October 2012


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So, Dad’s local memorial service was this afternoon. We’ll be having a family service in the early summer, when it’s warm enough to spread his ashes out in Cape Cod Bay, where he wanted them. But it was a lovely gathering this afternoon, in the 1834 meeting house that’s home to my UU church. A great mix of local family, neighbors and good friends, on a gorgeous fall day. Here’s what I had to say.

As I sat down last Sunday afternoon to gather my thoughts for this service, I found myself struck by an incredible irony: In the last few years that I’ve been writing a blog about my time caring for my father, I’ve written, literally, thousands of words about the man. But that afternoon, with my laptop open in front of me, I realized I had no clue what I wanted to say.

You see, Dad and I had a complicated relationship. Not an unusual sentiment, I realize, but Dad was married three times, and each of those wives had a husband or two besides him. Just explaining to others how my various half- and step-siblings are related (or not) can require a Powerpoint presentation. So, being the son of a man at the center of such an extended family … tree? …bush? …vine? …is a complicated experience.

But while our relationship had its complications, Dad, himself, was not a complicated man. His view on life was simple: he loved it. Dad simply did not know how to not have a good time. This could be maddening – he was loud, enjoyed his Scotch a bit more than he probably should have, and would never miss an opportunity to flirt with a waitress, make an off-color remark or – if a piano (and player) were present – break out in song. His complicated family may have wanted to slide under the table when he got started, but he was a party on two legs to much of the rest of the world.

That simple joie de vivre stayed with Dad through some really tough times. Through marriages that didn’t work out as he thought they would, and tough business times when orders (and commissions) were few and far between. “Something will come along,” he’d say. “It always does.” And, you know, it almost always did.

Dad was never a religious person, though he loved the drama and ritual celebrated in the Episcopal church in which he was raised. But I came to see in his time on the Cape that holding onto the faith that “something will come along – it always does,” was really Dad’s spiritual practice, along with living his basic principle that life is meant to be lived well and enjoyed with gusto. He maintained those two tenets even when it became clear this past spring that Pleasant Bay Nursing Center, not my little house on Main Street, here in Brewster, would be his new permanent home.

“Well, here’s where I am,” was his response when I asked how he’d managed to turn his attitude from depression to acceptance over the two or three days it took him to absorb that difficult reality. That conversation took place back in March, and I’ve thought about the sheer grace of Dad’s response – “Here’s where I am.” – almost every day since. Sure, he’d have some down days after that acceptance; but, in general, he stood by his faith – flirting with the nurses, talking trash about the Red Sox with whomever would listen and relishing his cocktail-hour Scotch on the rocks, even if it was sometimes served in a disposable plastic cup.

So, here’s where I am, Dad – standing in a beautiful room, celebrating your life among people who loved you, some who grew to care a great deal about you in a very short period of time. There’s a piano here and someone to play it, and in just a few minutes we’ll all be joining in on one of your favorite tunes. And, after almost 700 words, I’ve finally figured out what I wanted to say today – I love you, and thank you for helping me see both the work and the value of loving life wherever I am living it. I only hope I can continue this practice with at least a portion of your humor and grace, no matter how embarrassing it may be to the complicated family around me.

Amen, Namaste, Blessed be.

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The last couple weeks since Dad died have been a bit of a roller-coaster. Obituaries to be written, memorial-service arrangements to be made, the carting of Dad’s belongings from the nursing home to a corner of the basement to be sorted through… well, someday. There also have been a lot of tears.

But there’s also been a great deal of thankfulness. Dad died really easily and quickly – here one minute, gone the next. Since then, I’ve received wonderful support from family, friends, neighbors – and all of you.

I’m thankful, also, for a couple of wonderful articles. Paula Span, editor of The New Old Age blog on the NY Times website, wrote a very nice piece for that blog, which you can read here. And just today, an honest-to-God print article appeared in the health section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which you also can read online.

I’ve also gotten the opportunity to become a contributor to AARP’s caregiving blog, and will be posting there regularly, so be sure to check it out.

As to this blog, I’m not quite sure, yet, the form it will be taking, going forward, whether as a continuing document of my personal journey or more as a vehicle for caregiving advocacy. It’s something that likely will take me some time to figure out. Whatever I decide, though, you’ll all be the first to know. :)

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A blessing occurred in Brewster, Massachusetts, yesterday. A 90-year-old man who lived every day of his life exactly as he chose died quickly and peacefully, before his choice – or his awareness of his choice – could be stolen from him. Charles Ross, Sr., born January 25, 1922, died freshly scrubbed (he’d just had a shower), in the care of one of his favorite nurses at about 9:45 a.m., October 10, 2012. The end came very quickly, within the 15 minutes or so between the time of the nursing home’s urgent call to me and my running through the facility’s automatic doors.

He hadn’t seemed quite himself for the previous week or two, though there were no vital-sign statistics to back up my intuition that something was just, well, off. His voice was softer, he was more likely to be sleeping in his wheelchair when I came through the door and there was a stronger sense of depression around the fringes of the inordinate optimism through which he typically looked at the world. One telling example occurred about a week ago, when he complained that he’d missed having corn on the cob this summer. “Well, now you’ve got something to look forward to next year,” I said (yes, I seem to have inherited that envelope-pushing optimism). “I’m not so sure about that,” was his uncharacteristically dour response.

Then, from Stage Left, entered Rex the Wonder Dog, the last significant cast member in the comic drama Dad and I have been living the last 4-1/2 years, and Dad’s spirits ticked up. It was just one week before Dad died when I walked into his room with my new four-legged buddy, a 2-year-old flaxen-haired beauty with a disposition so sweet and calm that, in his presence, one can see the possibility that, in one of his many previous incarnations, the current Dalai Lama was, perhaps, a golden retriever. During a subsequent visit, Rex and I sat outside with Dad and, with his hand on Rex’s head (and, referring back to the absence he’d seen in my life since my old pal Bart’s premature demise) Dad made the statement, “Well, now you have your dog.” At the time, I almost laughed at the solemnity of that statement and Dad’s delivery. In retrospect, though, I see it almost as a checklist item: Chuck has his dog, he’s not alone. Done.

So, now Dad is gone, at least in body. That line between here/not-here is just so distinct. Just five minutes ago, I caught myself in the pattern of checking the clock to see how much morning work time I had left before I headed out the door for my regular 11 a.m. visit. And, sometime in the next six months or so, that transition will be made even more distinct, when Dad’s ashes will be spread in Cape Cod Bay as he wished, near the little fishing center of Rock Harbor, where he loved to park his old Mercury Grand Marquis and watch the charter boats make their way in and out the channel. That area is, essentially, the same stretch of coastline where I once ran with Bart and now send Rex running after tennis balls, just a couple miles of marsh and shallow water away.

I wondered at Dad’s choice, originally – wouldn’t he prefer the company of other former Marines in the veteran’s cemetery, or that of the golfers along the course of his old country club? After all, he hated the cold, damp northeast winds that blow across the bay’s gray water in the winter, and he had no particular fondness for either swimming or beaches. But maybe he knew that, in the sand flats of Cape Cod Bay, he’d still get to enjoy his son enjoying his dog on a regular basis. A man who knew how he wanted to spend his life also knew how he wanted to spend the time that followed that life – and he couldn’t think of a better place to do so.

Rest in peace, Dad. You loved. You were loved. You will continue to be loved. And Rex and I will see you on the flats.

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