We laid Dad to rest last week on a cold, snowy day in central Alberta, a day that saw Canada gripped by news of COVID-19. He was a month shy of 89 and was beleaguered with several health problems but he did not die of the Coronavirus; the doctors suspect an aortic aneurism that he carried for a decade finally let loose. He died quickly and peacefully, and for those two things, I am grateful.
I had been with him six days before at a doctor’s appointment in Red Deer. The cardiologist seemed shocked to learn Dad’s age and told him he looked really good for being almost 89. I wondered what the doctor saw because to me, Dad looked tired. He was moving slower and breathing harder than when I saw him three days before. I was worried, but Dad had surprised us so many times recovering from near-death medical emergencies that we often referred to him as “the cat with nine lives.”
Apart from the typical farm accidents like losing a finger and breaking his nose three times—once by a horse, once by his 1-year-old son and once by a baseball player who threw his elbow as he rounded the base—he broke eight ribs when he fell off a church roof, broke an ankle skiing, had both knees replaced, and underwent a triple bypass a month after my mom, his wife of 50 years, died in 2005. He suffered a stroke coming out of that surgery which made him lose half his eyesight, his sense of direction and his driving privileges. A few years later he fell prey to a scammer in charge of his personal care. By the time we figured out what was happening, $48,000 was gone from his bank account and the state of his health so jeopardized that had we not gotten to him when we did, he would’ve died. A couple of years later, he fell down a set of stairs and put his head and his arm through the drywall. He crushed his vertebrae, fractured bones, lacerated his extremities and ended up having emergency surgery a few weeks later to save an infected leg that had ballooned to three times its normal size.
We had become fiercely protective of him since the scammer incident so there was never any question about being there for Dad after that. It was our turn to give back, to care for him like he’d done for us most of our lives and that’s what we did for over a decade until last spring when he moved into the Senior’s Lodge.
The move to the Lodge did not come easy. He didn’t like the idea of giving up his house to be around “all those old people” even though he was depressed and lonely. He said he wasn’t the social type. We knew different. Dad had a great sense of humour and was really cool to be around. He was silly and such a good sport. We knew people would love him and we knew the move would be good for him, but for years, he resisted.
He finally relented in April of 2019. My sister, Cheryl, and I popped in several times to check up on him in that first week. We made sure he showed up in the dining room for meals and even sat with him for a couple. We introduced him to other residents and we started conversations to help ease him into the social setting. It took him about five weeks to settle in but once he did, he became the guy everyone wanted to sit beside. In fact, he spent more time out in the front room having coffee than he did in his room—the room he was so scared to leave, at first.
Us kids began to enjoy the Lodge as much as he did. We loved sitting down with the residents and finding out their life stories. It was such a relief to know that Dad was happy, safe and well-fed.
When I showed up at Thanksgiving, I found my father in the front room with 18 residents sitting in a circle around him. He was in fine form, spinning some tall tale. When a woman told my dad I was coming down the hallway, he craned his neck and said, “Ohhh, here comes the party crasher.”
It was obvious that Mister “I’m Not Social” was having a blast being social. He also had no qualms about dissing his daughter to get a laugh.
On Remembrance Day, I witnessed a fellow salute him and call him Commander. Dad returned the salute and said, “Colonel!” Dad was never in any war or a part of any military organization, so it made me wonder what conversation had preceded these salutes.
Another time he stole a spray bottle from the janitor’s cart, filled it with water and started a water fight. We were horrified when he told us—a water fight in a senior’s home where the average age is 85 and everyone (including him) uses a cane or walker to get around. Imagine the possible horrible outcomes of that, and yet, there he sat, so proud of himself.
Floyd Sebry moved in a month after Dad and the two formed an instant bond. They became best friends and would meet for coffee several times a day and talk about farming.
Dad began to do things simply because Floyd was doing them. Floyd wore a light down-filled jacket because he was always cold, so Dad asked my sister to bring his down-filled jacket from his house so he could wear his, too. Floyd still wore his wedding band even though his wife had passed away a long time ago. Dad thought that was pretty nice, so he asked my sister to bring his wedding ring from home. He hadn’t worn it for years.
We took Floyd to my sister’s house for Christmas dinner so he wouldn’t be alone on Christmas Day. To thank Dad for being such a good friend, Floyd’s daughter brought him two sweet shirts that no longer fit her father. Dad favoured the blue shirt. It was a Wrangler brand and he wore it day after day after day. He looked fantastic in it. It was the shirt he wore to the cardiologist appointment the last time I saw him, and it would be that shirt he wore when he called an ambulance a week later.
Physically, my dad was a pretty tough guy. We were often frustrated that he didn’t tell us if he was in pain or if something was bothering him but this stalwart German farmer had been conditioned to not complain. When we learned later that it was he who requested the ambulance on the night of March 3rd, we knew it must’ve been bad. We also learned from some residents that he said he hadn’t been feeling well, but knowing Dad, he probably didn’t let us know because he wouldn’t have wanted to trouble us.
My sister got the phone call that night from the hospital that Dad had been admitted but by the time she got there he was unresponsive. She was at his side making phone calls to the family and watching him breathe, and then, just like that, he stopped. No more breaths came. He was gone.
When I saw him the previous week, I could see that the twinkle in his eyes had diminished, and I could see by the way he walked that his body was shutting down. For months, I had been preparing myself for this day by saying I’d be able to handle his death when it came. I even told my sister that if Dad were to “die tomorrow”, I’d be okay with that because we knew his months in the Lodge were the happiest since Mom passed in 2005. Knowing that he went out singing and having laughed in his final days with his buddies, I might not even cry, I said.
Well, that was good in theory. The reality is, no matter how prepared you are for death, you’re never prepared for the moment it happens. I cried buckets.
To accommodate my dad’s brother and his wife, and my daughter, Paige who would all be returning from trips to the USA around March 15th, we set the memorial service for the 18th. At this point, there were no pandemic-related travel warnings. People were still going about life as usual.
On March 15th, the government asked travellers returning from out-of-country to self-isolate for two weeks which put my my aunt, my uncle and my daughter nowhere near Lacombe, Alberta. Not only were we grieving the loss of my father, but my mother’s instinct of having my child close in a time of crisis kicked into high gear and yet I was powerless to do anything about it. I was well aware that other people were suffering and going through hard times, too, but knowing that did nothing to lessen our grief or stress and this new “social distancing” only added to the misery.
How do you not cling to each other during grief? How do you not touch your face when tears are coursing down your cheeks? How do you not wrap your arms around a sibling who is crying? The act of touching has so much healing power and yet all we could do was stand six feet apart and nod in understanding as the tears flowed.
The rapidly changing pandemic situation affected everything. Every day we received phone calls or texts from people saying they were electing to stay home in an attempt to help “flatten the curve” and all we could do was say we understood. By the time the memorial service was held, only five people outside my immediate family sat in the pews.
So much had transpired since March 4th. It felt like we had lived an entire year in those 14 days.
On the day of the service, I looked at the people who gathered in the chapel because of this man: three generations exposed to his compassion, his humour, his kindness and his deeply rooted faith. Three generations who share his traits.
I watched as friends all over the province shut their restaurants and laid off staff and the only energy I had to spare went to my family and into writing a eulogy that would honour a man who taught me not only to be patient, compassionate and respectful, but also how to hold a bat and swing like Ty Cobb, how to start a flooded car engine by propping open the carburetor with a screwdriver, and how to try and fix things first before just throwing them away.
What I realized, too, was that what he taught us are things we should be doing right now during this pandemic.
- Be a good neighbour; help those who need help
- Turn the music up and sing
- Trust in God if you choose but be fair and kind to those who don’t
- Maintain your equipment so that you’re never left unprepared
- Wo sind deine gedanken (use your head).
In this time of COVID-19, I wish for more of us to be like Dad: To be humble instead of arrogant. To be patient instead of quick to rage. To be generous instead of greedy, to think of others instead of only ourselves, and to stop over-consuming and just use what we need. Imagine that world. Imagine how different it could be.
I would love to be able to tell my dad that some of his salt-of-the-earth beliefs touched someone outside of our family. He’d get a real kick to think that he somehow had an impact on someone. “Well, by golly, isn’t that something,” he’d say.
On March 18th, we turned up the music and sang. We cried and we said our farewells to a decent, kind and honourable man. He was buried in his favourite shirt, the blue one given to him by Floyd’s daughter. He looked so good in it. He looked at peace.
Dad’s Obituary can be found here. Thank you to Wilson’s Funeral Chapel in Lacombe for your kind-hearted and professional help in arranging Dad’s memorial service.