I will never stop missing my dad
I read Elizabeth Berg‘s lovely story about her dad’s dementia, I’ll Be Seeing You.
She writes beautifully. There are authors I like because they tell a great story about great characters. Berg does that, but her writing style is also gorgeous. She and Alexander McCall Smith have that gentle tone and these beautiful observations and elevations of the ordinary. They can both write an entire page about someone sipping a cup of tea and looking out of the window and make it lyrical and compelling.
When you combine that beautiful language with a story that so many of us have lived – of watching someone we love suffer in a way that we cannot make better – then you have a tearjerker.
It’s been 23 years, five months, 18 days, three hours, and 20 minutes since my dad died.
I still miss him every single day.
Mr T and I have been going through The 36 Questions That Lead To Love in the NY Times.
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
For me, this question is easy. My photo albums and the stack of letters that my dad wrote to me when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile.
Everything else can be replaced.
My dad did not have dementia. He had cancer – small cell blue non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Thank you Agent Orange.
A family friend, Mr S, had early onset dementia. He would have been – wow – I am just doing the math now – only in his 50s.
He knew he had it. I mean, he had the diagnosis. And he knew it would get worse.
He had one mission.
In his moments of lucidity, which were fewer and fewer, he sat down with his wife, Mrs S, and showed her all their investments. The house and car maintenance schedule. The file with the utility bills.
It’s not that Mrs S was stupid or ignorant – she was not. But they divided duties. She was a nurse and a mom. He was retired from the air force and a dad. They divided the house labor and he did the money stuff. (NB There is not a whole lot of money to manage when your career is in the military.)
His biggest concern was not whining or complaining about his fate but that Mrs S not have a hard time once his mind was completely gone.
Their story makes me think of Flowers for Algernon – the knowing that your mind is deteriorating. What do you do with that time? What do you do while you still can?
My dad was 61 years old when he was diagnosed with cancer.
He thought he had pulled a muscle running a 10K.
My parents were living in Italy at the time. My dad had started a second career, after retiring from the air force, as a teacher. He was teaching seventh grade math and science at the middle school on Sigonella navy base on Sicily.
[Imagine here the long, literally painful story about medevac from Sicily to a US military hospital in Germany to Walter Reed – where Mrs S, who lived in Washington, DC, went to visit him, to Lackland AFB in San Antonio, all of this over Christmas and New Year’s.]
I found out on Christmas Eve, via a phone call, that my dad had cancer.
I saw my dad on New Year’s Eve – the day he arrived there – in the hospital on Lackland.
He looked like he was pregnant with triplets – his kidneys were not pushing out fluids the way they were supposed to.
He tried to smile, but didn’t succeed.
They gave him morphine and he finally slept.
There was an ice storm in Germany and non-essential personnel were told not to go to work at the base.
The people who worked in the lab – the lab that was diagnosing my dad – were considered non-essential.
We waited and waited and waited for a diagnosis.
It took days for us to get it – the stage 4 blue cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Doctors of all kinds came in to see my dad.
The surgeon came twice – once to evaluate, once to tell us that he could not cut out my dad’s cancer.
“It would be like trying to cut out a wet paper towel,” he told us.
They needed to get a tissue sample from his hip bone. The resident, who was about to perform her first bone aspiration, told him that there was not a way to prevent pain for the procedure because it involved bone.
They told him he needed to expose his bottom half.
“I’ll wait in the hallway,” I told him.
Then I heard him whimper.
Then I heard him cry out in pain.
Then he said, “Please come hold my hand.”
“I don’t want to see your penis!” I yelled.
“I don’t care!” he answered. “It hurts! Please – please – hold my hand.”
He squeezed my hand so tightly that it hurt.
If you have never held your father’s hand while he weeps in pain, not even trying to hide his tears, you are a lucky person indeed.
Three days ago, my boyfriend before Mr T, John, would have turned 70. We dated over 20 years ago. I loved him but I couldn’t have lived with him – we were too different in how we did things.
But I loved him.
Three years ago, he died of leukemia.
He was only 67. Sixty seven doesn’t seem so old to me anymore.
I knew he was sick but I didn’t know how sick. I sent him some puzzles to keep busy. I kept meaning to send him some brownies but you know. Things. Things got in the way.
I thought I had time.
I did not have time.
He died before I could send the brownies.
It still bothers me. It bothers me that I didn’t show him how much he actually meant to me and that I still cared about him.
I send brownies any time I can now. Any reason.
My dad was in and out of the hospital in San Antonio for months. He went through chemo.
When he started losing his hair, my mom and I took him outside and shaved it all off, giving him a Mohawk in the process.
He lost probably about 40 pounds with the chemo? He was so thin. We wanted him to eat. He said that a Burger King milkshake sounded good.
I ran out of the hospital, jumped into my car, drove off base, found the nearest Burger King, bought a milkshake, ran back to the hospital and handed it to him.
He wasn’t hungry anymore.
He was supposed to drink Ensure. He had a few sips, then stopped.
“Please, Dad,” I begged. “Drink more.”
“I’m not hungry,” he told me.
He breathed deeply, exhaled, then drank a few drops.
“More, please. Please, Dad. Drink more.”
He drank some more. I kept encouraging him.
He drank more.
Victory! Lots of calories in his skeletal body!
And then –
He threw it all up.
Pink strawberry Ensure.
All over his PJs and his bedding.
All because he wanted to make me happy.
My mom had to go back to Italy to pack up their things and send them to the States. She had found a small apartment near the base. I stayed with my dad while she was gone.
I was trying to read a book.
My dad kept reading out loud to me from his newspaper.
I would listen, say, “Uh huh,” then return to my book.
I just wanted to read my book.
My dad was the first one in his family to go to college. He was not encouraged to go. His dad had a small auto dealership and garage where my dad had worked until he left home to join the Coast Guard. My dad could have stepped into the family business and never left his hometown.
He was a stutterer. He was not encouraged in academics. Still, he went, going to school on the GI Bill.
He majored in Russian history. He read and was curious and took other classes. When I was in junior hight, I helped him study for a test in his geology class. He and my mom took computer programming when I was in high school. He was curious about the world.
I was the first grandchild of 26 – ten of whom are older than I am – to go to college.
When I was admitted to college and got academic scholarships, my father was so proud. He proudly wore the Rice sweatshirt I bought him. I have photos of him wearing it in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt – anywhere he traveled.
“Listen to this!” he said and read me yet another item from the paper.
Didn’t he see I was reading my book?
“I KNOW that, Dad!”
“You always were smarter than me,” he answered in a quiet voice.
Even now, 24 years later, I am flooded with shame at how I treated my dad. That I snapped at him when he was just trying to connect with me – while he was trying to take himself out of his chemo-ravaged body and think about something, anything, that was not cancer.
That I could not have been kinder to my dying father.
My mom was three years younger than I am now when she watched her husband die of cancer.
He was back in the hospital. Their stuff was on a ship coming from Italy. The apartment contained rented furniture. My dad had only what they had carried when he was medevaced.
One of those items was his rosary.
My father took great comfort in his faith. The hospital chaplains would come by to see him because he liked talking to all of them, regardless of denomination. He would argue with the Protestants and pray with the Catholics.
One morning, his rosary was gone.
My dad was not a panicker. He was not an angry, dramatic man. He was compliant with the doctors, doing whatever they asked of him. He did not ask much from my mom or my siblings and me. He did not want to be a burden.
But when he reached into the pocket of his robe and didn’t find his rosary, he panicked.
“Oh Dad it will turn up,” I assured him.
“No! No! We have to find it!” he insisted.
He tore at his clothes, open and closed the drawer in the nightstand by his bed, lifted his sheets.
The rosary was nowhere to be found.
“Where is it? Where is it? We have to find it!”
I rolled my eyes and started looking. I was DONE with cancer and stupid stuff.
I looked under the bed.
I looked in the closet.
I looked behind his nightstand.
My mom looked in the bathroom.
She looked behind the bed.
She looked in the cushions of the chair.
We could not find it.
I wanted to stop.
But my dad, who was not a man who insisted, insisted.
Finally, after half an hour of searching, we found it wedged between the foot of the bed and the mattress.
He grabbed it with both hands, holding it close to his chest.
That rosary is now in my nightstand drawer. Every time I see it, I think of my dad.
My dad died eight months after he was diagnosed. I was working in Miami, but flew to the hospital in Wisconsin when my aunt, who is a nurse, called to say that his cancer had returned and he was not going to make it.
When I returned to work two weeks later, the VP of my group stuck his head into my office and offered his condolences.
I burst into tears.
“Oh,” he said. “Were you close?”
I still miss my dad.