Writing about my “hostage situation” in McDonald’s made me think of my father’s week-long experience as a McDonald’s hostage — at least in his mind.
The day after my father turned 76, he attempted to use his foot to shift a box in the garage. He lost his balance and his mind in the process. The fall broke his hip; the surgery to repair it broke his mental stability. He emerged from the recovery room believing he was being held hostage in a McDonald’s – where his captors refused him French fries.
(I got the distinct impression that the hostage situation would have been perfectly fine with a side of fries.)
The nursing staff tried their best to accommodate him. They brought him burgers and fries from the cafeteria – but my father knew they were not McDonald’s caliber and protested loudly. (My mother, however, confided in me how wonderful the staff were to go purchase these items from the restaurant for my dad.)
I had been three hours away when my dad fell, and my siblings who were local bore the brunt of his care. By telephone, I got updates on the surgery and his recovery, and then began getting the upsetting reports about my dad’s mental state thereafter. My youngest son and I, who had been at Dad’s birthday party, waited until the weekend to return so we could offer a reprieve to my family of caregivers.
By the time we arrived at the hospital, Dad had been out of his mind for five days, seeing people who were not there and remaining convinced that he was being held hostage at McDonalds. If it hadn’t been so frightful, it would have been hilarious, we might even have had some fun with it, but it went on and on without any apparent change for the better. We feared the dementia would become permanent.
Adam and I were thrilled when my brother Jack and his wife arrived to visit. We gathered in the hall for a quick, hushed update on Dad’s condition, and then we decided we would go in his room, pray for him, and then sing together. We had always sung with my dad — silly old songs and wonderful praise and worship songs. We had sung our way through numerous drives: open windows our air conditioning, our own voices our radio. Singing had entertained us as kids and strengthened our faith in God as we grew older. That afternoon, we chose old church choruses and hymns, and my father joined right in. Despite his dementia, he remembered the tune and every word. It was a perfect diversion from the crazy conversations that had pervaded the room and threatened our tears since his surgery, and we were all happy for the brief reprieve.
Only it wasn’t brief.
When we finally stopped singing, my dad was back. Whatever had held his mind hostage had released him. The dementia was gone.
My dad only lived a few months after his fall — but the dementia and belief that he was being held hostage in a McDonald’s while being refused French fries did not return. The music, however, did — this time at my father’s request. The day before my father died, my mother, his five children and their spouses, and his grandchildren gathered around his bed to say our good-byes. He looked at us weakly and requested that we pray. We joined hands and prayed over my father. Then he requested that we sing, and we sang hymns and Christmas carols and choruses, all my father’s favorites. It seemed an inspired, beautiful time, and I think we all envisioned that my father would quietly pass into God’s presence as our voices carried him to heaven’s gates.
“Stop! That’s enough!” my father suddenly interrupted us.
I guess our singing wasn’t as beautiful as we had thought. We thought we were singing to free Dad from this earthly body that was holding him hostage, to give him a send-off into heaven that only his children — with whom he had shared this gift of music so generously — could give. Instead, he gave us a bit laughter, for we did find it funny, and a few more hours with him before he took his leave.
He lost consciousness in the evening time and his breathing began that “death rattle” that is supposed to portend imminent death. But my dad rattled through the night. In the morning, as my son and I ate breakfast in the kitchen, my mom proceeded to have her usual devotional time with my dad, reading aloud the day’s devotion and assigned Scripture reading. That day, my mother told us later, the assigned reading was 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. She had read it aloud to my father, told him she loved him and thanked him for loving her so well, and then she gave him permission to leave her. As she prayed to close that time, my father breathed his last.
My mother came of the bedroom and said, quite simply, “He’s gone.”
And that was a beautiful way to end a life story. A love story.