s any obstacle or danger for our dad, my brother has cleared it before my dad even asks. My other siblings and I can’t thank our brother enough for what he’s doing on a daily basis with our dad.
My visits to my dad’s house are usually very slow. Not much happens, unlike our hectic life back in my own house. As much as I want to see my dad and brother, it’s hard to leave my own stresses behind. But somehow, after the first few hours in my childhood home, I find I have to slow way down. I’m almost in another dimension. I have entered my dad’s zone. It’s almost meditative. After one night there, I feel grateful that I was able to make the trip and be there with my dad and brother, two of the dearest people to me.
Once I have acclimated to my dad’s zone, I start to notice all the issues that my dad and brother are dealing with. I start to worry and feel guilty about being so far away. During the beginning of my stay, I feel pity for this twosome of father and son, but by the end of my stay, I’m reminded that they have a system going and they are going to be just fine.
So why should I, at half my dad’s age, worry? Being a part of the sandwich generations is difficult. Our roles are changing as we are changing. Our children no longer need us as much as before, and our parents need us now more than ever before. And we wake up finding we need to be our own best friends before we lose ourselves. I have come to many other forks in the road, and this is just another transition point, with many changes lying ahead. As I have done before, I simply need to keep going. Just like my Papa, I must persevere. I must take time to plan and chart a new course. And I must take my fate into my own hands, walking along the path, holding hands with the people that mean the most to me. Thank you, for everything, dear Papa!