A man died Sunday morning, October 7, 2012. He was a man of many names. Harry. Honey. Dad. Grandpa. Thomas. Professor. Coach. Even Mr. VIP. But to me, he will always be “my dad.”
In a sixty year relationship, it is a relatively new name defining my relationship with the man who accompanied me through life. “Dad” became “my dad” in 2001 when I received a phone call he was in the hospital suffering from a pulmonary embolism. I flew to Tucson immediately, arriving at his bedside early morning. To my horror, my dad’s face, hospital gown, and bedding were stained with dried blood. I was told he’d probably fallen sometime in the night. Disoriented, tethered to the bed by an IV tube, he most likely tried to go to the bathroom and tumbled from a hospital bed, a bed with its sidebars inadvertently lowered.
My dad never spent another night in a hospital room without me at his side. From that moment, he became “my dad.” For eleven years we visited emergency rooms together, acute care facilities, rehabilitation hospitals. I introduced him as “my dad” to the “white coats”--the physicians, nurses, medical technicians, anyone charged with caring for the man I pushed into the room in a wheelchair. It was a warning. Mess with my dad and you are accountable to me. Me. An Irish woman unquestionably the descendant of a long line of fiercely strong and protective Celtic women.
One year ago this Thanksgiving, I received a very different kind of call. This time the issue was not physical. It was an illness called dementia, something I naively considered akin to losing one’s car keys and forgetting where one put one’s wallet. I was blindly thrust into a healthcare arena in which I knew nothing.
In hindsight, I should have been prepared. I should have known despite my father’s bulldogged determination to die in his sleep at home, despite my mother’s unwavering resolve to care for her husband “until death do us part,” there are some decisions over which we have no control. The inevitable process of aging is one of them. And dementia, an illness that deprives the brain of oxygen and strips the mind of the ability to think, reason, and remember, is one of them.
The journey began in a crisis center, then a psychiatric unit of a hospital before I discovered the county chapter of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. (http://www.n4a.org ) This nationwide organization was created by Congress to assist families facing the complexities of aging. People like me. I was assigned a caseworker, a woman with great compassion who shone a beam of light on a web of knowledgeable people willing to help me navigate the utterly foreign world called elder care. With her help I would eventually find a facility where my dad was safe, where the hands which bathed, fed, and cared for him were trained, caring, loving hands.
Dementia prevented my dad, a brilliant man, a Certified Public Accountant with an MBA and a doctorate in Economics, from understanding why he could not live at home. He considered me his jailer for placing him in an assisted living facility. His initial anger towards me reminded me of a wounded animal lashing out at all who draw near. Including me.
But long before dementia pressed against his brain, my dad asked me to be his advocate. He signed a living will and trusted me to honor his wishes, to do the right thing. And so when I received the call in October that he was in intensive care with multiple life-threatening infections with little to no hope for recovery, I knew what he wanted me to do. With my mother’s blessings, I began the quest to get my dad into a hospice facility.
My dad died in the lovely setting of Peppi’s House, the hospice facility on the Tucson Medical Center campus. He considered it his own little apartment, a place where Mother could sleep on the pullout couch at his side; where his cherished dog, Lady, could wander from his bed to the little patio outside his room; where my brother could sit nearby; and where I could--for the last time--talk with the staff about my dad.
My dad died in dignity and in peace.
As you contemplate year-end contributions to nonprofit organizations, I ask that you consider contributing to your local hospice organization. They exist so a daughter like me can honor the wish of her dad.
My dad . . .
May he forever be at peace. May his heart remain open.
May he awaken to his own true light.
May he be healed. May he be a source of healing for all others.
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