I'm not sure what final skirmish my father fought before he was pronounced dead, but he’d been carried from the field of combat long before the nurse called to tell me that his battles were over. Maybe the expression she used was expired, I’m not sure. He'd been in the nursing home for about six months, but he had left us before that, before he went to the nursing home I mean.
My father was over 6 feet tall and a muscular 220 pounds or so. He was a lean, robust man, in constant motion, with a handsome, wind tanned face. For him work and golf were both a religion. And in those two forums you could depend, that he never missed a day of work and played golf at least twice a week. That I know of, he had a standing Wednesday afternoon game with his cronies and always looked to be a fourth on a Saturday pick up game. He had never befriended weakness, in pleasure or work, and thought of it as a cowardly nemesis.
A straight forward business man is how I would describe my father. You knew exactly where you stood with him, whether in a business transaction or as one of his three children being counseled or disciplined at home. He seldom separated business from family. For my father, his family was much like a business; one he ruled and directed with similar guiding principles. Principles of honesty, charity, prudence, integrity, commitment, and love; all these and more guided my father, his work and his family.
That this rare form of “MS” came on slowly over a period of years was difficult for everyone to witness. It started when my dad lost his powerful stride and began walking strangely. Then as time passed, he slowly lost more and more of his motor control. Eventually he lost all his body strength and could no longer manage any muscle movement below his waist. At first mom had a hospital bed brought into the living room; that worked for several years. He could transfer himself to a motorized scooter and move about quite easily. He had hand controls and a chair lift added to his van. He managed. Mom managed. Together, with will and determination they fought against this foe. Life was different but good enough, then things changed.
Suddenly his condition deteriorated rapidly; the MS ravaged his body, and he no longer had the strength to transfer himself. He no longer could remain in a sitting up position; his arms would gently flail about and it took great determination for him to simply keep his head from bobbling. Uncomplicated tasks now became immense struggles against an invisible Goliath. He had become a prisoner within his own body and through the eye of a soldier’s telescope he saw that he was losing the war. With all the strength in his soul, he had previously fought against going into residential care, a nursing home, but now he required skilled nursing, it was no longer a choice of convenience. Mom could no longer care for him in their home. MS had become his mortal enemy and it feasted on both his physical and emotional strength, until he lost both those battles.
In this life of mine, there’s some things I do know and there’s some things I don’t know.
What I do know is that my dad died early on a Wednesday morning. I know I was told that he just quit breathing. I know I felt very alone and helpless. I know that for a time, only my dog Lacey, could console me. I know that I visited my dad at the nursing home every Monday night for dinner and every Wednesday for lunch. I know that I was his only daughter and the baby of his three children. I also know that he seldom recognized me during my visits in the nursing home.
What I don’t know is how or why he forgot who I was. I don’t know if it was a fever from an infection or out of control blood sugars. I don't know if it was a covert cancer in his brain, refusing to allow him to remember. And I don't know if his life had become so unbearable that he graciously declined to remember.
I do know that he remembered Lacey in those last few months.
I didn’t know, I only had those last few months.
I do know that we both loved Lacey.
Not unlike my own father, but as a parent to a four legged child, I also thought that my girl hung the moon. Lacey and I attended puppy classes, then intermediate classes and easily advanced to novice classes all before she was one year old. She grew from being the last of the litter; a skinny, little, runt puppy into a beautiful 110 pound tri-colored, golden eyed German Shepherd. And, had 110 pounds of a “knowing her own mind” temperament to go with it. At age one; she was among the best and the brightest. She was striking and effortlessly demanded attention whenever entering a room. I decided to share her enthusiasm for life with others less fortunate then ourselves and so… she became a certified therapy dog. Although she was as strong willed as she was muscularly powerful, her slow and easy kisses were the real giveaway to the size of her heart. And underneath her heavy, glossy, soft coat, she was all heart.
For years after she became certified both she and I would visit children’s shelters, group homes, attend special fundraisers for different local handicapped communities and speak to misguided youth at our local juvenile detention center. She was loved everywhere we went and I loved bringing her to as many events and scheduled visits we could each month. Small children hugged her big thick neck and screamed in delight as they touched her cold, wet nose. Older children loved Lacey’s powerful looks. They were thrilled to see her skill in obedience and were always caught off guard with her tender kisses. Lacey and I challenged ourselves to fight the battles for children with “pet therapy”, as we brought cheer to young children and sensibility to teens, already in deep in their own personal conflict.
I didn’t know that Lacey and I would be fighting one my father’s battles with our therapy.
I didn’t know that Lacey would be the link in my life that my father would remember and share, but she was.
I noticed early on after my dad came to the nursing home, that he began looking at me with a kind of a wild look. His uncombed hair and bushy eyebrows made him appear mad-man like. Maybe he was confused, I’m not sure. But he was no longer the calm, loving man that dried the tears of my youth or the dominant, authoritative man that guided my life into adulthood. He became jumpy and was easily agitated. My father, the man who was the epitome of self control had vanished. On one of my first visits, I remember clearly, how he looked at me and then asked if I was a friend of his wife’s. When I explained that I was his daughter, he asked again if I knew his wife, then turned away, turning up the volume on the TV. When this happened again the following week, I grieved the loss of my father.
Taught by my father to be charitable and not easily defeated, I decided that I would also visit other residents who possibly had no family. It only made sense that I would get permission to bring Lacey on my Monday night visits. And so it began, my relationship with my father in the nursing home.
On my first Monday night visit with Lacey, he looked squarely into her golden eyes, then at me. He studied my face for what seemed an eternity, then with a broad smile, he tipped his head and asked where we’d been for so long, saying how much he missed us both. Through Lacey, I had won an important battle that day for my dad and selfishly for myself. I don’t know that he actually remembered me as his daughter, but I do know he recognized Lacey, as my girl. Mondays became special for us. Each week my father and I would talk about golf, commitment, charity, love, and dogs; all the important things a daughter wants and needs to talk about with her old dad.
I love you dad. Thank you Lacey. I miss you both.