Last night, a great man’s life came to an end. I met him only once, but his son, Thomas is one of my best friends, and there is no way Thomas would be the amazing person he is without a father like Rolan. Almost two years ago, I was blessed to spend a weekend with Thomas and his family in Ohio, and I wrote this piece about how special it was for me to be included in the life of the Booher family. Thank you Rolan, for your life, and loving so well. You live on in the love of your extended family.
The “living room” had a long wall with several windows looking out onto a snow-covered courtyard. The light from the windows cast a dull white glow into half the room, reflecting the overcast sky and cold outside. The carpet, thin and slightly worn, was a stain-masking weave of burgundy and emerald. There were two couches, upholstered in a slippery, synthetic fabric of alternating blush and beige stripes. Mismatched wood and metal folding chairs were arranged around two plastic tables piled with pizza boxes, soda bottles, chips, dips, plates, and napkins. Across the room, on another otherwise blank, white wall, two iron candelabras were affixed on either side of a mounted wall light. Had there been candles burning in the candelabras or a bulb in the light, perhaps the room would have been warmly lit, and may have felt more like a home, but lit as it was from above with long fluorescent lights, this was a living room only pretending to be one.
But it was a nice-enough room for a skilled nursing facility, and as it filled up with the voices, laughter, and hushed conversations of an extended family that wasn’t my own, I was reminded how little environs can matter when life, and love, push into all the corners. Thomas’ family had assembled here, in mid-January, to be with the patriarch of the family, Rolan. He had been living with his wife and his Alzheimer’s until a major seizure recently hastened the progress of the disease. His wife of over fifty years, Carol, could no longer care for him at home. After the seizure, as though pages had been ripped out of a well-read book, he’d lost recognition of most of his family much of the time, even of his beloved wife. For two months, the family had been rotating spending eight or more hours a day with him in the nursing home. Thomas, living across the country, had not been able to share in his father’s new ritual of care, but he had finally been able to make it out to Dayton, Ohio, with his son Indigo. It was Thomas and Indigo’s presence that had prompted this family reunion.
Thomas and I split up two and half months before this trip. I had promised to come out for a few days and bring Indigo home so that he could return to school and Thomas could stay in Ohio with his family longer. By the time the trip rolled around, it seemed like the worst possible thing to be doing. I sat in that room, surrounded by thirty or so of the Booher tribe, wondering just what in the world I was there for.
Thomas sat beside his father, never losing contact with some part of his body, hand on knee or arm, arm wrapped around broad shoulder. I watched as he spoke to his dad as though he were not lost in the haze of a clouded mind, how he’d talk to someone and tap his father and say, “Right, Dad?” or “Did ya hear that, Dad?” including him in the flow of the conversations in the room. A couple times, he’d rub his father’s knee, or hold his hand steady on Rolan’s forearm and look right into his eyes for a good long while. With no trace of sadness for the first time in weeks, with no longing for Thomas at all, I thought, “Oh, this is why I fell in love with him.”
After the pizza boxes were emptied and the kids had gone out to sled and returned, tired and piled on the ground at one end of the room, an uncle pulled out a guitar and a sister, the old family hymnal. As they set up next to the kids, Rolan was settled in the nicest chair near the fireplace, the tables were moved to the side of the room, and the chairs were arranged in a oval, closed in on the end opposite the kids by the couches. Carol sat across the circle from her husband, a daughter on either side. As the guitar was being tuned, I felt carried along by the warmth of this close-knit family, but I still felt outside it, removed from its specialness. I felt welcome and included, but discomfited. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself; I stayed as quiet as I could and watched.
Rolan, who’d been minimally communicative since entering the hospital, bobbed his head in the direction of the plucking. Since Thomas had arrived a week earlier, Rolan had perked up a bit, so it wasn’t so surprising that he might respond to the unlikely sound of a guitar in his nursing home. Thomas’ sister chose a hymn, cued her guitar-playing husband, and began singing. Thomas, his mother, and his two other sisters joined in on the next lines. They sang in instant harmony, as though it hadn’t been thirty years since they were all living under one roof, singing together every Sunday after church. Others joined in, and as the music continued, I noticed a couple residents had gathered at the door, one in a wheelchair, the other propped up by a walker.
I kept my eyes on Rolan. Before the first song was in full swing, his lips started moving. His head rocked slowly back and forth, and he began tapping out the rhythm of the song on his thigh. He recognized the song. Nervous glances and grins shot around the room. A second song was followed by a third, and another after that. With each song, the collected voices became full and resonant and Rolan’s responsiveness grew. Eventually, he wasn’t just mouthing the words, I could hear his voice. He was actually singing. Somewhere, hidden below the layers of confusion, were these songs, triggers of an intimate, enduring past.
Nine-year-old Indigo was looking up at his grandfather and his dad, a slight smile pulling at his mouth. Indigo’s older sister, Antasia, who had come down form Michigan, had wrapped her arms under her brother’s arms and, as she sang, she rubbed his knees and grinned. Thomas’s mother seemed lit from within, and despite her tired eyes, she was lovely and looked at peace. All 4’10” of her shone with adoration, but she did not look surprised. Her eyes belied her knowledge that, of course, her love of more than half a century was in there. Thomas encouraged his father, urging him to sing louder, which he did. This unexpected moment unwrapped itself of it’s own accord, and we simply basked in its unfolding.
I’m not sure how long the songs lasted, but when the music faded, I felt humbled. A part of the family’s history felt revealed to me, a quality of loving so kind and unquestioning that I didn’t feel so far away anymore. My breath was shallow, afraid that if I sighed deeply, I might bring the experience to an end. I sat there, a few chairs from Carol, soaking in the exquisite after effects of song and communion, feeling less out of place, pulled a little more into the folds of this family.
Rolan, who hadn’t walked since entering the facility, suddenly grunted and with very little of Thomas’ support, stood up and began walking toward his wife. It was a slow march, punctuated by waves of confusion about what he was doing. The room fell silent and watchful. He stopped halfway across the circle and began vocalizing something. Thomas’ said “What is it dad? You can tell us.”
Suddenly, tears began streaming down Rolan’s face. He looked around the room, taking in all the kids he’d raised, his own and others, his grandkids, his wife, and neighbors who might as well be family, all these folks who’d given such profound meaning to his life. He shook his head and said in a gravely voice, “God is so good.” My heart leaped in my chest. Everyone was crying. Thomas’ mom didn’t miss a beat, though she, too, wiped at tears. She stood up, walked toward her towering husband, took his hand and led him to the chair next her. She asked matter-of-factly, “Who’s you’re sweetheart, honey?” Rolan glanced at her sideways, a boyish grin spreading across his chapped lips, “You are, you are,” he mumbled.
This broke the tension in the room, and laughter erupted amidst the tears. Sighs of contentment, hugs, and touching relaxed us all. I knew then why I was in Ohio. Unlike anyone else in that room, I write. I write well. This is what I could offer Thomas’ family: this recounting of that magical afternoon, of the power of their love. My purpose clear to me, I suddenly knew that process I’d begun weeks ago, of letting go of Thomas as my lover and partner was done. Now, between us, only sweetness remains. That, too, is the power of loving anyway, no matter what, and letting love change form as we age, or lose our minds, or realize we’re better off as friends.