Today marks the tenth anniversary of my dad’s passing. I’ve been told that the loss of one’s parents is probably one of the most devastating losses a person can suffer, with the exception of the loss of a spouse and/or a child. I believe this to be a true statement. Being a surviving child of a deceased parent, I have found that you never really get over this heart wrenching but all too inevitable loss. No, getting over it isn’t (or at least hasn’t been) an option for me. There is grief of course, maybe moving past it and even being somewhat accepting of it. But when a woman loses her Daddy, don’t expect her to ever just “get over it.” It just won’t happen.
Shortly before his passing, because we knew it was coming (and knowing does NOT make it easier. At. All.) I had started to write what I thought would be a fitting tribute to the man who was my father. In the end, my thoughtful obituary, written in grief, was not what I wanted to convey about this wonderful man. Yes, it was descriptive, and very expensive to publish in the paper, but I don’t think I did him any justice. I could write a whole post about companies that take advantage of folks in their time of sorrow and pain, because I think they are disgusting (local newspaper, I’m looking at YOU!!,) but I will save that for another time. This column is about my dad.
Thanks to a free week with Ancestry, I have found out some pretty amazing things about my dad and his family. I discovered that my dad’s father came to America from Italy with his family as a little boy, a family that consisted of only a father and his five children. I have not dug deep enough to discover what happened to my great grandmother, and why her name did not show up on the Ellis Island documents. But this discovery means that my dad was the first generation in his family to be born on American soil. This was a fantastic find! If only I could trace far enough back to find out more, but this was a start!
My dad, John, was the second born of nine children, and the oldest boy. I remember him telling me that his own parents were up before the break of dawn each morning baking bread to feed and care for their family. My dad was nine years old when the Great Depression started, which made it harder to feed a growing family. But when he reached the end of his eight grade in school, Dad left school to work and help feed the family. As the firstborn son, it was expected of him to do this, and he did it without complaint.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, my dad enlisted into the army at the age of 21. He spoke of his time in the war proudly, because he believed in the cause of freedom and that his sacrifices contributed to the eventual victory of the allies. His European Theater of Operations saw him in places like Normandy during the D-Day invasion, in Belgium and Luxembourg for the Battle of the Bulge, into Bastogne and even liberating the Ohrdruf concentration camp (part of the Buchenwald camp) in Germany. He served in the 4th Armored under Gen. George S. Patton, and he was so very proud of that. He was awarded the Purple Heart for sustaining an injury when the half-track he was driving with hit with enemy fire. The soldier sitting right behind him was not as lucky as my dad. He lost many friends over the duration of his service. When he would tell me of those stories, his eyes would become glassy with tears, and I’d see him secretly wipe them away.
After the service, he went back to helping to feed and shelter his family working in the private sector. He had no real formal education, so learning a skilled trade was really his only choice in a post-war America. His parents met my mom at a local bingo, run by her uncle and his organization, in our home town. She was working there with her family, and surprisingly she had known her future in-laws for some time before she met Dad. When they met each other while roller skating, he fell in love with her instantly. He returned home to tell his parents about meeting her, and when he described her they told him, “That sounds like our Janie from bingo.” And sure enough, it was! They were eventually married in the summer of 1948, on my Dad’s 28th birthday.
Over the next twenty years, they welcomed four children into the family. First was a girl, Diane, then John (nicknamed Jack,) then Jeffrey and then yours truly. Between the older and younger girl was eighteen years difference. Dad and Mom bought a home for the low, low price of $14,000 with a 30 year mortgage in 1955 or 1956, shortly after the birth of my oldest brother. Dad worked long, hard days in Connecticut’s harsh climate as a welder, a trade he learned while working for C.W. Blakeslee Construction. As far back as I can remember, Dad was laid off for the most of the winter, starting at the beginning to middle of December. While we were all still young and school work could be given in advance, back when teachers and principals didn’t mind if parents took their kids from school for 2 weeks before Christmas break, Dad and Mom took us to Florida for the holiday. We stayed with my Mom’s aunt, Irene, and her husband Ray. They owned a bungalow in Oakland Park, which is a small suburb outside of Fort Lauderdale. It was only a two bedroom, one bathroom house, and it was quite a cozy fit for a family of five plus two resident adults. And after my sister joined the Air Force, and my uncle Ray had passed away (I was a baby when both those things occurred) it was still very cozy, so much so that the boys stayed next door with my aunt’s friend.
I have some fond memories of Christmases in Florida, and some things I only remember in photos. For example, our family was the first on our block to visit Disney World. We have an old Polaroid photo with Dad, me and Mickey Mouse, date stamped December, 1971. I was only two that year, so I don’t remember that but I do remember being in the Bicentennial parade during the 1976 celebration. Jeff and I were picked to be in the parade from the crowd, and we were both given a commemorative medal and a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I wish I had both of those now. Our Christmases were sometime spent at the beach after presents were opened. I remember Dad washing “tar balls” that I had stepped in at the beach off my feet, and helping me to pick oranges from the backyard trees. And my Aunt Irene had some of the biggest orange trees in her backyard I had ever seen, even to this day. That was where I first heard the term “tangelo,” way back before Honeybells were known. We would pack the car’s floorboards with our clothes and stuff as many oranges as we could jam into our suitcases for the car trip back home in January.
Dad retired from his job in 1985 at the age of 65 years old, and it couldn’t come fast enough. Too many years of working in the heat and the cold of New England summers and winters had taken their toll on him. He had nerve damage in his ears from the loud machinery, before they realized that those noises could damage hearing. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have a sore, achy back and only found relief at the chiropractor, who was his most trusted doctor. I had seen Dad barely able to walk into the office, and walk out standing straight and nearly pain free. That’s a good doctor in my book. After Dad retired, I was still only in high school, so he and Mom did a lot of volunteering for the marching band, of which I was a member. They helped to run the concession stand at the football stadium, and followed us around to every away game, just to watch me play in the band. Over the years, they developed some dear friendships and a ton of great memories. On the last regular game of the season, Thanksgiving morning, the band parents cooked up a hot, fresh meal for the band members as a way of saying goodbye to the outgoing senior class. When it was my turn to say goodbye to the band experience, it was a sad day for all three of us. Sometimes, I think my parents enjoyed the band days more than I did.
Those band years also took us to Florida and California for the end of the year “band tour.” Anyone who wanted to go on the band trip at the end of the year could go, and there were always fundraisers to help students offset the cost of the trip. Mom and Dad came with me on my sophomore trip to California, the first time they’d ever been, and to Florida on my senior trip. Most of my friends would have been horrified (and the ones who had been chaperoned usually were) by their parents tagging along on the trips. I would never have wanted to deny such an opportunity to them, especially since I knew how much they both loved the band atmosphere. Most of their friends also went, and the parents had their own itinerary of things to do separate of what we kids were doing. But I knew I could count on them to be watching the parade on July 4th, cheering me on as we marched in Florida’s blistering summer heat. Whether it was the scorching Florida sun or the bitter cold New England winter football games, they never missed a performance. Not one time.
After graduation, my folks decided it was time to start wintering in Florida. We call this phenomenon, “Snowbirds,” here in the sunny south. At first, they came down for a few weeks, then a month, and then for most of the winter. My mom’s brother would have annual tickets to the Daytona 500 in February, and it was my Dad’s favorite part of snow-birding. But finally, after a brutally cold winter they decided to sell the house and move to warmer climes. The house was on the market for a few months when an offer came in. The new couple loved the home and really wanted it. Considering that winter was coming again rapidly, and the housing market was turning sour, they took the offer and became Florida residents. I was the only one left without a spouse and nowhere to call home, so I came here with them.
I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention my high school best friend, who not only turned out to be my best friend for life, but a third brother to me, and a third son to them. Patrick, known only to my dad as “Padderick,” was a very important part of all our lives after we relocated to Florida. He is a talented artist and wanted to refine and hone his skill at probably the most prestigious art school, Ringling School of Art and Design. During Patrick’s four years at Ringling, he visited often on weekends when he had nothing pressing at school. Dad always looked forward to his visits. My dad, an avid thimble collector, always loved to share his collection and his passion for it with Patrick when he visited. We were all right there when Patrick graduated Ringling, celebrating with him. Dad was proud of his third son, as he was the only one to graduate from a four year college. When Patrick moved away after graduation, I know Dad missed him. He missed sharing stories. He missed his company and love. Recently, my mom and I decided to gift a portion of Dad’s thimble collection to Patrick. I know Dad would have approved.
Though we didn’t have pets growing up, I had acquired a cat after a roommate arrangement went sour. She was in the backyard crying, a tiny calico kitten. I have a soft place in my heart for calicos and tortoiseshell cats, so I rescued her. When I moved back home, Callie came with me, but as a condition of her being allowed in the house, she had to stay in my bedroom while I was working. My dad, who had previously not been a fan of felines, couldn’t stand to see my kitten cooped up in my bedroom all day. Usually when I came home at lunch, she was in the living room waiting for me. Dad and Callie were fast friends, and when she wasn’t sleeping she was by his side, waiting for him to sneak a piece of meat under the table.
Eventually I met and married my soulmate, who happened to live on the other side of the country. This meant leaving Florida and joining my new mate in Oregon. The wedding was small but meaningful. We had all of the trimmings that most weddings have: the cake, throwing the bouquet, my first dance with my new hubby and my last dance with my daddy. It was a bittersweet moment, knowing that I’d probably never dance with him again. After the ceremony the family went back to Mom and Dad’s house. But after that day, I was not just his little girl anymore. Life had changed. The Monday following the wedding, hubby and I started our cross country trek back to a home I’d only visited twice, with a man I’d only seen three times before the wedding. Dad wasn’t there when we left the house. I wasn’t sure I could have left if I saw him cry, but I still regret that he wasn’t home when we left. That was my one big mistake and it haunts me still.
After I left the nest, Mom and Dad continued to travel back and forth to Connecticut. They celebrated their golden anniversary in 1998, surrounded by family, friends and neighbors. Their grandchildren, my sister’s kids, lived in Illinois so that was a popular destination while they were still able. We threw him a huge party for his 80th birthday in 2000. Then in 2003, my mom told me that Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I was in college at the time studying to get an Associates Degree in accounting, but I wanted to come back to Florida, to spend time with Dad and help Mom, because I knew she would need it. So in the summer of 2004, hubby and I packed what we could bring with us, sold what we couldn’t and toted three unwilling cats across the country again.
The next few years were precious but difficult. Day after day, we watched the leader of our family deteriorate. All of his years of hard work, and this was his fate. It was so unfair, so very undeserved, and so very hard to experience. In truth, my Dad was gone long before he passed, as the disease plundered his memory and personality. I hope with all that is in me that I never have to go through an ordeal like that with another loved one. But, we kept him home as long as we could, in comfortable, familiar surroundings. His war stories became more fantastical, going from reality to a Dad version of Rambo, jumping from his half-track and mowing those Nazis down singlehandedly. Even now, we still laugh about those stories. Evenings were rough for Mom, when she was alone with him and sundown syndrome had struck. Luckily, he was not able to walk well and we never had to worry about him wandering from home or getting lost. We joked about putting a necklace on him with his address when we first moved to Florida, never expecting that someday that would be a reality for us.
Around the time when we could see Dad was starting to lose interest in daily activities and things he normally enjoyed, we called my brother Jeff, who had a new infant daughter, to bring the girls down to see him. Though we had pictures of his youngest granddaughters, he hadn’t seen the baby and constantly talked about wanting to see her. So Jeff made a trip down with his family to see Dad. It was the last time I remember seeing him joyful and content. Jeff didn’t know that it would be the last time he would see Dad.
Shortly after Jeff and his family left for home, Dad stopped wanting to eat. He was getting weaker by the day, and Mom took him to his doctor, who in turn admitted him into the hospital for observation. A week later he was released, fully hydrated and nourished, and admitted to a rehab facility, with the objective of getting him strong enough to go home. It was during these four weeks at the rehab facility that he started to fail and decline rapidly. Eventually, Hospice was called to care for him. During that time, he didn’t know anyone, nor did he even have any self-awareness. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever witnessed, and I pray to God above I never have to again.
On the day he died, I planned on going from work to see him on my lunch break, but I couldn’t get away. It was March 15, 2007, the ‘Ides of March.’ Mom went to see him, and asked me what she should read to him, because she liked to talk to him and read to him, even though he was not conscious. I suggested that she read the twenty-third Psalm from his Bible. When she called me after work, she told me that she had done so, and was happy she did. Later that evening, Mom got the phone call from the rehab center letting her know that he was gone. In that moment, our lives changed forever.
Dad was an incredible husband, father and friend. His family came first, no matter the cost. His hard work and sacrifices throughout his whole life made our lives better, and I don’t think he would have traded any part of his life for something better. He had everything he wanted and needed with his family. We were more than enough for him. I wish the world had more people in it like my daddy, for it was a better place while he was in it.