An Ordinary Day


Sometimes, an ordinary day can produce an unexpected gift.

This morning, Ruby (9) asked if she could fish around inside my jewelry box while I was getting ready in the next room. “Sure,” I replied absently, putting on my makeup, as she began taking inventory of my “dangly” earring collection.

Then I heard her normal chatter suddenly stop. And I knew, instinctively, something was wrong.

She stomped over to me and said, “Mom! What’s THIS?” and she held out her hand containing a navy blue velvet pouch.

My heart sank as I stared at the pouch containing my daughters’ baby teeth that I kept hidden away in the back of my jewelry box. (Is it weird that I just can’t bring myself to part with their pearly-whites?)

She looked at me quizzically, as I could see her little brain trying to wrap itself around her discovery.

A long silence ensued, then, I heard the words:

“Mom? Are YOU the Tooth Fairy?!?”

I stammered, as things suddenly began to move in slow motion. “Think!” I commanded myself. (I thought about saying something creative like, “Well, The Tooth Fairy must have wanted me to hold on to them for her!”)

But then I looked at her face, and her liquid blue eyes just staring at me. I took a deep breath, and said,

“Do you want to know the truth?”

Calmly, she replied,

“Yes.”

—-

A million thoughts flashed through my mind at that very moment. “The next sentence you say will alter the course of her life forever,” I warned myself. I envisioned her as an adult on the nationwide book tour (sponsored by Barnes and Noble) promoting her bestselling tell-all memoir of her childhood. As she slowly takes the podium in front of the standing-room-only audience thunderously applauding, she says,

“I’d like to read an excerpt from Chapter 7 – “The Day My Mom Robbed Me of My Childhood When She Confessed to Being the Tooth Fairy.”

—-

I took Ruby’s hand and sat her down on the bed. I looked at her, and began.

“The REAL Tooth Fairy lives in our HEARTS,” I said. “It means that you have a special kind of love that you give your children when you become a Mommy. You spread this love each time your child loses a tooth because they are losing a special part of themselves that shows they are becoming more grown up.”

I continued, “MY mom – your Grandma – kept the tradition of The Tooth Fairy alive for ME, her daughter. When I was old enough to know the truth, I asked her and she told me about giving her love to me in this special way. And someday, it will be YOUR turn, to continue the tradition with YOUR children.”

She thought about it for a minute, as it hit me that RIGHT NOW, she was losing a tiny part of her innocence.

“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I asked.

She replied, “Yes. I think I’m old enough to understand,” And she smiled.

Then we talked about her little sister and how she still believed. How it wasn’t our place to tell her just yet…until she was ready, and old enough, to understand.

“I promise I won’t tell her,” she said and held out her pinkie to seal the deal.I wrapped my pinkie around hers and made it official.

Then she added, “Maybe I can help be The Tooth Fairy the next time Josie loses a tooth!”

I smiled and nodded. And at that moment, I suddenly realized it was going to be okay. She wouldn’t be scarred. I wasn’t a horrible mother.

It would be a happy ending.

As she began to walk away, suddenly she turned to look at me.

“Mom? I’m glad you told me.” And she happily skipped away.

I breathed a sigh of relief and then went about my ordinary day.

Which suddenly, didn’t seem so ordinary after all.

My Father’s Shirt


The other night, my mother and I attended a Memorial Service for my dad at The Inn (his name for the nursing home where he lived for 7 years while doing his slow dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.) My dad lost his battle 2 1/2 months ago on November 18th after suffering a major stroke. We received an invitation in the mail from The Inn to attend an evening of remembrance for those who have been lost in the last 3 months. Though the invitation wasn’t unexpected as I knew they did this on an ongoing basis, it was still a hard thing to swallow.

It would be the first time we returned to The Inn since losing my dad.

The Inn has been a huge part of our lives for a long time. For almost 7 years, my mother and I – between the two of us – would visit my dad almost daily. He was a wonderful, charismatic and tender-hearted man who loved nothing better than to compliment strangers and flirt with the nurses. He loved using his one-liners such as, “Tell me, do you find me handsome?” or telling staff, “You have my permission to take the rest of the day off!” to the reward of hearing someone laugh. People loved my dad. They would laugh good-naturedly at him, even when he recycled his favorite corny lines time and time (and time) again.

Staff at The Inn have been like a second family to us. You get to know the people there on a personal level. You celebrate birthdays, learn about their lives. They are on the front lines of caring for a beloved family member. They are invaluable to us. When we lost my dad, we also lost many friends. They are still there, of course, but we haven’t mustered up the courage to go back and visit just yet. This has been especially hard on my dad’s longtime roommate, Charlie, who adopted my dad as a “second father” and who also views my mother, sisters and I as “family.” Charlie calls me frequently and I try to explain that we will try to see him soon, but it’s just too fresh a wound right now.

He understands.

The night of the memorial service, my husband stayed home with the kids and planned on putting them to bed so I could go with my mom.

As I drove the familiar side streets to my mom’s house – just a short 5 minutes away – I felt a twinge of nervousness. As I pulled my car into her driveway, her garage door opened almost immediately, evidence that she must have been watching for me. She had her coat on and walked out her door. She was ready to go.

I watched her walk out to my car, toting in her arms a bag. As she opened my car door, she explained that she brought a framed 8 1/2 x 11 photo of my dad I had given her. (The people of The Inn invited us to bring a photo to share for the occasion.) The photo was a great picture of my dad wearing his favorite navy-blue striped flannel shirt.

I think he wore that shirt at least twice a week.

favorite pic of dad

My mom shut her door and fastened her seatbelt as we made the short, familiar pilgrimage to The Inn. Night had fallen, and I noticed how different the trek looked, since I usually went to The Inn during the day to visit my dad. Often, I’d wait for my girls to catch the bus to school, then I’d head over for a morning visit. I’d catch my dad eating his breakfast, amiably chatting with his table companions. He’d spot me walking toward him, and light up like a Christmas tree. He did this every time he saw me.

My dad always made me feel like seeing me was the highlight of his day.

I’d pull up a chair and sit next to him, and my dad would introduce me to his friends by proudly saying, “This is my youngest daughter, Teresa! She’s our #7!” The men would smile politely – after all they knew me well – but played along with my dad just the same, since he insisted on doing this each time.

—-

My mom and I drove into the parking lot of The Inn just before 6:30 pm.

“Wow,” I said to my mom with a lump forming in my throat. “It is so weird being back here.”

“Yes. It is.” she said quietly.

We sat in the car a minute more. I turned the engine off. From the outside darkness, we could see the first floor of The Inn all lit up. I spotted the gym through the windows on the far right of the building. This was the physical therapy room where I spent many a morning with my dad when he was receiving ongoing physical therapy. I saw the stationary bike my dad rode to strengthen his legs, and the various equipment that he used to help with his arm strength, and balance.

I recalled how my dad absolutely hated to exercise, and he would try his darndest to get the physical therapist assigned to him for the day off track through his art of conversation. In so doing, he could sometimes catch a fleeting break or rest.

He’d say, “So, Robert, tell me again where you were born?” followed by, “And Robert, what made you decide to become a physical therapist?” Unfortunately for my dad, the staff were all on to him. They’d laugh and say, “Now, Ed, stop trying to distract me and let’s finish this “set.”

And my dad would soldier on.

—-

My mom and I walked to the front door of The Inn and pressed the automatic button to open it. As the door slowly swung open, I flashed back to the numerous times my two daughters, ages 6 and 7 would visit my dad after school or on weekends. As I parked the car and they unbuckled their seatbelts, it would become a free-for-all to see which one could scramble out of the car and race to press that button first.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that coming back to The Inn would be a flood of memories. I bit my lip. Tears formed in my eyes.

My mom looked at me and held my hand.

She felt it, too.

We walked into the lobby and hung a left to the main dining room. Inside, there were chairs set up in rows, for other families who would be there, too. The 5 or so staff from the Recreation Department were there as they had put together this program. They smiled and greeted us warmly with hugs.

It was a reunion.

We put my dad’s picture on a table.

As I looked around at the dining room, I remembered visiting my dad during meals. I spotted his familiar table next to the window where he would devour his Raisin Bran. Across the room, I saw where he used to sit when they would convert the dining room into The Inn’s famous “Bingo” tournament.  I would watch as my dad would work several cards at once. (Boy, those older folks were out for blood during that game! Once, during a particularly heated game, you could hear a pin drop as the tension mounted and then a little old lady from the back row would suddenly blurt out,

“BINGO!!!!”

I watched as her table mates  clapped politely, while barely masking the daggers of jealousy they shot her. “Bingo” was serious business!)

—-

There were only a few other families that had come to the memorial service. It was a particularly foggy night, and many people probably didn’t want to venture out. I was grateful as the tears were now fully streaming down my face. My mom put her arm around me.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whispered.

“Don’t be sorry, honey.” she said, reassuringly. “It’s okay.”

We took our seat towards the front. There were only about 7 or so people scattered in different seats.

It was a very informal service, as staff took turns reading poems, a Psalm, and a prayer. They had a booklet they handed out with everyone’s name who had died. They read them aloud.

I openly wept. I held a box of tissues in my lap. As they got to my dad’s name, I felt a stabbing pain in my chest and my cheeks flashed hot.

While they continued to speak, I found my eyes wandering around the room. Towards the back of the dining room, I spotted a closed door that led to an adjoining room. That room was a big part of my dad’s life. It is where he took his weekly woodworking class over the years.

Every Friday, my dad would meet his pals in that room along with Gene, a wonderful community volunteer, who would gently guide the men in simple crafts. One time they made a mirror and stained it a golden brown color. Another time, they made a key chain holder. It gave the men confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

My dad in his prime, greatly enjoyed woodworking. He constructed everything from building simple outdoor sheds, to seesaws for his grandchildren. I’ll never forget when he made me a tree house when I was little girl in our wooded backyard lot. I helped my dad with the simple tasks that make a child feel important. We built it together. That tree house held many of my childhood memories and its accompanying sweet secrets inside.

As his memory began to fade, the skills of woodworking sadly left him. But Gene was a wonderful, patient and loving instructor. One time, he helped my dad craft a beautiful hand-carved wooden birdhouse. It was a complex project, with copper trim and great detail. Though Gene did the majority of the construction, my dad proudly helped him with some of the finish work. I’ll never forget the day I visited my dad and he showed me the completed project. The look on his face – he exuded so much pride in his accomplishment. It was almost as if he were a school boy presenting a cherished piece of art to his mother. The role-reversal that became achingly apparent in our relationship was on full display at that moment. I felt a swell of pride in him that I could only describe as “maternal.”

I have that birdhouse proudly displayed in my dining room. I will cherish it forever.

birdhouse

—-

As the Memorial Service concluded, my mom and I said our thanks and goodbyes to the staff who put the evening together. My eyes were swollen from crying; but no one seemed to mind.

Leaving the room, my mom and I stood briefly in the lobby of The Inn. The lights were dim and it was empty. The receptionist desk was abandoned. Many of the residents were upstairs, perhaps in bed. The halls were quiet and we just stood there, taking it all in.

It felt like we were finally closing a chapter.

We made our way out to the car in silence. It was an emotional evening for both of us. We both felt weary.

When we got to my mom’s house, I got out of the car to help her inside. We hugged each other goodbye and I promised my mom I would see her tomorrow.

“Are you going to be okay, honey?” she asked me worriedly.

“Oh, I’ll be fine, mom.” I promised. She nodded and made her way inside, carrying my father’s picture with her.

When my father died, we were going through some of his things that we retrieved from The Inn. There were items from his dresser, his wallet, his watch. And his clothing.

I suddenly spotted something that had great meaning to me. It was my dad’s favorite navy-blue striped flannel shirt. I asked my mother if she minded if I kept it, and she said, “Sure! Take it!”

Right before Christmas, I had folded his shirt and stuck it on the counter in the laundry room, not quite sure what to do with it and forgot about it. A few weeks ago, when I was doing laundry, I was organizing some things in the room and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father’s shirt.

The next thing I knew, I was on the floor, clutching his shirt to my chest with tears streaming down my face, not recognizing the primal sounds coming from my mouth.

My daughters had come to be well acquainted with this occasional sound of sadness coming from their mother.

It didn’t scare them; they understood.

They would spring into action and come running. My oldest, would find me and bring me a box of tissues. She would sit down next to me, put her arm around me and say, “I know it hurts, Mommy. I miss him, too.” My youngest daughter would come running after quickly grabbing her favorite stuffed animal. She would give it to me and say, “Hold this up to your heart, Mommy. It will make you feel better.”

Love can illuminate even the darkest moments.

Those moments of grief have become less frequent now. A few months have passed, and the shock of losing my dad has worn off.

The reality and acceptance are starting to take root.

Some say grief is like a river. It comes in waves. I tend to agree with that.  It’s hard to predict how ones journey with loss will ebb and flow.

The other day, after the memorial service, it hit me like a tidal wave.

But tomorrow, perhaps, it will be more like a puddle my daughters splash in during the unexpected winter thaw we just had.

For now, my father’s shirt has found a new home. I have hung it proudly in my closet. I look at it every day. Sometimes I tear up when I see it. But ever so gradually, I’m finding that it makes me happy to see it there.

Because I know my dad will always be with me.

In my heart.

In my memories.

Even in my sadness, when I know he’s holding my hand.

And I know, eventually, when I think of him, I will be able to smile again.

I love you, Dad.

dad's shirt

Journey’s End


One Friday morning a couple of weeks ago, I put my girls on the bus, jumped in my car, and went to visit my dad. He lives at The Inn, the nursing home he calls home, and where he has done his slow dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia for the past 7 years.

Usually I head over a little later in the morning, but that day, I felt I needed to go over there sooner rather than later.

I wasn’t sure why.

As I walked down the hallway to his room on the third floor, his nurse – a pal – smiled brightly at me. Then she looked at her watch and said, “They haven’t got him up for breakfast yet; a couple of the aides came in late today so they’ll be in there soon.” (My dad usually needs help getting out of bed, and assistance with dressing and freshening up in the morning.)

So I walked into his room and found him snoozing comfortably in his bed. I didn’t want to disturb him so I sat in the chair in his room across from his bed, glancing at him periodically, and soaked up the quiet.

About 5 minutes later, two aides came into the room. I heard one of them walk over to my dad and say cheerfully, “Good morning, Ed! Are you ready to get up and get some breakfast?” I heard my dad reply in his characteristically chipper voice, “Sure. I think I can do that!”

I quickly got up from my chair, and walked out of his room to give him privacy, and to let the aides have all the space they needed. I told them I would meet my dad at his breakfast table when he came out. As I walked away, I made small talk as I passed his nurse again, chit-chatting about Thanksgiving the next week, and how we had plans to head down to NY to see my husband’s family.

There is a lounge area right next to the dining room where my dad and I have had many a visit over the years at The Inn. I sat in the familiar wingback chair, facing the hallway to my dad’s room so I’d be able to spot him when he started his pilgrimage down the hall to breakfast.

As I checked my email on my phone, I looked up to see his nurse walk in my direction. I looked down at my phone again thinking she would just walk past me on her way to tend to another patient, but her gait slowed as she approached. I looked up at her and smiled, but I couldn’t quite place the look she had on her face in return.

It didn’t seem right.

She pulled up a chair next to me and sat down. She rested her elbows on her knees as if she had something very important on her mind, and looked up at me with tears in her eyes.

“We think your dad may have had a small stroke,” she says.

“Okay,” I replied, calmly. After all, that’s not a big deal. He’s had those in the past. Many moons ago. But he rebounded fine. A little physical therapy…some extra attention. I can handle that. No big whoop.

She continued, “When they were getting him up, they brought him into the bathroom and they noticed he had drooping on the left side of the face, he was slurring his words, and his left arm was flaccid. They put him back to bed. I am going to go check his vitals and evaluate him now.”

I stood up mechanically and followed her back to my dad’s room. I stood in the doorway as she breezed by me, a stethoscope around her neck. She put a blood pressure cuff on him, and started checking him from head to toe. His eyes were closed. She said, “HI, ED!” loudly, and my dad mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand.

I walked back into the hallway and took out my phone. I dialed my mom’s number and she answered on the first ring.

“Hi, Mom,” I said. She replied, sunnily, “Hi, honey!”

I continued, “So….Mom…they think Dad may have had a little stroke.”

In a panicked voice she said, “Really, honey? What happened?” I explained that it must have just happened….that they put him back to bed…that the nurse is checking him.

“I’m on my way,” I heard my mother’s voice say. “Please, drive safe…” I asked her.

I walked back into my dad’s room. The nurse came over to me and hugged me. I noticed she was now crying.

“It’s not good,” she said.

Huh? Did she just say, “It’s not good?”

She left the room and I was alone with my dad. I pulled a chair over to him and sat at the side of his bed. His head was turned on the pillow facing me; his eyes closed as if he was dozing.

“Hi, Dad!” I said with enthusiasm, grabbing his right hand. He squeezed it hard.

“Hi…my…dar…ling,” he said, weakly, in slurred and garbled speech.

My heart started racing. Let’s try that again.

“How’re you doing, Dad?” I said, biting my lip to chase away the tears forming in my eyes.

He sounded as if he had just had Novocaine from the dentist – like his tongue was numb or something. I could barely make out his words. But after trying very hard, I heard him manage, “I’m o—–kkkay.”

Then it hit me. This wasn’t a small stroke.

My face flashed hot and I kissed him on the cheek. Then I felt a huge lump in my throat as the tears began to stream down my face.

Suddenly I heard a school girl’s voice come out of my mouth as I choked back tears and said, “I love you so much, Daddy,” and I began to sob.

I held his hand and studied it in mine. His grip was strong. His skin wrinkled and weathered from the many seasons it has seen.

My dad’s hand has always been symbolic to me. Ever since I could remember, when we would part, he would take my hand in his, and hold it up to his mouth, and gently kiss it. It was his signature send-off; an old-fashioned gentleman’s gesture. And how he told us he loved us.

He did it for me. For my sisters. And for my daughters.

I studied this hand, in mine. My father’s hand. Now I had to be the strong one. It was my turn to hold his hand.

I held it with care, and with love as time ticked away.

It was now 20 minutes since his stroke.

IMG_1216

About 10 minutes later, tears running down my cheeks, I looked up to see my mother standing in the doorway. She took one look at me and started crying. I ran over to her and hugged her.

“I’m so sorry, Mom” I said.

“Oh I’m so sorry for you, too,” she cried, her breath skipping.

I looked at her, and said, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this.” She nodded. Little did I know that that statement would become my mantra for the next few days:

“It’s going to be okay.”

I walked her to my dad’s bed and brought a chair by her. She stayed standing, rubbing the top of his head, and holding his hand. His eyes were closed. He was breathing softly but could still communicate with us.

She leaned over him, softly kissing him on the cheek. “Hi, honey!” she whispered into his ear, her voice quivering. “This is Barb. I’m right here,” she told him.

“Hi, Bar….bie,” came the slow, garbled reply.

I pulled over a chair and sat down next to her. I watched as she studied him and then she started gingerly rubbing his chest, then caressing his arm, trying to soothe him. She continued to hold his hand and I heard her begin to do what she has always done in times of worry or uncertainty.

She began to pray.

She began, “Our Father who art in heaven….hallowed be thy name…thy kindgom come…”

Then my father tried to say something. It was a big effort for him, you could just tell. She paused as he tried to get the words out. Then I heard him summon up the strength and he added,

“Thy… will…. be… done…”

She continued for him, “On earth as it is in Heaven…”

My dad fell silent as she finished the prayer, seemingly trying to add words, but never quite forming them completely. She continued with “The Hail Mary,” and “Glory Be…” prayers.

As my mother finished the prayers she said, smiling,

“We love you, God.”

My dad tried to say something. He was struggling.

“And He…” he stammered, then fell quiet.

He continued, his eyes closed,

“And..He…LOVES US,” my dad managed to say, his words jumbled, but easily understood.

“Yes!” my mother said, a smile washing over her face with approval, “He loves US!”

I watched my two parents in awe. I remember thinking what a gift I was witnessing. Their love and their faith on display in front of me. It is something I shall never forget.

An hour had now passed since his stroke. My sister, Jeanne, arrived after racing over to The Inn from her job in Nashua. She rushed in, with her name badge on, and tears in her eyes. We began the process of calling our 5 other siblings in the midwest and extended family. I called my dad’s brothers and sister and broke the news that a sad turn of events had occurred. We held up the phone to my dad’s ear to give them all a chance to say something to him.

We called our priest. He came over to administer “The Sacrament of the Sick.” It took all of 5 minutes, but provided great consolation, especially to my mother.

The administrator at The Inn came to see us. Word had spread throughout the building about my dad.  She told us they were going to move my dad to a large private room so our family could gather with my dad in peace. The room would be big enough to put extra beds in there if anyone wanted to spend the night. Whatever we needed, whatever comfort, they would bring us.

“So…. he’s dying?” I heard myself ask her, matter-of-factly.

“Well, it’s not imminent,” she replied softly, her voice trailing off. She gave me a hug and rubbed my back.

I looked up to spot another pal who was a staff member in the kitchen wheel over a cart with drinks and snacks on it. She smiled nervously and gestured she was leaving it in the hallway.

For us? Why were they were giving us a beverage and snack cart?

An hour or so later, my dad soon was moved down the hall to a beautiful end room that was empty. The walls were freshly painted and there was a candle, music and doilies on the dresser. It was very homey. People started to deliver extra chairs since they knew we had a big family. We went back to my dad’s old room and started to retrieve some items – pictures on his bulletin board, my dad’s Notre Dame mementos he used to carry around in his walker, his Notre Dame hat. We wanted to begin to make this new room, my dad’s.

There is a large, framed photo of my parents that we took when they had their 60th wedding anniversary – just 2 years ago. It has been on the wall of my dad’s old room ever since. In recent days, it was how my dad knew he was at his room in the evenings when his memory began to fade. “I can always tell this is my room when I look at that picture on the wall,” he used to tell us.

Just then, Ron, the wonderful maintenance man at The Inn, who loved my dad, came in. He was holding that picture. He took out his drill and began to measure to hang it up on the wall – on the freshly painted surface. I don’t know why, but I asked him with concern, “Are you sure it’s okay to hang that up? They just painted the wall.” He looked at me and said,

“I’m happy to do it.”

The people at The Inn are top-shelf.

today

The hospice nurse came to my dad’s new room. They explained what was happening. They handed us a brochure that explained signs to look for at the end of life.

The vigil began.

The sun was starting to go down. It was now Friday night, about 10 hours after his stroke.

My dad was semi-conscious. He was comfortable, sort of drifting in and out. My sister, Kate, had arrived. She is a nurse and helped to manage his care with the other caregivers. Our wonderful friend, Theresa, was my dad’s aide and helped our family with whatever we needed. She became our guardian angel as time went on.

My dad was sitting in a reclining chair in his new room. My mom sat next to him, holding his hand and talking. She said, “We’re right here.”

I heard him say to her, “And Teresa?”

My mom responded enthusiastically, “Yes, Teresa is right here!” She caught my attention and I realized that he said my name. I quickly walked over to him and held his hand. I said, “I love you, Dad!”

I heard him say, “I…love…you.”

Those were the last words my father said to me.

My sister, Kate, insisted on spending that night with my dad. She didn’t want him to be alone.

We left as it got late. We brought my mom home and my sister, Jeanne, spent the night with her.

I went home and tried to sleep. I pictured scenes from my childhood…my wedding…times at The Inn. I played this slide show in my mind the whole night. I kept my cell phone on, worried I would get The Call.

But it stayed silent the whole night.

The next day was Saturday – the week before Thanksgiving. I woke up, jumped into the shower and made a beeline for The Inn bright and early at 7:00 a.m. My husband – gratefully – was off on a scheduled vacation and was taking the girls to ice-skating lessons. He told the girls what was happening. They wanted to come to see my dad after their lesson.

I walked into the room and saw my dad in bed, sleeping, breathing a bit more heavily. My sister, Kate, looked weary from the night watch. My dad was laying on his right side. I crawled into bed next to him, hugging him and stroking his silvery-white hair. The tears flowed freely as I told him how much I loved him and how everything was going to be alright.

When I was a little girl, my dad sang a lullaby to me every night right before bed. It’s the same lullaby I sing to my two girls every single night since they were born. Without thinking, as I hugged him I started to sing the lullaby into his ear.

In some ways, my dad was like a child to me as the role-reversal was often achingly real in the last few years. Singing the lullaby to my dad was my way to try to soothe and comfort him. “It’s going to be okay, Dad,” I whispered. “You’re doing great.”

I know he was fighting, and I was so proud of him.

Other residents and staff were now coming in to visit my dad throughout the day. Though he wasn’t able to rouse enough to see them, it was amazing how many people would drift in and out of the room, sharing their stories about my dad.

He was loved.

Saturday wore on. My husband arrived with my two daughters, 5, and 7. My girls literally grew up at The Inn, and the environment wasn’t scary to them. They knew my dad wasn’t doing well, but they were very accepting. As my girls came in, they saw me lying next to my dad. My 7 year-old studied me and came right over to my dad. He was sleeping. She wasn’t afraid.

“Hi, Grandpa,” she said. She touched his shoulder.

“Mom, he’s snoring,” she said, smiling. “Yes, he is!” I reassured her. “Just like you do sometimes,” I kidded.

“I do NOT snore!” she teased, giggling. Then she went over to the table and began to draw with some crayons and paper I had layed out. She and her sister got busy coloring. After about 10 minutes, she produced the artwork and showed it to me.

IMG_1237

Then I saw her do something I will never forget.

She walked over to my dad, placed her picture on his chest, as he was sleeping. Then she carefully grabbed his right hand. I watched as she held it up to her mouth. Then she kissed it sweetly.

Just like her Grandpa had done countless times to her before.

I couldn’t move. I looked at her in awe.

The room began to fill up. My brother arrived from Wisconsin. My grown niece and nephew came. My niece’s 2 year-old twins arrived. There were 4 generations in the room with my dad.

The room filled up with life.

There was even laughter in between the tears.

It was now 24 hours since his stroke. Things started to change. They started my dad on morphine as his breathing was starting to become labored. It helped ease and relax him.

But, as I learned, once your start someone on morphine, there’s no more communicating with them. They go into a deeper place, a peace-filled place, as their body prepares for what’s to come. He was slowly slipping away.

My other siblings were en route. Flying from Minnesota. My dad’s grown grandchildren were starting to travel home.

Thanksgiving was only days away.

It was now Sunday morning. My dad’s breathing had slowed to the point where he now had periods of apnea (where his breathing stops and then starts again.) My brother, sister and nephew had all stayed overnight with my dad. The staff at The Inn had wheeled in an extra bed as well as another mattress. My dad was never alone.

This day would be my dad’s last day.

My husband had to work that day, so I had my daughters with me. We got to The Inn right after sunrise. We all took turns talking to my dad and sitting next to him. My 7 year-old got into bed with him as she saw me do, and stroked his hair.

The hours passed.

My husband called me to let me know he had an hour break at work so he was coming to The Inn. It was getting close to lunchtime, and my kids were getting antsy. They had been cooped up in his room for 5+ hours, so I decided to bring them home to pack a quick lunch, let out my dog, and then make the trek back to The Inn. My husband stayed with my family as I planned to be back in a half hour. I needed to take a breather.

As I drove my girls home, we were all silent in the car. As I opened the door to the house, my dog happily scooted out. I made my way to the kitchen to quickly grab some lunch items to pack into their lunch boxes so we could return to The Inn. Then my cell phone rang. It was my husband.

“Come back fast!” he commanded.

I hung up the phone and screamed, “Girls!!!! We have to go!!!  WE HAVE TO GO NOW!!!”

I raced into the car, my girls following. We pealed out of our driveway. I left my dog in the yard.

A minute later I heard my text tone go off on my phone. It was from my husband.

“HURRY!” it said.

I pleaded out loud in the car, “PLEASE GOD!!!! HELP ME GET THERE IN TIME!!!! PLEASE, GOD!!!!”

My girls reassured me in the back seat, “It’ll be okay, Mom!” they said worriedly.

I floored the gas petal through the streets of my neighborhood. The road was clear.

As I approached the street where The Inn was, my husband called again.

“Where are you?”

I replied, “I’m almost there. I’m passing Macy’s now.”

“RUN ANY RED LIGHTS,” he said, his voice breaking.

I started screaming and raced my car into the parking lot of The Inn.

My husband met me outside. I stopped my car, threw opened the door and screamed, “Park it for me!”

I ran at breakneck speed into the doors and pressed the elevator to the 3rd floor. Inside the elevator, I pounded on the doors, pleading with it to move faster.

When the doors opened, I bolted down the hall. When I walked in, my family was standing, holding hands around my dad.

Breathlessly, I screamed, “AM I TOO LATE??? IS HE GONE????”

They said, “He’s going now.” I looked at my dad. His eyes were closed. His breathing had stopped. My family was heartbroken. My mom had tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Did I miss it?!?!” I demanded. “DON’T LIE TO ME! TELL ME!!! DID I MISS IT?!?”

My sisters insisted it was happening “right now.” I saw people exchange looks.

But I know that I missed it. My dad slipped away when I was gone. Just minutes before I got there.

My husband came up and joined me. “He still had a heartbeat when you were here,” he promised. He had a weak pulse. You were here.”

My niece, Elizabeth, said softly to me, “Maybe he was waiting for you to leave before he went.”

I understand. Really, I do. It was the way it was supposed to be.

In the days that followed, there was shock, heartbreak, laughter, anger and gratitude. A lot of what happened those days is a little foggy for me. We met with the funeral home. I wrote his obituary. There was a wake.

My friends, neighbors and even perfect strangers showered me with love, support and strength. It occurred to me that my life had been forever changed, but the people who sent messages, cards, flowers, food, provided child care, and friendship, were a part of a bigger circle of family in my life. I am forever grateful.

I am so blessed that I had this man – my father – in my life. I was blessed to be able to care for him as much as I could through the many seasons of his life. It was an honor to be able to walk with him on this journey as his bright star began to fade. I was so grateful to be able to be with him as he left this world.

I know it was his time to go. He was God’s to begin with, and to God he must return. I know he is up there looking down at all of us with love – and maybe just a hint of mischief in his sparkling blue eyes.

Today is my birthday. Today, I have finally turned the age that my dad was when I was born.

I look at the year ahead as full of possibilities. My life is forever altered as I learn to navigate a world that is very different without him in it. I share this heartbreak with my brothers and sisters, my mother, and everyone in our family. I miss my dad with all my heart but my faith tells me he is more alive today than we could possibly know.

Today on my birthday, I am thinking of my dad. I’m remembering how he used to be one of the first calls I would get in the morning. How he would sing “Happy Birthday” in his deep booming voice. How each year on this day, he would revisit the memory of the day of my birth, How he would tell me, “Teresa, you will never know just how much we love you.”

Today on my birthday, I will be remembering my dad. I will reflect on how much he meant to me and how much he has taught me.

Remembering my dad will be the best birthday gift I could ever receive.

I love you, Dad.

Eulogy


When I was a junior in college, I was just about an hour away at the University of NH. I had my car at school, so one Friday afternoon, I came home for the weekend.

As I came through the garage door into the basement, dirty laundry in tow, I heard the familiar booming voice of my dad. Judging by the charismatic, yet polite, tone of his voice, it soon became obvious he was on the phone. So, I sat down on the couch behind him and listened to his end of the call, while soaking in the familiar sights and sounds of my childhood home.

I heard him say,

“Well, that’s just great, Karen, I think you should feel VERY proud of yourself.

I assumed it must be an old friend or work associate, judging by his warm and encouraging words.

A minute later, the receiver to his ear, my dad turned around and spotted me. His eyes flashed open wide and a huge smile crept upon his face. He held up his index finger as if to say he was about to finish up the call, and I nodded.

Then as he prepared his conversation “dismount,” I heard him say,

Well, listen, Karen, I have to run. My daughter just walked in the door. But I wish you so much luck with that decision, and I’ll be thinking of you. Okay…you, too…bye-bye.”

He hung up the phone and he walked over to me and threw his arms around me in a big bear hug.

“Hi Dad!” I said! “Hi, my darling!” he exclaimed.

As he bent over to pick up my laundry basket, I asked, “Who was that on the phone?”

He looked at me blankly for a minute as if trying to register my question.

Then he replied, “Oh that? That was just a wrong number.”

~~~

Today, we are all here to tip our hat to a wonderful man. A man who has had a profound influence on all who knew him.

Together, we toast the man, the myth, the legend of Ed Dugan.

My brother, Pat, reminded me the other day, that if my dad were speaking right now, he’d start by saying in his perfect straight-faced style:

“I was born at a very young age…in a manger…”

For one of his great gifts, was making people laugh. He had many jokes, anecdotes and one-liners that he employed year…after year…after year.

I sometimes like to refer to them simply as “Ed Dugan-isms.”

In fact, he was so fond of joking around, that early on in our family, we learned the necessity of employing a very simple rule to be able to tell when my dad was kidding, or when he was telling the truth.

If he said something that seemed hard to believe (which was pretty often), we’d say, “Honest, Dad?” And if he was joking, he had to confess right then and there. If he replied back with  “Yes, HONEST!” then we knew it was the absolute truth.

Such was the way of my childhood.

My dad had a great love for people. Whether stranger or beloved friend. He loved nothing more than making people laugh or paying them a compliment. To all his daughters, he would say, “You’re beautiful!” at just about every chance he’d get.

And as for my mom – well, he would often gaze at her as if it were the first time he had ever laid eyes on her.

To use my husband’s great description, “My dad was a character!” Growing up, on special occasions, when would go out to eat at a restaurant, at the end of the meal, when the waitress would bring our check, she would ask the obligatory question, “Was everything alright with your meal?”

Immediately, my father would steal a glance at her name tag and reply without missing a beat, “Shirley, the food was ALMOST as good as the service!”

After a few seconds, it registered with her what my dad was saying, and she would brighten up and gush, “Oh, thank you!!!”

My dad would smile as she walked away, pleased with earning yet another loyal customer.

The Shirleys of the world loved my dad.

My father was in sales all his life; a profession that took him all over the country travelling while my mother dutifully raised the kids.

He learned early on that the key to getting a customer’s loyalty was to become invested in them on a personal level. But this natural curiosity extended far beyond his business life and became his own personal mantra wherever he went.

He genuinely loved people.

You could always hear him striking up conversations with anyone who would listen. At church, at the supermarket, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

You know that rule about people not speaking in elevators? Well, that didn’t apply to my dad. I think some of his best friendships were born in elevator cars.

He loved to know what made people tick. What they did for a profession.  If he knew someone was a mechanic, for example, he’d ask, “So John, just how did you get into the business of fixing cars?” For, he knew people LOVED to talk about themselves and when they would tell their tale, my dad would fix his eyes on them as if what they had to say was the most important thing in the world he ever heard.

And he also learned the art of how to disarm a difficult or disgruntled customer with his charm and his grace.

One day, I remember my dad came home after getting a speeding ticket. He was known to have a bit of a lead foot, so this wasn’t terribly unexpected. My dad recounted the story of when the officer pulled him over. As he got out of his patrol car, and walked over to my dad, he was  red-faced and angry, demanding to know if my father had any idea how fast he was going! The officer was extremely scolding in his tone and was obviously very displeased with my father’s lack of rule-following on the road.

My dad listened calmly to the officer and when he was finished said,

Officer, I want to thank you.”

He looked at my dad, slightly confused.

My dad continued,

“I know that you did not enjoy having to tell me all that. Clearly, I was wrong and I deserve a ticket. And I want to thank you, Officer, for having the courage and the honesty to tell it like it is.”

The officer, at a loss for words, hastily took the rather pricey ticket from his pad, handed it to my father and walked away. My dad drove off and eventually made his way home.

A few hours later, the phone rang.

My dad answered, “Hello?”

“Mr. Dugan?”came the voice. “This is Officer so-and-so. I stopped you today for speeding. I am calling to let you know, that YOU sir, have my permission to rip up that ticket I gave you this afternoon.”

My father – rather surprised – asked “Really, Officer?”

The officer continued, “Mr. Dugan, in my 30+ years on the police force, I have never had anyone treat me with the amount of humility and respect that you did today, sir. That ticket has been expunged from your record.”

My dad thanked him profusely, and hung up the phone, absolutely glowing.

CLASSIC Ed Dugan.

Like any proud parent out there, my dad loved nothing better than receiving a compliment about his children. And he loved sharing those compliments. The only catch was, in order to get my dad to tell us the compliment, WE had to tell my dad a compliment that we heard about HIM first.

He called these “TL’s” which stood for “Tell Last”. This meant that he would tell us the compliment last – only after we spilled the beans about something nice we heard about him.

Out of the blue he’d say, “Teresa, I have a “TL” for you.” I’d immediately get excited and ask him to tell me the nice thing someone said about me. Then he’d narrow his eyes and look at me and say, “You know the drill.” So then I’d roll my eyes and scramble to remember something nice someone said about my dad, like, “OK….dad….yesterday the kid down the street said you were funny.” Then he’d say, “Really? Which kid?” Inevitably followed by “Oh, I always liked that kid!”

Bottom line, my dad loved to hear praise in any form.

Recently, one of the nursing assistants at his nursing home – where my dad hung his hat for the last 7 years – told us that when she once introduced my dad to her grandmother, his first response was,

“So nice to meet you. Now tell, me – do you find me handsome?”

Perhaps the greatest lesson my dad ever gave to us, was the love he had for my mother. All my life, he has only seemed completely at peace when she was by his side.

Even when I was a young girl, when he would be watching TV, I’d walk into the room and he’d say, “Where’s your mother?” when she was only feet away in the kitchen.

(I always secretly thought that would make a great tattoo if he ever got one – “Where’s Your Mother?”)

My parents were a team. They went to the grocery store together. They went to the gas station together. They were pretty much inseparable. He adored my mother and longed to be with her all the time.

Their love story was epic.

In the twilight of his life, my dad began his slow-dance with dementia. He did so gracefully, and sweetly – always with a smile on his face and a compliment to a nurse or staff member.

He loved to tell people, “You look beautiful today.”

The one thing I will truly miss about my dad was the way he told his family that he loved us, every time he saw us. I’ll miss his blue eyes twinkling when I came into his range of view, and the way his face captured his joy when he saw my face.

He’d say, “Hi, my Darling!” as he seemed to convey with every cell of his body how happy he was to see me.

When we would part, I’d say, “Okay, dad – I have to go. But I’ll come visit you tomorrow!” Then like clockwork, he would take my hand, bring it up to his lips and softly kiss it. It was his signature send-off.

I’m going to miss that very much.

He was a simple man. At times, he was a complicated man. But always, he was a loving man.

Though his death won’t make the evening news, nor will an article on his passing grace the pages of his beloved “People Magazine,” the story of his life is no less important or extraordinary. For he was larger-than-life to this daughter, a legend in his own time, and not someone I can ever possibly forget. I will miss him deeply, and today our family’s grief is great. But my faith tells me I will see my dad again, a belief that today I cling to. And as my nephew Brendan pointed out to me just the other day, our faith tells us that today, he is more alive than ever before on earth.

Until then, I will proudly make small talk to strangers in elevators, pay random compliments to waitresses and people at grocery stores, in his honor.

I will never miss an opportunity to make someone smile with a corny joke. I will cherish my family, and tell the people I love how much they mean to me, all in loving tribute to him.

I know my dad is having a wonderful time up in Heaven – greeting people, making people laugh – introducing himself to everyone with his famous opening line,

“Incidentally, I’m Ed Dugan.”

And I also know he’s giving God an earful while asking,

“So, God, tell me. How exactly how did you get into the business of Creation?”

I love you, dad. And I’ll miss you forever.

“HONEST.”

The Journey.


Once a month we have a family “care plan” meeting where we meet with staff – usually the charge nurse and the social worker at The Inn. (my father’s term for the nursing home he calls home, and where he does his slow dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.)

These meetings are fairly routine with both parties discussing any issues in care that come up. For example, a favorite plaid shirt that may have gone missing in the laundry; or arranging for him to have an extra blanket for nighttime.

Last week was meeting day.

As my mom and I walked into the meeting room and made ourselves comfortable, the social worker, MaryAnn, and Karen the charge nurse sat opposite us as we exchanged early morning pleasantries. Staff have become extended family, as my dad enters his 7th year at The Inn. We often have our share of laughs at these meetings, as we continue to find the funny moments that can be a part of his day.

But early on this morning, I could sense something else was on their mind other than the usual agenda of this-and-that.

MaryAnn began with, “We all know that Ed has experienced some changes over the last few months, and we’ve seen him start to decline, both physically and cognitively.”

My mom and I nodded in agreement. This wasn’t news to us, after all. The last month, in particular, my dad has become increasingly lost inside himself; weaker physically; and often refusing to eat lunch, or sometimes dinner.

She continued, “So, as a team, staff have been meeting to discuss how we can best help Ed, going forward.”

Karen the nurse continued, “We wanted to talk with you as a family to begin to consider the process of offering Ed “care and comfort” in the future.”

I looked over at my mom, who continued to nod, and then back at MaryAnn and Karen.

Then I felt an unfamiliar pang in my chest. It slowly started to hit me what they were saying.

“You mean…are you saying… it’s time to look at hospice?” I asked.

They both nodded, as I felt like a bullet hit me between the eyes. Hospice? Really? Are we really at that point?

They went on to reassure us that hospice is often surrounded in misunderstanding. That really it’s often another “layer” of care, but specifically focused on my dad. He’ll still stay at The Inn. He’ll still receive the care from staff. But an additional team will now come in – often several times a week – and make sure my dad is comfortable, perhaps play him some favorite music; assist him in any way he needs them; keep him company. Additionally, they can encourage him to eat and will be looking at all his medications to see what can be discontinued, and no longer adding value.

“I’m sure he would love the extra attention!” I suddenly heard my mom say from next to me. I looked over at her as she sat in her chair, her poker face on, bravely and cheerfully accepting what they were telling us. I silently wondered how that must feel, to be told your husband of 62 years is entering into this new phase.

She is the strongest woman I have ever known.

The more we talked, we learned that hospice is not necessarily a death-sentence; rather it can be a “blessing in disguise” to provide more focused care specifically for my dad. They will look at his activities. They will keep him company. They will give him his meds when needed.

I was surprised to learn that some people even get discharged from hospice, if they gain weight; or make other small improvements. It’s just more focalized care. Staff at The Inn are in charge of many patients. Hospice will only focus on my dad.

Really, it’s a win-win.

Our meeting finished up and we went to see my dad. He was having a good day – smiling, eating his breakfast. He recognized us right off the bat and brightened up immediately.

(Hospice? This doesn’t look like a man who needs hospice.)

But I understand that my dad’s good days are starting to diminish. That today is no longer the norm. When we spotted him at the breakfast table, though he was happy to see us, he proclaimed, “I’ve just finished having breakfast on this wonderful train. The conductor sat me here.”

For some reason, when my dad is confused lately, he often talks about being on a train. But instead of correcting him, we have learned to just play along. “It’s a really nice train, dad,” I agreed, kissing him softly on the cheek.  My mom looked at me and smiled, rolling her eyes. (You have to keep your sense of humor, after all.)

My dad smiled and took my hand. “Thank you, darling,” he said.

Then my dad looked at my mom and said, “Barbie, can you tell me again how my mother died?” My mom answered him right away. “She had a stroke.” My mom looked at me and explained, “For the last couple of weeks, he’s been talking a lot about his mother.”

That’s weird, I thought.

Yesterday, my mom and I met with the hospice nurse who came to assess my dad. She will be his “plus-one” going forward. She was lovely. She sat us down and asked us all about his health history which she dutifully tapped into her laptop,  and then a few minutes later, we were joined by her colleague, a social worker, who questioned us about his religious preferences and other things.

Suddenly, and quite out of the blue, it became very important to me that these people learn every possible detail about my dad. About his 7 children who he and my mom raised; how he was in sales all his life – once winning a prestigious national sales award. We discussed how he was a devout Catholic, never missing mass and how proud he was that his older brother, in his 90’s is a retired Catholic priest. We talked about his beloved Notre Dame and how growing up, watching a Notre Dame game was a “religious experience” on the Saturdays of my youth. We talked about how his family has rallied around him and that many of my siblings – even those who live in the Midwest – have come out to see him as often as they can.

We told them about his personality, how he is a charmer, and a people-person, who up until just a year ago, could get anyone’s life story after talking to them for 5 minutes. We talked about his love for corny jokes and one-liners, and making people laugh, (that this daughter has adopted.)

We talked about how to this day, he’ll still say to a random nurse, “You look beautiful, today!”

I wanted them to know my dad. He’s not just a patient. He’s not just a number on a chart.

He. Is. MY. Dad.

They asked us if we are plugged into any support groups. Like Alzheimer’s support groups or anything like that for family members. I was surprised by the question. These hospice people actually were asking about us. Kinda cool.

The hospice meeting began to wrap up with my mom and I feeling much more encouraged and grateful that this layer of care existed for people and their families. It felt like we won the lottery! This was going to be a good thing! And, as they said, people can often be on hospice for a year or more…with some even getting discharged if they do better!

(Maybe that will be my dad, I hoped!)

As we prepared to leave, they asked if we had any last questions. One suddenly crossed my mind, but I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to ask or not, but what the heck.

“I’ve never had anyone close to me die before. If my dad gets worse, and things start to progress, will you be able to help my family and I recognize some of the signs?”

The two ladies nodded sweetly. The nurse said, “If and when your dad starts to decline further, our care will only increase. Instead of being here a few times a week, we will be here more and more. We’ll be with him closely. We will keep you in the loop every step of the way.”

She went on to say, “Everyone is different. Your dad is still able to speak and often can communicate what’s going on. And I can tell from meeting with him that he is a man who is very in-touch, emotionally.”

“He is a very loving person,” I added. “He tells us he loves us constantly. He always has.”

The social worker chimed in, “That’s wonderful. Sometimes we see people begin to talk about people in the past. Someone close to them they may have lost. They often try to reconcile what’s happening to them by remembering a loved-one.”

My mom looked at them and said, “Last week, he asked me if I could drive him in my car to take him to see his mother.”

The two women looked at each other and nodded. The nurse said, “We frequently hear people talking suddenly about a parent; often the mother.”

Crap.

She continued, “The idea of travel – like him wanting to drive in your car, as you mentioned – is also a frequent theme. He is, almost literally, “traveling” through this process.”

“You mean like being on a train?” I whispered.

“Absolutely!” they said.

“My dad’s been talking about being on a train a lot – like on a dining car.” I explained.

Both women nodded emphatically.

A lump formed in my throat. My face started to get hot. I shifted in my chair and smiled at a staff member walking by to try to distract myself.

(Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Keep it together. I scolded myself.)

I heard my mother say, “When Ed and I were younger, we often traveled by train.”

The social worker continued, “You see, your dad is on a journey. What you need to understand is that all this is  perfectly normal – the things he is beginning to talk about – his mother – wanting to see his mother – being on a train…”

(Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Damn, my face feels hot!)

I tried to focus on the women’s faces, but suddenly they became blurry. They were looking at my mother who was bravely taking all this information in.

(Don’t cry in front of mom! Don’t. You’ll just upset her. Keep it together.)

Too late. My eyes welled. The ladies stopped talking. They looked at me with concern and understanding. It’s not like they haven’t seen it before, right?

The nurse started to get up and find a tissue.

“I’m good!” I smiled, reassuringly. “I’m good.”

My mom looked over at me and her eyes flashed open.

(I’m a pretty upbeat kinda gal. I’m not known to cry.)

Immediately she took my hand. “Oh, honey,” she said.

(Oh crap. She sees me.)

My mom squeezed my hand while she explained to the women that I have been trying to juggle it all. “She’s been doing such an amazing job trying to take care of her dad all this time…she even takes care of me – getting my groceries. And she has two little girls. She tries to do it all.”

(What is that trick to make yourself stop crying? Look up at the ceiling? Let me try that.)

The social worker went on, “Your dad’s deep faith in God could be a comfort to him now. The next time he starts to ask about his mom, if you and your family so desire, you could talk about his faith that he may see her again.”

My eyes gradually dried as I took this in. The more I thought about it, I realized how important it was to hear this. For once, someone was empowering our family with the tools to help my dad on his journey. It’s okay to talk to him in a way that is reassuring to him; that provides a sense of peace.

I suddenly had a very strong feeling that these women would be our “guardian angels”as we navigate this road.

I composed myself after a minute and glanced at the clock. “Mom, I have to get the girls off the bus, I’m sorry…I gotta go,” I whispered. I was her ride home so she stood up to leave.

We thanked the ladies profusely and explained that for the first time in a long time, we were feeling like we are heading in a positive direction. That we are feeling a sense of control in an out-of-control time.

“Call us anytime,” they said. “We mean that. We’ll see you soon.”

As my mom and I rode home, I didn’t want to talk. In just 15 minutes, my two little girls would be getting off the bus with playground-stained clothing and toothless grins racing up the driveway to tell me all about their day.

For now, I have to compartmentalize what I’m going through with my dad. Until I can better process how to think about it, I have a 5 and 7 year-old who are dancing through their childhood with complete joy and abandon. And they need me.

As the bus pulled away and I watched my little girls throw their backpacks to the ground and race off, it hit me that there’s so much “life” that surrounds me.

Life in so many stages.

My dad is in the Winter of his life…my babies are basking in Springtime.

Each stage is a gift.

I’m blessed to experience it all.

I love you, Dad.

What a Difference a Year Makes.


Today as we prepared to visit my dad at The Inn (his term for the nursing home where he does his slow dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia), I casually mentioned to my daughters that we were going to “go visit Grandpa.”

Suddenly, my 7 year-old’s eyes flashed open wide and she asked excitedly, “Mom! What’s the date today?” I replied, “It’s October 20th.” Then she squealed with delight and raced back to her bedroom. Confused, I followed her and found her at her desk with a picture I had seen her working on the last week or so. I didn’t really know what it was but it looked like she was putting the finishing touches on it.

I asked her, “What ‘cha doing?” as I peeked over her shoulder. Before she responded, I saw her sign her name. Then she turned to me and opened her desk drawer. She produced a wrinkled yellow-lined piece of paper that held some familiar scribbled handwriting. As I looked closer, I saw it was my dad’s writing.

I watched as a wide grin crept upon her face.  “Mom!” she said enthusiastically, “Exactly ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, Grandpa wrote me THIS LETTER!” Her hand thrust forward at me and I took the paper. I saw the date, “10/20/11” at the top.

Sure enough, last year at this exact same time, my dad would often write and mail simple letters to my children from The Inn. He knew they got the biggest kick out of receiving mail and relished in hearing their reactions when they would receive them.

The letter from him to my daughter was brief, and said simply, “Dear Ruby, Lots of Love, From Grandpa.”

Then she showed me a letter she wanted to give to him in exchange, with a picture she drew. She put today’s date, “10/20/12” on the top and wanted to bring it along on our visit to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his effort.

It said simply, “Dear Grandpa, I love you sooo much. Love, Ruby”

She had kept his letter all this time. AND she had the patience and vision to wait for the anniversary – an entire year – from when my dad wrote it to write him back on the same date.

For a seven year-old, this was quite a feat, considering she cannot seem to locate the socks she wore yesterday.

She got up from her desk and excitedly brought it with her as we all piled into the car and headed toward The Inn. She had a smile on her face the entire car ride.

Our family has been coming to terms with a steadily and increasing period of decline with my dad. His happy, bright days are fewer and far between. The light is starting to fade from his eyes as his memory steadily slips away. For the most part he still knows us, those of us he sees regularly. But our new obstacle has to do with his occasionally refusing to eat or even drink. He is gradually losing weight and now requires cues and assistance with eating. As often is the case with people with dementia, sometimes they do not even realize they are hungry. And the simple reflex of swallowing is growing more and more difficult. Swallowing his pills can be a huge challenge.

It’s a “new normal.” And we know the writing is on the wall.

I just wish we could erase it.

Today, my dad was certainly not at his best. He spent his entire day in bed, not wanting to eat or drink much. When we came into his room, he was lying in bed and couldn’t keep his eyes open. He barely greeted us.

My daughter walked into her grandfather’s room with her drawing clutched firmly in her hand. She took one look at him and knew instantly that he would not understand what she had done. So without saying a word, she simply turned and hung it up on his bulletin board on his wall. I watched her step back and admire it, pleased with herself.

I have never felt so proud of my little girl. I whispered to her, “I think Grandpa is going to be so excited when he sees that later.”

She looked at me and smiled.

After a bit of time, we turned and left, promising to see him tomorrow.

Anniversaries are often times of celebration. But they can also be poignant, sad times, too. There was sadness in the room today when my dad wasn’t able to be in the moment to celebrate an important anniversary in the eyes of a child. But truth be told, all that was overshadowed by the excitement and thoughtfulness of a seven-year-old girl who just wanted to do something special for her Grandpa, even if he couldn’t really understand it.

I dropped off my girls at home along with my husband and then headed back to The Inn at dinnertime by myself. I just wanted to be with my dad. He was out of bed, sitting at a table in the dining area, sleeping in his wheelchair, an uneaten sandwich and pickle spear staring at him from his plate.

He didn’t want to talk much, so I just held his hand. I told him that I loved him and kissed him on the cheek. He replied politely, yet absently, “Thank you, darling.”

Tomorrow is another day. I’m hoping it’s a much better day than today was. There is certainly an air of unpredictability lately so you just never know what you might get.

But it’s going to be okay.

This is just my Dad’s story. And, if I think about it,  I guess, it’s my story, too.

I love you, Dad.

The Shadow Man


I suppose it’s best to face the inevitable.

My dad is starting to slip into the shadows.

But before he does, I’m going to put up one heck of a fight. I’m talking about a knock-down, dragged-out, kicking and screaming kinda battle. I am going to pester the physicians and the kind-hearted nurses that take care of him at The Inn (his term for the nursing home he lives in, where he does his slow-dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia,) with all my might to make sure they are on top of his care, that he is given as much stimulation, physical therapy, social interaction and attention they can muster.

In short, I’m going to be a pain.

I’m really sorry about that, but he’s my dad. And I’m not going to give up on him just yet.

I’m going to hang out at The Inn, and strike up random conversations with the people who are on his Caregiver-watch for the day. The nurses, the aides, the housekeeping staff. I am going to do my best to educate them, in every way, about my dad.

When they look at my dad, what they may see is a tired, old man in a wheelchair, with heavy eyes and slouching shoulders who tries his darndest to remember their names, but masks his embarrassment by simply calling everyone, “Dear.”

But this man that they see, is not who I see. No. Not at all.

I’m going to take every chance I get to remind them that my dad was once a vibrant, dynamic and hysterically funny man who kept everyone on their toes. He still has days where this shines through, though those days are becoming less frequent.

I’m going to tell them all about my childhood and bore them to death with the details. I’ll tell them about that time when I would have slumber parties on Saturday nights in junior high, and my dad would rig up his old movie projector in the family room, and comb through his archives of silent monster movies like “The Mummy” and “The Wolfman,” to the shrieking delight of my popcorn-eating pals. He would put on his best “movie voice” to introduce the features, and then leave us all with the parting words said in his most dramatic voice, “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll all be safe down here. We have very strong locks on the windows…” My friends would stare at him, wide-eyed, and then we’d all dissolve into nervous laughter after he left.

I’ll also tell them about the times we’d go out to eat at a restaurant as a family. At the end of the meal, when the waitress would come up and ask her predictable question, “Was everything okay with your meal?” my father would steal a quick glance at her name badge and reply without hesitation, “Marie? The food was almost as good as the service!” Then he would smile while she would giggle demurely, with the satisfaction of another well-worn line doing its job. (I must admit, that line has served me well, many times since then.)

I’m going to remind the nurses that at every opportunity I could remember, my father would always sing the praises of my mother, his beautiful bride of 62 years to just about anyone who would listen. I still can recall when I was in sixth grade, when my dad and I would be sitting in the car in our driveway ready to head to weekly mass. My mother was rather notorious for running late, and we’d be waiting for what seemed like hours until we would eventually see the front door open and my mother hurriedly rushing out the door.

My dad would watch her walk down the front steps, his gaze never breaking, as if he was seeing her for the very first time. Then he’d turn to me in the back seat, and say, “Isn’t your mother the most beautiful woman in the world?” I remember I would roll my eyes in embarrassment and respond, “Sure, dad.”

And I will remind his caregivers of the time I came home from college for the weekend during my junior year. My school was only a short hour away, but it felt like I had been gone an eternity. I walked in the door, dirty laundry in tow, and heard the familiar booming voice of my dad, talking animatedly. Instantly I realized he was on the phone, as he had his polite, and charismatic voice on.

I put down my laundry basket and sat down on the couch behind him, and soaked in the sights and sounds of our family room. He had his back to me and didn’t know I was there, as he leaned against our out-of-tune piano with the phone perched on his ear. I listened to his side of the conversation and it became clear to me that he must be talking to a dear, old friend.

I heard him say into the receiver, “Well, Karen, I can understand that must have been quite a shock to you,” followed by, “Well, what a life-lesson that was!” I coughed and he turned in surprise to see me, his face lighting up like a Christmas tree. He motioned to me with his finger up as if to say, “One minute!” Then he spoke again preparing his conversation dismount: “Well, listen, I’m so glad to hear all is well. I wish you all the best.” Then he said his goodbye and hung up the phone.

“Teresa, my love!” he exclaimed brightly, as he bounded over to give me a hug. After I hugged him back, casually I asked him, “Who were you talking to?”

He responded, “Huh? Oh…that was a wrong number.”

True story. My dad befriended a total stranger on the phone who had called the house by mistake, and in the span of only minutes, learned their entire life story.

The funny thing about that moment? I remember just taking it in stride.

That is, after all, my dad.

This past Saturday, I found myself in-between my daughter’s soccer games with some time to kill. My youngest daughter just finished hers and I had a full hour before my older daughter’s game began. My husband was taking the girls to Dunkin Donuts and since I had taken my own car, I thought I’d go visit my dad.

When I stepped off the elevator on the third floor, I found him in his wheelchair, at the nurses station, as they were giving him his morning medication. He looked tired and not quite himself. A bit disheveled. His eyesight is now starting to fade so I put my face up close to him and said brightly, “Hey, Daddy-O!” He smiled politely but it took a minute to register who I was.

Oh. I could tell immediately it was one of those days.

He took my hand and I saw fear in his eyes. “Honey…please…can you tell me where I am?” I looked at him and in an instant I felt myself switch over from being his daughter to feeling like he was my child. “Dad,” I said reassuringly. “You’re at The Inn. This is where you have lived for 7 years. They take such good care of you here!”

He looked at me with great confusion. “Honest?” he said. “Are you telling me the truth?” I rubbed his back as his aide told me, “He’s a little out of sorts this morning.”

We wheeled him over to the dining area so he could have his breakfast. I saw the elevator open and my mother stepped out on her way to visit him, too. She was surprised to see me as we don’t often time our visits together. I walked over to her and whispered, “He’s having a bad day.” She looked at me and instantly knew what I meant.

“Oh. OK.” she said.

We walked over to the table where they wheeled my dad for breakfast. “I’m sure he’ll feel better after he eats,” I reassured her.

My dad took one look at my mom and instead of feeling instantly at ease when he saw her, took her hand and said, “Barbie? Why don’t I live at that house where we used to live?” She replied, “Honey, we moved out of that house a long time ago. You live here, now.”

My dad stared at her, trying to process the information. Then he looked at me, then back at my mom, and said,

“Am I in the middle of a nightmare?”

His words stopped me in my tracks. As heart wrenching as they were to hear, those words were also fascinating to me. What an amazing description of what it must feel like. He actually had that moment of clarity – in the midst of total confusion – that things were not making any sense.

And he was scared.

We just sat there with my dad, as he drank his orange juice and began to eat his scrambled eggs. There wasn’t a lot to say after that, except to just be with him.

My dad’s illness is like a slow-dance into the shadows. He’s still a lovable, sweet man, but more and more frequently, we are seeing days where we lose him into darkness.

But each day is still a gift. After all, he is here with us.

And each day that I see him, whether its a good day and he’s laughing and flirting with the nurses, or it’s a bad day and we sit while smiling politely at each other, I will remember the man he was.

And still is.

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