Today's column is dedicated to my dad, Peter Saleski, who passed away this past Tuesday at the age of 86.
You think that there will be more time for things. You know — that book proposal you've been meaning to finish, the trip you've always wanted to take. But things are too busy, so we wait until 'later' because there's time. Looking back, you can see that sometimes that logic is used as a rationalization: to avoid doing things that should be done, but might be difficult. I had a few things like that with my parents. I always wanted to get mom to a Springsteen show. With dad, it was Fenway Park. Neither happened.
Last summer was both sad and beautiful for me. My mom had passed away, leaving some time to hang with dad. It was interesting to see how he got along without mom to nag him about stuff. While doing his daily errands (usually grocery pickup), he would stop and get himself some lunch: a cheeseburger and shake at McDonald's. Let me tell you, I can hear mom's voice very clearly, "Pete, you shouldn't be eating that crap!" Dad obviously ignored that advice, as he also became very fond of driving across the street to get a jelly stick at Dunkin Donuts. It makes me smile just thinking of it.
I started working at home a few days a week and I'd usually go with dad on the burger run. We also hit a local hot dog stand a few times. Probably the best lunch we ever had was over at the coast. Mom and dad loved to get fish and chips at a takeout joint, eating in the car while looking out at the ocean. Somehow, I screwed up and didn't get any plastic forks. We had a good time anyway, chowing down on all of that crispy and greasy goodness. We listened to one of mom and dad's favorite CDs. Chas and Dave seemed very sweet and old-fashioned, just like my folks.
As fall approached, I could see that something was happening. As dad walked from the kitchen back to his living room, he let his hand glide over the top of every piece of furniture in his path. It was clear that he was slowing down, though I didn't bother asking him because the answer would be of the standard "Oh, I'm fine" variety (despite his more frequent coughing episodes). I took dad to several doctor's appointments, the last of which being for his recent inability to sleep. The doctor said that he might be suffering from depression and recommended a consult for that, and then proceeded to write a script for a mild sleeping pill.
They seemed to do the trick. Dad would take the pill around a quarter to eleven, and then settle back to watch the news, finally heading off to bed at 11:30. On one particular Friday night, when the newscast had made it to the high school sports segment, I heard dad say something about "…all bunch of drug smugglers." I look over and his chin is rested against his chest, eyes closed. I ask him to repeat that and he opens his eyes, smiles, and then konks right back out. I get up and rub his shoulder, calling his name. Nothing.
911… hospital… pneumonia… congestive heart failure… Lasix… antibiotics… rehab.
Rehab… at the same facility that mom went into. It's actually a very nice place, all things considered. The rest of the fall and winter was a blur of daily visits, occasional doctor's appointments, worry, and decisions. Late in the fall, dad decided that he wanted to stay in the home. He was worried about being in our big old house during the day. He was worried about placing an extra burden on us.
The weather turned colder and dad continued to slow down. At one point not too long ago, he stopped getting up and working on his cross-stitch in his chair, preferring to spend all of his time in bed. Next came a disinterest in food. His cardiologist of 25 years took me aside and used the word 'failing.'
One night last week, me and TheWife™ went out to dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Afterward, we went over to Borders (the only thing open late in mall-land) to browse and have a coffee. I was so distracted that I just could not find anything of interest. Very unusual for me. I happened onto the local authors section (okay, it's just one bookcase) and picked up a book by a Vermonter named Rusty Dewees. One of the first essays is about his 92-year-old father passing away in his sleep at the rest home. What the hell…
On Sunday, I got a call from the home. Dad was going to the hospital because he was very weak and was having difficulty breathing. They admitted him late in the day and placed him in 'guarded' condition. A day or two and they'd send him back to the home where he'd transition to "comfort care," spending his last days dozing in his room. A room whose walls were chock full of his own art work. A cheery contrast to the walker, the commode, and oxygen concentrator.
On Monday, I got sick. Stress will do that to a person. A nagging cough turned into an insane head cold complete with fever, chills, and aching body parts. TheWife™ visited him on her way home from work. He was somewhat better than the day before, but spent most of his time humming some unknown melody. She helped him eat a little soup, and then came home.
Tuesday, I still felt lousy and sent an email to work, indicating that I'd be out another day. A few minutes later my cell phone buzzed to life. It was his doctor at the hospital. Dad was gone.
I wasn't shocked. Should I have been? I was relieved. Is that appropriate? It was impossible to suppress the relief… and the guilt. I didn't visit dad on his last day because I thought there was more time. But dad knew that I loved him, I told him that every day. Was that enough? I guess it'll have to be.
Peter J. Saleski. 1922-2009