Saturday, October 18, 2008

Somber Anniversary

I've been wanting to enter the Guideposts Author Workshop contest for years but just never seemed to get around to writing for it. This year, I took the time to write about some things close to my heart then had pc issues so once again, didn't get anything in. I thought I'd share it with you.

My father sat in what looked like a large school desk, his hospital blue shirt piled - as if laying where tossed - on the floor in front of him. His blue eyes stared intently and unwaveringly down the corridor at something only he could see, oblivious to the bustle that was normal for the VA hospital, oblivious even to the approach of my mother and myself on Labor Day weekend in 2003.

My husband & I, sometimes with our four children, had been making the seven hour trip to my parent's home in Alabama from our home in Florida as often as we could to help my mom with my dad ever since Dad's health began to deteriorate just a few months before. This was my first visit to see him in the VA. After 4 years of early-onset Alzheimer's then the cancer, his care had become more than my mother could handle alone. His behavior erratic. His communication ability almost non-existent. His ability to function dramatically degenerating.

I could see that he had continued to shrink physically. He looked much older than his 58 years. His hair had been cropped short. It hurt to look at him; he had changed so much in so short a time. I pressed down my tears.

Mom gently touched his arm. Finding it cool, she asked a nurse if it was okay to put Dad's shirt back on. As he passed by, the nurse replied that Dad would just take if off again in a few minutes. He sounded exasperated with the repetitions of the shirt: Pick it up. Put it on. Take it off. Throw it on the floor. Pick it up.

Still Dad stared fixedly down the hall. Lifting a finger, he pointed down the corridor at... nothing.

The "desk" kept him out of his room; out as he wanted to be, yet in sight of the nursing staff, unable to wander around and maybe get into trouble. I watched the employees busily doing their work. Efficient. No one else even seemed to look his way. He was just another patient and by the looks of things more difficult than most.

Mom picked up the shirt and re-dressed Dad. He grabbed the "desk" top and shook it with all the strength still in his arms but it was locked down, effectively containing him. Mom calmed him down. I hugged and kissed him and he responded in kind as well as he could. Mom told him that my family was visiting for the weekend then began reading to him from the Gospel of John. He nodded his head in time to her words and stared down the hall, lifting a finger to point.

Hospital staff walked by, speaking quietly, now and then glancing in our direction. I paced the hall as Mom read, still determined not to give into the tears lumping in my throat. Dad looked so old, so frail. So unlike himself.

I wondered about his caregivers. Could they even imagine Dad as I pictured him? To me he was still a multi-talented craftsman with a full life whose creative mind was continually pondering about how to improve something old or invent something new, who was always busy working his land or tinkering in his workshop, seeing a need and meeting it, or coming up with a clever practical joke. Did they see in him a husband, a father and grandfather, a friend?

The answer, of course, was no. How could they? How could they possibly see who was no longer there? They could not turn back time. All they could see was someone who needed their help to make it through each day. Bones wrapped in skin, staring and pointing and pulling off his shirt again, rattling the "desk" top. It bothered me almost as much as Dad's condition, this knowing that none of those caring for him, however skillfully and gently, truly knew him. They were caring for the wasted man, not the whole man.
I wanted to shout, "This is not who he really is!"

As we drove back to Mom's, troubled by feelings of helplessness about his current situation, I thought about my father's life. Was there anything I could do? Was it possible to make difference when we didn't even live in the area? I prayed for direction & comfort.

Back at the house, I sat down at Mom's computer, overwhelmed with feelings of loss and filled with memories. I began to write Dad's life story as if he were telling it. I asked Mom for help with some of the details from Dad's early life: Where was he stationed first? What was the order of changes and moves in his military career and their marriage? When finished, I read over the highlights of Dad's life condensed to one sheet of paper.
One conversation.
I could hear his voice in the words.

Now my question was, would his caretakers? Would they have any interest in knowing him? Were they curious enough to take the time to find out about this man sitting in the hall?

I printed-out the mini-biography and asked my mother to post it by Dad's bed the next time she visited him. The next day, Stan, the kids and I went back to Florida.

Mom told me that she put a couple of copies of Dad's story beside his bed. They disappeared. She printed, copied and posted a few more in a plastic sleeve, making them available for whoever wanted them. Hospital staff asked her if she would bring some more because not everyone had a copy yet and some family members of some of the other patients also wanted one. They wanted to know him!

It was incredible to realize that I had been able to show my father to them. I was able to make a difference. The pouring out of my heart onto paper that was a healing catharsis for me also became a blessing for others. How amazing was that? What a gift from the Lord!

Dad turned 59 on October 6 then passed away on October 19 after several days in a coma-like state. His story was read at his memorial service in Alabama as well as at his funeral in Tennessee. Mom had copies available for those in attendance. Friends and family shook their heads and grinned at the memories then told me some Dad stories that I hadn't heard before.
"He was quite a character."
"We got into some great messes together."
"He was the best friend I ever had."

It was almost like Dad was there. In my mind, I could hear him laughing.

I expect that Guideposts would have rejected this anyhow since they are all about positive thoughts and feeling good. I'm still glad I wrote it. Maybe it will be a blessing for you.

Dad's story?
I put it away for safe-keeping and let me tell you, it is very safe. If I relocate that safe place while cleaning today, I plan to post it tomorrow.


Wife and Mom said...

This is precious Patti and just what I needed to be reminded of today. Thank you for sharing.

Alice said...

I love your story, Patti, and think you should submit it when another chance comes around. I know how much you love your dad and how much you miss him. I will be looking forward to reading the life story - when you locate it :).

daynagonzalez said...

This brought tears to my eyes...what a beautiful story.