Momentous Occasion

In the midst of all the significant life events happening in our world, did I mention this one?

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Graduation!

Chesney graduated on December 12, 2015 and we couldn’t be more proud! Her plans are to look for a job close to home. She wants to move back home for a while, working and paying off some debt before eventually and officially venturing out on her own. Makes me one happy mom  to know that she’ll come back to the nest for a while, that’s for sure!

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Christmas 2015

I just sort of wanted to get through Christmas this year. Not that I was dreading it, or anything. I’m typically a serious Christmas enthusiast. I was just feeling a bit sad, last-minute and worn out this time around.

Still, Christmas came, as it always does. And somehow it was good. Seems my dad’s passing has allowed me to really put things in perspective and let go of expectations. Kind of sad how it took such a significant loss to make me see what was really important.

We took my mom to an early Christmas Eve mass at her church. My brothers and their families joined us. It was a poignant service. As I watched the priest and deacons, I kept remembering the many times I’d seen my dad perform those same rituals. I was feeling overwhelmingly sad for a while, until I imagined my dad sitting next to me, holding my hand. I felt a calm come over me and all was well.

Afterwards, my extended family all came to our house to eat and celebrate. There’s not nearly enough room here for all of us, but it’s never stopped us before, and no one really seemed to care.

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I have a mess of pictures, but this one seems appropriately representative of the evening. My mom, surrounded by her family, all of us just enjoying the simple and silly things.

The days have been frantic and fast-paced this past week, and I was tired going into Christmas Day.  We went to a brother-in-law’s house and celebrated with Jack’s very large extended family. There was a sense of camaraderie there. Jack and his siblings lost their own father this time last year. A sister-in-law lost her step-dad just weeks later. A nephew-in-law lost his dad recently, just days after my dad passed. We’re all getting used to a new, and not altogether welcome sense of normalcy. It helps to know I’m not doing this alone.

The Christmas Day festivities were loud, but there was much laughter and cheer. We ate ourselves silly. Big “kids” played new games with little kids. Conversations were animated. There were no cross words. I got to spend time holding my favorite baby, our great-nephew, who is just mellow and adorable.

A friend and I were exchanging comments in reference to my Christmas albums which I posted on FaceB00k this morning. She said she was thinking of me and I replied I was thinking of her as well. She lost her mother earlier this year, and it seems her dad is not long for this world either. I said that it had been a challenging year for many of us, and she responded, “But I can’t call it bad. It’s just life.”

I realized that I had to agree with her. We’ve reached that age, some of us, where having to part ways with a parent or loved one is an inevitably more common occurrence. There is sadness to bear, but if we’re lucky, as I have been, much grace as well. As I told my friend, I am grateful. It was a beautiful Christmas.

My Eulogy for Dad

During the planning of my dad’s funeral services, it was suggested that we could choose someone to deliver a eulogy. I assumed my sister would speak, being the oldest, and having always been more comfortable in front of people than I. When I asked if she was planning to do so, she said, “I always thought I would, but I don’t think I can do this.”

“Then I will,” I replied. I don’t do public speaking type stuff, but this was important and I suddenly had no fear. My sis suggested maybe she could manage it if we tag-teamed. I agreed, but then said we had probably better invite our brothers to speak as well. I was sure they would have no interest, but when I mentioned it, both wanted to say something in honor of Dad too.

I suggested we all share ahead of time what we came up with, warning my siblings that if you put me behind a keyboard, I can’t be brief, and that I might have to condense my words in order to give the rest of them space to speak too. As it turned out, time got away from us and we never compared notes. And in the end, the brothers weren’t able to find the right words to formally put in writing. Both spoke off-the-cuff for a minute or so, leaving plenty of time for my sister and I to say all we wanted to say. (She did end up managing her own piece, and I was able to create and deliver my own tribute.) And I swear I wasn’t nervous … until two hundred pairs of eyes all turned to me and the room grew silent. My heart threatened to pound out of my chest as I spoke, but word has it that I didn’t sound nervous. I’m glad. And I’m so happy I was able to share these thoughts about my dad with those who knew and loved him while he was here with us.

When I think of my Dad during the years I was growing up, I see him at the kitchen table in our house in Saint Paul. Ours was a long, oval table with a brown, Formica surface, most likely a 1960s variety that was designed to withstand the test of time, which it surely did. The table expanded with a leaf, making it large enough to seat our family of six, and was the setting for art projects, homework, and of course, family meals. No meal could begin before Dad led us in a prayer of thanks … you know the one, Bless us, oh Lord, and these Thy gifts …

The table sat in our small, crowded kitchen that was so full of life … and Dad was often at the center of it all. The head of the kitchen table is the place where my memory so often finds him.

I see him there on Sunday mornings when I was very young. He’s sitting with our next-door neighbor, Jerry. On Sundays, Dad and Jerry used to take turns going to the Mini Market down on Ruth and Minnehaha to purchase two Sunday newspapers. The “buyer” would deliver one of the two newspapers to the other, and the two friends would sit at the kitchen table and talk for a while over a cup of coffee.

In the evenings, the kitchen table was the place where Mom and Dad would reconnect after a long day of work. They would sit at opposite ends, catching up with one another, or each quietly reading a section of the day’s newspaper while dinner cooked on the stove and we kids watched television in the next room on one of the five available channels. Dad always sipped on a bottle of beer while he unwound after work. During those times, I loved to wander into the kitchen, climb up on his lap and lean against his chest. I would often ask him if I could have a sip of his beer, not because I liked the taste of it back then, but simply because I knew Dad would let me. Or maybe it was because in a family of four kids, all very close in age, it was a rare chance to have Dad’s undivided attention.

During my high school years, Dad and I were the early risers in the family. He and I would sit in silence at the kitchen table while the morning was still dark. I’d race through my bowl of cereal while Dad leisurely sipped on a cup of hot, black coffee that was always filled right to the brim of his cup. I knew I needed to finish my breakfast before Dad finished his coffee. My family will agree, in a family of six in a one-bathroom house, if Dad got there before you did, you were out of luck for a good hour or more. If I didn’t eat quickly, I’d miss my opportunity to clean up before school while waiting for Dad to finish shaving, and things, and taking those showers!

And of course, none of my siblings will ever forget when we got into trouble, the punishing lectures Dad would deliver from his place at the head of the table. Other kids got grounded and had privileges revoked. Our dad had different tactics. He delivered seemingly hours-long lectures, reiterating his points over and over while the offender stood at the far end of the kitchen, wanting – but not daring – to escape, legs beginning to weaken like wet noodles as we desperately waited for Dad to run out of words. This took quite some time! The thought of enduring another one of Dad’s diatribes was enough to motivate us kids to behave most of the time. It must have worked as we all managed to become relatively productive members of society!

Of course, Dad did much more than hang around at the kitchen table all of the time. During his spare time, he loved to be outside. He might wax the Country Squire station wagon, or putter around in the garage. And he was always doing something to make the grass greener, always sprinkling some kind of fertilizer underneath the rapidly growing Maple tree out front, trying desperately to make grass grow among the ever expanding tree roots, and never quite succeeding in that particular area. But the rest of Dad’s lawn was always neat and trimmed.

Every summer, Dad and Mom planted a vegetable garden. A big vegetable garden! In my memory, it covered about a third of the back yard and there was never a shortage of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and much to my displeasure … green beans. Dad loved gardening so much, and was so proud of the annual harvest, that our family albums include as many photos of home-grown vegetables as they do of the family! My siblings will all be nodding at this, thinking of the pictures of the old wheelbarrow overflowing with acorn squash! So many summer days found us kids out in the back yard, weeding that gigantic garden. I hated it back then, fighting off mosquitoes and desperately hoping I wouldn’t encounter any Daddy Long Legs among the green beans. Little did any of us know that Dad’s love of gardening was taking hold inside each of us. Today, we all attempt to mirror Dad’s agricultural accomplishments.

Our Dad was a true family man. He taught us the value of family tradition and the importance holding loved ones close. Dad showed us his love through his silly and teasing ways. It wasn’t uncommon to walk past him in the house and feel a light swat on your behind. When we’d laughingly protest the “spanking” Dad had just issued, he’d say, “Awww! That was just a love tap!”

Every important time in our lives… every holiday or celebration, and every difficult circumstance was a time to gather with family. My siblings and I were fortunate that our parents made family a priority. We were always close to our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and have many great memories of times spent with them. In our adult years, any one of us could visit Mom and Dad and were sure to hear Dad tell proud stories of one of our siblings’ accomplishments. And when we began to have kids of our own, Dad became the proudest of grandfathers, and his grandkids all loved their Boppa. Even though he may not have said so in so many words, our dad seemed to know that in order to embrace life, and in order to survive it, you need a support system. You need family. Dad instilled that in each of us, even if some of us didn’t realize it until much later in our lives.

Most importantly, over the course of his time with us, Dad gave his family a firm foundation in the Lord. During our youngest days, we were taught to kneel at our bedsides and pray before going to sleep, always asking blessings for each and every family member. No meal was ever eaten before we said a prayer of thanks. Jesus, the church, the Bible and God were interwoven in the fabric of our lives.

Dad invited the Lord into our every day. And each Saturday evening, and every holy day would find Mom with us kids, sitting in the back row of St. Thomas the Apostle church while Dad served in many different ministries, before, during and after the weekly mass.

We … at least I … didn’t always appreciate Dad’s efforts to instill a strong faith in us. In particular, as a teenager, I would rather have been doing almost anything else besides sitting in church. I’m sure my siblings and I can all remember times when we were invited to spend the night with friends, or join them on a vacation. Dad only ever gave permission for us to go when we could confirm the presence of a nearby Catholic church and assure him we would attend mass while away from home!

I remember Dad trying to start a faith tradition at home – family rosary night. I was such a brat about it! I refused to cooperate, picturing my friends hanging out down at the park, and I cringed to imagine what they’d think of me if they knew I was at home praying in the living room with my parents and siblings. So not cool! I’m sorry to say that the demise of family rosary night is on me. But it was Dad who won in the end. This past week on Tuesday, as we waited for Dad’s life here on earth to come to a close, Father Joe offered to lead us in praying the rosary. I held Dad’s hand throughout those prayers, and as we finished, Dad breathed his last breath. When I said my final goodbye to him there in the hospital bed, I imagined him smiling down on me from Heaven, knowing he’d finally managed to have me to pray the rosary with him!

I’m proud to say that it was Dad’s strong faith that has had the greatest impact on my life. He knew he was doing right by us, even when I was too young and naive to appreciate his efforts. And I’m so grateful to him for providing the shining example of what it means to have faith and love God. He taught me that being perfect in the eyes of God has absolutely nothing to do with being perfect in the eyes of the world. I am so proud of the man that Dad became in the Lord, and the way he embraced his role as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. Through all the years of change, during times of turmoil in the church, he remained faithfully devoted to his Lord and his church. It may have taken years, but the seeds of faith that Dad planted in me took root and grew into something profound, something that has carried me through and lifted me up through some of the most difficult times in my life.

I loved my dad SO much. I think he knew this, even though lately, I often wondered if he remembered that was true.  In the final few months of Dad’s life, during the time since he broke his hip, there were a lot of ups and downs. There was constant worry about our parents’ well-being, and many plans were contemplated for alternative and safer ways for them to live. Being told how or where to live was, understandably, so hard for Dad to accept. He and I were generally pretty respectful of one another, but there was one recent incident where his will and my will for his health and well-being came to a head. Words of anger and frustration flew between us. It was ugly, and it felt awful. For two days, we didn’t speak to one another. (And if you knew my dad, you know it took tremendous restraint for him to not speak a word!)

On the third day following our argument, I went to Mom and Dad’s house and decided that one way or another, I didn’t want this to go on. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dad, but decided I wouldn’t remain silent.

When I came through the garage into the kitchen, I found Dad sitting at the table with his back to me. “Hi Dad,” I said.

He turned and seeing it was me, answered with his usual sing-song greeting … “Hullo!”

I turned toward the refrigerator to take a container of soup out of a bag I’d brought with me and when I turned back around, there was Dad. He pulled me against him, wrapping me up in one of his famous, rib crushing bear hugs.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I love you SO much!” He went on to express regret for what had happened between us and I was surprised to find myself crumpled against him, my head tucked between his neck and shoulder while I sobbed and told him I was sorry too. My sister, Mom, Dad and I spent that evening together and it was one of the best times we’d had together in months. As it turns out, that reconciliation was the greatest gift Dad could have given me before he left us. For a while, after he’d gone, I felt so much regret that I’d fought with him, that I’d put him through so much emotional turmoil, not realizing that precious little time remained with him. But I was soon reminded that none of that matters anymore. My Dad is in Heaven now, in perfect peace, with all of his family members who have gone before him, and with the Lord he loved and served so well during his days here on earth. Our argument, opinions, and the less-than-stellar emotions are the stuff of humanity. And Dad is free from all of that messy human stuff now. The difficult memories are quickly fading away and, as it should be, all that remains is the beautiful love Dad had for us.

My Dad is in Heaven

150x191-3885721It’s been nearly two weeks already. Dad passed away on a Tuesday afternoon, December 8th, 2015 to be exact.

I’m really doing okay, but it’s still so hard to believe he’s gone, even considering how difficult things had become in the past three months. I even thought I’d been preparing myself for this day, but there’s no amount of preparation that can make such a journey any easier.

It started with a ringing telephone. It was Monday, December 7th at 3:45 am. The early morning phone calls were something I’d become accustomed to over the past months since Dad fractured his hip. Mom was on the other end of the line telling me that the paramedics had just taken Dad to the hospital. I wasn’t surprised. He hadn’t been feeling well when my sister and I were at our parents’ house the day before, packing up for the move Mom and Dad were to make to assisted living the coming Wednesday. When we arrived after noon that Sunday, Dad was still in his robe. I can recall him saying something silly to me when I first arrived, but for the life of me, I can’t now recall what it was. I wish I could, but it’s gone. There was some discussion about Dad taking a shower and maybe eating some lunch, but he soon made it clear he wasn’t feeling well. My sister mentioned that he sounded “rattly,” and everyone’s mind made the leap to pneumonia. She suggested we take Dad to the hospital and he instantly and adamantly refused. He’d had enough of transitional care and hospitals, and now had a great fear that going back meant he might never return home. Dad said he was going back to bed. He was snoring when I left to go home. I wish I’d gone in to kiss him on the cheek or give him one last hug that he might reciprocate. But we’d hugged and expressed our I-love-yous plenty in the days prior. At least I have that.

Later that Sunday evening, Mom called to tell me Dad had gotten out of bed and eaten some of the stuffed green pepper soup I’d brought over the day before. She wanted me to know that Dad had thoroughly enjoyed it. Food hadn’t often tasted good to him in the months since he’d broken his hip. This soup, he said, was delicious!  I asked Mom if he was feeling better, and she said, “I think so. A little bit anyway.”

And then it was Monday morning and I was awakening to the news that Dad was on his way to another hospital stay. Apparently, Dad felt worse throughout the night. He continued to refuse going to the hospital, only until he grew scared enough that he told Mom she’d better call for an ambulance. Now I was asking Mom if she was feeling strong enough to go to the hospital with Dad. (We’ve been down this road before, and often Mom hasn’t been able to manage the hours in an emergency room with Dad. Often, it’s been one of us kids instead, only bringing Mom if things seemed really bad, or when things were settled enough for her to join us without feeling overwhelmed.) This particular morning, Mom sounded terribly weak and frail and told me she wasn’t sure if she was up to this.

I feel terrible about this now, but I told Mom she needed to tell me how bad this was. After the months of Dad’s recovery from his hip fracture, and all of the time I’d taken off for his care, I was nearly out of vacation time at work. I had just enough left to help make the move from my parents’ town house to the new apartment over the next two days, and then had only one more day I’d long ago planned to take during Christmas week. After that, I’d have no time left to take off from work. I could take advantage of FMLA and take time off unpaid, but didn’t want to go that route if not absolutely necessary. So I wanted to know if this was really “that bad,” or if like recently, we were just looking at another few days of relieving Dad’s heart and lungs of the fluid that kept plaguing him in recent months. If it wasn’t that bad, it was time for someone else to step up to the plate for a change. Mom said she wasn’t sure, and told me to hold tight. She said she’d call my youngest brother and see if he would go, although she supposed “he won’t answer his phone.” I was doubtful too. Lately, as Dad’s health has been so fragile, that brother had pretty much abandoned the family.

I hung up with Mom and within minutes, she was calling again. By some miracle, youngest brother had agreed to go be at Dad’s side in the emergency room that morning. I had been planning to go to the gym before work, but now decided to skip it, get to work early, then bug-out early so I could visit Dad later in the day. I showered and dressed, but before I could even dry my hair, the phone was ringing again. Mom told me the hospital had called and that Dad’s family needed to get there as soon as possible. He was in really bad shape.

I had been told several times by Dad’s doctors recently that considering the poor condition of his heart, and in light of the hip fracture and subsequent lack of mobility, he had a year, at best to live. Still, my heart and mind weren’t prepared for the fact that his one year had just become three months. I raced out the door, hair half wet, no makeup, and straight to my parents’ house to pick up Mom. We got to the hospital in downtown St. Paul as quick as humanly possible considering Monday morning rush-hour traffic. My other brother and sister soon arrived as well. Upon coming through the ER entrance, a member of the staff waved off the security requirements to sign-in and get a name badge and ushered us straight to a private family waiting room. If I wasn’t already certain, I now knew things were dire. Dad’s sisters and brother-in-law soon arrived, as well as my youngest brother’s wife and kids.

We didn’t wait long before we were allowed to go into Dad’s ER room and see him. He looked awful, all hooked up to tubes and machines. He opened his eyes a few times, but it was as if he wasn’t really seeing us. We learned that Dad’s heart had stopped twice by this point and he was in critical condition. A nurse told us we could hold his hands and talk with him. He could hear us, she said.

I went around the bed to stand opposite Mom and other family members where I could have more space. I took Dad’s hand and leaned downward, resting my forehead against his.

“We’re all here, Dad,” I said. “We love you.” I felt him nod against my head and that was the last sign of real life I saw in my Dad.

The hospital staff wanted to move Dad into ICU and as soon as he was stable enough, they moved him there by the fastest route possible. The rest of us were escorted by a staff member. I pushed Mom in her wheelchair and the rest of the family followed through hallways and up elevators to another family waiting room in the ICU. I was able to see Dad one more time for just a few minutes before we were told that he needed a specific procedure that would take about a half hour. We could return to see him when that process was finished.

My siblings, an aunt and uncle and I went downstairs to find some food for Mom and ourselves. We found a little deli in the hospital lobby that offered hot food. We’d paid and were waiting for our breakfast sandwiches to be served up when I heard a Code Blue called out over the hospital intercom. It was Dad’s room number that was announced.

We left our food behind and ran to the elevators, and then ran again to Dad’s room when we’d reached the fifth floor. The scene before us was straight out of a movie, with countless doctors and nurses crowded around Dad’s bed and orders being shouted out. Although I couldn’t see it, my sister later told me that someone was on top of Dad performing chest compressions and CPR. She said it looked extremely violent and Mom cried out for them to stop.

The hospital chaplain rushed into the crowd of family and urgently asked which of us were Dad’s children. As we identified ourselves, she pulled us in close to Dad’s bedside, telling us it was time to say goodbye. We all sobbed and told Dad how much we loved him as all of the noise of the medical team and their procedures disappeared. My brother closest in age to me was crumpled against me, sobbing as I cried and rubbed his back.

I thought we’d said our final goodbyes when in the quiet, I saw Dad’s chest rise again and heard a nurse say, “He has a pulse.”

The family was then ushered back out of the room and we looked at one another in grief and confusion. Someone, the chaplain, I think, tried to explain that although this appeared to be the end, that Dad had fought back.

We were allowed to return shortly to find Dad hooked up to life support. We learned that Dad’s kidney (the one I’d given him seven years ago) was failing and we could consider dialysis. Mom told the doctor that after his years of dialysis prior to the kidney transplant, Dad had made it clear he never wanted to go through that again. His doctor agreed this was the right decision, and told us that Dad had probably suffered some degree of brain damage by this point as well, and was likely to experience another cardiac episode, possibly within minutes. We were told not to expect Dad to live to see another day.

But that doctor was wrong. Then came the long wait. Although Dad’s eyes remained closed from then on, he stayed with us for the remainder of that day.

What followed the drama of the morning was a day filled with quiet, and tears, and more family members coming and going as we all gathered to await my dad’s passing. Exhaustion took over. Stories were told. We were even able to experience some laughter, and dare I say it, some healing of family divisions. Night time came. Mom, my siblings and I took turns sitting by Dad’s side, holding his hands, telling him how much we loved him, and giving him permission to go. I prayed silent prayers as I sat by Dad’s side, hoping he knew how much I loved him and that he wasn’t mad at me, that he didn’t think that by trying to take care of him as best I knew how lately, that I was trying to take away his independence. The strain of it all had just the last week resulted in ugly heated words between Dad and me. I tried to forget all that and focus on the reconciliation we’d experienced together just four days ago.

Tuesday morning arrived and Dad continued to hang on. We knew this day would bring a decision to discontinue life support. Now it was just a matter of time. When the medical team finally came around sometime after 9:00, the decision was made. We were assured this was the right thing to do. All we had to do was let Dad’s nurse know when we were ready and the process of letting Dad go would begin.

Jack had been with me the day before, but I’d sent him home on Monday night to try to get some rest. I now called him and sobbed that I needed him back again. He assured me he was on his way.

By this time, I also had my parents’ priest on “speed-dial.” Actually, I sent him a text and asked if he could come now. He called back and said he was on his way. Father Joe has been the head priest at my parents’ parish for a few years now. My dad had the privilege of serving as Father Joe’s deacon during Dad’s last year or so before he retired from fifteen years of clerical duties at this church.

Father Joe came quickly. And he stayed, much beyond what might normally be expected. He said one last mass with my dad by his side and it was beautiful, the way he addressed Dad and expressed his regret that never again would they be able to lead a mass together. After mass, all of the monitors and pumps keeping Dad alive were turned off. We were told to expect that Dad would likely pass very quickly.

Father Joe asked if he could stay and pray over Dad. We heartily agreed. He said he could pray silently or out loud, whichever we preferred. We said, “out loud.” As Mom and we kids and Dad’s extended family encircled him, holding his hands and telling him how much we loved him, Father Joe prayed.

And he prayed. And prayed. And prayed. He sang Silent Night and prayed some more. Dad hung on. Father Joe seemed to be searching his mind for what more to pray, and offered to lead us in a rosary. Someone mentioned that we didn’t have our “cheat sheets.” Father Joe assured us that he would take the lead and we were actually able to laugh a little at the thought that we wouldn’t be able to successfully pray the rosary with a priest right there in our midst.

I was amazed at how quickly the prayers and responses came back to me. I haven’t prayed the rosary in years! I sat on Dad’s bed, holding his hand the entire time as we prayed each mystery of the rosary. About an hour and a half after life support had been disconnected, when we had said every Hail Mary, every Our Father, every bit of the rosary, Father Joe addressed Dad. “Well done, good and faithful servant (Matthew 25:23),” he said. “You are free to go to your Lord.”

And in that moment, as I held his hand, my dad breathed his last breaths and left this world. While the end was so graceful and befitting of the way my dad lived his life, I have never felt so heartbroken in my own life. But at the same time, I became so certain that there is a much more beautiful life beyond the physical one that we know here on earth. In that moment, I knew without a doubt that my dad, who worked so faithfully in this life to honor the Lord he knew and loved, was now experiencing perfect love and peace such as he’d never known before.

There were certainly miracles and grace surrounding my dad’s passing, not the least of which includes my forgiveness of the brother I’d so recently been ready to dismiss from my life. (Oh, I’m not naive enough to think that our relationship will be perfect from here on out. But for now, I can embrace him, and do a better job of letting his stuff roll off my back.)

Father Joe was a godsend, and we’ve since told him more than once that we’re adopting him. (I joked with youngest brother, “You’re out.” … Don’t worry. He laughed!)

The visitation and funeral were incredible and beautiful. The outpouring of love and support was beyond all expectation. The church, during the funeral mass was full of friends and family, the pews filled from front to back. After years of seeing my dad through the lens of his illnesses and limitations, it was profoundly uplifting to see him through the eyes of all those who loved him, of those whose lives he touched. I thought I would cry through the visitation and funeral. Instead, I found myself smiling from ear to ear, and even laughing. I was able to see my dad as the man he worked so hard to be all of his life, the man whose faith in God never once waivered. I was so unbelievably proud of the man my dad had been in his lifetime. All of the worry, frustration and fear I’d felt in the past months and years, and the recent sense of feeling so alone simply dissolved. What remained was only love.

It’s amazing the clarity and peace I now feel in the wake of my dad’s passing. I thought I would feel grief stricken and morose for a significant amount of time after my dad’s death. Although there are daily episodes of sadness and tears, the main feeling inside of me is joy. Yes, joy. My dad worked so hard all of his life to teach his kids the deep faith he felt in his Lord. I resisted him for years, and even when I stopped resisting, struggled so hard to “get it.” Now that he’s gone, it’s so clear. My dad has reached the ultimate destination. I know I can’t possibly wrap my head around how beautiful and perfect is the place where my Dad now lives, but I know … I know he is immersed in abundant joy, perfection and peace. All of his weakness and frailty is gone from him.

Most cathartic, I think, is that I was able to write and deliver a eulogy. Father Joe told us that the mass wouldn’t allow for a family eulogy in addition to the one he would deliver as part of his homily. But any or all of us should feel free to speak during the funeral luncheon. Good thing. The funeral mass took over an hour as it was, and as it turns out, I had a lot to say. Besides, I felt much less stress at the idea of speaking in front of a crowd eating lunch as opposed to doing so during such a solemn and formal event such as the Catholic mass.

This entry is long enough as it is. I’m proud of what I had to say, and proud that I conquered a big fear and spoke in honor of my dad in front of a crowd. I’ll share those words in a future post.

On Dad’s Lap

This is my childhood home.

Growing Up House

This picture appears to have been taken in the mid sixties at the time when my parents bought the white stucco house that became their home of twenty plus years. The house looks so stark in this photograph, but in my mind, it is so much more colorful and warm.

My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they truly made this house our home. During the years I was growing up there, Mom and Dad added black shutters around the front windows. They planted vibrant flower beds in the gardens bordering the front of the house. The Maple tree in the middle of the front yard grew tall and the trunk so wide we could barely wrap our arms around it. During the spring and summer months, Dad was always doing something to keep the lawn lush and green.

Inside, the house was small for a family of six, but I never noticed. The kitchen was the hub of the household. It occupied the back, northeast corner of the house. There are pictures from my early years that show the kitchen with some breathing room…

Birthday-Kitchen

My third birthday

…but as our family grew, the room seemed to grow smaller. It was a long and narrow space, accessible from our “back” door, which was actually on the side of the house. When coming in from outside, you could either go straight down the stairs to the basement which was eventually finished, or to the right and into the kitchen.

I remember the kitchen best in its 1970’s decor. The walls were a peachy-salmon color and Mom sewed bright fruit-patterned curtains and valances for the windows. The table was the same one all the years my parents lived there. It had a brown formica top and an extra leaf to expand it to a large oval. The six chairs were originally cushioned with a goldish-brown vinyl. Later when the vinal began to show wear and tear, Mom reupholstered them herself with a more subtle beige. Mom could do amazing things with her sewing machine.

From the back entryway, looking into the kitchen, there was a free-standing cabinet in the outside corner of the north wall. The cabinet held miscellaneous kitchen stuff, like the electric mixer and cookie sheets. Mom’s cookie jar was always on top, and if we were lucky, we might open the lid to find her famous molasses cookies, or maybe chocolate chip, always with a slice of white bread inside too, to keep the cookies soft and fresh.

Side by side with the cabinet was the refrigerator, and immediately next to the fridge was our family table. The table was squeezed between the fridge and the west wall, along which spanned upper and lower cupboards, and two big, white kitchen sinks that Mom hated because it took weekly scrubbing with lots of Comet cleanser to keep them looking white. And behind Dad’s chair at the head of the table was the dishwasher. I think we lost valuable cupboard space to the luxury of a dishwasher, but as one of the main dishwashers, I was grateful.

The inside kitchen wall was lined by the stove, nearest the back door, and next to it, another free-standing cabinet where one of those new-fangled microwaves eventually made its home. And finally, there was the old wooden hutch, passed down from someone on my mom’s side of the family. Inside the hutch was always a variety of cold cereals. As I said, we didn’t have much money, but Mom and Dad bought us the good stuff, like Cocoa Puffs and Cap’n Crunch. And Mom’s Shredded Wheat was always in there too.

Every chair at the kitchen table was needed to seat our family of six for a meal. But due to the space limitations, the table never could make its permanent home in the middle of the kitchen where you might expect to find it. When not in use, it was pushed against the outside wall of the kitchen. When it was meal time, the table was pulled out and my sister and I would squeeze into the chairs against the wall. The brothers got the outside chairs. And come to think of it, the spoiled, youngest brother was often eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or chocolate Malt-O-Meal at dinner time when he didn’t like what Mom had cooked. Eating an alternative meal was a privilege only the youngest was allowed, just like sleeping in church! But I’m not bitter or anything! 😉

When meals were finished and as clean-up and dishwashing began, the table was pushed back against the wall to allow room for us to pass through the kitchen.

When I think of that house and the activities that went on inside, it’s the kitchen I remember the most. Every night after coming home from work, Mom would get dinner on the stove, and while chicken or a hot dish was baking in the oven, my parents would sit at opposite ends of the table. Dad (and sometimes Mom too) would sip on a beer or maybe two, depending on how long it took for the meal to cook. Sometimes they would read the paper and sometimes they would sit and talk about their days while something simmered on the stove.

In our younger days, Dad was the “yes” parent. If permission was needed, you stood a better chance of getting it from Dad than from Mom. Looking back, I realize Mom was probably overwhelmed most of the time, working full time while still managing all of the expected wifely household duties. A kid asking for anything that required additional effort from Mom was likely to be disappointed, unless of course, you were the youngest kid and looking for a bowl of Malt-O-Meal.

During those days, I could wander through the kitchen and while my siblings watched television in the nearby living room, or played in the boys’ bedroom down the hall, I would often climb up on my dad’s lap while he sat at the table during the pre-dinner hour with my mom. He’d wrap one arm around my waist and hold me against him while they talked. Usually, I’d interrupt at some point.

“Dad, can I have a sip of your beer?”

“Sure,” he’d always say, and I’d lift the bottle of Buckhorn to my lips.

I didn’t like beer. I asked and took a sip, only because Dad let me. I must have mentioned once that I thought it could use some salt, and I can remember Dad telling me that some people put green olives in their beer for just that reason.

I never asked to sit on Mom’s lap. It never would have occurred to me to ask. She always seemed to me too busy and hectic for such a thing, although I remember my youngest brother being quite comfortable there. But Dad always welcomed me, and sitting with him gave me a sense of comfort, and allowed me a rare bit of his sole attention. We four kids came into the world quickly, each one of us arriving two years or less after the previous child. We were a handful, always competing for our parents’ attention, and constantly bickering with one another. The youngest kids needed and received the most notice. I was sandwiched on the older side of the middle and although my oldest sister and I were expected to behave and stay out of our parents’ hair, I always seemed to be causing them exasperation. I didn’t mean to. I was just that kid. Those few minutes of sitting on Dad’s lap and sharing his beer made me feel loved and important, in spite of my challenging behavior.

… I just wanted to remember something good about my dad…

Life Lessons on Aging Parents

These days, I really wish I could think, wonder, or even worry about something other than the care of my parents. And let me just qualify that by reiterating how much I do  truly love them. I know I can’t understand right now why things had to happen the way they have. And I can only keep moving forward by continuing to believe there’s something here that will make me grow into a stronger, more compassionate person when all is said and done.

For anyone who’s been reading the things I write for any length of time, I apologize for sounding like a broken record. This is all consuming in my life right now. I pray that 2016 will bring some ease.

Over the past several years, our family has slowly begun to make our way down the inevitable path of role reversal. Mom and Dad at 75 years old, now rely on their kids more than their kids rely on them. Everything ramped up in the past twelve months and we moved Mom and Dad from their four-level home to a single-level townhouse in July. The journey accelerated when Dad broke his hip on September third this year. Next Wednesday, just shy of four months after the townhouse move, my sister and I will be moving Mom and Dad into their brand new, 975 square foot apartment in a beautiful, brand new assisted living facility.

My dad kind of hates me for this and I don’t know how much more I can take. This move is going to happen, only thanks to Mom.

My parents’ doctors have told them for months now that it’s no longer safe to live at home. After Dad’s fall and subsequent eight-week stay in a transitional facility, he returned home needing much more assistance than ever. Mom recognized that with her own health issues and physical limitations, she will not survive if she and Dad do not move to a place that provides some help and care.

For the past three months, I have tried to hold everything steady. While Dad was in transitional care, I visited and spent time with him there nearly daily. I would often also check in on Mom at their home on those same days. Or I would pick her up, arrange dinner for us, and take her along to visit Dad, often returning Mom to their home and getting back to my own place just in time to go to bed and do it all over again the next day. During those eight weeks in transitional care, Dad made several trips to the emergency room. Each time, it was me who stayed with him. Those visits all occurred in the middle of the night. It’s hard to go to work in the morning after being in the emergency room all night long and getting no sleep, so much of what remained of my PTO time has been used up. I became the point person for many of Dad’s doctors, so I have managed any phone calls and direction that came from his medical professionals.

Since Dad’s return home, I have gone to my parents’ house nearly daily to help with one thing or another. I have cooked food, shopped for their groceries and other necessities, walked the dog, cleaned up behind the dog in their backyard, taken Dad to appointments, made special trips to the coffee shop for the gourmet coffee they insist they need to have – and – done all of the research on assisted living options and facilitated all of the appointments and paperwork to get them there.

In the midst of all this, I received a promotion at work and have been desperately trying to prove it was deserved while frequently adjusting my schedule and taking a lot of time off. Thank God for an understanding boss, but I’m not sure how much longer I expect him to remain understanding and making concessions for my personal life.

While plans were being made for a safer living situation, Dad has vehemently resisted. There is no argument or reason that can make him understand that continuing to live independently is not an option. When no one else is around, he badgers Mom to death about not wanting to move. He has made this her fault. He wants to live at home, seemingly not caring that doing so means the end of Mom’s days will likely come so much sooner than it has to. Somehow, Mom has stood strong with the plan to move. While Dad continues to bully her about what should be and what shouldn’t, the reality is that she is the one who has managed their life to this point. Dad has always been taken care of, and he wouldn’t know how to take charge now if he wanted to. And the bottom line is, it’s Mom’s retirement account that is making this possible. All that remains of Dad’s income is his Social Security. Mom would never before have wanted to draw the distinction between “her” money and “his.” But it’s now become necessary. Dad doesn’t have a grip on reality when it comes to their well-being.

We’ve tried to move forward as best as possible, pretending all is normal and well. This past Monday, I took half a day off work to take my parents to an appointment to sign their lease on the apartment. We’d had a significant amount of snowfall that day, and I asked Jack at the last minute to accompany us. I was worried about managing two elderly parents, one with a wheelchair and one with a walker, on even the short walk from the parking lot to the building entrance. On the drive there, with Jack in the driver’s seat and Dad in the front passenger seat, Mom and I sat in the back. She quietly mentioned that she didn’t expect this to go well. I replied, “We’re already on our way there. What more can he say or do?”

Little did I know.

We got into the building and were greeted by the executive director. Mom asked if they could have one more look at the apartment before signing papers and the director readily agreed. After making our way up the elevator and into the apartment, Dad began asking questions about room dimensions and such. His questions were clearly only stated as a means for him to express his belief that their furniture wouldn’t fit and that there was no way this apartment was going to work for them. (It’s the largest floor plan available.) He belittled everything about the apartment. He wandered down the hall to take another look at the spacious, handicap accessible bathroom and Jack followed, trying to turn Dad’s mind in a more positive direction. Dad got ugly with Jack, swearing and yelling and I quickly stepped in. Mom was sitting in her wheelchair in the living room, crying, while the director knelt next to her, trying to offer comfort.

“Dad,” I said, feeling at the end of my rope after a year of setting my own life aside for his. “Why are we here? If you’re going to act ugly and rude, why did you let me take time off from work to bring you here? If you’re not going to do this, let’s just go back home.”

I figured I was just done. I didn’t know what they were going to do, but I’d had enough.

Dad yelled at me, saying, “Mom was going to call you this morning and cancel, but I told her she couldn’t call you at work.” (Which was a ridiculous idea because Mom frequently calls me at work. Why did he stop her this time?) He went on to say, “This is the worst thing I can imagine. I’ve never wanted to go through with this and I hate the idea of living in an apartment. I don’t need your help. I don’t need anyone’s help. I can live at home just fine on my own.”

“Really, Dad?” I yelled back. “Then how come I’ve been at your house every single day for months? How come when you moved to the town home, it was me and my sister who did every bit of the packing up the old house and unpacking at the new one? If you continue to live at home without mine and my sister’s help, who’s going to do your grocery shopping? Cook your food? Take you to appointments? Do your laundry? Take care of your dog? I’m worn out! I’m almost out of vacation time at work! I’m struggling to stay on top of my job. Half the time, I don’t buy groceries for my own family or cook, because I’m doing that for you instead. Do you care at all that your wife can’t live like this anymore? You have one son who has completely abandoned you and the rest of us. If you don’t need my help, how are you going to manage all of this?”

He retorted that his absentee son was the smartest one of all of us. (That hurt.) And he went on to say he could hire a live-in person to do everything he and mom need. I told him that would take more money than any of us had. I went on to remind him that while I was trying to stay afloat while juggling his needs with my own family’s, I’d done everything to find a way to keep them safe and hopefully, happier and healthier. If he thought there was a better way, he had an obligation to do the research before now, or ask someone – maybe one of his other three kids – to help him do the research and compare costs. But he hadn’t done a thing to explore the reality of what he was suggesting.

He seemed incredulous that I would suggest he do anything to take care of his own wants and needs. He is used to being waited on hand and foot. We’ve all enabled him all these years. He seemed only to want to keep yelling at me, and Jack stepped in to tell him we were done and that Dad was not going to continue abusing me this way. My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest and my skin felt as if it was on fire. I had the vague sense, on top of all of my other raging emotions, to remember to be embarrassed that we had just conducted ourselves this way in front of the executive director.

“Let’s just go,” I said to Dad. “I’ll take you guys back home and you can do what you want.”

“Your mom’s going to sign the papers, so I have no choice in this matter,” he sneered. Apparently, he never had any intention of taking a stand for what he felt was right. When all was said and done, even though I’d offered him the perfect opportunity out, he only wanted to make everyone feel crappy and put the blame on Mom for putting the stamp of approval on this move.

“Fine then,” I said. “Let’s go do it.”

We returned to the living room where Mom still sat, now with her head hung low, the director still holding her hand and comforting her.

Dad sneered at her too. “Are you going to sign the lease, or what?”

Mom raised her head and straightened her shoulders. “Yes.”

I was so proud of her. The director acted as if everything was normal and cheerfully guided us back to a conference room where my dad’s personality took an about face. He signed all the paperwork along with my mom, as if he hadn’t just acted like a spoiled child. (The director later called me and told me not to feel bad about what had happened. In his line of work he’s seen it all before. I have to seriously wonder if anyone’s acted this badly in his presence before, but I was grateful for the gesture.)

The lease was signed and the first month’s rent and fees paid. We returned home in silence and for the next two days, I was at a loss, feeling crushed to have realized my dad is not the person I thought he was, and maybe never has been. On my next visit to their house, he refused to speak to me. I learned that earlier in the day, he’d threatened to call the financial planner and revoke his authorization to use the retirement account toward rent and expenses at the assisted living facility. He only stopped short when Mom reminded him the account was in her name and not his. She told me she’d invested in that account for “them,” but now, in light of Dad’s behavior, she will reclaim sole ownership of it. If anything good has come from all this, it’s that Mom appears to be growing emotionally stronger. She pulled the trigger, and now she’s forging full steam ahead, with or without Dad’s cooperation.

Two days ago, Mom asked if I would take her to do some shopping for some things they’ll need for the new apartment. She said Dad wanted to come along.

“Okay,” I said cautiously. “But he’d better be speaking to me then. I’ll be damned if I’m going to haul his ungrateful ass around and have him continue to treat me like a second class citizen.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It will be fine.”

I had my doubts. But when I arrived at their house to pick them up, I figured I’d take the high road and try to break the silence. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in and I said, “Hi Dad.”

I thought my greeting sounded a bit tired, but if it was, Dad didn’t appear to notice. He answered in his usual sing-song way, “Hullo.”

So far, so good. I turned to take some soup out of a bag I was carrying and put it in the refrigerator. When I turned around, Dad was standing there, reaching to wrap me up in a bear hug.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I will always love you, and I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you yesterday. You’ve done so much for us and I’ve been an ass. I’m so sorry.”

I was sobbing. With my head tucked against his shoulder, I could not stop sobbing. I muttered that I was sorry too. For what, I’m not sure. I guess for not understanding how hard this has been for him. For not being patient enough to let him come to terms with it all.

All of my emotions and the hurt I’d been holding inside for so long, all of the sense of loss and desperation came flooding to the surface as I sobbed in my dad’s arms.

“Sweetheart! Honey!” He rubbed my back and tried to soothe me until finally I composed myself again. All of the anxiety and stress of the past few months simply melted away within moments of our reconciliation.

Not long afterwards, my sister showed up and the four of us went off on our shopping trip. It was wonderful. Dad seemed to have finally turned the corner on his circumstances. He was personable, enthusiastic and kind. We didn’t find everything they needed, so Dad and I made a plan for me to pick him up after work yesterday to get the last of the purchases made. Just him and me. I was on cloud nine at work yesterday, so relieved, and finally feeling a bit of Christmas spirit after all of the past several month’s difficulties.

When I arrived to pick up Dad yesterday, he was in the bedroom putting on a sweatshirt. I found Mom sitting in the living room looking tired and I said so.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s been a long day.”

When I asked why, she admitted that Dad had returned to his old self. All day long, he had badgered her about why they had to move, the expense of it all, and how they could really just make it work staying at home, if Mom really wanted to. He really can’t seem to grasp that what he wants is not possible or realistic, and that it might just kill Mom. He doesn’t seem to care that those of us currently involved in their care cannot keep it up the way we’ve been doing. Mom spoke in hushed tones, not wanting him to hear her telling me what he’d done. As usual, I was supposed to pretend all was fine. My heart was so heavy, having to so quickly give up the belief that it will all be okay.

When Dad appeared, he seemed enthusiastic about continuing to shop for things for the new apartment. This is what is so maddening about the whole thing. He goes on with me as if it’s all good. His priest or a relative might call, and Dad will talk up the plans for the move and all the benefits they’ll have in the new place. But when alone with Mom, he has this insane need to berate her and make her feel miserable about it all. I’ve long suspected and now believe that my dad is mentally abusive, though he may not even know it. It’s a heart-breaking realization.

He and I left the house and went about our shopping as planned. He never said a word to the contrary and seemed happy to be picking out new things and spending money on furnishing for his new digs.

I’m so saddened by who he’s proving himself to be. But this train is rolling, and there’s no turning back now. Our family has fallen apart and my sister and I will be facilitating this move by ourselves. One brother abandoned us completely long before Dad’s fall. The other is so crushed by recent events, he’s removed himself from the situation and has urged my sister and me to do the same. And while Jack has been beyond supportive, his patience is beginning to wear thin. We had a stupid fight last night, mainly because I’m sure he’d like to have his wife back sometime soon.

I’m still clinging to a thread of hope that once they’re settled, Dad will find a way to embrace his new living situation, even if he’ll never admit it to anyone. But I fear that he won’t give Mom a moment’s peace to relax and maybe even enjoy an easier life. I fear that she’ll go before he does and I’ll not only blame him, but be depleted of any will to continue caring for him. I fear that when either of my parents eventually passes on, I’ll be left with only bitterness and guilt.

There is no logic to any of this. I’m doing everything I think is right, while simultaneously questioning whether I’ve done the right thing by my parents.

I’ve periodically thought that I might someday write something that would help others manage this journey. But all I feel now is that we’ve been supporting an impossible cause. We’ve been navigating our way through insanity and trying to pretend everything is normal and good. The only advice I could offer anyone is to be all in or all out. Decide which way you’re going and don’t look back. Listen to your heart and do what you believe is right. Try not to sink in the midst of all of the inevitable setbacks. You’re going to feel some of the most awful feelings you’ve ever experienced, you’ll feel more alone than ever before, and family is going to show their true colors. You may not like what you see. You’ll get through it, but your world will forever look different.

I’m taking two more days off from work next week for the move on Wednesday. Afterwards, I’ll be left with a grand total of two PTO days to get through the rest of 2015, so I hope there are no more emergencies. All I can do now is keep moving towards next Wednesday. And while I’ll continue to be present for my parents’ needs when necessary, I’m going to have to find a way to take a few steps back. Christmas is coming, and I would like to think we might actually enjoy it.