Caring Currents

What Do You Give an Old Dad for Father's Day?

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My dad's had a rough year. His wife of 57 years died unexpectedly of cancer, and he moved from his home of more than 40 years in Michigan to my brother's home not far from me in North Carolina. He has dementia. He also has a renal mass, found last spring, that couldn't be biopsied.

But he complains of no pain and joined a new bowling league in N.C., the Swinging Seniors. He helps my brother and his wife move mulch and fold laundry. He plays Wii with their six kids.

He's like a lot of dads: failing, but resilient. He always was like a lot of dads of his era: A lifetime employee who left in the tract-house morning with tie and briefcase and came home in time for meat and potatoes. Let Mom play the heavy. Watched a lot of sports.

On Father's Day, I used to make him a paper crown and give him Old Spice, a tie, and chocolate covered cherries. Father's Day seemed like a bonus birthday.

It's only as an adult that I've come to think of the day not just as a way to celebrate a parent, but to reflect on him in relation to the person I've become. It's impossible to idealize your dad when you're the one filling out the forms at his doctor's office or working the ATM for him.

He doesn't seem to care about gifts. (Who needs more stuff at 86?) Flowers were always welcome on Mother's Day, but Dad would just give them to my sister-in-law (who deserves them, but that's another point).

I'm not wracking my brains beyond hugs and cards, though. Already this year, I've steered him through medical crises and helped him plan Mom's funeral. I packed him for a move South and then went back up north and packed up his whole house.

And I'm not even the primary caregiver. My brother and his wife have changed their whole lives adding him to their household. Another brother takes him to Mass every weekend. A sister manages Dad's finances. We're trying to sell his house.

Father's Day? These days it's like Father's Year.

Which is true for so many of us. Because what aging dads need most can't be wrapped.