Dad passed away on November 25, 2016, one day shy of his 82nd birthday and about five months after celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary with the love of his life.
|Mom and Dad on one of their early dates at the Naval Academy in 1955.|
The end seemed to come quickly and suddenly, and it took our breath away. But Dad's death was not really unexpected; just a month and a half before, we had gotten the tragic news that after years of blood disorders, frequent trips to the hematologist, and regular transfusions at the cancer center, he had full-blown leukemia. Without treatment, he had maybe 3-6 months to live; but there was a slim chance that chemotherapy might buy him a year or two. He chose the chemotherapy route, because as hard as his life had become over the past few years, dealing with so much pain and illness, he had one goal and one goal only: to stay alive as long as possible so that he could take care of my mother. That was what he prayed for daily. That was what he was living for.
We had known for some time that Dad was failing. His family care doctor had told my sister this quite a while ago, and advised us not to nag him about things like his nightly vodka tonics or his excessive salt intake. We knew that he felt lousy most of the time, but we didn't know this because he complained about it. Trying to find out what was going on with him health-wise was like pulling teeth. He was almost heroically stoic when it came to his own aches and pains. (Poor circulation ultimately led to multiple surgeries and the amputation of eight of his ten toes, but he never once felt sorry for himself or asked, "Why me?") And he wanted to be independent. Thinking about him now, I believe he would have died much, much sooner if he hadn't been so stubborn and loved my mother so much.
To say that my dad loved my mother fiercely is an understatement. They met when they were kids (she was 19, he was 20) and were married within a year of their first date, a blind date arranged by a buddy at the Naval Academy. He knew she was the one for him almost from the very beginning and never had eyes for anyone else. Right from the start, he told her he wanted to be a dad (and by age 28, he was the father of five). It was the only role he ever wanted to have, our mother has told us; he lost his father to suicide when he was six, and he spent the rest of his life making sure his own children had what he didn't.
About a year before he died, my four siblings and I staged an intervention. Mom had fallen and broken a hip already. Dad was getting increasingly feeble, and it had become the norm for him to call his children in the middle of the night because she'd fallen out of bed (yet again!) and he couldn't lift her. It wasn't safe at home anymore, we said; it was time for an assisted living situation. But my dad dug his heels in and said they were staying in their house. Period. He agreed to a couple of hours of daily in-home aid, but otherwise he insisted that he would take care of Mom himself.
Dad visiting Mom at the rehab center last year, sporting a Band-Aid on his
forehead...because he had started to fall occasionally, too.
So he did, by golly; he did. He did all the grocery shopping. He brought her breakfast and lunch to her on a tray every day, and he heated up frozen dinners for the two of them every night. He sat with his best girl after dinner and watched "NCIS" or "Blue Bloods" or "The O'Reilly Factor," and then he followed her back to their room and made sure that she got safely tucked into bed. He took her to her appointments when we didn't even think he should be driving anymore. I should have known the end was near in October, when he let me drive him to the hospital every day for his first (and ultimately, last) round of chemo treatments. It was so unlike Dad to relinquish control like that. After he died, I was so thankful that he was spared the indignity of having his driver's license taken away from him; for Dad, that would have been the last straw, the final assault on his manhood. Because even though he was failing, and he knew it, he had the heart of a lion and he still wanted to roar.
So often I am reminded of Dad, by little things that happen in the course of an average day. Like today, for instance. You see, it's garbage day here in our new VA hometown. And garbage day makes me remember Dad with a fondness that, unfortunately, I didn't always feel back when he was alive. (If any of my siblings are reading this post, you probably know where I'm going with this!)
Dad absolutely loved his job with the NY State Lottery, and if health issues hadn't forced his "early" retirement at 74, he would have happily worked until he was on his deathbed. So after he no longer had the stimulation provided by work, I think he just needed to have other jobs to do around the house, jobs that only HE could perform properly. (We're pretty sure he had OCD, although it was never diagnosed. But that's a subject for another time.) And garbage, for some bizarre reason, was of monumental importance to him. He had specific methods for tying the plastic bags, loading them into the big cans, placing the cans just so at the curb--and in spite of the fact that all of his past-middle-aged children had been successfully disposing of garbage at our own homes for decades, none of us could be trusted to do it right. We used to joke that of course we couldn't help, because we didn't have our PhD's in garbage.
Even when the end was near for Dad, trying to get him to let you help with the garbage was brutal. He would follow you around, barking instructions, inching painfully along stooped over his walker while holding a tall kitchen garbage bag into which you were supposed to empty each of the small trash cans located throughout the house. Trying to convince him that you could take care of this task on your own was futile. I remember saying, "Dad, please sit and rest and let me do this for you. And even if I do the unthinkable and miss one can this time, it's no big deal. The garbage man comes every week!" He could really frustrate you with his inability to give up control.
Now I see that my father was just trying to do what he could still do, for as long as he could do it, when so much of his strength and vitality had been cruelly stolen from him. Now when I remember his stubborn refusal to let me take out the trash by myself, without him supervising me every step of the way (to the point of even watching from the door to make sure that I parked the cans in exactly the right spot at the end of the driveway), I realize that I shouldn't have gotten so annoyed with him. I should have been proud that he still wanted to roar a bit, that his lion's heart had not been completely beaten down by illness.
Knowing that I enjoyed doing artwork and creating homemade gifts, Dad once asked me to paint something special for him. An incurable Anglophile, he wanted me to make a coat of arms and incorporate a picture of a lion's head and the words "Coeur de Leon." The phrase "Coeur de Lion" is often associated with Richard I of England, the 12th-Century Crusader-King who is known as "Richard Couer de Lion" or "Richard the Lionhearted." In French, "Coeur de Lion" means "heart of a lion," and the way the French word "lion" is pronounced sounds very similar to my dad's name. So...get it? Dad was always a sucker for a good pun (the cornier, the better).
So here's what I made for him, as a gift for Christmas 2002. It's mine now and hangs on the wall of one of the guest bedrooms in our new house.
When I look at this painting, I think of my lionhearted dad and the way he roared through life for as long as he could...but then when he knew his death was imminent, gave himself over to God with the meekness and gentleness of a lamb. Even though it meant he had to do the unthinkable and leave my mother.
It is my fervent prayer that I've inherited even the tiniest piece of the heart of Leon, my father.