My Dad in the Twilight of Life

Gentle exhales from Dad, occasional shuffling of papers in my hands—advance directives and such—are the only sounds as I lay next to him.

Colorectal cancer, and advancing Alzheimer’s, draw him nearer to his final transition: his out chorus. Palliative care supports this journey.

We enrolled dad into in-home hospice a couple weeks ago.  It’s been a challenging process.  Mine is a nuclear family of five, nine different cancers between us. No one has yet succumbed to the disease.

~~~~~

Dad and I are close; always have been.

On his 35th birthday, his gift was me. The obstetrician placed a little bundle in his arms and sang Happy Birthday. No owner’s manual, no return policy, I like to remind him.

I cannot recall a birthday that has not been celebrated with Dad. We each have one next month, in early August, but I’m not sure he can hold on that long. Honestly, I’m not sure he should hold on. Dad’s exhausted.

The thought of him not making it to the milestone of 90 years old, as I turn 55, is sad for me to contemplate. However, Dad’s had a wonderful life.

We worked together for 25 years building a family media company. Lots of time together in an office setting; always lived near each other.

Dad’s had a long life with mom, his childhood sweetheart: together for over 70 years.

Be it 89  or 109 years old, it still hurts. Certainly, a long life well-lived is easier to reconcile, and come to peace with, than the alternative of loss of a young family member. But losing a parent or any loved one, at any age, is still painful.

Dad always rolled with the beat of his own drum. Literally. You see, he dropped out of high school when he was 15 to become a professional jazz musician.  That was 1943. He was a drummer during the Korean War—someone had to entertain the military brass. Dad likes to say that during his entire professional career he only had one boss: Uncle Sam.

After the war, Dad continued playing music full time, and established a music production company in the Washington, DC area. He played lots of DC society gigs, and he programmed shows featuring the top musicians and comedians of the day—including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Jonathan Winters, and Redd Foxx.

His trio played regularly for John and Jackie Kennedy and their family and friends at their Georgetown townhouse. Dad is also credited with producing the first desegregated musical performance at DAR Constitution Hall.

Dad didn’t always maintain the best lifestyle habits for preventing disease, but my siblings and I credit Mom for adding at least 10 years of good health to his lifespan—or better defined as ‘healthspan’.

In the end, it’s the life in the years, not the years of life, which matter most.

Anyone who knows dad will tell you they never saw him not wearing a smile.

At his last oncologist’s appointment, when he could barely stay awake from debilitating fatigue, he raised his head to acknowledge his doc with his trademark happy face and typical greeting—‘heyyy man!’ Spoken just like a be-bop jazz drummer.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, after the transitioning of Dad—my friend, my father, my business partner—to a more comfortable state, I will focus my thoughts and energy on celebrating his life, not mourning him 24/7.

Cliché as it may be, I truly believe, that’s the way Dad would have wanted it.

[To read more about my father, Ira Sabin, this article appears in JazzTimes, the magazine he founded in 1970.]