Saturday, April 05, 2008

Ten Years

Dad strikes a thoughtful pose at his wedding, before the Surgeon General's warnings

April 5 and the NASCAR visits to Texas Motor Speedway mark a memorable milestone for me.

I’ve mentioned before about how my friend the sports news editor and I had pit and media center access at the track, and how we enjoyed the races. The race in 1998 was no different. We attended and had a fine time.

My father had Parkinsons, which he let run for some time before he finally sought treatment. Arguing with him about it did no good. He bitterly regretted it later, so much that I got tired of hearing about it – and I finally snapped back at him once that he should have seen a doctor about it much sooner. His tremors wouldn’t have been as bad. Anyways, as I headed out the door, I hugged him goodbye with his admonishments to be careful echoing in my head. He was preparing to go fishing at a small pond stocked with trout at the local community college.

We had a love/hate relationship, my father and I. I really don’t want to get into that much now, but it’s enough to know I lived in fear of my father when I was young – but I knew he loved me and normally I was treated fairly well. As we both aged, I gained a measure of hard earned respect from him, and we were more equal in our relationship. It wasn’t easy.

Dad’s health had deteriorated as a side effect from Parkinsons. He wouldn’t quit smoking. He hid the cigarettes from me, but the butts dumped at our distant mailbox were a testament to his habit. He refused to do any exercising (something I inherited for sure) and he was quite incapable of getting up off the floor or ground if he fell. I saw him fall backwards through our front door one day. He had a grip on the door jamb and the knob of the screen door. Panicking, he was trying to pull himself up with arm strength he didn’t have. When I saw him, he started begging me for help. I asked him to think for a second – could he have pulled himself up from that position forty years ago, when he was in good shape? Was he strong enough then? Not likely. I made him sit on his butt and roll around so he could use his legs to get up. I guess I didn’t understand and don’t now – I’m weak and unable to do much, but I have the sense to realize I can’t levitate myself up the way he was trying.

So, I started to make him lie on his back on the floor, and get up. I made him do his exercises. He looked like crap, too. What we didn’t know was that he had pneumonia in one of his lungs. He fell trying to climb in his tractor, and was under the tractor for several hours. He lost his mind and was quite incapable of getting up. At first, the doctors concentrated on the pain he had in his side – he had his gall bladder removed. It wasn’t until later they figured out he had pneumonia – he just wasn’t improving. His right lung was nearly collapsed because the lung sac was full of infection, and taking up a lot of space. It was too thick to draw out with a syringe, so they spread some ribs and dug it out.

After the hospital let him out, he had to live in a nursing home for about a month for rehabilitation. This more than anything spurred him to take better care of himself. The lady continually crying for help down the hall, the one that would come into his room and start going through his clothing, and the loss of freedom seemed to drive home the need to just go ahead and do his exercises. His color was better, and he was in far better shape. He retired from farming, and sold his main tractor. He’d already sold his secondary tractor a few years earlier.

So, it was with some confidence that my father was going to be alright that allowed me to leave for my bit of vacation. We had a good time – that was the year they gave me garage access. One of my work buddies was down there, and my editor friend wasn’t going to make it Saturday, so we used his pass to get my coworker in during the Busch race. A good time was had by all. We didn’t try to get out of the track Sunday for some time because he had to file his stories. When we finally started leaving, the traffic was so bad we spent several hours getting free of it and getting home.

When we got home, the babysitter was acting strange – she did not want to talk to me. She and Todd went to another room, and Todd came back telling me I needed to call one of my neighbors. This was around midnight or later. I was to call no matter the time. My worst fears seemed to be coalescing around me.

I called her – she’s been a very sweet lady to our family for years. She told me my dad had been found dead in his chair. One of my friends, who was now Dad’s tenant farmer, dropped by to see him Sunday morning and found him there, looking like he was asleep in his chair. Unsettled, he called another neighbor (who now does the farming) and they both determined he had passed away. The ambulance came out and hauled him to the mortuary. I had to call my sister – she had been trying without any luck to get me all day. She had me paged at the track – but there was no way I could have heard it. Back then, my cell phone didn’t have follow me roam (remember that?) I could call out, but no one could call me. I had to call other relatives as well. I finally tried to get some sleep, but was largely unsuccessful.

I can remember driving home listening to a live tape of Fleetwood Mac. One song had Stevie Nicks dedicating “this one’s for you, Daddy.” Every time that one rolled around, I’d end up bawling. I couldn’t put it up. I got to the funeral home that evening. I was informed that Dad was in no shape to be viewed – they recommended that my last memory of him be more positive. The casket needed to be sealed as well – for the obvious reason. My cousin, a nurse, was the only family member available when it came time to do an autopsy, so she decided not to. It was assumed Dad had died from a heart attack in his sleep, and passed away quietly. They thought he had died either that Thursday or Friday. So, the fifth was decided to be the day.

One of my neighbors thought Dad had looked terrible in the days before he passed, and since I saw him every day I would tend to miss it. I still don’t agree – he was going fishing, and had been getting out and about. I’d heard it said that Dad’s big fear was dying alone at home. That’s pretty much how it happened, but I also know he knew I loved him. I’d told him that before. He also preferred to die at home, not in a hospital or rest home. Like most farmers, he’d have preferred to die on his tractor, working until the last second, but that option is rarely available to them.

I miss him, but I’m also glad he went without pain or a bunch of drama. He didn’t mind being the center of attention, but it had to be in a positive manner. He still speaks to me – in certain situations, I hear in my head what he would say were he beside me. It is a comfort at times.


Sezme said...

My grandmother was the same way. She wanted to die at home and while some family protested, she got her wish. When she was told we would have to fo against her wishes, she died the next day.

I'm sorry for your loss, but I'm also glad you and your father had an opportunity to mend things a bit before he passed. I've been working on my relationship with my father, and it is worth it.

Mo K said...

I can relate on some levels, Jeffro. I was raised by strict parents, and often was fearful of my dad (so was Mr. Mo!) but I always knew that he loved me.
It saddens me so much that here he had quit smoking entirely in the early 1980s but the damage was done, and he eventually died of emphysema in 2006. He did everything the doctors told him to do after being diagnosed in the mid-late 1990s. He lived a disciplined life until his dying day and surprised everyone for having made it that long, esp. after having been on a ventilator in early 2003, and never being bedridden after that. He would have died much sooner otherwise, as his sister and a couple of cousins did (also diagnosed with lung disease), were it not for his sheer force of will -- truly a testament to how much he loved my mom. There was no doubt he was living for her.

Bob's Blog said...

Beautiful post.

I think of you every time I head east on I-70 and either pass or get passed by a big truck. I hope you are able to get back on the road soon.

Anonymous said...

thanks for shairing that jeff. troy