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

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