“Rose, Dad’s in the hospital.” The call began. “He’s undergoing emergency surgery on his colon, and there’s a good chance he won’t make it.”
I had been expecting this call for years. Alzheimer’s Disease had created wormholes in his memory, but age had chivvied a herd of medical disorders into the starting gate and any incident from a stumble to an emotional outburst might begin the inevitable stampede.
My daughter and I packed for the trip to Indianapolis. It was three weeks until Christmas. Melissa dozed next to me on the airplane as I mused over the situation. Dad had not known me by name for at least five years, the same with all my siblings. When he called Mom, “Mother” we knew that half the time he thought she was his mother, dead for over thirty years.
His family called him Sonny until my Mother insisted otherwise. “It’s silly to call a 32 year old man Sonny”. His name was Vitus – Grandma Kern named all her kids after the Saint whose feast day they were born on. Since she came from Bohemia, the some of the family names also included Stanley, Maynard, Ivan, and Aloysius.
He was born in 1922 in southwestern Minnesota – the 6th out of 7 kids, all but one were boys. The small town of Olivia had an active catholic church and school. Dad was a born clown who loved football, singing and playing practical jokes. He was the kid whose teachers made sure he passed his classes in high school because he was the star of the football team.
But he was a teenager during the post WWI depression and his father died when he was 6 years old – so money was very tight. Grandma did laundry and the kids pitched in where they could. Dad would drive the tractor during harvest time when he was 10 years old – too small to pitch the hay, but with a block tied to the gas pedal he could drive down the rows – trying to sing loud enough to drown out the engine noise. He made 10 cents an hour.
When he was sixteen, Grandma Kern lied about his age so he could join the national guard – which meant he got a new pair of boots every six months. Just after he graduated high school WWII broke out and his unit was called up. He has dozens of stories of that time. The Minnesota National Guard was sent to Kodiak, Alaska to guard our borders – guess they figured the guys from up north could handle the cold.
Living twelve hundred miles from the family seat meant that in many ways I had already distanced myself mentally from Dad. When he first went to live in the nursing home I would call at least once a week just to try to stay in contact. He still knew who I was most of the time. During one call he asked where I was. When I said Albuquerque, he asked what I was doing there?
I told him I lived here and he asked how long ago I moved. “Fifteen years ago, Dad.” I said.
“FIFTEEN YEARS!!” He shouted into the phone. “And you’re just now getting round to TELLING ME ABOUT IT!”
At first he was a special delight to the nursing home staff. Dad was a born entertainer and he had a whole lot of people there who hadn’t heard all the jokes from 1942. It was a nice change to have a patient who would sing and joke with you rather than sit in a corner and drool, even if the songs and jokes were repeated endlessly.
Dad’s favorite song was “Some Enchanted Evening” which he would sing to mother frequently. In one of his few clear moments, he told Mom that he was in purgatory. He went through all the identified stages of the disease and probably made up a few more. The restraints that education and normal societal interplay build into a person’s demeanor were torn away. He would be walking down a hallway, see a fat person and loudly say “Get those three people out of my way!”. Something he would never do before.
His faux pas at the nursing home were understood, it was his public outbursts that would throw people off. Mom would take him to Mass on Sunday morning where he loved to belt out hymns with passion. Everyone enjoyed his enthusiasm.
Singing this way took him back to the days when he performed as a singer comedian in vaudeville. As the disease progressed some of the more risqué parts of his stage career would surface. Right after a hymn’s Amen one day he suddenly belted out “ROLL OVER, BABY…THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT!”
Total silence for a moment, then the priest called out “Let us Pray” and mass rolled on.
His liveliness at the nursing home fooled visitors, who didn’t realize he was a patient and he became adept at escaping the grounds. After he’d wandered outside in the snow in his pajamas, the state of Indiana told the nursing home they’d be fined over $10K if he wandered off again so Dad was transferred to another facility specifically designed for Alzheimer’s patients. Since you had to remember a code to get out the door, Dad was finally contained.
That went on for about a year. I know Mom went to see him daily and the four siblings I have living in and around Indy popped over whenever possible. My semi-annual visits found me hugging a man who seemed to be shrinking both physically and spiritually.
The voice that boomed out “Oh Danny Boy” as Mom played the piano was confused and frequently small strokes would prevent him from being able to put his thoughts into words at all. There came a time when you could tell that he knew you were someone of importance to his life, but he didn’t know why. I stopped calling him during that time. The nurses would hand him the phone, but when I spoke to him he would just ask me over and over who I was, or just give the phone to someone else.
He was still alive when my daughter and I got to the hospital late that night. Somehow he had managed to get his colon twisted into a herniated muscle in his gut and the colon backed up. The emergency surgery had removed a long section of his colon and the surgeon had put a plug in his side that would be his new elimination point when he recovered.
Laying in the hospital bed it was hard to see his face through the breathing tubes. His eyes weakly fluttered but he was still too drugged to really wake up. Both hands were tied to the bedposts to keep him from ripping out the IV tubes – something he’d already done once. The surgery was successful, but whether he’d recover was yet to be seen.
Over the next week we made sure that there was at least one family member with him at all times. Since I had worked night shifts in my job for years, my daughters, Carolyn, who lived in Indiana, and Melissa would join me to stay with him from late evening through the time my sister, Lori, and Mom would relieve us early the next day.
I had some time to ask Mom the question that had been bothering me since I’d gotten the phone call. Several years earlier, on the advice of doctors and family members, Mom had authorized a DNR on Dad. Do Not Resuscitate. So, why the emergency surgery?
There was never any doubt that my Mother loved Dad with her whole heart. She set her mouth, looked straight at me and said “He was in pain.” She and my sister, Susan, had discussed the situation when the nursing home called and told them that something was wrong with Dad. The Doctors told them that without surgery Dad’s condition would cause him to swell up just because of retaining fecal matter in his gut and that this was an exceptionally painful way to die. Mom could not let him go that way.
Yes, she was ready for him to go when God wanted him, but not this way.
You could tell Dad was frustrated. He couldn’t talk with the breathing tube in, he struggled against the restraints. They did not want to drug him too much. We would distract him by talking to him and he calmed down when Mom would sit next to him and say a rosary. After a couple days the breathing tube came out and was replaced by an oxygen mask. We kept the 24 hour watch on him for a week. My girls and I would stand around his bed in the evening and softly sing Christmas carols. Music had always been a great joy to him.
The day came when the breathing tubes were removed and he could move again. The hospital staff had a hard time getting him to leave the bag attached to his side alone. Family was still there most of the time, but he could be left with the hospital staff for a few hours at a time.
The greatest reward for just being there, one I will hold in my heart forever, came the day I was getting ready to return to Albuquerque. One last trip to the hospital to say goodbye. I came around the corner and saw that the nurses were having him sit up on the side of the bed. He looked up and saw me in the hallway and said, “That’s my oldest girl!”
He knew me, it was just a moment but I am crying as I see him there in my mind. It wasn’t important that he did not name me, he knew who I was.
Two weeks later, just after the turn of the year, he died. He was at the nursing home again when a heart attack got him. My Mom and three other family members were with him praying a rosary when he took his last breath, a small tear fell away from the corner of his eye and he was gone.
I am lucky… I wasn’t there. My last memory will always be that moment of joy when he proclaimed, “That’s my oldest girl!”