It was three years ago today that my father passed away.
I don't want this to be a sad post. Rather, I want it to be a memory of my dad as I try to remember him every day: witty, a joker, caring, silly, conservative, serious, a very hard worker, a worrier, lover of life, lover of his family.
My dad had just turned 89 when he passed away. His was not an easy passage. He struggled with everything his frail body had to keep going one more day. As in the rest of his life, he fought hard to live: through World War II, concentration camps, making a new life for himself in Canada, starting a family late in life, and working hard to ensure his family would never be without.
I don't remember my dad resting a lot, except on Sundays. Those were the days when Sundays were still a day of rest. Remember those? Stores were closed, you didn't work, and the day was spent going for a walk, napping, buying ice cream at the corner store, and visiting with friends. I cherish those days of walking with my dad, hand-in-hand, just walking. He would always walk closest to the curb, to keep me safe. More often than not, we'd end up at the corner store for ice cream. He'd always choose vanilla.
He worked hard, but enjoyed his work immensely as well. He made sure of it. Yes, he complained about work a lot, but I know deep down inside he loved it. After he retired, he kept going back to his workplace and hanging out, continuing those friendships he had made, not willing to give up the past. And he continued to talk about those days years after retiring. He loved being a cog in the whole work wheel, and he missed it terribly. It took him many years to figure out what to do with himself.
When he wasn't at work, he was home, working. No, he didn't rest much, but he was happy, and he liked it that way. No use resting when there was work to be done. His parents were farmers in Poland, and this was the life he knew. Work hard.
I don't remember my dad ever being sick when I was growing up. Except one year when I was quite young, I remember he came down with a cold, and it scared me to death. I thought for sure my dad would not survive. I had never seen this man sick before. Survive he did, of course. I think he had to take one day off work, though.
Of course, over the years, he did start getting sick more often. His heart started giving him trouble. He ended up, in the late '80s, having to have a triple bypass to unclog some arteries. He'd had a couple of heart attacks leading up to the surgery.
It scared him, and it changed him. He became fearful of doing too much, or straying too far from home, and everytime he felt something, he would run back to the hospital.
His mortality had become real to him.
It became all too real to the rest of us one fateful day in 2005 when he broke his hip after a visit to his favourite restaurant, a place where they treated him like family. They always knew what he wanted, and how he wanted it. They would serve him his soup with the crackers already crumbled in it because it was hard for him to open the package and do it himself. They gave him a present for his birthday and sang him happy birthday, and really meant it. All the waitresses would kiss him on the cheek as well, which I'm sure made him smile for days since he loved them. I'm sure he wished he was 50 years younger.
He almost didn't survive the hip surgery. His heart could hardly withstand anything. But survive it he did, after quite a few scares. Getting him up and moving again was difficult, and extremely frustrating for him. You could see it in his face and in his words. He hated it, the loss of independence, the dependence on everyone for everything. It drove him crazy, and that just made him fight even harder to get up and move again. He wanted to go back home so badly that nothing would stop him.
After many attempts at walking, the hospital decided he needed to go somewhere where he could have more rehabilitation than they were able to offer him. So he was moved to an interim hospital, a place he ended up loving a lot. He had a room all to himself, his own washroom, and lots of physiotherapy to get him moving again.
However, the rules of our health care system are such that, after you're in this rehab unit for a certain length of time, you must move on. Since my dad wasn't able to go back home yet, they had no choice but to put him in yet another hospital. This hospital is used for long-term care for various illnesses, from cancer to cerebral palsy, and blindness to older people who need more care than can be had at a nursing home.
Although we are fortunate to have this variety of institutions at our fingertips, I can't say any one of us was happy with my dad's stay at this hospital. He hated every moment of it. There was no privacy, stuck in a room with two other men with various disabilities. There was no joy. But what I think my father found the worst (and any one of us would, really) is the utter lack of dignity he experienced while here. My brothers and I made the effort to visit my dad every single day, and there were plenty of times when I would come into his room and see him there in his wheelchair, door wide open for everyone to see, his pants down around his ankles because it was too difficult for the attendant to pull them up again after he had gone to the washroom. The attendants said he didn't mind. I knew he did, though. I saw it in his eyes.
This place was what finally broke his spirit.
One morning a few weeks after entering the long-term care hospital, my dad didn't wake up. He was in a coma. He had had a stroke, and no one had noticed until they came around with his breakfast. He was rushed back to the urgent care hospital and put in ICU for over a week. They were pretty sure he wasn't going to make it.
But he did.
His stroke caused him more physical problems, but nothing he couldn't deal with with some time and lots of effort. The stroke also did a number with his mind, something that he could not deal with as easily. He hallucinated at times, but was lucid most of the time. He sometimes confused dreams and reality.
The hospital staff one day decided he was well enough to return to long-term care. My father cried, saying he couldn't go back there because it would definitely kill him. My brothers and I agreed, and we fought tooth and nail, refusing to allow him to be returned to that horrid place. The hospital staff was shocked that we took such a stance, but they finally listened to us, and placed my dad on another floor within the urgent care hospital, a place to wait until a nursing home could be found for him since he was still not able to live on his own.
I wanted so badly to take him home with me, to have him live with us. However, having a broken hip that is slow to heal, and being 89 years old are difficult things to deal with. There was nowhere in our home that would be suitable for him. I felt like a failure. I had long ago promised my dad that when he got older, he would live with me. This still eats at me to this day.
My dad ended up at the best nursing home in the city. It was unbelievable. This home was our first choice, and usually it involved a wait of two years or more to get in. It was like a dream come true. A huge weight was lifted off all our shoulders. I thought, this is almost too good to be true. Maybe now our luck will change, and my dad will be in a much better place, both mentally and physically. This home promised all things good: wonderful care, lots of physio, some Polish people my dad could hang out with, a location very close to home, and lots of women who would probably clamber all over him because of his sweet charm.
He moved in, with quite a bit of fanfare from the home staff. They made him feel very special. Because he was.
Of course, he found it difficult to adapt, and refused to accept that this was now his home. He wanted to go back to his home so badly, so desperately. He saw the nursing home as "the end" for him, despite our constant assurances that this was just a pitstop, just until he could walk well enough again on his own. But I think perhaps he knew something we didn't want to see. He felt this was as far as he would go. He didn't think he'd be able to overcome this hurdle.Just ten days after entering this wonderful nursing home, he passed away suddenly from a heart attack while lying in bed having some orange juice and watching one of his favourite soaps on tv.
I miss him terribly, and I think about him everyday, but I know for a fact that my dad is much happier now than he was, this last year of his life. What age had done to him was not fair. It broke my heart every day to see him, unable to be the independent, strong man he knew he was.So, today I will remember my dad as who he really was: a loving father, protector, a proud man. My dad.