[I apologize to those who have visited this blog and wondered why I have not posted any updates since October. Yes, construction has progressed, but life intervened. Lynn and I have alternatively been the primary caregiver to Dad for the last year and a half at his home in Biddeford, ME. Dad passed away in November.......and until now I had frankly lost my blogging motivation. Today, I blog goodbye to Dad, and seek my own healing catharsis.]
We’ve said goodbye to each other countless times over the decades. It’s not like this particular goodbye was unexpected. At 93+ years of accumulated wisdom, your health and vigor had been visibly declining.
I remember the first goodbye as a twelve year-old departing for my first stay at Boy Scout camp in central Maine, about 2 hours north of our home town of Biddeford. Your parting words: “work hard; have fun; do your best, son, and you’ll be fine.” Sleeping in a tent for the first time, I was terrified of the night time sounds of the deep forest (just a few miles from town) and the unknown challenges awaiting me and my fellow scouts at sunrise. I quickly overcame my fears and had a wonderful two-week stay. Thank you Mom and Dad for the opportunity and the confidence you instilled in me.
Then there was the off-to-college goodbye. I had graduated from a small Catholic high school as an average, not outstanding, student. Could I meet new friends, “make the grade” at Maine’s largest campus with over 4,000 students? Again, you urged me to work hard, do my best and things would work out fine. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself then (even today, what I’ll do when I grow up remains an open question). I did want a better life for myself than the limited opportunities I saw in our hometown. There was stiff competition for good grades, but I came to realize that hard work could be the great equalizer. I found I could do reasonably well against what I judged were superior students by studying longer and trying harder. I graduated with a BS degree and respectable grades in four years. Thank you Mom and Dad for the opportunity and the confidence you instilled in me.
Jobs that summer for recent college graduates were slim. It took a while to secure my first career job in far-away Virginia. I guess I liked it there. I met and married Lynn, the love of my life. Both of Lynn’s parents had died before we met. Though I was an only child, you and Mom embraced Lynn as your own daughter. We remained childless but were fortunate to share our lives with a succession of four-legged friends. We both worked our way up the corporate ladder. We bought several homes over the years, and embarked on major remodeling/improvement projects on each one. We remained Virginians for our entire adult life.
We spoke by phone weekly, returning to Biddeford several times each year and on special occasions. At each depature, there were goodbyes and a cheerful “see you again soon.” Thank you Mom and Dad for encouraging me to take wing and see how far I could fly.
Some kids remember their parents reading to them every night, going fishing, or playing ball. These weren’t things we did together. Yet mine was a very happy childhood, with lots of family events. You and Mom taught me right from wrong and to always help others. You urged me to explore my skills, interests, and dreams. You helped me to believe in myself and my abilities. Failure was OK, as long as I didn’t dwell on it but instead learned from it. Like you and Mom, I had the good fortune to befriend a number of school classmates, and time and distance have only strengthened the bond between us.
Looking back, I now realize money was very tight when I was a kid. Both you and Mom worked full-time factory jobs at near minimum wages. You were both very frugal by nature, yet cheerfully spent on things that I needed. I still feel as though I was raised in a middle class family, regardless of national socio-economic factors. I look back at the many years of piano, voice, then clarinet lessons in high school and into college. Mom was an accomplished pianist, and you both had beautiful voices, singing together in the church choir and semi-professionally. Unfortunately, I inherited a mutated version of your music and voice genes. The many years of lessons left me with but a deep and broad love of music and song.
After Mom passed away in 2001, we thought you might want to come live with us in VA. Mom had always ruled the kitchen. But you learned some rudimentary cooking skills. You fashioned dinner entrees of pan fried hamburgers or hot dogs, and home cooked deserts of jello and cookies from frozen dough. Soups were your specialty, butthere was a learning curve. I remember tasting a pot of chicken soup you made “with some onion for flavor.” You loved raw onions, particularly those grown from your own garden. The taste and smell of onion was so overpowering that it rendered the chicken soup inedible. We laughed together as you threw out the soup, saying next time you’d temper your enthusiasm for a hint of onion in your chicken soup.
“Wanna come stay with us for the worst of Maine winter?” we’d ask. “Thanks, but no” you’d say. ”My life is here in Maine.” Indeed, you’d spent your entire life in Biddeford, except for the eight years of overseas military service before and during WWII. Though you and Mom liked to travel occasionally, the clear choice was the comforts of the home you and mom had built over 50 years ago.
You had an active social life with daily calls and visits from family and friends. You read three newspapers daily, plus the several free weekly newspapers. In your late 70′s you learned to do email and internet news on the computer. You played cards with family and friends and went out to dinner each Saturday and Sunday, often with Uncle Lou and his wife Ruth (Mom’s sister).
In the last few years you entered what Lynn and I called that giant gray area of whether you could continue to live independently in your home. At the then age of 87, your primary ailment was congestive heart failure, which is very controllable with meds. You would unfailingly say you were doing fine, thanks. We had been doing evening video conferences with you for some years, so we could see how you were doing. Video conferencing is such a wonderful capability for maintaining a tangible connection with distant loved ones, but also a reality check. There was occasional confusion on daily events. You started eating poorly; thankfully, there is an outstanding Meals-On-Wheels chapter that delivers nutritionally balanced meals to the house. We started staying with you for a week or two each month. You became confused on pill management….what, when, and how to take each type of the seven pills you took daily. I could go on.
We asked you many times “Dad, there may come a time when you cannot live alone anymore. Do you want to come live with us here in Virginia, or go into a nursing home in Biddeford?” You would always answer the same: “I would like to live in my home as long as possible.” I will say that given a question with but a binary option of yes or no, black or white, up or down, left or right, you’d choose indecision or ambiguity. As you grew older, you were only able to decide not to decide, and we had to accept that fate.
We knew many people who had to make significant sacrifices in their careers and lifestyles to take care of their elderly parents. As an only child, I have always understood that someday Lynn and I would have to “step up to the plate.” That time was upon us.
Frankly, the decision was not easy. Lynn and I had many emotional discussions. Suffice it to say that it was decided I would move to Maine with our three pets and become your primary caregiver. Lynn would fly back and forth from our home in VA. Conveniently, we were both now retired, and we were about to start construction of EdgewaterHaus in neighboring Saco. We decided we would continue to do everything possible to honor your wish to live in your beloved home as long as possible. So in June 2011, I moved back into the house you and Mom built. It was a different twist on a rebound child: I was here to help you with everyday activities that had become difficult challenges while still allowing you as much freedom and decision making as prudent.
Ah, the home you and Mom built…..the home I grew up in beginning at the age of eight. You cherished the two bedroom, one bath rambler within walking distance of Main Street. You and Mom had the forethought of a one-floor layout, venturing down into the full basement only to do laundry. Yeah, the one bathroom was a problem, but who knew when you built the home; one-bath ramblers abounded then. You loved siting on the breezeway or the sunroom reading the paper during warmer weather. When the weather turned nasty, you would gravitate to one of your special chairs by a window with the sun beaming its warmth on you. I would often find one or both of our two cats nestled on your lap, snoring away contentedly.
We got along well together, although we both had to adjust our routines and expectations. You dutifully weighed yourself each morning as the surest indicator of fluid retention from your weakening heart. I would call your cardiologist when your weight trended upwards, and he would adjust the dosage, or try a different combination of diuretics. You were always so conscious of not being fat. We had to talk through how your weight gain was not overeating. You said foods just didn’t taste good and you were hardly eating at all. The fluid buildup around your ankles was due to your ailing heart.
There were a few hospitalizations to shed the accumulated fluid when your body resisted the level of meds you were taking. You’d bounce back, though more slowly each time. You progressed from a cane, to a walker, to rolling walker. Your pace slowed, while your level of exertion increased.
I have often remarked that you continued to teach me about life. Just as I yearned for the freedom of driving a car as as kid, I understood the psychological consequence of what that loss of freedom meant to the elderly. As you approached age 91, and after many discussions, you had agreed to stop driving, and I had not hidden the keys. Then one Saturday morning when Lynn and I weren’t looking, you had to take one last “joyride” to deposit a check at the bank a few blocks away. I was dismayed at your action, but you told me that you had to prove to yourself that you could still drive “if necessary.” It was another of the many classic child-parent role reversals. You never did drive again; but Dad, cousin Rachel recently gave up your secret. You told her that when you left the bank that morning, you had not seen an on-coming car and nearly had an accident. ”Roger was right…..I cannot drive anymore.” I’m thankful that, like the joyrides of my youth, there were no harmful consequences.
Each day in the last few years of your life was both a testament to longevity, and an inexorable progression towards fewer things at your command, particularly your own body. The physical barriers of steps (it was two steps up from outdoors into the house), climbing over the tub to take a sitting shower; the narrow hallways that made it hard to navigate; bending over to load the dishwasher bottom tray. Help with shoes became help with socks, then help with undressing in the evening. The CHF made your legs swell and become very scaly. I would apply the soothing ointment on your lower legs. Your hearing declined from poor to worse. We had speak so loudly to you we felt like we were yelling at you, which or course we were not. You couldn’t manage your financial affairs anymore, couldn’t even tell if there was a bill in the day’s mail. You still wanted to prepare your own meals; but you would gaze at a refrigerator full of food/leftovers and then announce that you would have cold cereal for dinner, and I should go out to dinner with friends. Instead I would prepare dinner and you would eat heartily.
This is but the tip of the iceberg for what the aging process does to the human body and its functions. Throughout it all, you were always in good cheer, making funny, insightful, self-deprecating remarks, and I believe, still genuinely enjoying life each day. Even when you had a bad day, you’d never complain. ”I’m feeling a little better now” even when I knew you weren’t. I don’t ever recall you saying anything bad about anyone.
The end came very quickly. The night before you passed, we went to your sister-in-law’s house to celebrate her having just won a 4th term to the Maine State Legislature. It was a lively evening with family and friends you had known for years. You were very tired but happy as we returned home hours after your normal bedtime. I awoke the next morning to the sound of a loud thump and found you half-dressed, bloodied, unconscious, and not breathing. I remember thinking, is this the end? I called 9-1-1, who told me to perform mouth-to-mouth breathing and heart compressions. EMTs arrived within moments, got you breathing again, and took you to nearby Southern Maine Medical Center. Initial cardiac and MRI tests were not promising. You were on a ventilator, unable to breathe on your own, had erratic cardiac activity, and remained unconscious. I held your hand and said you could fight this and came back home or go be with Mom. The choice was yours.
You had an advanced directive to take action if it was likely to improve your situation. Let me say unequivocally, it’s one thing to have simple, straightforward words on paper, and entirely another to make a life and death decision in a hospital ER.
I asked the ER doctors to redo a test to see if there was any progress. There was none. I called Lynn again who had already booked a flight here. I had faced such a decision on whether to continue with heroic treatment with Mom ten years ago, and had braced myself for this possibility again with you. With Uncle Lou at my side, I told the doctors to stop the ventilator and transition to pain management. With the hindsight of time, I look back at both of these decisions as “right,” but nonetheless the most torturous decisions I have ever had to make.
I continued holding your hand, speaking in your “good” right ear, thanking you for all that you and Mom and had done for me as a kid, and Lynn and I as adults. It was time to say goodbye one more time. Mom was waiting for you to join her in heaven. And yes, WE had achieved your goal to live in your cherished home as long as possible. About 15 minutes after removing the ventilator, I noticed a tiny tear form at the corner of your right eye, and the cardiac monitor went flat. I have accepted this as your way of thanking Lynn and I for helping fulfill your final wish.
You never regained consciousness. Two hours after I found you on the floor of your bedroom, you were back in Mom’s arms.
Not everyone is destined for fame, fortune, or greatness. There is much to praise for a simple working man’s life lived fully, with malice to none, and tireless devotion to God, church, family, and a small-town community of Franco-American heritage. In your final months, you often bemoaned the thought that you was a burden on Lynn and I. We would always reply that sometimes it was not easy, but you were never a burden. It was simply the circle of life. You were no more a burden on Lynn and I than I was a burden on you and Mom, or Lynn a burden on her parents. We are proud and thankful to have helped you live such a long, mostly healthful, and full life.
Dad, this goodbye has been the hardest. We miss you dearly. But we rejoice in the life you and Mom forged together. As they say in the Navy, we wish you fair winds and following seas.
[Postscript. This is the storyline I had to come to terms with before I could resume blogging on EdgewaterHaus. I look back at the love affair Mom and Dad shared. The home of their dreams they built was a big part of that bond. For them, it was always more than just walls and a roof, far more than shelter from the elements. Even the furnishings had a history. It was all a tangible link to the fruits of their past labors through long hours and low pay among the constant din, dangers, and smells of the factory floor. It was warmth and familiarity in good and troubled times. It was a simple home with enormous emotional symbolism. It was nice to visit elsewhere, and they would say what a nice time they had. But you’d say it never equaled that welcome embrace from the moment you and Mom opened the door and were safely back H O M E.
Some have questioned why I have put so much effort into building EdgewaterHaus, including writing this blog. Perhaps as the old English proverb suggests, the apple does not fall far from the tree. We have incorporated many of the accessibility design elements in EdgewaterHaus from first hand observations of the mobility challenges both Mom and Dad faced in their later years, even though neither was dependent on a wheelchair.
Please return as I catch up on the construction progress on EdgewaterHaus!