When Dad moved into the finished basement of our split-level Cape, the stairs leading down to his room became my daily descent into Sheol, the land of wraiths and twilight.
Unlike Odysseus' descent into Hades, there was no bargain to be made to free my Dad from his prison of shadows and demons. I took many trips up and down those stairs during the nine months he lived with us. The landing half-way down became the place where I transitioned from the land of the living to the land of living death.
Each morning I paused there and wondered what part of my Dad had disintegrated over night, what light had gone out forever. I sometimes stood outside the door unable to even touch the doorknob. I never knew what I might find when I opened it...
Drawers pulled open all contents strewn about? Pillowcases torn into shreds cheerfully hanging like victory banners or Spanish Moss from all surfaces?
Would I find him sleeping? Still tucked in with the blankets pulled up over his chin, hands crossed over his chest? Or would I find him naked in his wheelchair with the heat turned up over 100 degrees?
Once when I entered, he was cutting all the fringe off the cover of his couch. He thought they were loose threads. It shocked me how infuriated I was that he had cut apart the cover. I yelled at him when I took the scissors away. I didn't make any sense. I was shaking with emotion. He looked so confused and hurt, I left the room in shame. In hindsight, I think I was consumed with anger and frustration that he was slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it.
A well-meaning neighbor once kindly said to me, "It's like having another baby in the house, isn't it." I zipped my lip because I knew she meant well. In my head I shouted, "It isn't like that at all! My son learns new things each day. My son is gathering a treasure trove of experiences, skills, and discovering new talents, and strengths. My Dad is losing those precious treasures by the hand full each and every day."
He was losing his ability to function, to dress himself, to know the names of the things and people around him. An Industrial Engineer, he would sit looking at a beloved drafting tool and ask me what it was, what it was for, as if it were an alien object that had been dropped by a ship from another planet. Or he would use that tool in some bizarre way that only made sense to him...
I would sometimes stand on that landing leading to the netherworld and listen to the noise of my children playing upstairs and the contrasting depth of silence coming from downstairs. He made no noise. No sounds. No demands.
Except at night.
The monitor came alive at night. We had two. One was in my three year old son's room - that was on my husband's night stand. My Dad's was next to me. Such a physical representation of the division of our labor. Our bed became the chasm where we lay between life and death, hope and despair, beginning and ending.
The breathing not breathing dance with death would have me lying awake counting the seconds between snores wondering if it was time to bolt downstairs and shake him awake, pound his frail chest? Mouth to mouth?
I would practice CPR endlessly in my head counting compressions instead of sheep to fall asleep...
...falling asleep with my cell phone in my hand so I could call 911 if I jerked awake to silence or the silence between sonorous snores lasted too long.
The hardest part of standing at that door was always facing the BIG FEAR...
Would I finally find Dad dead?
I would stand frozen rehearsing what I would tell the kids. Plan how I would keep them occupied when the ambulance would come to take him away. Would I tell them Grampa was sick and the doctors were going to help him? Never tell them their Grampa had died in the basement of the house that was their safe cocoon?
Some days this morbid planning made me sad.
Some days all that got me through the door was knowing it wouldn't go on forever, this terrifying wasting away of a brilliant and loving man.
Actually, you know what was the hardest part of walking through that door?
Coming face to face with that stranger…that stranger who wore my Dad's face…that stranger that I had loved all my life.