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Medicine and the Arts

Commentary on “I Brought My Father With Me”

Shea, Sandra L. PhD

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doi: 10.1097/01.ACM.0000511139.83770.da

ICUs are whirlpools of hope, mortality, love, courage, sorrow, rejoicing, and memory. Families pace hallways and sit by bedsides, stand at windows and make coffee in support rooms (stirring cups endlessly, then leaving them untouched on some table as they pace to nowhere and back). Some families cling to hope as their loved ones cling to life, and then rejoice as they inch back to living. Some families let go as this life ends.

Within 90 days of first hearing Michael Peter Smith’s “I brought my father with me,” (at http://links.lww.com/ACADMED/A393) as sung by Small Potatoes on Time Flies,1 I was at my father’s ICU bedside telling the nurse to stop treatment, to grant his wish, to let him die. Through tears family and friends started to tell stories, big and little, of the things that made him the man we loved, and, I think, a man Smith would have liked. Inconceivably, 843 days later I was four rooms away in the same ICU, overseeing my mother’s transfer to hospice care, and then her passing. Again the living started to share memories, revisiting her love and her spirit in our recollections.

Stories weave together friends and families, becoming threads in the fabric of each other’s souls. When hands grow cold with death, the memories grow warm with retelling. The unity of the memories, the commonality of the pain, and the pervasiveness of the love tide us over. Smith understands. He recognizes prosaic memories are the ones that make up our lives and he knows the telling and retelling help with the pain. Some families in ICUs tell stories of weddings and births, but these are strikingly outnumbered by the ones that start, “Remember that Little League game when you made that catch? He was so happy.” Or, “Remember the day you slipped in the mud on that hike? She loved telling that story.”

A family friend told a story about his father refusing some years before to go out in public in a wheelchair because “they’re black, like death.” So off his children went to find a metallic red one, similar in color to his favorite Mustang. It now sat, heavily scarred from use, in the corner of his ICU room. He would never use it again, but as his family waited for hospice workers to arrive, they spoke of a family friend who would be happy to have it, and so began another set of stories.

My parents lived with me the last years of their lives and it was our challenge to reverse our roles. “Take me with you,” my brothers and I would call out when tiny, arms up, tippy toes dancing, hopes high, no matter whether a trip to the park or to the hardware store. Decades later, as Smith sings, the roles shift and many of us have been pleased beyond the boundaries of our hearts to offer “Come with me, Dad,” or “Where should we go, Mom?” with our arms out, supporting canes, spotting walkers, guiding wheelchairs, as this life winds down.

At my mother’s visitation I met for the first time two women who rode the school bus with her through grade school and junior high. Angie told me a story about a fifth-grade girl who bullied Mom and her best friend. Mom, who was never taller than 4’11” but a tiger when challenged, stood up to the bully in a fistfight (!) and protected her friend, their books, and their pride. At my father’s visitation I met a man who had been in class with Dad every year from kindergarten through high school. Neil told a story about the state and federal elections held upstairs in the building next to their playground. When they were in first grade, in the elections of 1928, voters waiting in line tossed pennies, nickels, and even dimes to the grade schoolers at recess below, everyone laughing and applauding the best catches, a few of which were Dad’s. Come fifth grade, however, and the elections of 1932 during the pit of the Great Depression, there were no coins tossed and no laughter. New memories of 75-year-old stories! They could just as easily have been, as Smith writes, of car trips to Pennsylvania or walks to the local pub.

Smith understands the day-to-day events that define our lives. Will you do something today somebody will remember at your bedside? Or someone will tell the next generation? Or someone will recall with a smile or tears decades hence? Such memories represent times together that are ours forever. Smith does not sing of weddings, but of a soda in a bar. He does not commemorate graduations, but a day at the beach. Simple events, seemingly ephemeral, but never mundane.

Reference

1. Small Potatoes. I brought my father with me. November 24, 2013. Falls Church, VA: SmallWonderMedia; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ia-r0DeLKNU. Accessed August 12, 2016.

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