Around five years ago, my father, Al, who never smoked or drank alcohol, discovered blood in his urine. He went to the doctor, driven by my sister, as he stopped driving years ago, only to be told he had bladder cancer. On the way to the hospital, he declared that he did not want to go there, as it was clear this would be major surgery and might be the end of his life. He told my sister, "I want to go to Red Lobster," which she ignored.
Around half of his bladder was removed, meaning that he had to urinate quite often. However, he was able to return to the only activity left for him, going out to eat, with his favorite restaurants being Red Lobster and Outback. He only ever wanted one meal at each restaurant: Sailor's Platter at the former and Victoria's Filet at the latter. Red Lobster discontinued the Sailor's Platter for a time which really annoyed us, though it was eventually brought back due to popular demand. We were able to take him to both restaurants many times since then. Every Veteran's Day, a stranger would pay for our meal, though sometimes they were too shy to approach us directly, asking the manager to notify us.
He started using a walker, though he postponed it as long as he could. His ability to walk became progressively worse each month. A few times while walking out of the restaurant, he started moving in slow motion, sometimes coming to a complete halt. He said that his legs just didn't work. I needed to carry much of his weight back to the vehicle.
When we were growing up in the Chicago area, he kept the car radio tuned to an AM news station. He always watched the evening news on television, though that was before 24-hour cable news and the Internet. I don't remember exactly when, but he stopped watching the news in this time period. When I was there at the appropriate time, I'd offer to turn on the television, but he declined, saying that he'd rather rest in his recliner. Of course, the fact that his hearing and vision were rather poor no doubt had something to do with it.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but we should have demanded that he use a wheelchair in the last year, though when we broached the subject, he told us he wanted to continue using the walker. One day when I was taking him to Perkins, just to try someplace different, I turned my head to watch where I was going. As I turned my head back to him, he fell onto the pavement. I was barely able to get him back in my truck and I'm really strong. I looked back at the handicapped ramp and realized that the transition between the parking lot and the ramp was not as smooth as it should have been.
He had trouble walking at home, so off he went to the hospital again, where we discovered that he had a cracked pelvis. He spent a few days in the hospital and was transferred to a rehab facility because hospital stays cost Kaiser Permanente too much money. He hated that facility, as it was rather Spartan, with the cuisine being not much better than fast-food. And then he caught the flu, most likely from an employee who only worked part-time and therefore did not have sick days. The flu really hammered him, with his cough not going away for many weeks. He never recovered his strength after that.
He eventually returned home, but he could not walk to the bathroom on his own any more. We hired a private company to supply care-givers to be at the house to assist him with going to the bathroom, with my business-owning brother paying for the service. One day my father started acting like a zombie, sitting in his chair but being unresponsive. We put food in front of him, but he just kept moving his hand around the tray. We weren't sure what to do, but after we discovered he had a fever, we called an ambulance to take him to the hospital.
After another day of being mentally catatonic, he awoke, telling us that he wondered how he got to the hospital. He had no memory of his behavior at home or his ambulance ride. The doctors never did figure out what had been wrong with him, but then again, he had signed a DNR. The doctors recommended that he be put into hospice care.
We found an assisted-living facility with more comfort than the rehab facility, once again on my brother's dime. My father arrived there just before Easter Sunday, which seemed appropriate given that he was Catholic. I brought him downstairs in a wheelchair for Easter brunch which was actually quite nice. I put eggs, bacon, and other breakfast items on his plate, but I saw that he could no longer use a fork, so I fed him myself. That was the first and last time he went to the dining room to eat, with all subsequent meals being brought to his room.
I would often arrive either just before or just after lunch with a cup of coffee, though I had to insert a straw to allow him to drink it. However, there were more and more days when he was sleeping when I arrived and I could not bring myself to wake him up to say hello. Eventually he told me that coffee just kept him awake, which I took as a hint to stop bringing it. My sister sometimes brought a takeout Sailor's Platter at dinnertime. She told me that initially he ate every bite, but eventually he became disinterested in eating.
One of the care-givers at the assisted-living facility, Melissa, stood out. She wore a cross around her neck, with her actions proving that it wasn't merely for show. She fed my father breakfast and lunch whenever she was working. She told me that some of the other care-givers thought there was little point in feeding a hospice patient. Eventually the only meals he could eat were soft ones, for example, mashed potatoes and gravy. He became very thin.
Sometimes he would be in the aforementioned zombie state, though with his eyes closed, slowly waving his right hand around as if he was conducting an orchestra.
My sister and I thought we'd improve upon the bed that was provided by hospice care. We moved his bed from home, one with controls to raise the head and feet. The hospice workers, who arrived every 2-3 days to give him a sponge bath or check on his health, then told us that it was necessary to use the provided hospice bed, as it allowed for the bed to move up and down to diminish the strain on worker's backs. So we brought his bed back home.
One day I arrived before lunch to find him conversing with a volunteer, with him in a wheelchair, not a bed. He was as lucid as he had been for months. Being optimistic, something for which I'm not known, I thought he'd be around for a few more months.
A few days later, I found him delirious, something which was not rare. He was telling me things I could not understand. He finished his story by telling me that he thought his only option was to kill himself. Perhaps he had just awoken from a nightmare; perhaps he was experiencing a daymare. I told him that it was okay, which seemed to calm him down a bit. My response was inadequate, but it was all I could think of.
The last time I saw him lucid, I heard the care-giver ask him what he wanted, with his response being, "I want to get out of here." My visit was all too brief.
He died eight days ago, early in the morning. I got to the facility just before they took him away. He looked just like he did the day before, only without the breathing. Melissa was the one who found him, even though she had been transferred to another wing, with my dad no longer her responsibility. Some would say he died peacefully in his sleep, however, given his daymare, I can only hope that was the case.
He served in both WWII and the Korean War. His WWII duty was fairly low-stress, as he was assigned to guard the airbase on Ascension Island which was used as a halfway point for military aircraft traveling across the Atlantic Ocean as well as for anti-submarine operations, with the next stop going west being Natal in Brazil. The Nazis did not attack the island on my father's watch. The Korean War was another thing entirely, as he was a participant in the bloody battle at Heartbreak Ridge. He stayed in the Army and retired as a master sergeant.
His military service entitled him to a military funeral. The funeral was held on May 25 at Fort Logan National Cemetery, about as close to being buried on Memorial Day as one could get. The US Army officer who gave the sermon had an accent I could not place at first, but then I realized he was Korean. He thanked my father for his service in the Korean War, as it contributed to his native country remaining free.
Happy Memorial Day, Dad! I displayed your old US flag on the outside of your garage this weekend. I'll display it again on Flag Day on what would have been your 98th birthday. A long time ago, you joked that those displaying the flag on Flag Day were doing so in honor of your birthday. I'm sorry we couldn't make it to one of your favorite restaurants on your final outing.