Like many of my friends before me, I have recently experienced the death of a parent.
When my Dad was 60 years old, he was an alcoholic that could just about take care of himself; not someone you could particularly be proud of—although my friends used to think he was “a good time” and a good guy.
One day he was given a gift, his right leg was amputated.
At this point you’re wondering if that was a typo – how could losing a leg be a gift?
He had chest pain and went to the VA hospital to be treated for his second heart attack, the first was when he was 45. During his stay he needed a chest tube. Unbeknownst to all, when the chest tube was put in, his spleen got nicked and he “bled out” as it is said in hospital lingo. They didn’t realize it until he went into respiratory arrest. They ran him to surgery and did a splenectomy. He had lost so much blood that the vessels collapsed in his groin and legs (nothing to hold them open… THAT’S how much blood he lost) and when they perfused him with blood only one leg’s vessels opened.
My family and I watched in horror for days waiting to find out just how high the amputation had to be. Dad was out of it and had no idea that he would soon lose his leg. Unfortunately and ultimately it had to be above the knee.
He stayed in the hospital recovering from everything for 4 months- definitely long enough to get through DT’s from drinking and smoking.
He came home just a whisper of a man.
I kept waiting for “the other shoe to drop” (was that punny?) and for him to grieve the loss of his leg, but he NEVER did. NEVER. NOT ONCE. NOT EVER.
He explained to me that although it would be seen as a loss to others, that he viewed it as being a gift. He knew that if he continued to live his life the way he was, that his life would be short, unproductive and that his quality of life would continue to deteriorate. Although his daily struggles would be different now, his quality of life would be much greater.
That was 18 years ago and right up until the end he was very “happy” that he had lost his leg. The experience did “shake him in his boots” though (another pun?) because he realized how precious and fragile life is. He began thinking about things like living wills, advanced directives, health care power of attorneys, wills and burial plots. Our first conversation seemed a little strange because it was normal to make a comment or two about “when I die”, but I wasn’t used to “talking about it”.
We videotaped him telling stories about him growing up on the farm, his parents and grandparents and being in the army with Elvis Presley (one of his favorite stories). He began telling people how much he loved them and how he appreciated them. He became generous with his money and time. One of his favorite things to do was to take someone on a cruise so that he could go gamble and to spend time with them. I went several times as well as my husband, kids, sister, aunt and uncle and even Mom (even though they had been divorced since the 80s and she had been remarried for 25 years!)
He really became a Dad that you could be VERY proud of!
So much so that when we moved from CT to SC, we asked Daddy if he wanted to move with us! We built him an attached handicapped accessible apartment which he absolutely loved and was able to enjoy for 9 happy years.
After the first year we were in CT he asked that I make an appointment with the funeral home. It worried me a little…. did he “know something” that I didn’t? We went and he picked out his casket, plot, headstone (including which font for Pete’s sake!)… he told them which newspapers he would like to be “featured” in, he even chose to have military honors.
He had such a “good time” with it that he budded a very strong friendship with the cemetery man and they would take turns visiting each other either at the house or at the cemetery so he could see how his “property” was doing.
He would ask me to go every now and then. He had me take pictures of him next to his headstone. I think he thought it was “cool”. He even asked if I thought it would be neat if he hopped off his scooter and laid down in front of the headstone and take a picture, because that’s the way “it would be” (I thought it was kind of gross and besides cracking up at the big grin on his face, couldn’t see the humor in it).
Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing creepy or disturbing about any of this, it was just a fact of life. He didn’t dwell on dying as it may sound, he actually appreciated every day. Someone would ask him how he was doing and he would say “I woke up today, so it’s a good day!”
He worked every day outside. He drove the banana yellow golf cart slowly around the yard picking up every single pine cone and stick. He found it relaxing. He visited neighbors and threw fish food out to the pond fish and (even though we always yelled at him about it) threw fish food to the chickens and ducks too. When the Canadian geese would come, he would feed those too. The same geese came and got to know Dad, they came running when they saw the golf cart as did our favorite chicken with the BEST personality in the whole-wide-world, Eagle. “Eags” would come running across the yard and end up IN the golf cart with Dad and would patiently wait for a treat!
At the time of his death, Daddy had endured the leg amputation, 2 strokes, 3 heart attacks and 3 bouts of cancer. Not knowing how accurate we were, we affectionately referred to him as “9 lives” for years. Dad passed away the middle of May after an unexpected twelve day illness. I was hoping we could strike up the new nickname “10 lives”, but it wasn’t to be.
Until it was “close to the end”, Daddy had his wits about him. At different stages, he changed his desires for his advanced directives. If it could “be great” it was in the fact that I never had to make those difficult decisions, he ran the show. He was so brave! I can only aspire to be as brave.
When we were through with our visiting after he passed (after midnight), I called (now OUR friend) the “cemetery guy” because in a small town one person wears many hats. He also works for the funeral home and told me to “let him know when” because he would be honored to care for Daddy.
At a time when my family and I were already overwhelmed by the “sudden” loss, we were released from so many difficult decisions. We never had to worry about “what would Dad want?”, he had already decided. I can’t imagine having to make so many decisions in a time of such grief.
I believe that it was one of the greatest gifts he could have ever given me.
As they say, there are only 2 sure things in life: death and taxes. Just because some may bury their heads in the sand and “not want to talk about it”, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.
We even had a word document that had all of his “prized possessions” listed on it and who he wanted them to go to. Every few years I would drag it out and say “anything change?” and revise it—just as he wanted (then I would have him sign it so whoever saw it knew that these were his wishes).
If you are brave enough to make these decisions, know that they are not “set in stone” (well, for the most part anyway…. gosh, I am so punny today ). You can change a will, any advanced directives, living wills, where you would like to “be”, your casket or urn, which newspapers to be in and any other details you can think of. As life changes, we change and your choices may change as well.
I know it can be scary to think of our own passing or the passing of our loved ones. The first time you talk about it can be very uncomfortable. The more you speak of it however, the more it becomes “no biggie”, just a fact of life.
Again, I can’t tell you what a gift it was that I knew that everything was just as HE wanted it, not just as “I thought he wanted it” – which can be VERY different.
Below are a few websites to help you along. If you can manage ANY part of it, even if it is just to write your wishes and leave them in your bedside table so that they can easily be found and you can change them daily if you want.
Do it for yourself and especially for the ones you love. They will TRULY appreciate it.
Once again, Thank you Daddy. I love you and I miss you!
* Note: I have never used any of these sites so be sure to check them out thoroughly. You can get a free Advanced Directives or Living Will form from your local hospital as well. For personal property, I just put everything into a word document and had him sign it- you can also have it sealed by a Notary Public.