Live Well - Die Well
Deserving of Dignity
My Dad was a member of what has been called The Greatest Generation. The eligibility requirements were decided by fate. Dad fit the criteria through no seeking of his own.
He survived the Great Depression, unscathed by polio that attacked his older brother and diphtheria that took the life of his twin, but fully aware at a very young age of what life offered and what it didn’t. One’s journey was to live well and to die well.
Against all odds he survived World War II as a Private in the U. S. Army. He entered Normandy in the Second Wave and spoke of his company’s first sight on land being bodies stacked like cord wood, an image stamped forevermore in his mind. He rarely spoke of the day he was wounded in action. The jeep he was riding on was hit by enemy fire leaving him gravely wounded and sole survivor of the company he was with. Five doctors worked on him, all but one giving up and walking away. The one with faith pulled him through, less one kidney and full of shrapnel, but alive. They sent him home with a Purple Heart, an honorable discharge, scars on his body and horrors in his head and in his heart that no one should have to bear, but bear it he did, without complaint, just as so many others did during those years and have since.
He didn’t believe in whining. He did believe in accepting your lot in life and making the most of it while you worked toward something better if that is where you wanted to go.
He didn’t believe in killing, but he did believe in fighting for your country. He fought for the safety of his generation, his parents’ generation and the future generations. They all did. We baby boomers grew up in the homes of these men like my Dad that were fortunate enough to return home. Living through the Great Depression had already strengthened their character beyond ordinary limits; the War seemed overkill. We boomers were taught to have the utmost respect for our countrymen who ensured our safety on the home front through whatever means necessary and for our President, even though we may not always agree with his decisions. Your vote was your voice. If you didn’t exercise it, your opinion didn’t count. These men had the respect of the country; they demanded the respect of their children and had complete control in their households. Their years of perseverance paid off. Life was good.
Somewhere between then and now my dad’s generation slowly became the old folks as the baby boomers came into their own. During the addition of another generation or two and the hastened pace of an easier lifestyle, my dad’s generation slowly edged toward the end that will claim us all. They found themselves physically dependant upon their children or worse, in nursing centers with some whippersnapper of a younger generation who did not understand the chain of command in control of their physical care.
For Dad, realization came that he could no longer operate solely under his own steam and it was a bitter pill to swallow. “Why does no one listen to me? We’d get along fine if they would just listen”, Dad would say as we went through sitter after sitter in an attempt to keep him at home with care, rather than in a nursing home. His voice was weakened from Parkinson’s disease. Rather than wait patiently for the words to come, people talked baby talk to him or spoke loudly, assuming he could not hear since he had trouble speaking. Others simply talked around him and over him, and not to him. Was I the only one who saw his disgust when a grown woman cooed, “You be a good boy and we’ll go for a walk today”? Was I the only one who heard the anger in his voice when he growled in a whisper, “There’s nothing wrong with my hearing; you don’t have to yell”, after the sitter had spent the morning speaking at the top of her lungs? Was I the only one who knew he could hear every word when someone stood just around the corner talking about him or discussed his health over the telephone? It was quickly apparent that he dealt better with sitters of the baby boom generation. They had grown up in homes with fathers of his generation, giving them a better idea of how people of Dad’s generation behaved and what they expected from others.
It was more of the same with every hospital stay. Looking at the frail old man in the hospital bed, I saw the man he was, an old warrior, stern father, hardworking provider with strong determination and an iron will struggling to hold on to what dignity he had been able to salvage from Parkinson’s disease. I saw a pillar of the community, the man who, in his eighties, had walked down the aisle of the local high school with his great granddaughter on his arm, proud to be receiving his high school diploma. I saw the man who still lived alone and walked, with the help of his cane, a mile per day trying to stave off the ravages of his war wounds, as well as the unforgiving disease with which he had been stricken in his old age. Those attending him in the hospital saw an old man, a body to match to the name on the patient list which was their caseload for the evening and from the looks of it, probably a nursing home patient. Never mind that looks can be deceiving. It was the beginning of his downhill slide.
It broke my heart to watch his interaction with hospital personnel. He often used phrases and terms younger generations simply did not understand. If he said you were “all wet” or referred to one as a “wise guy”, it wasn’t a compliment. A quarter was still “two bits” to him. To not speak was to “high hat” one. If you were dressed up, you were wearing your “Sunday go to meetin’ clothing”. Younger generations thought he was talking in riddles. Baby boomers understood his language and knew the best way to approach him.
Parkinson’s disease robbed him of the ability to communicate well. His voice was weak and one had to listen closely to understand him. On what was to become his last hospital visit, the “on call” weekend doctor didn’t care enough to see what he was dealing with and kept referring to Dad having Alzheimer’s, when he actually had Parkinson’s Disease. He began to speak about after death choices to us, in Dad’s presence, not realizing Dad understood everything he said, even as Dad struggled to speak to him. The moment the Doctor asked about our preferences was the moment I saw Dad lose hope.
Frustration with the lack of communication turned into resignation as he slowly gave up trying to communicate with them and gave in to the inevitable end. He left us late that night, giving himself into the care of his Lord. He lived well. He died well. He was deserving of dignity as he traveled to his journey’s end.