(Real-time Entry)

I’ve been told that when you attend your parent’s funeral, there is a complex flood of emotions that hit in no particular order at no particular time and that everyone reacts differently.  I was witness to that yesterday on the day that we drove Dad to a nursing home and were forced to walk away with one less member of the family in our car.  We all took different paths over the past couple years, but we undoubtedly all showed up in the same place on that day.

It’s an odd feeling to wake up in the morning and have dread already present, making her head feel twenty pounds heavier on your pillow.  Throughout the morning, I kept having to force myself through the motions of showering, brushing my teeth…  I kept having to shake the emotions out of my head like clearing bad thoughts from your mind with your eyes shut tight and your head shaking back and forth at high velocity until another calm comes upon you and you can continue on with what you were doing.  There wasn’t time for breaking down and there definitely wasn’t space – if one of us broke, it could’ve led to a disastrous chain reaction.  It was agonizing that Daddy-O went to bed crying and cried off and on throughout most of his last morning at home.  It always breaks my heart when he cries, but on THIS particular day I was already doing everything I could not to cry myself and it was difficult to continually overcome.

He cried regularly during breakfast and over small conversation, he cried dancing to Christmas music, he even cried while dancing to his beloved oldies.  I realize he went off anti-depressants a few days ago and that that may all just be coming into play for him now, but the timing was eerie, like he almost knew that this was a somber moment in which something big was about to change.  At one point, I urged my mom to take Dad out for a walk in the cold, fresh air as nothing else was getting him to stop crying.  As she was bundling him up he said to her, I know what’s going on here.  You don’t want me around anymore. I’m sure it’s one of his typical comments that had no basis of truth and that we were projecting – but how do you really KNOW???  It felt like we were abandoning him and it was the most heart wrenching experience of my life.  I don’t wish this sort of situation upon ANYONE.

On the drive to the nursing home, I could see tears pooling up in Mom’s eyes as she held Dad’s hand in the backseat.  To save her from herself, I jumped into an old song we used to sing in the car as a family on long drives.  As Zippity Do Da filled the car with energy, I prayed that Dad couldn’t sense the underlying tone of it all.  We sang one song after the other until we became too emotional to process yet another title and then we drove the last few miles in near silence.

We arrived at Sunrise Assisted Living just prior to lunchtime and were led into the Private Dining Room we had reserved.  Mom kept saying how “nice” the new “club” was, how they put a lot of money into their pretty furnishings, how we should start coming here regularly – to which Dad agreed on all accounts.  Many times during that lunch experience I found myself not able to breath, shaking so hard I might drop the item in my hand, excusing myself from the room, and dashing out the front door desperately needing the fresh, cold air to refill my lungs!  I found bizarre solace in a giant red Christmas bulb dangling by a thick red velvet ribbon swinging outside in the wind.  I found I could focus on that and somehow hypnotically return to a place of emptiness where I tricked myself into stopping the tears and then would walk back in the door.  A couple times I didn’t make it through both sets of front doors before having to run back outside to try to recompose myself all over again.  

After lunch Mom said aloud, Well, why don’t we take a tour of the new club!, and Mom walked through the rooms  with her arm locked in Dad’s.  After seeing the main areas, we walked down last remaining hallway and I pressed the code into the keypad to unlock the door to Dad’s new home: the Reminiscence Neighborhood.  Everyone piled into the much-quieter part of the building and as people gravitated toward and eventually into Dad’s new bedroom, I turned up a stereo with a Mary Poppins CD in it, cranked the volume, and danced my fears away with Dad by my side.  It was a joyous balls-out ballet of self-expression!  After a few songs, while we were still smiling and dancing a man announced to us that karaoke was about to begin in the other area of the home near the front door I kept using as my escape.  I escorted Dad there knowing that I could continue to distract myself and transport him to his happy place with the right songs. 

I don’t believe that the nursing home ever saw the likes of Frank Firek before!  We burned up the “dance floor” flailing in any direction we wanted, smiling, singing the words to one another as we danced our father-daughter dance that is so familiar to us by now.  The entire room was properly seated – but for us!  I heard one lady grumpily complain, Why does that man keep standing in front of the TV!  Another woman was very agitated by our uninhibited behavior, apparently uncomfortably anxious that my dad might trip over the microphone cord at any moment.  I reasoned in my head, Oh well, they’ll come to understand the force of Frank Firek soon enough!

My sister-in-law, Amy, and I kept Dad busy with karaoke and dancing for about an hour – he even got one lady up to dance! – while the others ducked behind closed doors to finalize paperwork and other serious things. Sensing that the point must be nearing for us to leave, I stranded Amy with the responsibility of dancing with Dad, frenzied with panic and tears in the hallway out of sight as I watched them and felt inconsolably bad. 

Then, Mom appeared and I was told it was time for us to go.  I totally panicked.  I think I repeated over and over again aloud to the group of workers and family members surrounding me, I can’t do it.  I can’t say goodbye.  I just can’t!  I can’t DO IT!!  Mom joined right in with me, and sobbing together we locked arms and walked out the front door.  I can’t properly explain the complex set of emotions that were at work in my heart and in my head.

I wish I was stronger!  I wish I had had the strength to actually hug him goodbye – my Daddy, my best buddy!!! – tell him that I’ll be back, that I love him… but I couldn’t!  I honestly could NOT bring myself to look at him one more time and hold it together while my heart was being shredded away in my chest!  This is completely different than CHOOSING not to say goodbye– I literally could NOT go bring myself to go through the motions.  My hands were shaking, I felt nauseous, I felt complete and total panic, and every time I realized I was about to pass out I’d then realize that I had actually stopped breathing.  The event entailed literally forcing myself to take each single breath and every single step.

Hours later at home, properly numbed by the sting of Grand Marnier, I watched as Mom dialed the nursing home to get a status report on Dad.  She was transferred, and then she was completely thrown off kilter when a man answered.  She said, Hello, this is Fran Firek, to which the man playfully and calmly replied, This is Frank Firek.  The look on my mom’s face was complete shock and fear!  She instantly composed herself and continued, Well, hi, honey, what are you doing? to which he laughed and replied, I think I’m trying to solve some problem or something!  She asked if he was hungry and he said yes.  She told him it was close to dinner time and asked him what he was having for dinner.  He said, I’m not sure how I would deduce that.  I, I just don’t know.  She said she’d see him real soon and he replied back, I’ll order it for two and have them put it on the deck!  Okay, gotta go!  Bye!  🙂  And he hung up with a smile in his heart!  We were so shocked by the exchange, by the happiness and excitement in his voice, that Mom and I both completely broke down and deliriously sobbed in relief!!!  He was OKAY!!!  He was actually HAPPY!  And, luckily, he didn’t seem to miss us at all! 

But the same can’t be said from this side.  It’s difficult to put him in this undefined category of not living with us anymore but not totally gone either.  I believe the emotions must be somewhat like those during a funeral.  I feel like he’s gone.  But… then I remember that HE’S NOT!  🙂  There are still special pieces and special moments to be captured with him and treasured in my heart.  I just have to sort out which shelf in my heart to place each emotion on.  And then I have to do it again with my head.