As it Turns Out…

Dying is not for the weak. It’s for the very very brave. My dad has a pace maker, a heart stent, erratic blood pressure that requires constant monitoring, (along with a spreadsheet to keep the medications organized). He’s weak and frail and with his recent fall, he’s in pain. The doctor thinks his back is fractured, but it’s too hard to tell from the x-ray, there’s so much arthritis. It hurts to sit, it hurts to stand, it hurts to turn or lie down. His speech is like a slow-moving glacier, his thoughts half-frozen, ideas stuck behind an impenetrable wall. But he’s surviving.

When I visited my dad last week I arranged for nursing care, cleaning help, I gathered resources and information on the aging, I approach my dad’s deterioration with the same methodical gusto I approach one of our international moves or a kid’s science fair project—get all the facts and assemble needed materials. But my dad is neither a move nor a project. After I ordered the hospital bed, arranged the furniture for a walker, cooked freezer meals, rubbed my dad’s feet, I cried and cried and cried. Dying is so much harder than I ever imagined.

My dad has always been my hero and teacher. He gave me life lessons like…

If you think someone is following you, cross the street and walk in the opposite direction.

Always, always, carry pepper spray.

Have your keys in your hand when you leave a store, fumbling for them in your bag makes you an easy target.

If someone has you at gunpoint, run in a zigzag pattern, it makes you harder to hit.

His lessons were not the kind other girls got, but my dad was a military man, Army and Air Force, he was a private investigator too. He was defensive by nature.

There were plenty of other lessons too…

Be kind, you don’t know what someone has been through.

Don’t judge by appearances, that doesn’t tell you who someone is.

Be grateful and generous; always remember that people don’t have what you have.

Compliment others…something so little can make such a difference in someone’s life.

My dad knew these things because he’d grown up “without.” His father was a charming alcoholic, neglectful in his family duties. His mother was equally as neglectful but more abusive. For an entire year of grade school he wore the only two shirts he owned, alternating between them. When kids teased that he wore the same shirt, he’d lie and say, these are my favorites. There were days when the only food in the house was a stick of butter, and nights when Daddy didn’t come home. There was a Christmas without presents.

One day, when I was a teenager, watching some local Christmas choirs perform on TV with my friend Kristen Kutch, I remarked with a snicker, “those are the worst outfits I’ve ever seen.” My dad was in the room and heard me. He wasn’t worried about embarrassing me in front of my friend. “Don’t ever talk that way about someone else, that could be the only clothes they have.” His eyes were stern, his jaw set. I knew he was disappointed. I didn’t understand then, what I do now. He was one of them, he felt the sting of my comment, the shame. He was always kind to people because he knew unkindness. He’d lived the bitter and was passing on the good life to us kids. He didn’t want us to take it for granted and start to believe we were somehow “better.” We were no better, we just had things and that made us lucky, not better.

While home, caring for my dad, he was still giving me advice, words to remember. Sitting in the living room, watching Fox news from his lift chair, he leaned toward me, steadying his gaze on mine and with a slightly coarse voice asked, “What is our motto?” He gave me the answer, “Be brave five minutes longer.”

Be brave five minutes longer.

IMG_3028It’s the phrase that got him through wars, the phrase he uses now to get through each day. He tells me, “I was in Korea and Vietnam, but this is the toughest battle yet.” Each day is a fight. His shoulders are hunched, his hands show bone and vein, his knees give way and he falls, but make no mistake, my dad is a warrior.

There are things my dad would still like to do, places to go, golf games to play, books younger eyes would have liked to study. But there’s only so much time. “Don’t wait,” my dad says, “don’t put off things you want to do.” What I hear him say is this: You don’t get to do everything you want, so make life as interesting as possible. I tell my kids: Stay curious and everything will be interesting.

While caring for my dad, I go for morning walks and listen to the book, “Die Empty.” It’s been in my Audible collection, only now it seems I need it. The author, Todd Henry, advocates to consciously plan each day. Don’t let life just happen; spend time on your most meaningful pursuits.

Seeing what my dad is going through, I ask myself, what do I value above all? Am I devoting time to those pursuits each day, even if it’s just for a few minutes? Todd says it’s not about the end result, but the process. It’s dangerous to wait for the payoff of accomplishing a goal, waiting to be happy. He says if you take joy in the process, you can be happy right NOW.

I want to be happy.

I arrive back home, after my walk, and try to take joy in the time I have with my dad. Just being next to him in the same room, or preparing dinner, or helping him out of his chair makes me grateful. My mom is the one doing the primary care giving and my sister and brother-in-law are always close by lending a hand. I’m grateful for them all.

The hard part is at 87 my dad sometimes feels like a nuisance. He’s aware he takes effort and while I say, “It’s no problem,” or “Here, let me help you with that, I need the exercise,” he’s not without apology. I say no one should feel bad for getting old. Our last steps are as important as our first. These are defining days, the punctuation at the end of a very long sentence, which gives meaning to one’s life. There are still choices to be made, only just as a child isn’t old enough to do everything he or she wants, an elderly person isn’t young enough. It’s the simple things that entertain. Sitting outside with the sun on his face. Listening to Celtic folk music. Eating a small treat. Growing old means you don’t have to apologize.

The days are trying, but nights are the toughest. My dad has flashbacks to the war. One minute he’s in bed, the next he’s in a cave in the Philippines, crawling on his hands and knees down a tunnel trying to escape a smoking grenade. His memories are churned up like tilled earth, the past fresh and raw. Lucky for him, he has plenty of good memories too. We talk about those. He likes to recall when he was a champion archer; he still remembers his first bow, a Smithwick Citation. If you ask about his proudest moments, he might tell you about the Spark-lite he invented, a one handed fire-starter device still sold to the military today. He remembers people, the ones he helped, and the ones who helped him. The thing is, when you live a good life and treat others better than they expect to be treated, people remember you. My dad sometimes gets letters thanking him for things he did, or friends will stop by and sit for a while and tell him what he means to them. What I’ve learned is, it’s important to make memories you’ll want to remember.

After a particularly rough night, when my dad had slipped out of his sleeping chair and my brother-in-law had to be called to come over and help lift him back to bed, I went for a walk. Along the way I noticed a bush striped and bare, just starting to show signs of bloom, pink delicate tips. I thought how odd that a bush, almost ready to burst into life, should look exactly as it does in the fall, before winter, when all the flowers have fallen and nothing is left but spindly arms, reaching heavenward. Two seasons, spring and fall, mirroring each other, the beginning and the end. I felt there was significance. I let the idea take shape, the possibility that my dad wasn’t dying after all, but coming into full bloom, preparing for a new season, not here, but somewhere else, a place without pain and heartache, a place where he could emerge fully into his truest self. I believe God created nature to give us comfort and hope. These days I spend as much time in nature as I can.

I also spent time moving furniture, rearranging the house to make it safer and more manageable for the walker. At one point my dad remarked, “It doesn’t feel like my house.” It wasn’t that he was displeased; rather, the familiar had been comfortable, even if it wasn’t functional. All the surrounding changes, amplified the changes and lack of control he felt inside his aging body. It was hard.

The lesson for me was this…prepare to grow old, because you will. Clear out and make room and accept what’s coming. To borrow a yoga term, “flow” into old age. Make incremental adjustments along the way so it’s not such a shock. Do like my mother-in-law and start collecting “old age gear.” She has a wheelchair, a walker, a toilet seat riser—old age will not take her by surprise. She’s already informed her children, “I’m coming to live with you.”

Caring for others brings clarity to your own life, particularly if the ones you are caring for have given you life first. Being present to help my dad is a memory I will always cherish. He’s always been there to help me and teach me, and as it turns out, he still is.

 

 

 

 

20 Comments on “As it Turns Out…

  1. Lana, I can’t say how sad it makes me to think your father will not be with us much longer but I so appreciated these thoughts and experiences. I want to write about my last weeks with my dad, someday.

    • You definitely should Shirley. The writing doesn’t have to be for anyone but you, but I believe that if you put truth to words, it will be powerful for you, your children, and those you share it with.

  2. Lana, thank you for being there for your dad and mom. In all my years at Patton Township I new Oak as a strong,caring and compassionate friend. He and I learned to play golf the same year. We spent many great and wonderful times on the golf course. I will always consider him as one of my best friends. I will always love him and your mom as I do my own parents.

    • Thank you so much for sharing that experience. My dad made fun of golfers his whole life then feel in love with the sport as soon as he tried it. Haha! He sure had fun on those courses. Those were good days he shared with you. I’m glad to know of your connection to them; I’m sure they cherish the time they had with you!

  3. Beautiful words! We empathize with you as Mike’s mother is 93 and still living alone, feeling like she is a burden to everyone. She can barely get around but refuses to give up and move. We wish we were closer to her (she’s out there in Utah), but not much we can do about that until we retire.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts — we love your mom and dad. They have watched over us ever since we moved here 23 years ago.

    • Thank you Beth. I know how hard it is to be so far away. What part of UT does Mike’s mother live in?
      I know my parents love you guys and have shared wonderful memories with you. Thanks for being such great friends and people!!

  4. Thanks for sharing these beautiful and touching words about your dad. It was impossible to have met him without being impressed by his warmth and kindness. I loved seeing the picture of the two of you together. Sending you & your whole family a big hug.

    • Thanks so much Rebecca. My parents liked when I spent time with you, because they could tell you were a good friend with a kind heart. xx

  5. What a lovely tribute and reflection amidst the sweat and tears of this difficult time. We are with you. These wonderful descriptions show clearly the similarities between you in kindness, empathy, bravery, spirit and more. All our love to you and your family!

    • Thank you Jenn. I definitely feel your loving strength and support. Our exchanges via email during those tough days saw me through my darkest hours. I will forever be grateful for your friendship! xx

  6. Lana!! Your Dad, Mom…family are intrinsically woven into the fabric of my life. I always think of your dad when I go out to the car, and check the backseat, or use a little flashlight on my key chain. Your words were a good reminder for me to remember and cherish. My Dad is 85 (the 2nd oldest in their ward…;) His health is not bad….but his memory is. I am always here, but try to warn my siblings because the changes must be a shock when they see him infrequently. ❤ (((hugs))) Thank you again for your words.

    • Janelle, I feel the same way about your mom and dad. Your whole family is a huge part of my childhood and growing up years. You have wonderful and kind parents, who are both great examples to me. Thank you for your sweet words about my dad. He certainly loves your family! Hugs to you!! xx

  7. Lana, I’m so glad that you wrote this. Please give both of your parents a hug for me. I have known & loved them my whole life but never really believed they would grow old I think. Oak gave me my Patriarchial Blessing. And because my dad was a police officer I could always relate to the safety trainings he did. I’ve never forgotten his advice either- & I still have the purple whistle He gave me. Please tell him that. Because of both his & my dads training I stopped a drunk kid from following me & threatening me in SC once. Tell him Thank you. And give your mom a hug. I know her heart (and yours) is breaking. We have moved to Somerset now or I would do it myself. Please tell them I will keep them & your whole family in my prayers. Keep writing. It helps. It’s like music. The Spirit is there & can teach you things that you can’t learn at any other time or any other way. Nature too- more than just about anything else. God is there. He will walk with you through Gathesamane.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your memories of my dad with me. I love to hear the ways he’s touched other lives. Haha, so you got a whistle! Then you are special indeed! I like your comparison to music, if I could compose a symphony of melodic sad tones, interspersed with happy notes, I would, because that is exactly how I feel. Sad and grateful. I will most definitely pass on your kind thoughts and loving words. Thank you so very much.

  8. Keep you and your parents in my thoughts Lana. This was a lovely tribute to him and the strength of your relationship. xo >

  9. Oh Lana – my heart goes out to you and your dad. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words. You inspire me to live a more thoughtful life. I sure do love hearing your voice in my head. Much love to you and your family.

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