It’s been an enriching and joyful process to go through pictures spanning my dad’s whole life and read the cards and online condolences through which people described him based on the context within which they knew him best. Over the past two weeks, this process has helped me to see him in a much greater context above and beyond the particular relationship I had with him—which also differed from the relationship either of my two siblings had with him.
Every relationship is unique, and every life is composed of different relationships and chapters through which we express ourselves in different ways, much like a multifaceted crystal that is held to the light and turned to see the different angles from which the light shines through it. And yet, there are some qualities that remain more or less consistent at the core.
With my dad, some core descriptions that came up repeatedly included:
- True gentleman
- Smiling face
- Incredibly sweet
- Great athlete
- Warm and friendly
I remember being at his USAirways retirement celebration about 15 years ago, which provided me with my first glimpse of who he was in a broader context, beyond just “my dad.” When it was his turn to speak, he was quite a storyteller. And funny! I’d never experienced that side of him before! Those were some of the traits that endeared him to so many.
He could also be stubborn, and that was a side I saw a lot. As he was in the hospital on what would be his deathbed, I commented to my son about how stubborn he was being as we left ICU one day. His “stubbornness” seemed to frustrate me more than anyone else and usually had something to do with him not being receptive to my ideas and how I was trying to help him. Holding tightly to previously established preferences and opinions. But my son suggested that he was dignified, rather than stubborn. My dad was determined to do things his way. A true Taurus!
He loved his hot dogs and ice cream and refused to follow the diabetic diet. He refused to have a fistula put in his arm in preparation for the increasingly likely event of kidney failure and a regimen of dialysis to keep him alive. He wanted nothing to do with a life without hot dogs or a life centered around time-consuming dialysis treatments and not being able to go to the YMCA to exercise and socialize. This summer, whenever he told me he had a hot dog for dinner or that friends brought him one or two when they visited him, my heart smiled because I understood that my dad was an old dog who wasn’t about to learn new tricks and that he was choosing quality of life over longevity. His quality of life took a great blow when my mom died, and wherever he could find moments of happiness and comfort…was good, in my opinion.
One day back in February 2013, he was exercising at the YMCA and went into cardiac arrest. When I was on my way to the hospital with my mom, all we knew was that they used the defibrillator to get his heart started again, but it was very shaky. We didn’t know if we would arrive at the hospital to find him alive or dead. When we arrived, he was in the care of one of my best childhood friends, and we were able to talk to him. He was about to be transported to another hospital, and again, we didn’t know if he would survive the ambulance ride. But when we arrived at Albany Medical Center, he was alive and in good hands. He ended up surviving quadruple bypass surgery. Our family is so grateful for the YMCA staff, who gave us an extra 3 ½ years with him. For some reason, it wasn’t his time then.
In his novel, Illusions, Richard Bach wrote:
“Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
Always one to look for meaning, I often contemplated why my dad didn’t die that day. What was he still here on earth to learn, experience, or do?
At the time of my dad’s cardiac episode, we had no idea that my mom had pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer by the end of the year and passed away within six months after being diagnosed. But in between my dad’s cardiac episode and my mom’s death, they were able to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together at Disney World.
Losing his wife of 50 years – his best friend and soulmate – was so hard on my dad, and I’m sure that was obvious to everyone who knew him. His life would never be the same. Yet, I believe she needed to leave when she did so he could experience some things and grow in ways he wouldn’t have been able to grow otherwise. For example, he had a more direct relationship with my siblings and me when our extroverted mom wasn’t in the picture doing most of the communicating. And I think that was really important for him and for us. We had nearly 2 ½ years to do that. During that time, he was able to meet his first great-grandchild (my granddaughter) and see his grandson (my son) graduate from high school.
Two weeks before my dad finally went to the doctor for foot pain that kept getting worse this summer, a friend contacted me late at night to tell me that he walked past a particular music venue and saw my dad sitting in there alone. I reminded him that’s where my parents used to go to listen to music and added that my mom is probably there with him in spirit. My friend replied that my dad looked really sad, and I said it’s because he doesn’t realize she’s there with him. Understanding how difficult and painful it was for my dad to walk, I was surprised he went through the trouble of finding parking in downtown Saratoga Springs during the busy, summer tourist season and walking to the venue. He must have had a strong purpose or longing to go there.
A few days before he went to the doctor, a family member dreamed my parents were dancing together. It was one of those dreams that felt more real than real, if you know what I mean. My mom was in full, vivid color, looking so happy and vibrant as she danced. Although she was dancing with my dad, he was in black and white and didn’t seem to realize she was there dancing with him. Surprised to see my mom, the dreamer exclaimed, “You’re not supposed to be here!” And my mom replied, “Well, I am! And I always have been.”
* * * *
Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes what seems to be a cruel twist of fate is merciful. We just can’t see the whole picture from where we stand.
A diabetic with significant cardiac history, my dad had a rough summer that included six-hour bypass surgery to correct a circulation issue in his leg. That was followed by a recovery period, and in the midst of recovering, he ended up back in the hospital for a sore on his foot that resulted in his little toe being amputated and another recovery period. After being discharged from the hospital, he spent a couple of weeks at a rehab center and in less than a week after being discharged from the rehab center came down with the pneumonia that claimed his life.
During the last few weeks of his life, I worried about how my siblings (one local, one not) and I would care for our dad when he got out of rehab and was being his stubborn or willful or dignified self. Like when my dad and I came back inside after our first wheelchair excursion outside of the rehab center on a beautiful day, I dashed into the restroom for about 15 seconds, only to find him wheeling himself down the hallway toward the main entrance when I reemerged. A custodian witnessed it and had a look of combined shock and amusement on her face. I felt like the parent of a toddler, who must be ever-vigilant. It was a strange feeling to have in relation to my dad.
I became anxious about how he would fare living on his own in his split-level house with stairs all over the place. On the way home from rehab, I reminded him that there was a walker on each level of the house that he was supposed to use, and he exclaimed that he wasn’t going to use any walkers and then took off like a racehorse when we arrived home. Again, I felt like an anxious parent trying to get him to follow doctor’s orders that he claimed he never remembered hearing. How could I help him when he wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do?
I wondered how long this would go on, how long he would need a caregiver at the house, and whether he would need to go into a long-term care facility at some point. But throughout this time, I kept hearing my mom’s voice in my head assuring me: Don’t worry. This isn’t going to take long. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but two days before he died, when he was back in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, I found a dead cardinal in my driveway. I’d never seen a dead cardinal before, and my dad loved cardinals. When I saw the cardinal, I had a sinking feeling that he was not going to make it this time. And although my mortal heart was breaking, my intuition assured me that it’s okay because it’s his time.
My dad would not have wanted to live a life in which his freedom was restricted. In the end, it seems his swift death was merciful. He didn’t have to languish in a nursing home or undergo dialysis. He didn’t have to observe another wedding anniversary without his beloved wife and passed on in time to spend their October 19th anniversary together in spirit.
As much as I will miss my dad, I realize that losing our parents is part of the natural course of human life. In recent years, some of my friends have had to face the tragedy of losing a child. And a couple of my kindergarten students suffered the sudden loss of a parent. I have not lost a child, and I am not a child who has lost a parent. What I am experiencing is within the natural cycle of life. It is to be expected.
My parents loved each other so much, and although he kept going the best he could, my dad’s life would never be the same again after losing my mom. With a love like that, it’s not unusual for the surviving spouse to follow close behind. So I really feel it was my dad’s time to go. In the end, pneumonia wasn’t a thief that came along and stole him from us before his time. It was a swift, merciful ride to the other side that saved him from declining health, a restricted lifestyle, and continued mourning. That he was able to avoid that kind of pain and suffering brings me peace.
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