Today, January 31, would have been my father's 90th birthday. But to tell you the truth, I'm just as happy that he's not here to see it.
Before anyone curses me out for being disrespectful, please let me explain. My dad was a great guy ... a great MAN ... and you won't be reading any "Daddy Dearest" drivel here.
But he also failed, and faded, badly in the last years of his life. The sharp, meticulous (sometimes to the point of annoyance) and dignified man that I'd known all my life got up and left somewhere along the way. In his place was a shell of a man ... befuddled, addled, unable to take care of his finances and even himself.
My dad didn't have dementia. He knew what was happening to him, and he didn't like it. That last year of his life was a nightmare. He wouldn't eat (except for muffins) and all he did was sit around and watch cooking shows on TV.
My mother -- who is still alive -- was also getting on in years, and not given to understand that while my father may not have had dementia, he was certainly slipping ... badly ... and that it wasn't fair to hold it against him. This resulted in some monumental arguments. And since neither one of them could move well enough to get up and LEAVE when they disagreed with each other, they stayed in that TV room, bickered all day long, and let it fester.
I remember the day it all began to seriously unravel. It was in late June, and my dad had bent down to pick something up off the floor, and, in that instant, suffered a hairline fracture in his tailbone. He was in agony, and the only thing we could do was call the paramedics and have him taken to the emergency ward.
He was having more and more frequent accidents like this. On the same night my niece graduated from high school -- only a month earlier -- he got up out of bed in the middle of the night and fell down. The fire department had to put him back to bed, and one of the crew members lectured him -- and me (I had to come over there to let them in) and told him that if it happened again, he'd have to go to a nursing home.
I still haven't forgiven that guy. It was a mean thing to say to an elderly man who was trying to hang on as best he could. I raised hell with the fire chief over that ... and the guy who said this to my dad was forced to retire. And good! It was more than he deserved.
But less than a month later, after being evaluated, my dad was put into a nursing home facility for rehab purposes. But in his less-than-alert state, he THOUGHT it was permanent. And he shut down. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't cooperate. Sat with his head down the whole time.
He was only in the nursing home a week, maybe, and he developed a bad case of pneumonia. On July 8 of 2007, we got him OUT of that nursing home and into the hospital again. He never left.
He just deteriorated daily. Noticeably. About a week and a half later, when it became obvious he was dying, I summoned up all the nerve I could muster and said my goodbyes to him.
Like all fathers and sons, my dad and I had our moments. We didn't always see eye to eye. He was a child of immigrants and the depression, and he wasn't a particularly sensitive guy as a result. He was also an athlete ... a good baseball player particularly.
During the bad times, when we could agree on nothing else, we had baseball as a bond. In that last year, when I'd have to go over there in the mornings to get his breakfast and make sure he took all his medication, we'd sit and that's what we'd talk about. Baseball. HIS baseball, in particular. He recounted old games, talked about old friends, and -- to be honest -- it was the only time he didn't sound befuddled. I kind of knew that this "going back" stuff was something more than a simple nostalgia trip. He was, in his own way, telling me he was ready. That he'd had enough.
Of course, I blocked all of that out. I'm not exactly the best guy I know for dealing with difficult emotions ... a trait I absolutely inherited from HIM!
I thought of all this as I was saying my goodbyes. He was barely conscious, and all I could think of is "why couldn't I ever say stuff like this to him when he was able to hear it and appreciate it?" I have not made the same mistake with my mother, thank God.
That happened on a Thursday. During that whole week, I did all the necessary legal things one needs to do when a loved one is dying. In his case, I acquired power of attorney over his and my mother's affairs. I planned his funeral ... picked out the burial plot in the cemetery ... got his clothes ready and brought them to the funeral home. And on Friday of that week, my sister and I agreed to admit him to a hospice and take him off all his medications except for the ones that made him comfortable.
While all this was going on, my mother -- petrified out of her mind -- needed someone to stay with her nights, and my sister and I alternated. I don't think she needed the help as much as she needed the comfort of a house that wasn't just completely empty.
I stayed Friday night. Saturday dawned, and my sister called and said my father was awake, and alert, and wanting to see us. We thought "you have to be KIDDING me!"
Jayne had downloaded many of my dad's favorite songs onto her laptop, and took it with her to the hospice room. There we sat, just the three of us, mom, Jayne and me, no spouses, no grandchildren, and spent an afternoon listening to their favorite songs. What a gift!
That was on July 21. I stayed again with my mother, and awoke Sunday morning to another phone call, again from Jayne, saying my father had slipped into a coma, and wasn't expected to last the day. We hustled over there, and the vigil began.
My dad's breathing was deep and rhythmic. Every now and then, he'd open his eyes as if to make sure we were around ... and then close them again. It went on like that until shortly before 3 p.m. By then, we were all getting restless (spouses and grandchildren were there this time), and went down to the cafeteria in shifts to eat.
Jayne, her husband and my niece went down first, and my wife, son, mother and me stayed behind in the room. Suddenly, my dad's breathing became shallow and frantic ... as if he was gasping for breath. I knew what was coming, and sent Andrew to get Jayne and her family from the cafeteria. After about a minute of that, he let out one exhale and died ... with my mother, Linda and me at his bedside.
I know this sounds almost callous, but at that moment -- through the tears, through everything, my only thought was to say "thank you, God." Thank you for not allowing this wonderful man, who'd meant so much to me, to linger, to suffer, to deteriorate further, and live out his days with the abject humiliation that can sometimes be an elderly person's fate.
This didn't mean we weren't devastated. We were beyond being devastated. And in some ways, that void in my life has never filled, and perhaps never will be. A little over a month after he died, I marked my 54th birthday. I woke up that morning and felt an emptiness I hadn't felt even in the moments after he died.
In the just-waking-up haze, I couldn't understand why I felt this way. After a few seconds, though, awareness crept in ... no dad. Mine was the first significant family occasion to be celebrated without my father, and it was at that moment I truly understood what people meant when they said "you'll miss him most on special occasions."
My dad lived a long, productive life. He saw his children reach adulthood, and saw both his grandchildren finish high school. He got gifts a lot of people aren't privileged to get. And when he knew it was over, he stoically accepted that and prepared to die. Then again, he was big on accepting things stoically.
I still miss him. And in a very sort of ironic way, I look around for him now, whenever the tough decisions have to be made, because that's what always happened. If there was a tough decision, my first -- and only, in some cases -- phone call went right to him. Dad, what would YOU do. What should I do? HELP!
If there was a room to do over, or a problem with my house that needed attention, he was there, next to me, prepared to work with me until things were resolved. That doesn't always mean I WANTED him there. Oh, no! There were lots of times I'd have preferred he been banished to Mars, because he was such a fuss-budget that he could completely take the fun out of do-it-yourself home improvement.
But then I'd look around and notice that a lot of my friends' fathers weren't around anymore. They were in the ground. Or they'd simply never been that involved in their sons' lives in the first place. And all of a sudden, I could tolerate his presence.
Toward the end, he'd play this game with me. It was right around the time we'd decided he shouldn't drive anymore (this was sometime after he drove his car, with my son and niece in it, right into an exterior wall at Friendly's).
I'd tell him I'd pick him up at 8 and we'd do his errands together. He'd say OK. And he'd leave at 7:30. This drove me crazy, but it drove my mother crazier. I finally nailed him. I told him I'd be up at 7:30 ... and got there at 7. He was pissed. But the time finally came when he decided, himself, that he could no longer drive.
There are so many stories about my dad ... stories that illustrate that beneath a sometimes gruff, unbending exterior there was a man who truly cherished his family. It was so difficult to watch that light dim, year by year, until old age and its infirmities extinguished it for good.
Still, I miss him. As much today, if not more, than I did on the day he died.
Happy Birthday Dad.