"Big Four" Highlights


Roses in December

A daughter’s loving, honest tribute to her father

by Christine Valentine-Owsik

Most of us don’t envision adopting elderly parents into our lives once we’ve been on our own for decades. We have personal and professional lives, daily family duties, and usually are seeking ways to diminish, not increase, our commitments.

Yet the call to return care to our parents can begin subtly, as in my case.

Dad suddenly doesn’t enjoy driving and needs help with errands. When I arrive, he’s playing solitaire in the dining room amid piles of mail. I notice overdue bills. He can’t find his cane, saying, “Your mother used to take care of all of this.” His laundry hasn’t been done in weeks. His car has punched fenders and paint scrapes he says are from “other jerks who don’t know how to drive.”

The author and her father pose on her wedding day.

Days later, he bounces a check. The numbers-crunching, meticulous engineer, who knew math and spreadsheets better than anyone, tells me his bank “doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing.” When we talk to the branch manager, dad barks: “I’m Victor Valentine and gonna close all my accounts at this place!” The manager is patient, and seems to understand. But I don’t.

I tell myself he just needs a little help, and call him almost daily.

Back at his house, I spend a few hours doing laundry and cleaning the refrigerator. The produce bins are pools of black rot-juice. I sense he’s eating the bad food along with the good. I ask about the mouse droppings on the countertops, but he’s asleep on the couch. Did I mention his dog, Lucy? We got him a golden-retriever pup as a companion after mom died. Now the house reeks of Lucy’s accidents.

Our once-intact family “smiles” at me from photos throughout the house – proud graduations, blissful weddings, sweet newborns, milestone anniversaries, beach vacations. There we are, memorialized forever, with no hint of mom or dad ever falling out of the picture.

One afternoon, as I’m passing his house, dad is carting trash cans to the curb in the seat of his wheelchair, which doubles as a walker. What’s happening to him, our once strong protector and provider? We had to do something.

Bringing Dad Home

My husband, Joe, suggested that we ask dad to live with us and our two teenage sons, in an attached apartment which could be built from part of the proceeds from the sale of his house. The remaining funds he could live on indefinitely. Dad jumped at the idea and moved in nine months later.

The first morning, he arose early as he’d done all his life, got dressed and exploded into our kitchen at 5:30, asking for coffee. We’d just gotten downstairs and were annoyed.

“Dad, go back to your apartment and make coffee,” I said. “There’s a new coffee maker in there!” He did, and I regretted my harsh tone.

But amid the jarring interruptions, extra laundry, grocery shopping, and doctor appointments, there was something extraordinary about this garden of time with my father. We grew much closer, enjoying Cary Grant movies, finishing each other’s jokes, visiting local farms, shopping on Saturday mornings, cooking, baking and decorating for Christmas together, and chumming around like old buddies. My love for him deepened, and he leaned on me like never before.

“Put the walker and wheelchair in the car, just in case my legs start to hurt,” he’d say each time we went out. He reminded me about everything, and repeated his favorite stories so I wouldn’t forget them. I frequently sought his insight and advice, and he gave me plenty.

I worked from home, a good setup for him. But for me, there was little silence in my upstairs office. Dad turned up his talk-radio shows and roared back at them. He slammed his door after meals-on-wheels deliveries, and played raucous Louis Prima music to remind him of early dates with mom. The tremors in my life were intensifying, so I called our parish priest.

“Father, I’m panicking about having dad with us,” I confided. “Our kids are almost grown and now we’ve got dad for God knows how long. We have no privacy, he talks incessantly, and expects to go everywhere we go. I work for the Church – how much does God expect?” He was silent for a moment. “You can do this,” he said, “and it’s right for your father. But it’s going to cost you.

A portentous piece of advice. I trusted and went forward.

Of dad’s eight years with us, the first four were fairly smooth. He treated us to homemade meatballs and “gravy” every week, enjoyed a seniors’ art group, and volunteered reading to third-graders. He never missed Sunday Mass, and said his daily rosary. He insisted on monthly Confession, and often told us what he said. We took him out to dinner and Sunday breakfast so he could flirt with the waitresses, brought him every summer to the Jersey shore, and embraced his pugnacious personality.

Our friends loved him. He’d host them and our relatives at his self-styled annual birthday bash, with open bar, while our son’s band played Glenn Miller for hours. He told our sons about his parents’ emigration from Italy to America, about the Depression and World War II, and the great big-band musicians. He played his trombone, along with our son Nick on trumpet, to every swing record he had. Our older son, Andrew, had regular “picnic” lunches with dad, grilling burgers for him and talking for hours. Dad was having a ball, and everyone knew it.

A Life in Full

Then we noticed changes.

His check register proved he couldn’t do arithmetic anymore, and he misplaced cash and keys constantly. He loaded his pillbox compartments with cough drops instead of prescriptions, and made coffee at 2 a.m.

On a road trip to Canada one summer, dad had a few “accidents” and didn’t notice. I gingerly asked him to wear incontinence protection, assuring him it was common for those his age. He launched a few jokes, but my heart broke for him. It was surreal to be issuing such directives to my father, though he was surprisingly docile. He grew increasingly fearful of the shower, so we hired aides to help him during the day. One even did artwork with him. At night, I was up frequently helping him to the bathroom and back to bed, then again early in the morning to get him dressed, fed, and ready.

“I don’t want to be a burden,” he would say. He seldom spoke now and slept a lot, and I began to miss the dad I remembered.

The night after New Year’s in early 2012, he complained of hot pain in his right leg, and shook with fever. I wondered if the ambulance trip to the hospital was his farewell ride. After several days on a ventilator, a junior ICU nurse told me my 84-year-old dad would be better off in palliative care “since he’s already lived his life, and they could just let him down easy.

Shattering the controlled hush of the ICU unit, I blasted the kid-nurse. “You don’t know squat about my father,” I shouted. “Stay away from him!”

The doctors told us dad could realistically recover, and I’d be damned if I was going to hasten his death. His illness also brought my estranged brother back for regular visits.

Eight months of intensive care for cellulitis, two months in a medically induced coma for sepsis, and repeated bouts of pneumonia, led to his needing a tracheotomy and feeding tube, then transfer to a respiratory-care nursing facility. Holding power of attorney for dad’s legal and health care matters, I was confronted with life-or-death decisions for him every few days, which I made with the help of our priest. Bedridden, with spreading dementia, he thought I was my mother, asking when we could “get in the car and go home.” He repeatedly yanked out his breathing tubes; the nursing home cancelled physical therapy, since he sat blankly in his wheelchair ignoring instructions. We visited daily to ease his confusion and fear, hold his hand, and make him laugh. We listened to big-band music and watched Phillies games together. After seven months, he got off the ventilator – breathing on his own – and was re-learning to swallow, giving us hope that he’d be okay at last.

A day later, he slipped away in his sleep – a stone-cold stop I didn’t foresee. Dad was out of his ordeal; mine was just beginning.

He’d become more sentimental in his later years, sobbing during old movies, enshrining cards from deceased relatives, poring over family photos, and reliving old experiences.

“Memories are my roses in December,” he’d say.

Dad thanked us often, at the dinner table, in Christmas and birthday messages. One of his handwritten birthday notes to me said, “To my precious daughter which God blessed me with in 1963, from a grateful father.” From his hospital bed one summer evening, the month before he died, he smiled and whispered, “You’re my angel, and you’re doing a great job taking care of your old man.”

Those immutable years with dad in the autumn of his life will be, forever, my roses in December.

Christine Valentine-Owsik lives in Doylestown, Pa., where she is president of Valentine Communications. She is publicist for Our Sunday Visitor, contributing writer to several Catholic magazines, and an RCIA instructor.