Originally published in a blog on April 29, 2007.
After my dad's bout with illness at the end of the 20th century, we remained close. In fact, that reminder of mortality changed my perspective on a lot of things. From that time on, I made it a point to speak to my parents daily. If I didn't visit, I called. In the five years I had left with them, I rarely missed a day. Even when I was tired from teaching and/or rehearsing, I made the time to go or to call. When part of me protested, the saner part remembered that I would regret the missed opportunity one day.
As I spent more time with him, we talked more. Your relationship with your parents changes as you get older, for better or for worse, and mine was definitely for the better. My dad was still my dad, but we also became friends. As I got to know him better on this level, I also realized how much of who I am came from him, even when I didn't know about it. My interest in photography, in flying (though dad did it and I never did), in so many things, were all shared by this man who had been an icon and now became a most interesting human being.
Eventually, things began to change again. My step-mother developed Alzheimer's, and she gradually went away from us, though dad worked hard at keeping her with him, at least in body. He promised her that he would never put her in a nursing home, and he didn't. He took care of her, the house, the groceries, everything. And, at last, he allowed me to help. We became a team again, as we were when I was a child, when it was only the two of us. But this time, we were really partners. Dad even asked my advice occasionally. And once in a while, he took it.
In 2003, my life turned upside down once again. On July 3, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My friend Pat took me to the doctor to get the results of my biopsy that day, and she was with me when I stopped at my parents' house to tell them. Dad and I had never been sappy with one another, and we didn't like euphemisms or tiptoeing around the truth. So, when I walked into their kitchen and he asked how it had gone, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "Dad, I have cancer." He looked me in the eye and said, "Oh, god," and then we sat down to talk about what happened next.
What happened was a mastectomy and then radiation. The hardest part for dad was that he couldn't do anything to help me. He was in poor health himself, and was in no shape to drive me around to appointments. Luckily, I was in good enough shape not only to take myself, but also to take him sometimes, so we still shared our time, albeit often in doctors' offices. But we both pulled through, and I went back to school in January of 2004.
Life went on, and my return to school was hectic. I directed the Spring play, rather than the Fall play that year, having been rather busy in the Fall with radiation. So, for the first three months of 2004, it was more phone calls than visits. That was set to change again on March 27. The play, 1984, opened on March 26, a Friday. On Saturday, I stopped to see dad in the afternoon to tell him that the show was a success, and to pick up some groceries for him. We talked about a lot of things, including a very smart mouse that dad was trying to catch. I left him after about an hour, promising to see him the next day to tell him how the closing night of the show went, and he would tell me if he had caught the mouse.
On the morning of March 28, I was awakened by the telephone at 5:30. I was partly annoyed, because after the preceding months of work on the show, I thought I deserved a rest, and partly worried, as the child of elderly parents always is when a call comes at odd hours. The worry won out. The voice on the other end of the line was my neighbor, whose son is a fireman in our town. She asked me my parents' address. When I told her, she said, simply, "It's on fire." I jumped out of bed and into some clothes and drove the three blocks to the house. Or I tried to. The street was blocked off. I ran down to the barricade and told the policeman on duty who I was and that the burning house belonged to my parents. At that point, the fire trucks had just arrived, and I was taken to the chief to tell them who was inside.
Dad and I had moved my step-mother from their upstairs bedroom to the couch in the living room for her safety, so I told the firemen that she should be there. Dad still slept upstairs, so that was where they should expect to find him - in the room with the flames shooting out of it. It was terrifying.
The firemen got into the living room, but my step-mother wasn't there. They couldn't get up the steps because of the fire to see if my dad was there. One of the neighbors came running down the street to say that they had mom in their house. That was a relief. But no one could find dad.
My parents' neighborhood is mostly Hispanic these days. My folks and one other family are the only Anglos left. So, mom was in Hector's house, where Hector was alternately explaining what had happened in English to me and in Spanish to his family. And poor mom didn't know what had happened in either language.
After a couple of hours, a fireman came in to say that they had found my father. I asked if he was alive, and got a simple shake of the head. It was over. The one thing I had feared all my life had happened, and in a most dramatic way. My dad, who had always been a superstar in my eyes, went out on the front page of the newspapers. That may seem an odd way to look at it, but it was a surreal experience, and the only way I could grasp it at all was to embrace the ironies. Dad would have been proud of me for that.
The aftermath is mostly a blur. Mom did end up in a nursing home, which probably kept her alive longer than she would have been had she and dad continued to try to make it alone in the house. She died of a stroke eight months later, ironically enough, the day after my next play closed. My students were getting suspicious.
I can't say much more about this right now. Even three years later, some of it is still too raw. But I will say this: I am so glad I spent those last five years getting to know my father. When he died, I had no regrets, and I knew what decisions to make about his final wishes, because we talked about everything. I was lucky enough to have my dad live for 86 years, longer than any Byers male in history, and I treasure every one I got to spend with him. We saw the new millennium together, and he sent me on to a bright future. Thanks, dad.
This story was published in the Lancaster, PA Sunday News on March 28, 1999, exactly five years to the day before my father's death by fire. I'm pleased to report that the blessing I discovered in this article continued to be a strong presence in my life for all of those five years.
No one likes to think of his or her parents getting older, getting sick, suddenly not being there.
It is, however, something we all must face sooner or later. I have been one of the lucky ones. My 81 year old father has always been in good health. I don't remember him having more than the occasional sniffle, So it came as something of a shock to all of us, not the least my father, when he suddenly became very ill this past summer.
Dad's only physical problem to that point was bad hips. One hip was damaged by a disease when he was young, and the other has deteriorated with age and overuse. So, it was with some concern, but no real alarm, that my stepmother and I found him unable to get up for three days last August. The alarm did sound, however, on the fourth day, when Mom called and told me to get to their house immediately; Dad was burning with fever and was delirious.
When I arrived, I called Dad's doctor, and then the ambulance; he had a fever of 103. They did tests and took X rays and asked Mom and me dozens of questions, which we answered as best we could. We made the decisions we thought Dad would want us to make.
It turned out that Dad had pneumonia frightening enough, but not as bad as it could have been. He was admitted to the hospital, and so began a journey that has taken us to places we never thought to go.
The pneumonia cleared up relatively quickly, but the underlying problems of Dad's immobility were harder to fix. The first suggestion to put Dad into a nursing home was met with fear. But, after reassurances that Dad only needed to be there for a short stay for some physical rehabilitation and instruction in dealing with his limitations, we all agreed.
Dad entered Brethren Village in Lititz. Mom and I went from Columbia to Lititz every other day to see Dad. With the Route 30 construction, this was no small feat. Eventually we discovered a back road route that kept us from the construction and was rather pretty, too. I started enjoying the drive, and, more importantly, the increased time with my dad.
I had always considered my dad and me to be close, but as I grew up, married and divorced, and started a career, we hadn't had much time together. I suddenly realized just how precious and fleeting time can be.
Dad was only in Brethren for a short time, as promised, and was soon back home in Columbia. Unfortunately, his trials weren't over. Somewhere along the way, he had picked up a particularly nasty bug that soon had him in bed again.
After two weeks of arguing with him about how sick he was, we called the ambulance again and took him to the hospital. This time, the prognosis looked better, and he was transferred from the Susquehanna Division to Lancaster General.
He was admitted one night, and we got a call the next morning that he had been transferred to the cardiac unit. He had suffered a heart attack. At least he did it while he was already in the hospital! Soon, he was in for an incredible round of tests. He says that every part of his body was tested, prodded, photographed and entered into a record that seemed to disappear frequently, since each new doctor wanted his or her own set of tests.
Again, the fine medical staff cured Dad's illness, and he was sent off to another nursing home for more rehabilitation. This time, he went to Audubon Villa, again in Lititz.
After weeks of taking care of Dad and months of worry, Mom couldn't make the trip to Lititz as often as she had during Dad's stay at Brethren, so I found myself spending more time alone with my dad than I had since I was a kid. Despite the circumstances of our visits, I must say, it was wonderful. We talked, we watched TV, we just enjoyed being together.
He's home again now, and we're waiting for doctor’s appointments, a back operation and, later, hip replacements.
His spirits have remained, for the most part, high, and I look forward to seeing the new millennium with my dad.
When I was growing up, Dad rarely talked of his past. These days, he is more often in the mood for stories of his childhood, his youth and even occasional, precious stories of the early days with my mother, who died when I was only 6.
I treasure every story, every moment I get from my dad. I'd like to think that I would have come to the realization of how special and wonderful he is without the crisis that began last August, but I don't know that I would have. I do know for certain, however, that I have been blessed, whatever guise the blessing has taken.