Friday, August 19, 2011

One of a Kind

One thing about my dad that even many people who knew him well don’t know is that he was a regular cigarette smoker in the early 1970’s.  Maybe it was a habit leftover from his college days or from his time in the Air Force; I’m not sure.  What I do know is that when I was five years old, I regularly hid packs of Dad’s cigarettes in the couch cushions so that he couldn’t find them, which infuriated him.   I remember laughing to myself as he stormed around the house looking for them.   The Surgeon General had declared that cigarette smoking was dangerous to one’s health by that time, but I don’t think most people had an understanding of what the risks were and so they weren’t motivated to quit.  I, of course, didn’t comprehend the health risks at the time; I hid the cigarettes from him because I hated the smell of smoke.  I remember reading the warning on the packaging and thinking that when Dad looked in the drawer for his cigarettes after supper that night and couldn’t find them because I’d hidden them again, the person’s health that was in danger was mine!

Dad was running at the time too, and I’m guessing it was the effects of smoking on his running performance more than my protest via sabotage that spurred him to kick the habit.  Like many trying-to-quit smokers, Dad went from one habit to another during his cessation effort; he traded in his cigarettes for gum and candy.
After awhile, his dentist told him he had to quit that, too; I think at one point he ended up with several cavities at once from all the sugar-laden stuff he was eating, and I know on more than one occasion he cracked a tooth from biting down on hard candy. 

So Dad gave up gum and candy.  Like many competitive athletes, he kept close tabs on his weight; he said that he didn’t want to gain weight because it would mean carrying extra pounds on his run, which would slow him down.  So he took up something new:  chewing tape.   He preferred scotch tape, but he was really an equal-opportunity tape chewer. 

In my profession, I have learned that research shows that crunching and chewing can release a chemical in the brain that helps people stay calm and focused, like chewing fingernails when a person is nervous.  My theory is that, besides wanting to keep his hands out of the cookie jar to keep himself in good shape for running, Dad kept his concentration on the task at hand by chewing things.  He and I used to talk about how he was the Original A.D.D. Guy, and I think the cigarettes – gum/candy – tape helped to keep him centered.

Visiting Dad at his office
 He chewed tape from time to time over a course of many years.  One thing about Dad that we heard for the first time while he was sick was about this very habit.  As the story goes, the employees in Dad’s office noticed that they often ran out of scotch tape.  They couldn’t figure out why they were having to re-order tape so often.  One night, a couple of the staff members stayed late to measure the height of the roll of the tape in everyone’s tape dispensers.  When they re-measured at the end of the next business day, Dad was identified as the culprit.  They asked him what he did with all that tape in such a short period of time, and he replied, “I chew it,” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.  Luckily, he was the boss and everyone there was used to his quirkiness, and so the other employees just chalked it up to yet another endearing part of his unique , one-of-a-kind personality.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Family Connections

Family is defined in the dictionary as “a group of people related to one another by blood or marriage;” “a person or people related to one and so to be treated with a special loyalty or intimacy;” or “a group of objects united by a significant shared characteristic.”

From my current perspective, though, a more accurate description of the institution of family is a hybrid of these:  to me, family is a group of people who are connected by circumstances, cause, and choices.   The people that make up a family may or may not be related by blood or marriage, and they often play a vital role in dealing with serious illness and grief.

During the time that Dad was sick and in the months since he went on ahead, I have seen the makeup of our family change.  Actions and lack thereof have resulted in the forfeiture of the inclusion of some people whom I fully believed would have supported us in our time of need, some of whom I would have even bet the farm on because I thought they were included in the group I defined at the time as my family.  I stand corrected, though, in some cases, as well as disappointed, hurt, angry, and full of even more grief for the loss of those relationships as I thought they were.

The surprise, the transference, the thing that allows me to keep my faith in mankind, though, has been the outpouring of love and kindness from many of our friends who have become family to me.  Those who have suffered a loss and know the devastation, even those to whom we weren’t “close” in the past, as well as those who don’t know a loss like this first-hand but have made every effort just to be there and to listen - all of them have been such a comfort to us, and that is something I will never forget.  

I will forever value the lifeguards who guided and supported us, who kept us afloat, when we were thrown into the deep end when Dad was first diagnosed, as we treaded water while he was sick and in the throes of grief, and as we struggle to try to make it back to shore without being pulled under by the current.

As part of his training program for the upcoming Ironman triathlon, Dad trained with a swim team at a facility near my parents’ house.  The majority of the people on the team were years younger than he was; some were even half his age.  Like he so often did, he made an impression on these people just by being himself - genuine, dedicated, positive, and kind.  Before he got sick, Dad had mentioned to me a few times that he really liked being on this team, and he talked about how cool he thought it was that Ashley, the coach, was a gold medalist on the U.S. swim team in the 1996 Summer Olympics, which, coincidentally, Mom and Dad had gone to as spectators.  

During the time just before and after Dad’s surgery, he told me to contact Ashley to let her know why he wouldn’t be at swim practice that week.  He said he didn’t want her to think he was “slacking off” at the end of his Ironman training schedule.  After she found out what was going on, she offered to help with anything we needed, and, from that point on, she became one of Dad’s cheerleaders and a support on the sidelines to the rest of us.  She organized a schedule of meals to be provided by members of the swim team on an every-other-day basis.  She sent cards and checked in regularly to find out about Dad’s progress.  She did research to find out which Physical Therapists did aquatic therapy when I mentioned to her that he really wanted to get back into the pool as soon as possible after he finished his inpatient rehab stay.  And, when Dad was on the decline that sent him to the hospital the second and final time, she stopped by the house for a visit and ended up helping my sister get Dad up after he had fallen.  Dad admired Ashley as an athlete and as a person, and it was obvious that the feeling was mutual.  Before his diagnosis, Dad was the only one in our family who knew her, but, through her efforts and her kindness, we all came to think of her as a great support and a friend.  She and the other swim team members cared so much for Dad and were so compassionate that they continued to bring meals to the house for many weeks after Dad died, feeding both our bodies and our spirits with their kindness.

Something that was therapeutic for me during Dad’s illness was writing updates for his Care Page.  Word spread quickly about his illness, and within a couple of weeks, we had 375 “visitors” checking the Care Page for updates.  Over the 75 days of Dad’s illness, those online supporters viewed his Care Page more than 6,000 times and left over 1,000 messages for Dad and for us.  We read many of the posts and comments to Dad, and we have read and re-read them many, many times since and have found comfort in the concern, the sentiments, and the messages over the past ten months.

I saw an editorial recently in which the author said he thought it was “crass” to announce or to discuss serious illness or death through social media like Facebook.  I couldn’t disagree more!  I don’t know what I would have done without the connections and support I have gotten through Facebook over the past months.  Many people shared stories of their own losses with me and had great advice about how to get through the day, the weeks, the months of grief.  Others just checked in here and there and let me know they cared about how I was doing.  A few told me about how they loved Dad and let me know that they missed him and would always remember him, too.  Some posted thought-provoking and inspiring quotes, photos, and statements that have influenced my perspective.  And still others provided me with welcome distractions and laughs, all of which have played a valuable part in pulling me through the murkiness.

As much as I will always carry with me the pain of the loss and the suffering during this time in my life, I will forever remember and treasure the friendships and the generosity, consideration, and affection of those in what I consider to be my newly formed family.

We don't accomplish anything in this world alone ... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.  ~ Sandra Day O'Connor