A Father Returns Home
For much of my childhood and early adult life I did not have a strong relationship with my Godmother, Dot Marker. I was probably about 10 years old when she and her husband uprooted themselves from the area where I grew up and relocated to sunny Florida. My dad lost his job in an alloy plant in the early 80’s when the local steel mills decided they could save money by buying foreign alloys. Our family never really got over the resulting financial pinch. My parents always did whatever they had to do to give our family what we needed, but side trips to Florida to visit Dot and her husband were not exactly affordable to us. So we lost touch. Years after her husband passed away, Dot returned to her old home near Toronto, Ohio and I reconnected with her right about the same time that I married my wife.
Before I was born, my dad was a Boy Scout leader of Troop 80 in Mingo Jct., Ohio. Through that involvement, he and my mother met and befriended Dot Marker and her husband — who were deeply involved in another Boy Scout troop up the river from Mingo. I’ve heard dozens of stories from people over the years about all the adventures that the scouts went on with my dad.
Unfortunately for me, he was no longer involved in the scouts when I was of age, so I never got seriously involved myself other than for a few weeks with another Boy Scout troop that sort of fizzled out. I spent a number of years in the Cub Scouts, but that was it. Dad was also a fisherman and small game hunter when I was a kid. I went out with him a few times, but not nearly enough. We also went camping as a family quite often when I was young.
Recently, Dad’s health had been failing for a number of years. I’ve documented some of that in a few earlier blog posts: Blazing 80 and Disney Diversion. From the spring of 2014 forward, he probably spent more time in the hospital than he did at home. Heart issues, lung issues, pneumonia, feeding tube, prostate cancer — they all played a collective role in his overall health and condition. But when you add in the Alzheimer’s Disease and his inability to remember doctor’s orders (never mind about actually following them) it was painfully clear that he would never return to his prior form. During a visit last April, we talked to dad about the vacation we took on the train the year before and the week we spent at Disney World with him and my mom. Dad could not remember being at Disney and meeting Mickey Mouse. I always feared the day when he would no longer recognize me as his son.
During his stays in the hospital, dad was always so homesick and every day he was convinced that he would be going home ‘tomorrow’. Sometimes he would say that the doctors told him he would go home soon — even when they had not. When he did finally get to go home, he was so happy to be there! But he failed to follow doctors’ orders or do what my mother would tell him to do. He just could not remember…
My family and I went down for a visit one weekend in early December. He was a little confused at times and could not remember all of the things he was and was not allowed to do, but he was really happy to see us. Saturday evening he wasn’t feeling well and his blood pressure was very low. Sunday morning, when it still had not risen to normal levels, my mother told him that she was calling the ambulance for him. He knew that meant being re-admitted to the hospital. He did not protest.
Dad stayed in the hospital through Christmas and through all of January. We went down for a visit the day after Christmas and got a special gift for him. He celebrated his 83rd birthday in the hospital on January 30th. Thanks to a brilliant idea of my sister to post a request to her friends on Facebook, he received over 50 birthday cards at the hospital — most from people he did not even know. My younger daughter and I came down for a visit and spent part of the day with Pop on his birthday as he opened his birthday cards.
Earlier in January, my mother had a long talk with his doctors and a long talk with dad during one of his more lucid moments. At his doctors’ suggestion and with dad’s agreement, Mom made arrangements to obtain home hospice care from Charity Hospice. He told Mom that he wanted to go home. When she asked if he wanted to go home simply because he was homesick, Dad replied that he wanted to die at home and not in a hospital. Dad came home on Groundhog Day and we began preparing our 8 year old for the time when Poppa would not be around any longer. We talked to her about what happened when we lost Shadow and how she was no longer sick or suffering. These are difficult things for an 8 year old to deal with, but we were lucky to have had Shadow to help us talk about Pop’s situation.
February was a daily struggle for Mom to get his medications and food and breathing treatments. It was a full schedule from morning to night with very little break in between feedings and cleanings. Over the past few years, Dad had often done his own feedings, but as time passed — he was able to do less and less without monitoring and assistance. The nurses from Charity Hospice were fabulous, but they were not there 24/7. My family and I made arrangements to come down for another visit over Valentine’s Day weekend. I came right from work and I was still wearing my work clothes and the necktie that my daughters just got for me that Christmas. (Back when I was in the Cub Scouts, Dad taught me how to tie a necktie so that I could earn one of my merit badges. I still remember the patience he had with me as I fumbled over and over again with the knot that never did come out right.) Dad was mostly bedridden at home, but he did come out to sit on the couch for a few minutes on Saturday while we were there. He saw my tie on the couch next to him and he tried to tie it, but his failing memory and unsteady fingers kept him from accomplishing his goal. I’m not sure why I did it, but I captured that moment (and the unscripted and innocent warning that my daughter gave him) with my phone.
Sunday morning as we were getting ready to leave for Sandusky, Dad had a nose bleed that would not stop. Of course Dad made it worse by picking at it and kept trying to blow it even after being told multiple times not to. The dry oxygen for his lungs, combined with the blood thinners for his heart, combined with his inability to remember what to do and not do from the Alzheimer’s, resulted in a steady nosebleed for over three hours. So Mom and Dad went back to the emergency room as my family and I went home. With all the commotion when the EMT crew arrived, I didn’t get the chance to tell Dad goodbye that day. At the hospital, they packed up Dad’s nose and sent him back home after a few hours. He was home, but he wasn’t ever really the same after that.
Over the next week or so, Dad went in and out of awareness and his breathing became much more labored than usual. He made some strange requests/demands at times to those around him — sometimes believing he was still in the hospital. We believed some of that to be a result of the new medicine he was put on, but by Monday the 23rd, it was clear that he was getting ready to go. Dad was speaking in Slovak to his mother and asked for a salami and mustard sandwich. At one point he was pawing at his left chest and when my mom asked what he was doing, he replied that he was trying to get a cigarette. (Dad stopped smoking cigarettes in the late 80’s when he switched full time to a pipe. Ever since his throat cancer surgery a decade later, he has been on an anti-smoking campaign — telling his cancer story to complete strangers on the street as a warning if he saw them smoking).
I called Monday evening and spoke to Dad briefly. The first thing he asked me was “How are you doing?” — (which were actually the only words he spoke that I could make out). Since I hadn’t said goodbye to him the week before, I already had plans to come down that next weekend of the 27th. After that phone call and some of the crazy comments and requests he was making, I decided that I needed to work out something sooner. So I made arrangements at work and left for home on Tuesday after lunch.
On the road I phoned home and learned that Dad had been taken off all of his meds except for morphine and another calming medicine. When I arrived at 4:30, my mother was in their dining room meeting with the funeral director. I helped her arrange some of the details and she told me that hospice said he would be leaving us sometime that night most likely, or within the next day or so.
Every now and then Dad would raise his eyebrows in response to us talking with him, but he had difficulty moving his head or focusing in with his eyes. At one point I tried to show him the button I was wearing on my shirt — asking him if he recognized the handsome guy in the photo. Mom and I both thought we saw a smile and a wink from him in response.
By that time, Dad’s kidneys had already shut down. He was no longer able to speak and was only minimally responsive, but I was able to tell him all the things that I needed to say. I told him a number of times that he could go if he needed to and that I would make sure Mom was taken care of. He still had the grip strength of a power weight lifter and I held his hand for what seemed like hours. Every time I spoke to him, he seemed to squeezed as hard as he could. My sister came down and we both slept on the floor next to his hospital bed that night. He was in the room that used to be my own bedroom from the time I was six months old until I turned 19. I recorded this video at 4:07 a.m. on Wednesday of Dad holding my hand.
Through Wednesday Dad was awake a good part of the day. His eyes were often wide open — focused in on something toward the ceiling and looking around (upward). He would periodically mouth silent words that I was unable to decipher except that I know he said “mother” at least a few times. At times, his facial expression changed with a deeply furrowed brow – like a cross between confusion and/or intent listening. It really seemed as if he was communicating with his family on the other side. The thing that really struck me was how focused his eyes were on whatever it was that he saw. He was definitely seeing something and it was not anything that *I* could see. I took some short videos of some of these moments, but because of Dad’s frail appearance and the personal nature of the moments, I’ve decided not to share those here.
Dad had quite a few visitors on Wednesday, including my older cousin who had been a boy scout in Troop 80. He told some stories about those days and we both thought we saw Dad try to smile. I told him the story about how Dad got involved in the scouts in the first place — a boy whose name I don’t remember lived across the street from Dad and was a boy scout. Dad had a really expensive pair of binoculars that turned up missing and for some reason he suspected this kid had stolen them. So Dad decided to volunteer as a scout leader with the troop to see if this kid ever showed up with his binoculars. A week later, the kid/suspect quit the scouts for good. (Guilty?). Years later, Dad was a beloved scout leader who had influenced dozens and dozens of young men and their passion for camping, hiking, canoeing, and general enjoyment of the outdoors. God works in mysterious ways!
My sister’s family including her three kids came to see Pop on Wednesday and they all held his hands. My wife and two daughters all talked to Pop from Sandusky over the speaker phone and he had noticeable reactions to each of their voices. I wondered if he was unable to remember each of us telling him it was okay to go since he could not remember other things from one moment to the next and perhaps that was why he was holding on.
On Thursday, Dad fell back into the pattern of sleeping more than being awake. He had a few more visitors that afternoon. I meant to ask mom on Wednesday if she had called Dot Marker — but I forgot. Somewhere around 6:00 on Thursday evening, Mom wondered out loud if she should call her. The weather was beginning to get bad out and I knew Dot did not drive. Mom called her and gave her the update and asked if she wanted to come to see him. Because it was already getting dark, Dot suggested that she wait until Friday morning and she could then spend the entire day with Mom. Mom asked what I thought about that and I said I thought that might be too late. Mom tried to talk her into coming down and spending the night, but Dot had too many health issues and nighttime treatments of her own to be able to do that. We finally talked her into letting me come to pick her up to spend an hour or two with Mom and Dad on Thursday.
I had no idea where Dot lived and Mom is not the greatest at giving specific directions. I have a GPS, but Mom had no street address and Dot isn’t listed in the phone book. It’s just one house among many on a country road and mom simply knew how to get there. On top of everything else it was getting dark. We almost decided to have Mom go and get her instead of me, but I knew she didn’t want to leave. We finally thought to look up Dot’s son’s address in the phone book, which is just a few doors down from her. I found his house on a satellite map using my phone. From there, Mom was able to pick out Dot’s house and point it out to me. By now it was past 6:30 and it was about a 20 minute one-way drive to Dot’s house. I made it there without any trouble and got back home around 7:25.
Mom, Dot, and I went into Dad’s room and Dot told him that she was there. His breathing had changed to a very short and quick inhale/exhale with a delayed pause before the next very short and quick inhale/exhale. That ended at 7:36 and Pop was gone. A longer phone call with Dot; further difficulty in finding her house on the satellite map; a wrong turn or worse road conditions = any one of these might have resulted in us not getting back in time.
I think it was probably a little bit after 9:00 that I took Dot back home that night. I dropped her off and glanced at the clock in my car = 9:36. Every night at 9:30, Annunciation Radio broadcasts an audio praying of the rosary. Being out of range of their radio broadcast signal, I reached down for my phone to listen through the Annunciation Radio app, but I then realized I had left my phone back at Mom’s house. So I just prayed quietly to myself on the ride home. The snow was picking up and the road was beginning to get a bit slippery. At the base of the hill just before getting back onto the highway, I saw two deer standing right in the middle of my lane in the road. They did not move as I approached — literally deer in my headlights. I slowed down and then came to a complete stop about 50 feet away. I again instinctively reached for my phone to snap a photo, but it still was not there and I was unable to capture the scene. For what seemed like minutes, but was probably not more than 5 or 10 seconds, those two deer just stared at my car and walked a few slow steps on the pavement before eventually sprinting off down a side road to my right.
Friday afternoon, as I was driving back to Sandusky to pick up my wife and daughter, I saw about 15 deer on the hillside next to the Harrison County home on Route 250.
We buried Poppa this past Monday. Mom had already picked out his favorite suit for him to wear, and we put him in the red necktie that had been my Christmas gift from my daughters — the same tie that Pop tried to tie himself just two weeks before. During some clean up that evening at Mom’s house, I found a bright shiny penny in middle of the floor in a spare bedroom.
We love you, Pop! We will see you again when it is time.