Monday, January 11, 2016

The long farewell

My father was a good man.  He was honest and hard working.  No, that understates it. I cannot imagine him ever doing a dishonest thing.  And even by the standards of The Greatest Generation he put in long, long hours.

For Good People this wicked world can be a perilous place.  Dad was occasionally taken advantage of by insurance companies, by investment advisers, even by some of his patients if they had a particularly convincing if not especially true sob story.

I remember going with dad on a trip to the used car lot. Oh, Dad loved cars.  He never bought new and was a sucker for anything with chrome and a comfy seat.

He saw one that he liked.  It had a price on the window.  I told him to offer a number that was about 20% less than that.  At age 18 I was already wiser in the ways of the world.

"Really?" he said, with genuine incredulity.

In his final years Alzheimers robbed him of a lot of memories.  All the difficult patients, all the hard decisions.  He forgot the one time he got sued, this being for a problem in which he had no real fault, but happened to be peripherally involved with a case.  

When I was in college dad had me come over to the hospital and spend time with a couple of his colleagues.  One of them referred to him as "one of the last True Gentlemen in Medicine".  It was said with respect of course, but with a sort of wonder and wistfulness as well.  I am sure that the younger, sharper physicians considered dad to be an anomaly, a horse and buggy doctor lingering on into the era of CAT scans and open heart surgery.  Being a physician myself I know we are not perfect.  So probably there were a few smiles and mild jokes at his expense.  If he recognized any of them then those memories also went away early.

My dad was a draft horse, so like the gentle hard working farm animals he recalled with great fondness in his final years.  He plowed straight ahead.  He was content to do so day after day.  He was happy with the human equivalent of a bag of oats and maybe an apple once in a while.  (On Sundays he might for instance smoke a cigar.)

After a certain point you have to regard each visit as possibly your last.  My older brother and I tried hard to visit often.  Oddly, our visits tended to have different themes.

My brother is more like my dad.  He would of course never pay full price at the used car lot but I don't think he would disagree with the observation that he does not have the intensity and determination that is my own personal Virtue and Vice.  But my dad would open up to him, talking about serious matters.  Troubles he had earlier in life.  Things he wishes he had done differently. 

When I tried to bring up this sort of stuff dad would just wave it off, showing no interest at all. With me he wanted to talk about family, about the next generations.

I always started our visits by coming into the room, letting him focus on me for a bit, then when he started to smile telling him he had to come up with my name before I sat down.  This may seem a bit mean but he was so happy when he came up with names. It was like finding a treasure.  And comparing my brother's visits to mine I usually had him talking longer, more on topic and with more smiles and laughter.

He would think hard when I asked him the names of my sons and my daughter in law.  Usually he got a few of them but with no particular pattern as to which.  He had a chance to meet his first great grandchild but never did manage to get that name.  But when I showed him a picture on my phone he would smile and say "that's your grandson!"

At one of our last visits he thanked me for carrying on the family line.

Then one day he wouldn't open his eyes, as if it was too much effort.  He had not been eating or drinking and his voice was weak and hoarse.  I think he squinted just enough to see me.  I know he heard me.  But he could not say my name.  Whether he no longer knew it or just did not have the energy for a single clear word does not really matter.

We had a conference that day.  It was clear to even the less realistic family members that the end was near. It was time to call upon hospice, those kindly angels of the health care system who inhabit that ambiguous place between this world and the next.

Sometimes you just sit a while, realizing that the being there matters more to you than to the person whose bed side you are at.  I left him a picture of his great grandson in case he woke up and had a moment of clarity.

He did not fear death.  Very good men rarely do.  But I thought that if he woke up in an unfamiliar place he might be happy to see the picture.  One small, smiling bald guy looking over at another, older bald guy.  It would be my last image of Dad.  One that reminded me of those old cartoon depictions of New Years Eve where a saucy, smiling baby and a tired old man exchange a salute.

He made it to New Years and to his 94th birthday.  They were on the same day you see.  A few days later the Long Farewell was over.


wynne said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your father Tim. Touching words of love, respect, and kindness to the end. Some day you will tell this sweet story and show this precious picture to his great grandson too. Hoping the funeral and all that happens now goes as well as possible. Take care, Wynne

Harry said...

Something this morning told me to go onto FaceBook. First time in days. And this is the first post I saw, so I'm glad I did. It's beautiful, and heartbreaking. I'm sorry for your loss Tim, and your family's. It's put me in a very reflective mood as I start my day, for which I'm grateful. Thoughts to you all.

Connie and Rod said...
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Tacitus2 said...

C and R
Of course appreciate the kind thoughts. I try to keep some names private.
We appreciate your past help and will be needing it all the more in the days ahead.

Borepatch said...

I'm so sorry for your loss, Tacitus.

Charlotte said...

What a beautiful tribute. I'm sure you made your father very proud. Thinking of you and your family now,and in the days ahead,with love and prayers. Charlotte