It was a cold winter night many years ago that I went out to see my Dad who was still living at home by himself. My mother had been moved over a year earlier and my father was still far from ready for assisted living.
Back then, I would drive to the house 5 to 6 days a week to check up on him.

I pulled into the driveway that night and saw that the house was in total darkness save for a small light in the kitchen. I could see my father inside, his shadow gliding back and forth like a disembodied entity.
His eccentricities were increasingly more pronounced and peculiar by the day so the sight of him pacing didn’t alarm me…much.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the back door was that he had his coat on.


“And where are you going?” I said, smiling.


“Nowhere,” he laughed, “just felt like putting my coat on, is all.”


The words drifted out of his mouth in little puffs of frost.
The chill then hit me like a speeding freight train; his heat was off.
I went into the dining room and looked at the thermostat.
He’d pushed it all the way up praying for a bit of relief.

Holy Jesus on a Cross, I thought, he’s freezing and I’m the world’s biggest schmuck.


Long story short, he was out of heating oil.
I immediately called the oil company (open 24/7 during winter, thank God) and told them what happened. They assured me they would be there within the hour, which they were.
I made my father some hot tea as we sat waiting for Mr. Heat to arrive.

A full tank of oil and a newly lit pilot light later and heat began rising out of the previously icy baseboards.
Once my brain thawed, all the ‘what ifs’ started racing an Indy 500 inside my head.

What if I hadn’t stopped out tonight?

What if he’d left the house in search of warmth and got lost?

I knew it wasn’t my fault but it was my responsibility and I felt in a small way that I had failed him.
Therein lies the paradox that is Alzheimer’s; caregivers feel all the intense guilt and sense of loss that their loved one will never be aware of.
Riddled with shame, I decided to stay a bit longer than usual.
I knew he’d had no supper due to the ‘house turned igloo’ so I offered to make him something to eat, which he politely declined (like I knew he would).

He sat in the warm den and watched TV while I scrambled some eggs and made some toast.

He came into the kitchen sniffing and said, “Mmm, that smells good.”


“Want some?” I asked.


After his second helping of eggs he looked at me and said, “That was really good. I was starving.”


I smiled and said, “I know, Dad.”


It’s ancient water under the bridge but I still think about that night and feel that pang of shame. This was the guy that worked every stinking day of his life so I could have clothes, a nice baseball glove and cleats (like all the other kids), food on the table, heat in the winter; all the necessities of life and more.
He made sure I never knew the meaning of the word ‘want’.

I drove home that night waiting for that Aha! moment that would hopefully make some sense out of what had just happened.
If the moment came, I’d sadly missed it.
While the memory of that night remains a self-imposed penance, I take comfort in knowing I was able to make his night a bit warmer than the freezing world around him.
I hope that night left him feeling more than warmth.
I pray he felt love.



11 thoughts on “Penance

  1. But the thing is Mike, that you did stop by. You did take care of the situation and him. He was okay when you left. I believe that we have a certain radar when it comes to our loved ones whether we are aware of it or not. We instinctively go where we are needed when we are needed by those we love. It may not always seem that way – but I think ultimately it’s true. Even if you miss a beat or two – you can’t let the what ifs torture you. I’d call a more of a thank God moment.


    Great way to look at it.
    I think I have turned it around in my mind to be exactly that: a thank God moment
    Thanks, AMR. . .



  2. Hey Michael, you are one helluva guy, and an amazing son. I know that it’s hard, but like WC said, don’t let the what if’s kill you. How many people in your fathers situation don’t have someone like you in their lives? You want to talk about what ifs? What if you didn’t give a damn? Your dad is lucky, and from what i’ve read about him, so are you.
    Cheers, Kelly
    p.s wtg on getting some more of your book done 🙂

    Thanks, Kel.
    You noticed my graph, huh?



  3. You were in the right place at the right time. Exactly where you were meant to be. I’m sure you took excellent care of your father.

    This post was about many things, possibility being one of them.
    Destiny is a strange bedfellow…
    Thanks for reading, Lass.



  4. what if, in a situation such as this, is a question that achieves little more than create scenarios that don’t bear thinking about… the point is you WERE there, and that’s what counts
    take care

    Thanks, ZN…



  5. You never stop amazing me with your reflections. After losing my dad this summer, one thing became crystal clear to me. I would never again have the opportunity to do one more thing for him, whether it be a footrub, a hug, a gentle word or touch. The other thing that surprised me was that no matter how much I had done, after he was gone I thought I could have done more. That was surprising to me, in view of all I had done. Then, I read what you wrote. Here you are, driving to see your dad 5-6 times weekly and still feeling you could have done more! One of the most centered people I know has a saying: “All we can do is the best we can do.” And this much I know, Michael–you’re doing your best! Blessings to you, your dad and your fam!
    I pray for you. Laurie

    As always, your comments overwhelm me.
    Thank you.



  6. Michael-
    I’m sure your dad felt the love and warmth in your heart, that day….and still feels it, even if he doesn’t say it! I know that everytime I spoke to your dad, and mom,I felt the warmth and love they had for their family, friends and each other. I think some people have a special way of showing their warmth and love….and they have it….it’s heaven sent! You have it! It’s in your writing! I haven’t seen him in a few years, but I remember his smile and how he seemed to love to listen to stories being told…..he would laugh and look around to see others enjoying the surroundings. 🙂
    …know you’re all in my prayers

    It’s in your writing!

    I certainly like to think so.
    Thanks, Lynn.


  7. Your friends have already said most of what goes through my mind. Therefore I’ll add another angle. I am often intrigued by the way that love mangages to shine through from inbetween some people’s written lines. You have the gift of writing that way, it sparkles like late afternoon sunlight reflected on a calm lake. Especially when talking about your family, which leaves no doubt on how you feel about them and who you are. It’s a beautiful post.

    ‘Reading between the lines’ is such a wonderful concept.
    I do hope that others feel as you do, SP.
    I like to think that they do.
    As always, thanks for dropping by.


  8. That was beautiful. I remember the last days with my grandfather. He had no idea where or even who he was, but in the rare moments when the fog cleared and he KNEW me, I felt so much better having shared those moments with him. Memories are priceless.

    Sometimes the memories are the best.
    Smoke and Mirrors is filled with many of mine.
    I appreciate your visit and comment, M.
    Stop back again.



  9. Michael–I imagine the best part of that night for your Dad was the moment he thought to himself, “That’s my son.”

    Beautifully written.

    Oddly enough, he probably thought, instead, “That’s my father.”
    Funny how the roles reverse. . .
    Thanks, Deb.



  10. You had nothing to be ashamed of. And I bet the scrambled eggs were great.

    The eggs were great that night.
    Amazing how different situations make the food we eat taste better, huh?
    Plus, I’m an awesome cook. (ask my wife)
    Even with the pedestrian scrambled eggs. . .



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s