What We Remember After Someone Dies: Thinking of My Dad

My dad died one month ago today, December 24, 2016, at 87 years old. The one month is arbitrary but it’s what we humans do: use a calendar to note important dates, to measure them in some way. Grief, of course, cannot be measured. I am one of those grievers who does well in the short-term, keeping busy, then lets the grief sidle in, companionably at times. and like an air-sucking punch at others.

At my last visit with Dad, we held hands. He was transitioning, as the hospice folks say, moving from life to death in measurable ways: opening and closing his eyes, murmuring and gesturing to things the rest of us couldn’t see, able to swallow until he couldn’t, sleeping yet not sleeping. Seeking eternal rest, perhaps.

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I wasn’t with him when he died. I wasn’t with my mom when she died, 13 years before, on December 25, 2003. I don’t think either one would have known if I was there or not, since both were taking palliative meds that alleviated pain and consciousness. I’ve read things about how folks found it a blessing to be with loved ones when they died. I don’t know.

Before Alzheimer’s had firmly entrapped his brain, Dad used to say that he hoped he’d die in his sleep: just go to sleep one night, and not wake up in the morning. And that seems to be what happened. After we buried Dad, I later learned we had coincidentally buried Mom and Dad on the same date, December 29, 13 years apart.

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At the funeral at St. Mary’s Church in Danvers, Massachusetts, I said this about my dad:

A good and faithful servant has returned home.

My dad was a good man. You may know him from Peabody, where he grew up on Swampscott Ave, and was a proud graduate of the Peabody High Class of 1946.

He went on to Boston College, studying business administration with the Jesuits, commuting every day, working various jobs. He deeply valued his Catholic education and his Catholic faith.

His adult life included serving in the United States National Guard, Yankee Division, working at GE in Lynn, and spending time with family and friends. He and my mom loved their neighbors on Evans and Lenox Road in Peabody, and had a lot of parties and get togethers. Some of you will remember my dad playing the piano, playing the drums. And singing: Danny Boy, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Vaya Con Dios, It’s a Sin To Tell A Lie.

We moved to Danvers when I was in first grade, and the tradition of great neighbors and parties and bridge games continued. Dad worked hard, and was a wonderful provider for his family. He and Mom were active here in St, Mary’s parish, in the Mr. and Mrs. Club among other volunteer activities.

In fact, Dad was a volunteer throughout his life, with the Big Brother organization, and with the Boy Scouts. When he retired at 65 years old, he became a lay chaplain at the Essex County Correctional Facility. He used to say that some folks wondered why he would help out there, with people who had committed crimes and were to be punished. For Dad, though, this was just part of his life of service to others. He believed in redemption, and in the potential of everyone to do good in this world. He helped with the Mass there, and ran popular parenting classes. He knew that many, when they were released, would be back in the facility, but remained faithful and hopeful for them. The jail named a Volunteer Award after Dad, among his proudest honors.

And at home, he and mom played cribbage every night for years. He had a Manhattan every night. Dad enjoyed that Manhattan, and often won the cribbage games with Mom. When they switched to Chinese checkers, though, Mom would often be the winner.

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When Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001, never having smoked in her life, Dad was her devoted caregiver, right to the end. She suffered quite a bit as a result of the disease, and Dad helped with her medications, her oxygen tank, and praying with her. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in August of 2003, and Mom died on Christmas Day that year.

People used to say to Dad how sad it was that Mom died on Christmas Day. He used to say Well, that meant that he was never alone on the day she died, that he was always with family and friends.

And now Dad passed away on Christmas Eve. He missed Mom terribly, and now they are together again. And I won’t be alone on the days they died, but will also be surrounded by family and friends. What a gift.

Dad was a humble man, a person who always stepped up to help, whether it was his high school reunion committee, whether it was taking his beloved brother to meetings, or answering the phone in St. Mary’s rectory, or sending a carefully chosen card with a warm note for his grandchildren on their birthdays or for school accomplishments. He loved us all so much—my mom, his four grandchildren, his great-granddaughter, all of his family. He loved us all unconditionally. He lived his faith humbly and vibrantly.img_8910 img_1023 img_6839

 

How do we best commemorate, honor, mourn, and remember? I have no wise words, except maybe this: never miss a chance to tell others you love them. I am leaning on my loved ones for consolation and understanding. I am moving back to the projects and tasks I’d left undone and need to do. I am remembering many happy, wonderful moments, and am practicing being focused in the present. I take deep breaths. I remember and smile through tears.

We are all in this life together, even when we are apart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the Music Slowly Fades

In late September, on my birthday, my father was deemed eligible for hospice. He is in the final stages of dementia. Today, I talked with the hospice nurse and the nurse practitioner about changes to Dad’s meds. I also got a call from a nurse at Putnam Farm, the assisted living facility where Dad has lived the last five years. He had fallen again, the second time in five days. They call me anytime there’s been a fall or other significant event.

The folks at Putnam Farm have gotten to know Dad well over the last five years, and I am glad they knew him when he sang robustly at entertainment, worked on crossword puzzles, and chatted about the photos of his grandchildren and great-granddaughter.

The hospice folks will know him as someone dying from a cruel disease, speaking mostly in word salad, angry and snappish at times, confused and bewildered about how, when, or why to brush his teeth.

My children have known him for about 20+ years, as Pa, their grandfather who wrote poems about them, who sent them a few dollars for good report cards, and who loves them unconditionally.

I have known him for almost 60 years, as my dad, devoted to his family and his faith, working as a purchasing manager for 45 years, playing piano and singing so many songs (“Danny Boy” was always on the top of the list). In his retirement, he was a lay chaplain at a correctional facility for years; they named a volunteer award after him. He was a tireless helper to my mother as she died from cancer, giving her medications, helping her with the oxygen tank, washing her hair, praying with her. He would have loved to have been an English teacher, but was pointed toward a business administration degree.

Hospice people are wonderful. They helped my mother in a compassionate way, relieving her pain, retaining her dignity, right up until she died on Christmas Day, 2003. She and Dad had been married for 50 years.

Dad doesn’t really know the hospice people helping him now. Alzheimer’s makes fear a part of daily life, as the loss of memory can make everyone a stranger. The nurses, social worker, and chaplain work to keep Dad comfortable and pain-free; sometimes he understands that, often he doesn’t, and can get scared or angry. The people caring for him notice when he is calm and alert more than when he is sleepy or in pain: being in pain, or being tired, are his more common states of being these days.

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Music therapy is among hospice’s offerings, and that is a blessing. I know he recently enjoyed hearing the music and singing, and tapping on a small drum, as you can see here. Who knows what memories might have been kindled for him?

 

 

The hospice folks probably can’t picture him surrounded by his friends decades ago as he sat at the piano in our living room, playing “Those Were the Days” and “It’s a Sin to Tell A Lie.” They don’t remember him playing the drums along to his Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz albums.

Here’s another photo taken during that hospice-sponsored music therapy: Dad reaching to comfort the person next to him. That’s who Dad was, and is.

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On My Dad’s Impending Passing

After my Skype call yesterday with my dad, the head of the dementia unit called me and gently, compassionately, guided me to the reality that Dad may soon enter hospice care.

In the midst of a swirl of emotions, I am grateful that, long ago, he prepared, pragmatically and characteristically, the paperwork to help us meet his wishes for his care. And it’s reminding me of how all of us can, should, and need to do the same

Dad s a young man in New York (I think), with his Boston College ring on this right hand and his beloved camera in his left.

Dad as a young man in New York (I think), with his Boston College ring on his right hand, and his camera in his left.

We can’t predict when hospice will be needed, of course, and we hope it doesn’t happen for a long time. Dad has lived in Harbor Care, the memory care unit of Putnam Farm, for almost five years. Alzheimer’s is nothing but a gradual, predictable descent. Those of us who love people who have dementia must “join them on the journey,” as the saying goes: agreeing with comments that make no sense, trying to answer questions that have no verb and no context, listening to and watching our loved one struggle for words, for balance, for meaning.

My dad is 86, in vigorous physical health. He has most of his hair, and much of it is not grey. If you saw him, you wouldn’t think he was ill.

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If you talked with Dad for only a few minutes, you’d know right away. “Word salad” is what you’d hear, with (maybe) intermittent engagement about music, or sports, or his faith. Yesterday, during our Skype call, he showed me the photo I had sent him of me with my granddaughter (his great-granddaughter). In the 20-minute conversation, he showed the photo to me six or seven times. He loves us very much, and that was one way, his way now, of showing that.

When Beth, the director of Putnam Farm’s memory impairment unit, called me later in the day, she asked how Dad had seemed to me. “Fine,” I said. “The usual. A little tired.”

These conversations are treasured, but they are a big effort for Dad, who does his best to cover up the vagaries of memory loss.

I told her, “I’m not sure if he really knew me today.”

He asked me if I had finished the reports on time for the aeronautics department. Forty years ago, he worked for General Electric, as a purchasing manager for airplane parts. I told him yes, they were in on time, and he seemed happy to hear that.

Beth listened thoughtfully to what I said and didn’t say. She’s one of those people with a gift for deep listening, which is perhaps why she’s so effective with and dedicated to Alzheimer’s patients.

“This afternoon, your dad had trouble walking after he went to entertainment. He couldn’t move his left leg.”

I mulled that a bit. Maybe Dad had a small stroke? One of the puzzles of dementia is the inability to neatly categorize the types. Dad may have vascular dementia, and may have experienced lots of small strokes. Maybe one yesterday, after the entertainment.

Beth said Dad has really slowed down, slept a lot, and is having increased difficulty transitioning out of his room. He wants to stay in his room as much as possible. He’s needed an aide to help with showers and grooming for a while. Dementia can mean not knowing what steps are in what order to taking a shower or getting dressed.

“So, in the next few months, we may want to move him into hospice care.”

I have nothing but admiration for and gratitude to hospice workers who,13 years ago, helped my mom on her way to dying from lung cancer (despite never having smoked). Hearing Beth’s words opened the fragile scar that is the memory of Mom’s vibrant life and painful, cruel illness. Hospice helped immeasurably, with medications and kindness. My dad was Mom’s attentive, organized caregiver, keeping lists of the dosages as he had kept detailed records of heating oil deliveries, his Bradford Plate collection, and the slides from their trip to Europe in 1964. He conferred with the hospice nurses. He helped Mom wash her hair, use the oxygen tanks, and say the words of prayers together when she had little breath but much belief. They had been married 50 years in 2003 when Mom died at home, Dad by her side, on Christmas Day.

From the day Dad moved into Putnam Farm in 2011, the care he’s received has been exemplary. I exhaled with great relief when Beth said the hospice care would happen there too, where Dad has grown familiar and content, where he knows his room and bed and window out to the big maple tree.

All good, all good: the music therapy, the massage therapy, the aides and helpers that can come with hospice care. I nodded and felt good about the high level of care, while I wept stiffly and awkwardly. I’ve been grieving the slow loss of my dad for many years. Sometimes the grief jumps right to the surface.

I thanked Beth for talking with me. Really, what a blessing—to have someone genuinely willing and able to guide me on this new unavoidable path, giving me accurate, helpful information, concerned for Dad and for me. It could not have been an easy phone call for her to make, and I am so grateful.

I am also grateful that my organized, pragmatic dad gave me power of attorney in 2007. He updated his will, his health care directives, and his wishes for his funeral service. I am his health care proxy, and I know exactly what mattered to Dad when he was cogent and healthy. What a gift.

What a sad, sobering, useful, blessed, unwanted, valuable, vital gift.

Dad has shared so much with me: his love of Ireland, his love of words and literature, his deep appreciation of Hershey’s chocolates. He has given nothing but love to me, to his four grandchildren, and to his great-granddaughter. He will have a rich legacy, in terms of his dedication to his family, his church, and his community.

Dad and Z in 2013--I so love these 2 amazing people.

Dad and Z in 2013. I so love these two amazing people.

One aspect of that legacy that I want to pass on now, while Dad is alive, is to urge you to do the hard work of preparing your own paperwork. Talk with your spouse/partner/parents about health care directives, health care proxies, wills, and powers of attorney. Get the documents put together and hope you won’t have to use them for a long time. You probably won’t.

I’ve been fortunate to have my dad with me for so long, and I hope he is with us for a long time to come. I have peace knowing that, when the time comes, I know his wishes. I know where the documents are. I will not be floundering around trying to find stuff and wishing that I knew what he wanted so that I could honor him and his wishes.

My dad would be pleased that I am making these suggestions, drawing on his example. As he said when he encouraged me to make the honor roll, or learn a new skill, or raise my kids: “It may be hard, Maureen, but it’s worth it.” Another way of looking at it is through the lens of Dad’s faith: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

Go talk with those you love and those who love you, pull the paperwork together, put it in a safe place, and be at peace with that. Every day is a gift.

Info on Alzheimer’s: Great, short video explaining how Alzheimer’s progresses in the brain. Loads of info at the Alzheimer’s Association.

Info on health care directives/living wills from The Mayo Clinic.