Some of you may have noticed that I have been absent from the blogosphere for a while. I was in San Francisco with my family. A week ago today my dear old dad died. Naturally, a part of me is bereft. I am now an orphan and I hate that. But Dad was 87, terminally ill with cancer and had suffered from a serious heart condition that worsened significantly when he reached his ninth decade.
Since October 2012, the going only got tougher for him. He was in and out of the hospital several times. After every hospitalization, his dwindling supply of energy further depleted. For much of the past year he told anyone who would listen that every night before going to bed he prayed that he would die in his sleep. Four weeks ago, following a collapse, this ferociously independent man’s decline accelerated at warp speed.
Soon, Dad was too weak to get out of bed. My siblings who lived near Dad, Dovima and Axel, made the painful decision to start hospice. Initially, Dad wanted to die at home. My brother, Axel, had checked in on him daily for the last fifteen months. Dovima volunteered to be his primary caregiver during Dad’s final days. I flew out to join her, but Axel was always near.
Dad loathed the indignity of home hospice. During one particularly rough night when he cried out in pain, Dovima came to his rescue. When he saw his eldest daughter he spoke two last words to her:
Dad: Oh, crap!
His last word to me was about how he was feeling:
His last utterance to Axel was a monosyllabic, a groan when Axel said:
Axel: Dad, it’s me, Axel.
We shifted into overdrive to enter Dad into a hospice facility. We heeded the advice of our Pathways social worker and got him into Zen Hospice, an oasis of nurturing and tranquility. Dad was so far gone there was concern that he might not survive the ambulance ride from his house to Zen. We knew he no longer wanted to die at home, so even if he bought his rainbow in transit, we decided that we were responding to his revised wish. I was allowed to accompany him in the ambulance, a bumpy twenty-minute journey. Dad, who could no longer speak, looked scared. I promised him that he was going to a place where he’d get great care and we would still be there with him. Dad survived the ride. The wonderful staff and volunteers at Zen backed up my claim.
At Zen, Dad was no longer restless, his dignity was returned, and he was comfortable. All of us, Dovima, Axel, my niece, Sweet Pea, brother-in-law, Herb (with a silent h) and Cousin Lou, held his hand and let him know how much we loved and appreciated him. Two days later, with Dovima and I at his bedside, Dad drew his final breath. His wish was granted. He died peacefully in his sleep.
Following our father shedding his mortal coil, there was a lovely ceremony at Zen where his caregivers took turns washing his face, hands and feet. They each said words of comfort. Dovima and I were invited to participate, but the pain of losing our father was just too fresh. We sat and watched. When Dad was carried outside, his face was exposed to the sun and he was showered with flower petals. Dad had told Dovima that when he died, he wanted to make his exit under tons of flowers. So, that wish was granted, too.
This past Tuesday, we had a traditional funeral, but it was not a morose affair. We celebrated Dad’s life in pictures, and with many of his own words in a program we created that showed his wit and wisdom. A sample of his wit was what he liked to say to me when he thought I was behaving like a flake:
Dad: You have more crust than a pie factory!
A sample of his wisdom:
Dad: Do good and forget about it. Do bad and think about it.
But I agree with Axel, who wisely said:
Axel: Let’s be careful not to make him bigger in death than he was in life.
Our father was not a perfect man; possibly this was his most familiar expression:
Dad: God damn it!
But he was the perfect father for us.
In conclusion, I would like to share a tale about Dad in his prime, call it an early Lame Adventure. Our father was a very athletic man. In high school he lettered in Gymnastics and he maintained those skills well into middle age. He could be quite a show off; something my siblings and I loved. After Sunday dinner, he would take us out on walks in our neighborhood. He loved to sing an asinine ditty, John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, at the top of his lungs. I recall doing a duet with him on it. It is an understatement that we had nothing on Nat King Cole and daughter Natalie’s duet on Unforgettable.
On this particular Sunday in 1966, as we were walking down Holloway Avenue at Denslowe Street, I begged Dad to do “the flag” as we approached a signpost.
The flag was an extraordinary feat of physical dexterity. My dad, who had phenomenal arm strength, could extend himself completely perpendicular to the signpost.
It was quite a sight to see.
As we were marveling at Dad’s truly awesome feat, a motorist slammed his or her brakes and we heard an awful screech. Looking back, the sight of a 39 year-old-man suspended completely perpendicular from a signpost into the street must have been discombobulating in 1966 … or maybe even today.