Monday, August 27, 2018
My Father's Special Language
My father was shy, a man of few words, yet he fabricated a make-believe language, one he invented himself. Nonsensical, silly and fun, it was a constant in our lives—a way that he expressed himself and the emotions that seemed difficult for him to show.
Dad wasn’t completely comfortable in crowds; he didn’t have any friends that he met on a regular basis. He chose mostly to immerse himself in a special world of his outdoor flowerbeds, working with his hands, and being with family. He began to restore antique furniture and build miniature dollhouses when he retired. When I visited my parent’s home, Dad would walk me around his little gardens. We would admire the glory of nature together—roses, pansies, petunias, butterflies and birds. He would share his latest projects in a truly humble fashion, lovingly showing me the smallest details, reserving this special time we had together using the silly words of his made up vocabulary to name everything.
None of us were called by our real names, even the family pets, for Dad even had his special code words for each family member, friends, and cousins. My son Matt was known as Ray, my brother, as Boy, Mom was always Barnett, my husband Jim was Peppy, and I was little Tenya. It was as if a secret society—one that Dad was the founder--permitted entrance as his way of letting you know you were welcome in his world. Friends knew that Dad liked them if they were given an unusual name.
Dad had a particular saying, however, when faced with a barrage of unexpected health bills, or when a particular project he worked on, wasn’t turning out as expected: “What a nightmare!” he’d say, though he said it with a chuckle, as if trying to diffuse the situation. ‘Nightmare’ became the code word in our family for anything we weren’t happy about.
A robust, healthy man, Dad learned that he had congestive heart failure in his late sixties. Several blockages were found, and Dad had to undergo serious surgery to correct them. A sac of fluid encased his heart due to his heavy smoking. The outlook was a bit grim—not the usual type of bypass surgery. Yet Dad came through that particular nightmare and subsequent rehabilitation better than expected.
Years later, another nightmare crept up in the form of my mother’s dementia. Our family began to notice the small changes at first. She began to repeat stories, she forgot simple tasks. Then as time went on, Mom’s whole world changed. She experienced health issues and lost a part of who she was. My father’s words became more powerful than ever to me. He began an early morning ritual of calling before Mom would awaken. It was during those precious moments that we could commiserate about my mother’s failing mind. We made lighthearted conversation and solved some of the serious issues if only for a short time.
For me, the dementia brought back frightening moments from my childhood—my mother’s mental illness. Her hospital visits had been long, and there were days when I wasn’t sure she would return to us. It was in those moments that my father’s soft-spoken words had soothed and given me hope as a little girl. And it was in our new journey with my mother that Dad would once again step into the role of protector and hero with quiet words of faith and goodness.
He patiently watched the same movies over and over with my mother. He bought her favorite foods and took her for long drives to nearby places she enjoyed. I never saw him lose his temper with her, and much like the time in my youth, this quiet, good man handled our situation with grace and courage.
Two years ago I noticed that Dad’s morning phone calls were becoming infrequent. When we did talk, he seemed agitated and spoke of more ‘nightmarish’ incidents as if truly complaining about them for the first time. He seemed to lose his smile, his sense of humor. Even the silly vocabulary that had been such a big part of our world fell by the wayside. None of us knew it at the time, but my father had gallbladder issues that would eventually land him in the hospital.
In August of 2016, my father was told that he needed emergency surgery. We weren’t sure if he had ignored the symptoms in his care for Mom, or if it happened quickly. His body became septic. The outlook was grim. Dad was now eighty-five years old and his heart had become weakened.
I sat with him alone the morning while the doctor had a serious conversation with us. They weren’t sure he would be able to survive the surgery. Dad looked at me when the doctor left the room and said, “What a nightmare, huh?”
My brave father chose to give the surgery a try. That night as he was being wheeled away he had something to say to each family member in turn. His last words to me were, “Thanks for everything.” But later I would find out that these weren’t truly the last words I would ever hear from my father.
Though he made it through surgery, Dad couldn’t breathe on his own. He was placed on a ventilator and given medication to keep him comfortable. Weeks passed with no change until I arrived at the hospital early one morning.
Something had been nagging at me. We had all noticed that Dad’s health was failing, that there hadn’t been any improvement. I knew that I should say something important to my father on that day. Dad had always been there for all of us and he had spent his life dedicated to others. I knew he deserved to be at peace. Though he hadn’t been conscious, I felt that he would be able to hear me as I talked with him that morning. I wanted to be able to let him go. To tell him it was okay to leave us. With tears streaming down my face, I arrived at the hospital. He actually was much worse. The nurses told me that it would be a day of decisions. Nothing else could be done. His kidneys and organs were failing. I called for my brother and Mom to be there. Friends came to support us on a most difficult day.
Each of us took our time to say goodbye to him. I had been prepared, but now I wasn’t quite ready to let go. This was truly it. The end of Dad’s life. I glanced around the room at the faces of friends and family, so glad for their comforting presence when I sensed a presence of another kind. Surrounding my father’s bed, almost like an out-of-focus camera lens, were four tall stately beings: One at the head, one at the foot, and one on either side. I realized they weren’t clearly visible, it was as if I could feel, more than see them. A sense of awe overcame me. They were beautiful, majestic. I wanted to cry out and share the moment with everyone else in the room. Were they angels sent to guide my father home? Visitors sent from Heaven to greet Dad on the journey he would soon take? This incredible glimpse I was given had to be a true gift that only could have come from my Heavenly Father. I kept the moment to myself. Peace enveloped me then; a sense of well-being, knowledge that Dad would be in good hands—the best hands. I was able to leave the room, able to let go.
Though others stayed behind as they took Dad off life support, I could not. I went downstairs to a small chapel in the hospital but it was too dark, too quiet for me there. The sun had been shining brightly outside and I decided that I would spend Dad’s last moments walking outdoors.
A friend who stayed in the room told me she would call me when my father passed. I found a bench and sat upon it, lifting my face to the warming rays of the sun. Birds chirped happily in the surrounding trees. All was quiet, until . . .
I heard my father’s voice, clear as a bell. No mistaking the slight chuckle, the tone of what was said. “The nightmare’s over.”
Exactly at that moment my friend texted me. Where are you? She asked. Why, I asked, is he gone? Yes, she said, very peacefully. I knew that God had allowed another miracle! For me to hear my father’s words as he went off to glory. To let me know with our special phrase that he was leaving, but for me to be happy for him.
A few months later I had a very powerful dream. In it, my father came to me. He looked young and handsome. He said to me, “Kar, here in Heaven, everything glows, even the people.” I remember feeling as if my heart would burst from happiness at seeing him. During the dream, I confessed how worried I was about Mom. He simply said, “Don’t worry.” When he wanted to tell me a secret about Heaven, I awoke, for I felt it wasn’t time for me to know.
Throughout my life I’d always dreaded saying goodbye to my parents. Our family was so close. I was sure I would never be able to handle it. Though he left us, Dad’s words remained with me and got me through; the ones that were silly and made me laugh, the comforting ones which had always given me hope, and the parting words spoken secretly to me.
We lost Mom only nine months later. Though it wasn’t easy saying goodbye so soon after losing Dad, it helped to know he was waiting for her on the other side.