Up until he got sick, Dad led a happy, vibrant life. He was a go-getter, a people person: there was not a person he could not charm the socks off; everybody who met my dad soon loved him.
Then came the unexplained weakness. It began slowly, inconspicously; he then started losing his strength and balance; he was soon falling with regular abandon. It was frightening to see because Dad never was a clumbsy person by nature. All of a sudden he was falling all over himself and losing strength, too, besides.
Mom didn't find it very amusing. Neither did we. Dad eventually went to see his doctor; the doctor, in kind, put him into the hospital, where Dad underwent a whole battery of tests. It was a scary, frightening time; we didn't know where to turn, but at least, we all had each other to lean on.
The diagnosis came a few days later. The news was not at all good. Dad had a frightening neurological (neuromusclar) condition known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Dad would eventually get weaker and weaker to the point of needing a wheelchair and 24 hour care as he lost one skill after another; Dad would eventually be rendered helpless until he was bedridden and unable to move anything but his eyes and eyelids.
The disease was fatal. Dad would be dead in a year or two at the most.
The news devastated us. It was as though Dad had already died, and we died right along with him. Our lives would no longer be the same. Yet we were determined to help Dad in any way possible for him to retain his dignity and give him the life he deserved, even in spite of incredible odds.
It was hard seeing Dad's health going downhill. It was hardest on Mom because the two of them were a team. They loved to go traveling to exotic locations around the world, go dancing (both loved rock and roll music, espeically the old classics from the 70's and 80's), go out to eat, and take care of us, their three kids. It was hard on us kids, too, because soon enough Dad would not be able to play football or act goofy or laugh at Family Guy or the Simpsons on Sunday nights. We tried to make every moment count and enjoy our Dad while he was able to do things.
By year's end, Dad was a shell of his former self. He was in a wheelchair, unable to walk, but the same fierce determination burned in his eyes. We knew it killed him for us to tend to his every need, but we did it because we loved our Dad, even though he was no longer the same person he had once been. We figured we owed him that much. He was soon having episodes of breathing difficulties; eventually he ended up having to have a hole put into his neck (tracheostomy) and a ventilator tube attached becuse he was always getting sick with pneumonia and could no longer clear his airway by himself. It was a very unnerving, unselling time for all of us.
He would end up in and out of the hospital; if it wasn't his breathing, it was something else. The hospital's Intensive Care unit soon became our second home; we spent more time there than anywhere else and we got chummy with the doctors and nurses tending to Dad.
If there was one thing I remember most about Dad, he always wore his favorite hat whenever he went out: a felt black beret. It made him look like a jaunty Frenchman. He loved that hat; I don't know where he got it (Canada somewhere, I think), but he sure got a lot of use out of it. He even wore it to his father's funeral when Gramps died five years ago, much to Mom's embarrassment. He even wore it to church more than once; people kiddlingly addressed my Dad as Jean-Pierre, Luc, or Maurice. Dad's name was Bob.
Dad's hat is probably the thing I remember most about him because it was an integral part of his life. Even when he was in the hospital, Dad insisted that he have his hat and often wore it as he lay in bed. Even when he was not doing well, Dad had that stupid hat perched upon his head.
When Dad finally succumbed to his disease (it was determined that heart and lung failure were the cause of his death), his death rocked our world. We somehow got through the wake and funeral: now all we have are memories. Plenty of memories, both good and bad. Dad before diagnosis (BD) and Dad after diagnosis (AD). Dad playing catch, acting goofy, or laughing at Family Guy with us kids as we ate popcorn on Sunday nights, Dad grilling venison on the grill during the summertime months, Dad doing cannonballs in the pool in our backyard, shooting off bottle rockets on the Fourth of July that would rival the professional fireworks display, making sure we kids had Christmas ... so many wonderful, fun, happy memories ...
Then there were the bad times: Dad's health declining and then getting the terrible diagnosis, watching him lose his health, the times spent at his bedside in the ICU, as we prayed for a miracle and for God to spare his life, dealing with intimidating medical equipment, ambulance rides in the middle of the night as Dad gasped and fought for air or choked yet again on his food, lugging the wheelchair in and out of the car, helping Dad with his personal affairs ... so many tears and shouts of anger at God, so many sad times ...
Then came his death. Now all we have of Dad are reminders that live on in our heart, as well as pictures, and his bedroom (his clothes are still in the closet). We have his hat, his treasured black beret, in a special spot in the livingroom, where everybody can see it. That darned beret will probably be the symbof of what we once had; we can't bear to part with it. It reminds us that Dad still lives on, even if only in our hearts, but one thing is for certain: when we get to Heaven one day and are reunited, I'm taking that beret with me, so Dad can wear it once again and make us laugh the way he used to before Lou Gehrig's disease stole him from us.