Transcending Life as a Flowerpot

By Phil Bolsta

On an otherwise ordinary Thursday night, my dad slept in his own bed in his own home for the last time. He didn’t realize it, and never would. He was to spend Friday night — and all the rest of his nights — in a nearby nursing home.

His memory had been failing for at least a decade but it wasn’t until a warm September evening six years before that I truly became alarmed. In my mind, it was the night he veered off the main highway of life and began weaving erratically down Alzheimer’s Avenue.

He had worked on the stats crew for University of Minnesota Gopher football games for forty years, and, as was his custom after home games, he was going to drive the twenty minutes to my townhouse and sleep over rather than drive an additional seventy miles to his home in St. Cloud.

I expected him around midnight; at a quarter to one, the phone rang. He was lost. He was calling from the Hopkins House Hotel just a few miles down the road. I cheerfully told him that all he had to do was head east on Highway 7. He said he didn’t know which way east was, which startled me. I then heard five words that sent a chill up my spine. In a soft, sweet voice, he said, “I’ll never make it, hon.” I paused, then said, “I’ll be right there.” I drove over and he followed me home.

It was another couple of years before he stopped driving altogether. A year after that, my mom began bringing him to the St. Cloud Veterans Administration Medical Center for adult day care. It was a godsend for both of them. He loved the staff, loved to swim and exercise, and most of all, loved to spend hours on simple arts and crafts projects. My parents’ house is filled with these little treasures. I too shared in the bounty; a pink ceramic piggy bank he painted stares happily down at me from a shelf as I write this.

My dad was very happy at the V.A. for a few years. But when he no longer could follow simple instructions and began needing one-on-one attention just to color a picture, the staff gently told my mom that other arrangements needed to be made. My mom hoped to keep my dad at home as long as she could but when he was unable to shower in the morning without help, she knew she had run out of options. With a heavy heart, she drove him to the nursing home that Friday morning.

As my dad’s mind deteriorated, I thought about Roger Delano, who contracted a rare and incurable condition called transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spine that causes paralysis. Delano, who recounted his experience in Self-Realization magazine, said he was unfazed when a doctor told him he would never walk again. Indeed, thanks to his unshakable faith, he was able to walk out of the hospital under his own power nine days later. Here’s what he wrote:

I knew that everything that was happening to me was up to God, that He was the only healer. I felt safe, knowing I was surrounded by the overarching mantle of His perfect care. Whatever God brought to me, I wanted. Even if I retained all of the mobility of a flowerpot, it didn’t matter. I was still the same, the vehicle of expression had changed, that’s all. A flowerpot can still hold a beautiful flower.

Some would say that my dad’s slow descent into oblivion was a tragedy. I prefer to view it as the natural unfolding of a divine plan, the details of which I am not privy to. From the very start, as his mental capacities diminished, my mother, sister, and I surrendered to the process. Clinging to any expectations would have been counterproductive. Instead, we focused our attention simply on loving him in the moments we had together.

Dad and me at the nursing home

Inevitably, the glimmer of recognition in my dad’s eyes began to flicker and fade. But that was okay. With a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a shoulder rub, I could still communicate with him through the language of the heart. Besides, in my eyes, he would forever be who he always was.

Not long after the doorway to his mind had slammed shut, my first book was published. It was a business book, and I drove to St. Cloud to give a copy to my mom. On my way back home, I stopped at the nursing home to see my dad. He was sitting in the day room in the Alzheimer’s ward, waiting for lunch. Well, that’s not entirely true; he wasn’t waiting for lunch, or waiting for anything for that matter. He was just sitting at a table, slumped in his chair, with his mouth hanging open and a vacant look in his eyes.

He didn’t react when I walked over to him. I sat down and said, “Dad, I wrote a book. See, my name’s on the cover.” He stared blankly ahead. I said, “Dad, all my life, whenever I wrote something I was proud of, I wanted to show it to you first.” And then something amazing happened — he started to cry. I hugged him and told him that I knew he understood what I was saying, and that that meant the world to me. He cried twice more before I left. Here I thought he had left us long ago, but somehow, some way, he had broken through the barrier of his ravaged mind to let me know that he was still in there, and still proud of me.

Three months later, we got the call from the nursing home. His eyes were glazing over and his breathing was labored. It was just a matter of time.

I was fortunate to have a few minutes alone with him as he lay on the bed in his room for the last time. I laid down beside him, rested my head on his chest, told him how much I loved him, and recalled some of my favorite memories of our life together. I like to think that, on some level, he was able to hear and understand me.

At one point he jerked up his head, and for a moment, his panicked eyes were filled with terror. In a soothing voice, I told him that it was okay, that I was there, and that everything would be all right. The fear passed from his eyes and he lowered his head to the pillow. I remember feeling honored that I could comfort him in his hour of need.

Soon, the family gathered around his bed and the vigil began. One minute before midnight, the changeless, eternal essence of who he was burst forth, free to soar once again. Hours later, alone and in silent gratitude, I hit my knees and thanked God for giving me the gift of being my father’s son.

This story appears in Phil Bolsta’s book, Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World. To order your copy, click here.

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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 8: Energy Medicine and Plant Medicine