Sometimes I still don't know what to say, even after all these years offering pastoral care in all kinds of situations. I learned that the daughter of a member of my parish died suddenly this morning; no one knows yet why. On the phone with him, I felt like a stumbling idiot, saying inane things.
Later on, I went to visit my dad in the nursing home where he lives. All the roads were under construction, it seemed, and when I got to his area, I didn't find him right away.
He was sitting at a table in the corner, his head down, with a piece of cake and some lemonade in front of him.
I went over and sat across from him and held his hands. "Hi Dad," I said in a loud voice. No response. "I'm here. It's Diane. How are you?"
No response. I bent down and looked him in the eye. I took both his hands, sang a chorus of 'You are my sunshine,' asked him, "What's black and white and red all over?" I sang a few words of "Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day," and told everyone within earshot about how he used to sing his own version of 'The Sheik of Araby' to us when we were little.
The activity director came over and whispered in his ear. She said he was really good yesterday; she wished someone had been there. She gave him a little sip of lemonade. "Sometimes that wakes him up," she said. She said she thought maybe he was just tired. "Are you tired, dad?" I asked.
He closed his eyes.
I sang a little more, though, of course, I don't know all of the words. I asked him if he remembered helping me with my multiplication tables, or teaching me to drive. I told him he was a good dad.
Then I thought about how the activity director had spoken right into his ear. I leaned right into his ear and I said, "I love you."
I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before. The simplest thing.
"I love you, dad," I said, and he nodded and I thought that somehow, when he looked at me, he saw me, and suddenly, he remembered everything.
"What's black and white and read all over? Is it the newspaper?"
"Oh, yes," he said.
"Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side?"
I sang a few words of "Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day" and he hummed along. I told him that he was a good dad. I was glad to be his daughter. And it seemed like when he looked at me, for a little while, anyway, he remembered everything: the prayers, the jokes, buttering our toast and riding in the car and going to get Christmas trees in December.
I said I had to leave but I would try to be back soon.
Then I said it again, the only thing I knew to say, right in his ear.
"I love you, dad."
"I love you too."
The simplest thing.
Why didn't I think of it before?