Thursday, March 1, 2012

Part 46 – Paving the Way

Continued from Part 45 

Dad and his league of protectors, November 2010

There were lots of surprises during the time that Dad was fighting cancer, from the first announcement that he was sick to the rapid downward spiral that brought hospice into the picture much sooner than I had ever thought could be possible.  But one thing that did not surprise me was the way those of us in the inner circle handled things.  Time and time again during the hardest ordeal any of us had ever gone through, we pulled together in support of not just Dad but of each other.  To be clear, though, we didn’t need a terminal illness, a phone call with terrible news, or a surgeon in the Room of Doom to remind us of how much we meant to each other; we were already very well aware of the preciousness of love and of life. 

But when I think back about the collection of things, both little and big, that my mom, my siblings, their spouses, and our children did to care for Dad during that time, it warms my heart; it reminds me of the bond that we share and the fierce love that we have for my dad and for one another. 

It stands to reason that a person’s spouse and adult children would make every effort and go to extremes in a life-threatening situation; one of the things that stands out in my mind as being exceptional though was the devotion of and the way that my husband and my brothers-in-law cared for my dad, which is something that I think exemplifies my dad’s relationship with the three of them, each of whom played a very important role in caring for my dad during the course of his ten-week long illness.

I suppose having a good relationship with the spouse of your adult child can be tricky, maybe especially between a father and his daughter’s husband.  A father is always supposed to look out for his “little girl,” and certainly Dad always did that for my sisters and me, but maybe in a less traditional way than some other fathers.  Dad wasn’t a hold-your-hand kind of guy in his parenting style; he always expected us to do the right thing, and he didn’t flatter us unless the praise was earned and well deserved.  Looking back, I see his method of “fathering” us as adults as one in which he trusted us to be able to take care of ourselves based on what we had learned while we were growing up, and that included his having confidence that all three of his daughters chose to marry good men, men with whom Dad could be friends and with whom he could share a mutual respect.

Another thing that held true for my dad was that he could always take a joke.  He wasn’t one of those people who could dish it out but couldn’t take it; in fact, he seemed to enjoy being the target of a prank or having people poke fun at him.  There are many examples in my memory bank of this, and some of these involve my husband, Nancy’s husband David, and Jennifer’s husband Peter.  One of their ongoing pranks on Dad over the years was dumping cold water on him when he was least expecting it on family vacations; there was great strategizing and even greater laughter each time they pulled this off. 

Photo 1 of 2 from Water Dump #1 (notice Peter being sneaky in the background)

Photo 2 of 2 from Water Dump #1 - Dad's response: "Man! That's cold!"

Result of Water Dump #2 (off the top of a houseboat)

Sometimes the laughter came from conversations between Dad and his sons-in-law, talks during which Dad always played the role of the dizzy-blonde.  During a family vacation about six years ago, our husbands were discussing computer programs they used in their jobs and the subject of needing support from their companies’ “I.T. guys” came up.  Dad thought they were spelling the word “it” and asked what the job description was for an “it guy.”  When they told him what “I.T.” stood for, Dad got really excited and proudly announced, “My company has an I.T. guy too!  We’ve all got ‘it’ guys!”  And of course that became one of the frequently repeated phrases during that trip and from that point forward.

Other times Dad’s own actions resulted in some friendly ridicule, and sometimes these incidents involved Dad’s fashion choices.  On at least one occasion, when Dad got ready for the day, one of us recognized that the jeans he was wearing weren’t actually his – they were my mom’s!  (We could tell because of the tapered legs of the jeans, which apparently escaped Dad’s notice when he put them on.)  When this was pointed out to Dad, he laughed at himself and said in a mock-confused sounding voice, “Huh?  Are these my pants?”  This became the standard statement in my family when someone was caught doing something scatterbrained, an expression that we use in my house to this day.  Another humorous exchange occurred at my house when Dad pointed out his new shoes to my husband; my husband took one look at Dad’s footwear and then asked, “Do they sell men’s shoes where you got those?”  It took Dad several seconds to process the fact that Kevin was implying that his new shoes looked like women’s, but once he did he couldn’t quit laughing about it; in fact, for years afterwards, Dad often asked Kevin, “What did you say about those new shoes I got that time?” and the two of them would crack up as they relived the conversation.

Sometimes Dad intended for what he did to be funny; he loved to get a laugh from others and obviously didn't mind it being at his own expense.  A few years ago during the SuperBowl, Dad evidently got bored and told Mom that he was going to take his Diet Coke and take a bubble bath.  (I'm guessing that she thought he was kidding, but he wasn't.)  When he got situated in the tub, he shouted for her to come in and take his picture so she could email to his sons-in-law, all for the sake of getting a laugh.  Here's the result:

On some occasions, Dad tried to reciprocate the pranks that were played on him, although it was a challenge because, like me, he typically had a hard time telling a joke, scheming without being detected, and executing his plan while keeping a straight face.  On one Christmas about seven years or eight years ago, Dad gave each of his three sons-in-law The Perfect Push-up (“As seen on TV!” he exclaimed when they opened their gifts.) and then sportingly challenged them to a push-up contest with the new gadget.  (I must report, to the chagrin of the three men who were roughly half Dad’s age at the time, that Dad was the champ of the Perfect Push-up Challenge that day!)

But for all the pranks and fun-poking that went on during the course of their relationships with my dad, Dad’s sons-in-law were as fiercely protective of him as we were while he was sick.  The respect and the love that they had for him were so evident and so touching, and it’s something I will never forget.   During the first few days after Dad got sick, as we waited for the green light for the surgery that would give us the diagnosis, it was mainly just my mom, my sisters, and me there in the hospital room with Dad.  On the day of the surgery, my husband drove from out-of-town to be with us as we waited while Dad was in surgery, and then he helped to hold me together when the neurosurgeon handed down the diagnosis and the prognosis.  From that point forward, my husband and my brothers-in-law became part of Dad’s league of protectors, a role in which they excelled because of their strong relationship with him from over the years.

On the night after Dad’s surgery, my mom, my sisters, and I were completely exhausted.  Kevin volunteered to take the late-night shift with Dad in the ICU.  As was par for the course, Dad slept “zero” that night.  Whether it was a tough-guy act or a state-of-mind from after the surgery that he had been dreading, Dad seemed less anxious with Kevin around that night; in fact, when Jennifer and Nancy got to the hospital in the early morning hours to relieve Kevin, Dad and Kevin had all the lights on in the room and were laughing, watching football, and discussing politics.  Not the sleepy-time setting the females in the family would have thought to provide, but just the right thing for Dad at the time, an oddly-placed sense of normalcy and some great male “binding time” (as Dad called any bonding experience while I was growing up.)

Later that day, my brother-in-law David arrived on the scene; like my husband and my other brother-in-law, David is one of the most compassionate people I know, and, also like Dad’s other two sons-in-law, he was perfect for the role that he played during Dad’s illness.  On the day after the surgery, Dad was still consumed with worry about time and somewhat disoriented about what time of day it was.  Over and over, Dad looked at the clock on the wall of his ICU room and incredulously asked if the clock was right; he just couldn’t believe how slowly time seemed to be passing. David came up with a strategy that helped Dad right away: he covered the wall clock with a shirt to cut down on Dad’s anxiety about what time it was. 

From the moment on the day after surgery that Dad was given the go-ahead to eat whatever foods he wanted, through Dad’s struggle to take in more calories despite his lack of appetite, to the last foods that Dad ever ate, his three sons-in-law were at-the-ready to get whatever Dad wanted to eat for him, at any time of the day or night.  They made countless trips around the clock to get foods Dad was specifically requesting from restaurants and the grocery store and served as short-order cooks when Dad was able to eat food at home.  They didn’t guilt or pressure Dad into eating, but the second he mentioned that he might like to have a certain food, they found a way to provide it for him, just in case.

When my brother-in-law Peter took a red-eye flight to join my sister Jennifer, my parents, and me in Durham on our second day of appointments at Duke, he served as the logistics guy, helping to get Dad ready and out the door on time so we could make it to our early-morning appointment at the clinic, figuring out that Dad was safer and more efficient using the wheelchair instead of the walker during the trip, driving all over town to find a hotel that wasn’t already booked for the night before Thanksgiving, finding a set of safety bars and borrowing tools from the hotel to install the bars on the toilet in the bathroom for Dad since the hotel was not handicap accessible, and then  driving the whole way home with Dad riding “co-pilot” that hectic Thanksgiving Day (with the two of them eating all of the gummy candy they could for entertainment along the way).  His presence was definitely calming for Dad and for us, and having him there for that part of our stressful trip was so helpful.

One of the things that Dad worried a lot about during his illness was having his face shaved.  (He wanted to have his head shaved like he usually did too, but, due to the staples and then the scar from the surgery, that wasn’t an option, and so Dad just focused on having a clean-shaven face.)  While something like that would not be of any concern at all to some men who were so sick, Dad was impeccable in his grooming; all my life, I can remember him shaving at least once per day, even on weekends.  Without a doubt, he was precise and proud – but not at all vain – about his appearance, a fact that did not change during his illness.  Many times both in the hospital and after he went home in between hospitalizations, Dad got help with his shaving routine from one of his sons-in-law because his dominant left hand still wasn’t up to par. 
At first, it seemed like having them help him might take away some of his dignity, but right away we could tell that, with the way they handled it, their support actually gave some dignity and a sense of independence and routine back to Dad.  The day before we left to go to Duke, we were all running around getting things ready for the trip.  Dad kept saying he needed to shave, and finally I asked him if it couldn’t just wait.  “I just need to shave,” he said insistently. “It just makes me feel better.  Hell, I even shave on vacation, and this certainly isn’t a vacation.”  Point taken. I didn’t trust myself with shaving him, and so Dad was so glad when David took care of it before we left on our trip, as he was when David helped him with it again in the hospital on the night before Dad came home on hospice. 

Peter, shaving Dad
My husband and my brothers-in-law were the muscle and the strategists behind the equipment and the furniture that needed to be set up or rearranged at my parents’ house during Dad’s illness.  They installed grab bars by the toilets and in the shower, moved couches and tables, and rolled up area rugs to make the environment as safe and as convenient as possible for Dad.  I will never forget the way they moved the hospital bed from the den to my parents’ bedroom and then so carefully and tenderly moved Dad so that he wouldn’t be scared or hurt.  Part of the peace and the comfort that we were able to provide for Dad once he came home was due to their presence, and, knowing the three of them so well and seeing how much they too loved Dad, none of that was a surprise.  Like my mom, my sisters, and me, they were paving the way, doing whatever it took to care for Dad, and that is something I will always treasure and value more than I can adequately express.

Up Next ... Part 47 – Rose-Colored Glasses

No comments:

Post a Comment