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Losing Dad

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Photo Credit: Kate Gabrielle

I went to bed early, but Hubby couldn’t sleep. All four siblings and their families would be in one place the next day, arriving from other areas and states to celebrate Christmas together. Dad’s nine grandchildren would be in one room for the first time in over two years.

I woke to Hubby’s voice as he grabbed his keys.

“Dad fell; I’m headed to his house.”

When he arrived at my father-in-law’s home, Hubby could tell something wasn’t right. He couldn’t get Dad up, so called an ambulance. He and the two emergency crew members managed to lug Dad’s six-foot-five-inch John Wayne frame into a chair. They talked him into going to the hospital.

Later that morning, doctors determined his hip was broken. As a candidate for surgery, Dad’s prognosis was bright—fall victims unable to have surgery don’t recover well, but those able to have surgery often move back into life just as well as before the fall. When the kids and I arrived at the hospital, Dad was sleeping. I offered to sit with him while Hubby took a nap; our brother-in-law took the kids to the waiting room.

In the peaceful, dark room, I watched dad sleep from the ubiquitous pink vinyl visitors chair. The warm smell of clean, bleached cotton permeated the room, almost overshadowing the sharp odor of disinfectant. A sharp contrast to the calm in the room, nurses bustled past the doorway, half hidden by a curtain.

A few minutes later, the anesthesiologist arrived, flipped on a light and woke Dad to discuss the surgery. I sent a text to notify Hubby, then turned to listen.

You are still a candidate for surgery but as the anesthesiologist, I want you to understand the risk. On a scale of 1 to 5, you’re a 4+. Your heart is not working properly. I need to make sure you are clear about the possible outcomes.

Dad immediately agreed that he understood his risk but wanted to do the surgery anyway. I asked him if he wanted to discuss it with Hubby first.

His eyes locked on mine. Motioning to his hip, he said, “I want to do the surgery. This is no way to live.”

He stared at me for another moment, as though making sure I received his message clearly, then nodded and looked at the anesthesiologist. “I don’t need to talk to anyone. I want the surgery.”

Hubby and my brother-in-law arrived with the kids just as a nurse swept into the room to begin surgery preparation. She allowed us time to give kisses and hugs and pray for Dad. As they wheeled him out, he gave Hubby a thumbs-up.

“I’ll beat this one, too.”

***

Several hours later, the anesthesiologist approached our group, a big smile shining through his droopy mustache.

Your dad came through the surgery just fine. He’ll be in his room in thirty minutes; then you can visit him.

In a collective exhale, our group relaxed.

Hubby chatted with his sister and her husband, their daughters played with phones, our children zoned in to their Kindles.

I tried to decipher a strange feeling, then realized it was mild surprise. I was absolutely happy he’d pulled through. However, I didn’t realize until that moment that I’d thought, during the conversation with the anesthesiologist, that he was telling me he might not make it—that he preferred heaven to living in bed.

And perhaps he was.

We waited.

Thirty minutes came and went.

Finally, the doors opened. The doctor, the nurse and the anesthesiologist appeared together, faces somber. Through the ensuing, one-sided conversation, the young surgeon sat as though in a trance, staring at the floor.

Right after I talked with you, we lost him. 

It was his heart. 

We did everything we could. 

We just couldn’t get him back. 

We did everything we could. 

Everything.

We were stunned. Two families were still traveling in, planning to come to the hospital so the grandkids could see Papa.

Holding each other tight, we sobbed. Several minutes later Hubby and I looked up, realizing together that our children—sitting several feet away—were still absorbed in their Kindle games. Thanks to headphones, they’d missed the tragedy. We experienced it again in their faces as we explained Papa had gone to heaven. Adopted grandchildren grieve just as deeply as biological grandchildren.

***

Take good care of him.

The anesthesiologist’s words have echoed in my mind all week.

I don’t know what caused him to zero in on Hubby. He shadowed us as we walked the empty, sterile hospital halls. He waited as Hubby and I held each other before approaching the bed where Dad’s still form lay. He pulled me aside as our somber group finally trickled away.

Wiping tears from his eyes, he insisted, “we did everything possible. Sometimes ‘everything’ just isn’t enough.” Nodding toward my husband’s retreating back, he said, “Please watch out for him. Take good care of him.” I hugged the good doctor, assuring him I would.

And for the past week, I’ve done my best. I know the toughest months are ahead of us.

We all knew this difficult time would eventually arrive; no one lives on this earth forever.

On the other hand, we didn’t expect it now. 

I’ve been terrified of the day we’d lose Dad because I was afraid it would destroy Hubby. We were all so close, especially since Mom died almost ten years ago. One of my favorite parts of Hubby is his loyalty to family, but I also worried how that loyalty might be torn in death.

Instead of destruction, this death brought something else.

I have never been so proud of my husband as during this week. He worked to create understanding and compromise. Took on tasks others didn’t feel emotionally able to handle. Remained strong support and loving comfort for our kids. Created a fabulous slide show to communicate the incredible story of Dad’s life. Wrote and delivered a heartfelt eulogy at the memorial service. Explained Dad’s faith in Jesus and our certain hope we’ll see him again one day.

 

Hubby is no different than he’s ever been; perhaps I just see him in a different light. Dad, who always reminded me of John Wayne, was larger than life in many ways; his escapades could fill a book and his presence filled the room. I was always focused, as was Hubby, on Dad.

Losing Dad allowed me to see that Hubby is just as much a force to be reckoned with. He generally focused that energy on helping Dad. Now, he’s the one supporting everyone, keeping the family together, guiding us all. He’s the keeper of the family spirit, the source of comfort, the voice of reason and wisdom—and everyone sees it.

I am so proud of him, and I WILL take good care of him.

 

 

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Getting Old Sucks

My aunt handed me an article last week. Retirement homes have begun to provide classes in empathy for their employees.

Attendees wear glasses that mimic macular degeneration, shoe inserts to cause foot pain and earphones full of confusing audio input. They’re required to accomplish easy tasks that are immediately much less simple. Students suddenly understand why that “ornery old lady” is so sour; why the confused gentleman can’t seem to grasp reality. Many, including retirement home directors, were reduced to sobs.

Maybe it’s my writer’s imagination or the close connection I had with my grandparents, but I feel the frustration of my aging friends and relatives with acute clarity. The story of clear-eyed, strong, beautiful youth that lies behind behind every individual with delicate, papery skin and a vague expression has always caught my attention.

Years ago, I created a scrapbook for my grandmother, then nearing ninety. Frail in her wheelchair, she turned pages with shaking, blue-veined hands. Even earlier, in college, I’d introduced her to words like “hottie” and “foxy” when we looked through a box of photos from her Navy days. Now she leaned closer to peer at pictures. “I can’t tell who that one is,” she pointed.

I grinned. “Well, whoever she is, she’s one foxy lady!”

Smiling back, she announced, “Well, in that case, it must be me!”

When she left me for heaven, my heart broke. I’m blinking back tears as I write this. My one consolation is that she’s once again a foxy hottie, hanging out with her three best friends. (I think we’ll get to return to our favorite age in heaven. This is only my opinion. If you have been to heaven and found it’s not true, I don’t want to hear about it.)

But as I said, imagining how aging must feel, at the deepest level, has always been easy for me.

***

We’ve had a rough couple of weeks. Barely time to breathe.

Hubby’s dad went to the doctor for what he thought might be pneumonia. He’s had recurring bronchitis and is in his 80’s, so possible pneumonia seemed a logical conclusion to his respiratory symptoms.

He ended up in the hospital with exploratory heart surgery. That shortness of breath? Not the lungs.

He was—and is—experiencing Atrial Fibrillation (also known as AFib) but didn’t realize it. Now familiar with the symptoms, it’s apparent to all of us that he’s had it for some time. His heart is enlarged and operating at 35%.

Heart exploration showed no blockage, which was the first assumed culprit. The cardiologist fitted him with a vest full of sensors to gather data for two weeks, trying to ascertain the cause. The vest, which doubles as a defibrillator, can also shock his heart if necessary.

My friend’s mom had an implanted defibrillator. It shocked her heart just as she turned off a light at church; she assumed an electrical malfunction and called out for someone to come check the switch. One of the other attendees suspected the real issue and brought a chair for her to sit down; while he helped her, the defibrillator went off again and gave him a bit of a jolt.

Maybe I should advise Dad’s girlfriend not to hold his hand…

***

Dad’s doing unbelievably well, considering he’s more or less stuck in the house for two weeks. He can go out, but lugging the bulky battery pack for the vest is a pain.

Aside from Dad, Hubby is having the hardest time with the situation, as the roles of his life are rocked with swift, unanticipated and sudden reversal.

We have black and white photos of this man receiving military awards, towering over the higher-ranking officials. Fond family lore honors this tank commander who could barely fit in the hatch. This weekend, I found a picture of him leaning against a tank, casual. He might as well have been hanging out by an SUV.

In college, his larger-than-life presence on the football field drew interest from professional football teams. He played pro ball for a season, then decided to join the military. He continued to play for the Army and moved up the ranks, stationed in in Japan and Iran. One of my favorite pictures shows him crammed into a Jeep next to a Korean official, looking more like John Wayne than John Wayne.

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John Wayne  Credit: Kate Gabrielle

 

Back in the States, he taught logistics to a new crop of fresh-faced recruits.

The Pentagon called. Come to Washington.

By this time married with four kids*, he decided instead to retire from the military. He started a second career, managing for a large corporation. On weekends, he loaded and drove a horse rig to competitions for my mother in law, who trained award-winning horses (and riders). His own horse was so large it could step over the stall door.

In his spare time, he learned enough blacksmithing to shoe skittish horses (harder than it sounds). He was a handyman and an artist, fixing, creating and building.

Popular among military and civilians alike, he and my mother-in-law hosted parties and an annual Father’s Day crab feast for their many friends. With the arrival of grandchildren, he became the beloved Papa.

After the death of my mother in law, he has continued to be the beacon holding our family together, drawing everyone home for holidays. A few years ago, he found happiness again with the widowed mother of one of our friends.

Through his example, he taught my husband to provide, to put family first, to work hard, to survive heartbreak, to excel. To be a man.

I owe at least part of my happiness to this giant man with the even bigger heart.

***

We watch with pathos. I pray that he’ll rebound, like my grandfather, who overcame similar issues and lived another twenty years. My hope is tempered by the reality and gravity of his condition.

This weekend, Hubby and some of our wonderful friends built a ramp on the front of Dad’s house. Twice. After walking on the recommended grade, Hubby realized it would still be too steep for Dad to navigate comfortably, so he took it apart and adjusted everything.

This is the man I love: willing to spend six extra hours on a project to make sure it’s just right. Another man with a giant heart. 

I watched as Dad hobbled to the top of the ramp, nodding his approval. Emotions crossed his face. I wondered if he was remembering, as I was, the man he’s been.

The football legend, dwarfing the other players as he strode across a stadium field.

The tremendous leader respected by both allies and enemies in war.

The esteemed teacher and no-nonsense manager.

The great friend to so many.

The father.

Papa.

Some of these things, he still is. But I imagined, as he scanned the ramp, how he might feel. How he might be remembering. How he might wish for the return of years past.

Maybe not.

Perhaps I’m kidding myself. To think I can imagine how it could feel to once have been able to do all the incredible things he’s done.

To think I know what it means, this ramp, to someone who is the definition of a man.

***

*He is also an adoptive father; Hubby’s oldest sister is adopted. Their great relationship is one of the reasons Hubby and I wanted to adopt. 

 

 

 

 

 

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