I think this is the first month-anniversary of Dad passing during which I haven’t cried.  And considering it’s 11:36pm, I think odds are good I’ll make it through the whole day with dry eyes!  😉

Two months ago, I think I would’ve felt guilty about that.  But I don’t feel guilty.  Nor do I feel cold inside. I just feel like I’m adjusting to the new world around me which no longer physically holds my beloved Daddy-O.

This month, I’m definitely experiencing more smiles and warm feelings vs. emptiness and fear.  Dad’s departure song, Barbara Ann by The Beach Boys, has come on at unexpected moments during this past week of the full moon, and every time I hear it I sing and dance and invite him to join in.  All this week, the moon sends me to bed and follows me to work and I find comfort in that.  I feel like Dad is playing a game with me and I love it!  If he can’t move Sparky anymore, leave it to him to take to the sky!  🙂

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Today is the 3-month anniversary of my dad passing away.  I knew it before it even arrived, as the full moon winked playfully at me the past 2 nights – just like it beckons me every month at this time.  I believe it’s my dad talking to me, the moon in general.  It’s surprising how often I’ve noticed the bright moon out during the day these past few months.  Especially at poignant times… when I’m already thinking of my dad… feeling his void… I look up… and… there’s the moon!  It feels like my dad is watching me and is still sharing in the moment.

Lake Superior moon

The moon… and sunsets!  FULL-BLOWN red and orange BLAZING-sky sunsets!  They always make me stop and notice and appreciate the beauty of this life.  Sometimes they make me cry.  I vividly remember telling my dad in his last few weeks on earth to just let go, relax, fly away to heaven and become an extraordinary sunset for all to see.  So now every time I see a sunset, I feel like he’s letting me know he’s still around, as extraordinary as always.

Sparky’s still my faithful companion.  I’m very aware of the fact that, without my dad, neither he nor I would exist.  Dad gave us both life and an invisible bond you can only see with magic.  Dad always was an amazing magician capable of producing remarkable things!

Sparky’s been my co-pilot on many a traveling adventure these past few months: in 10 weeks I’ve been to Nevada, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, and camping deep in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And only ONE of those trips was actually planned ahead of time!  Oh, and I spontaneously bought a new sports coupe!!  I’m not sure if this travel bug and restlessness is a result of suddenly being an unburdened caregiver who’s enjoying newfound freedom or if I’ve been running and changing scenery so rapidly in order to help me deal with my loss and fill the void.  Either way, I’ve had many adventures along the way, one thrill after another in between the tears, and it’s reminded me that there is still such much for me to do and see in this life!  I’m living in the moment and know it’s something Daddy-O helped teach me.

After recently returning home from my last trip, I feel a little more grounded and am thinking I may stick around for a little while this time.  My spirits are typically high, my productivity is slowly returning, and my zest for life is strong.  I just have to get my focus back.  Absent-mindedness is a common symptom during the grieving process – and I’ve been flakey beyond belief!  These past few months, I double- and triple-book events, I forget entire conversations, one evening upon announcing I was leaving my best friend’s house, I was incredulously reminded that the whole purpose for our gathering was the dinner we hadn’t yet eaten!  Sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself, give yourself permission to be where you are, and believe that your friends and family love you and get it.

(NOTE from Joleen: Today, on the 2-week anniversary of my dad’s funeral and the 3-week anniversary of his death, it seems fitting to remind us all what Frank Firek meant to us and some of the great lessons he taught along the way.  Take it away, Karrie…)

As you all know, Uncle Frank was magic… so I must be honest and tell you that late last night, I found myself saying a little prayer… asking him for just one more magic trick… because it will be nothing short of magic if I can describe to you this amazing man in seven minutes or less without crying to the point of speechlessness… so please, F.A., just one more trick!

My uncle, My Godfather, my father’s best friend: Frank Firek, my F.A., was all of these… to Aunt Fran, he was Prince Charming.  To Frank Jr., Todd and Joleen, he was Dad.  To Frankie and Ashton, he was Grandpa.  To many, he was boss, to others he was Coach, or Mentor.  To some, he was “Mr. Magic.”  To countless people, he was friend.  And to all of us, he was a teacher.

During the days of our long goodbye, I pondered what I would miss most.  Would it be his smile?  His laugh?  The excitement in his voice when he greeted me with a resounding, “FA – I said it first!”  (FA, short for Fat Albert, being a nick name that we had shared for as long as I can remember.)  I found myself questioning why he had been such an important part of my life, and suddenly the answer was clear.  What I will miss most about my FA, will be the lessons that he was forever teaching me.  Because honestly, I didn’t learn everything I needed to know in kindergarten.  Everything I ever needed to know about being a good human being, I learned from my Uncle Frank.

From FA I learned that heroes do exist, that fairy tales sometimes come true, and that the Beatles weren’t lying when they said “all you need is love.”  Uncle Frank taught me that persistence pays off, that a promise is something worth keeping, and that magic IS present in every fleeting moment of this rare and precious life we’ve been given.  By watching him interact with others, I learned that kindness is the key to happiness, that diversity is the spice of life, and that living a life which abounds with childlike wonder will bring joy to everyone you meet.  But perhaps the most important lesson he taught all of us is that there is no greater power on this Earth than love.

Aunt Fran and Uncle Frank proved to the world that soul mates do exist and that love is ALL you need.  From a small house in Redford with carpet samples covering the floor… to a life of worldwide travel and a penthouse on the Hilton Head beach… their epic love was the driving force and the crazy glue that made this fairy tale possible.  Regardless of the challenges that life laid before them, their fortress of love was unwavering.  I grew up watching them love each other.  Watching them play backgammon together at the kitchen table and dance across the kitchen floor, watching them hold hands at every possible chance, watching Uncle Frank massaging her feet while they watched TV… and knowing that when I grew up, I wanted a love like theirs.

I also spent a fair bit of time as a child wishing that they were my parents instead of my Godparents.  I didn’t realize it then, but now I know that Uncle Frank was busy teaching me how to someday be a parent.  It was obvious that Uncle Frank was the coolest Dad in the world ~ Frank, Todd and Joleen had mopeds, parties, a pinball machine, a pool table, and a secret closet to talk on the phone in that was FILLED with sugar cereal and sweet treats!  But there was more to their dad than that…  He was the original “Hands-on-Dad!”  He was their Cub Scout leader, their coach, their cheerleader, and their mentor.  When most dads would say, “Go outside and play!”  Uncle Frank would say, “Let’s go outside to play together!”  Whether it was a game of tag that involved the whole neighborhood scaling fences, shimmying down poles and jumping off decks, or a squirt gun fight that spanned an entire condo complex soaking innocent bystanders, Uncle Frank was always the one leading the fun!  When other dads said, “Go to bed!”  Uncle Frank would say, “Stay out here until I call you” and would then proceed to set up elaborate “haunted hallway” and would scare the kids silly as they ran down the hall toward their beds.  And while other dads would be angry when their children made small mistakes, like running over the hard top to a prized ’59 Corvette, or knocking the mirror off a brand new moped… Uncle Frank would put on his angriest face, for a moment or two, before his endless smile would melt the angry face away and he would crack a joke instead of doling out a punishment.  That is not to say that he didn’t know how to strike fear in small children… because he did!  He had a mask collection to rival a Halloween store and I never knew when he was going to come around a corner wearing one of them!
Uncle Frank taught me to face my fears head on when I was still small.  Looking back, I don’t think it was a coincidence that he always needed ME to get him something from the basement.  I would stand at the top of those stairs, toes curling over the edge, trying to gather my courage for the decent into The Viking Lounge.  I’d count to three, sprint down the stairs with my little fingers bumping against the wallpaper, turn the corner, run like hell, grab the desired object, and get back to the stairs as fast as my seven-year-old legs could carry me!  I never fully outgrew the distinct feeling that one of those hairy Vikings was going to step off that wall and gobble me up whole!  As an adult, he taught me how a hero faces fear… because on a spring day, three years ago, it was FA who stood on that scary precipice, facing a most terrifying diagnosis and, in true Frank Firek style, he was determined to run, to dance, to love, to laugh, and to teach his way through it.

Determination and persistence were ever present qualities in FA’s life… You don’t successfully start a business from scratch, knowing NOTHING about the said business, without a fair amount of determination!  You don’t finish your second marathon, 20 years after your first and three minutes faster, without persistence.  And you certainly don’t decide to conquer the problems of the Detroit public school system single handedly through a one-on-one reading program without an amazing amount of both!  And so, upon his diagnosis, he set out to write the book that he had long talked about writing and through his determination and persistence, he kept his word, and made yet another dream come true.

Uncle Frank always kept his word… even to my mother’s chagrin.  When my sister, Katie, and I were young, he promised us that EVERY time he came to our house he would play with us… and so, on nights when Aunt Fran and Uncle Frank would end up back at our house, regardless of the time, he would come running into our bedroom, throw on the lights and tickle us until we were sufficiently wide awake and laughing hysterically.  He also once promised to buy me a bird for my birthday…  All I am going to say is that it took a year for the story to unfold, and by the end of it, two important lessons had been learned: 1.) Uncle Frank always keeps his promises; and 2.) The Master of Pranks will not be out done… even if it means renting an elephant!  There was certainly something magical about seeing that elephant saunter down Northville’s Main St.

Everything about Uncle Frank was magical ~ he didn’t just do magic tricks, he WAS magic!  It was as if those graceful fingers were the most powerful magic wands in the world.  He delighted friends, family and strangers with his magic shows.  He knew how to transform mundane moments into magical memories.  He taught me that there is magic in traditions; be it a pen set won in Vegas, a Christmas Eve story recited by heart, or a small red and white bear with a desire to go places!  If you knew Frank Firek, you knew that magic does, in fact, exist.  And so, I can’t say that I was surprised by his final disappearing act.  It seems only fitting that the magician would wait until the stage was perfectly set, and the music, which coursed through his veins, was just right.  With his final dance danced and his final beer drank, he had just one more lesson to remind us of before he rocked and rolled up to heaven.  In his daughter’s arms, he reminded us one last time, that LOVE is all you need.

Many years ago, Uncle Frank was asked to speak at a funeral, and during his speech he said that memory is the ability to smell a rose in December.  Thank you, FA, for all of the memories… for I shall have a bouquet of roses to enjoy when December roll around.

(Real-time Entry)

As if on a mission, I drove back to the nursing home and explained to Dad (like I had promised myself) that he isn’t crazy, he’s right, he isn’t at home, that it’s understandable he’s confused, that he’s safe, and that he isn’t alone.  This conversation took place just before his bedtime and so he wasn’t able to comprehend it all, probably somewhat based on the Alzheimer’s itself and somewhat based on the fact that nighttime is when his brain power is the lowest. 

My brother Todd was with me and together we lovingly explained to him, Just like you’ve had LOTS of homes in your lifetime (we listed 8-10 childhood homes, Air Force bases and marital homes), now this is your NEW home! (delivered with lots of smiles and excitement!)  He said softly, It is?  He asked why.  I explained to him that he has a disease called Alzheimer’s and it plays tricks on his brain and with his memories and that he needs some extra help throughout his day.  This made him cry.  He said he didn’t understand why he had to be in “this place”.  Todd and I explained that we all have jobs we have to go to during the day and, because we would NEVER leave him alone, we found some wonderful people who can take care of him while we’re at work.   He said Okay through his tears.  Brilliantly, Todd then explained to Dad that, just like a magic trick, if we weren’t here, in just a little while… you never know when… ABRACADABRA – POOF! we’ll appear!  This made Dad laugh simultaneously while crying.  I said, You know what the MOST exciting part is?!  Dad said, What?  I said, You have your VERY OWN bedroom… with a brand new bed – and a DRESSER!!!  He half-chuckled and said that was very generous.  I asked him if he wanted to see his new bed and have Todd and JoJo tuck him in it.  He said okay and followed us in the bedroom while holding our hands.

Through tears and confusion, we got him into bed, tucked him in, and I explained to him one last time, Now, Daddy, remember… when you wake up in the morning, we won’t be here.  You’ll probably get up, get showered, get dressed and maybe even have breakfast and then all of a sudden, POOF! we’ll be here!  He asked what WE were now going to do.  Todd said, Well, I’m going to go home to MY house and get into MY bed.  And Joleen is going to go to HER house and get into HER bed.  And you’re here at YOUR house and we just tucked you into YOUR bed!  🙂  I explained one more time that we wouldn’t be here when he woke up but that it would be okay and we would arrive like a magic trick really soon!  He said, And then what will we do?  And I said, We’ll PLAY A-L-L day!  We’ll spend the whole entire day together and have adventures and do anything we want, and it’ll be GREAT!  With that, we kissed him goodnight, turned out his light, wished him sweet dreams, and walked out praying for the best.

That was 3 nights ago.  Dad has told me numerous times since then how confused and afraid he is, how he doesn’t understand why he’s “here”, and he has asked me if I understand what’s going on.  I keep telling him in a very gentle voice that he has Alzheimer’s and just needs a little extra help with things, like sometimes finding the bathroom or cooking food to eat, and that here he will ALWAYS be safe and taken care of, even when we have to go to work.  He once asked what HIS job is, and I told him it is to stay here, be strong, believe in God, remember we love him, and to try to find peace.

Two days ago after trying to preoccupy him during the day with ‘50s and ‘60s songs from the jukebox, I finally suggested we take a time out and I led him to a quiet room with gauze curtains for a door, a rocking chair, soft lights and a CD player.  I put in an audio CD of Sunday’s church service which he hadn’t attended.  His last church service at his beloved Renaissance Unity Church in Warren was on Christmas Eve, a week before coming here.  In the rocking chair he closed his eyes, and I explained whose voices he was hearing on the CD while he responded softly, Yes, I know, thank you.  I recognize that.  About 5 minutes into the CD, the most amazing thing happened.  My dad opened his eyes, found me sitting next to him, looked me deeply in my eyes, and whispered softly but intensely, THANK YOU.  He closed his eyes again and I held his hand for the next 40 minutes and he went the whole time without crying.  It’s funny, everyone’s been so busy trying to distract him, amuse him, cheer him up and keep him busy, that I think we’ve all mistakenly forgotten to give him access to his faith and the quiet space to go deep into his spirituality.  I hope this is something that calms his mind every day from now on.

That night after dinner, we scrapbooked a photo shadowbox to hang outside Dad’s new bedroom.  We made it in front of him, hung it for him to see, and explained that it will help him find his room.  I told him that this new house didn’t feel like a home yet because it was missing an essential element – pictures on the walls!  He seemed to like that idea and the next day we hung over a dozen framed photos throughout his bedroom.  This way, instead of waking up afraid among four plain white walls, maybe it will seem homier and he’ll recognize some of the images and be reassured.  He awoke yesterday morning and then again yesterday from his afternoon nap and didn’t seem as afraid.  Then, Mom and I put him to bed last night and for the first it was without tears in his eyes.  It was a better day!  However, a checkup phone call at midnight informed us that he was back up, confused and sitting in front of the TV.  My poor Daddy-O is SO tired!  He has had so many sleepless nights back-to-back and yet he can’t sleep!  This must just add to his exhaustion and confusion.  Mom was put on the phone and Dad told her in a very tired, soft, dejected and defeated voice, Frances, I just don’t know what I’m doing here…  She lovingly told him that he had to get some sleep because his grandson Frankie was coming in the morning to play with him and he needed his energy.  He said okay but you could tell he hadn’t budged from that couch.  Mom then told him to go lie back in bed, close his eyes and meditate and think about God.  He said okay and hung up.  A half hour later we were told he was back in bed.

But the poor guy is living a hell on earth.  Every single time he awakes he has to figure out his surroundings all over again.  He has to understand where he is, why he’s there, who these people are, why no familiar faces are around, and sometimes he also starts wondering what he’s done to be stuck here and to deserve this treatment. It’s worse than the movies Ground Hog’s Day or Fifty First Dates.  It truly is a frightening, undignified process that I am positive Frank Firek does not deserve.  No one deserves this.

Based on some very bad advice we received, we had taken Dad OFF of his anti-depressants prior to moving him into the nursing home.  A very BIG MISTAKE we’ve learned!  He is now back on his anti-depressants, plus anti-anxiety meds twice a day, and sleeping pills will be added to the mix today.  We are hoping his tears will fade more and more by the day.  Visitors definitely help pick his spirits up and we hope for a constant flow of familiar faces for him!  Of course, he doesn’t always remember the next day that you had stopped by, but he’s in a world now where he’s forced to live in the moment and enjoyable visits definitely help make his day.

Amazingly, I made it almost through the entire day yesterday without crying (except when Mom and I cleaned out Dad’s bathroom).  I hoped maybe I was on to something new, a new phase of recovery.  But this morning I awoke with dread in my heart and couldn’t drag myself out of the covers for over an hour.  Over coffee, the tears started.  I’m not sobbing today, but a constant flow of slow tears keep finding their way out into the world.  I am grieving, I am tired, and I am so incredibly sad.  Just like my dad has to re-figure out his world every day, I now have to figure out mine, too.

My dad loved being a Boy Scout when he was a kid and was a fabulous Scoutmaster for both of my brothers’ troops as an adult. 

Our former next door neighbor and my childhood friend, Kenny Jacobsen, went on to become an Eagle Scout and now leads his son’s Cub Scout troop.  Recently, Kenny emailed my dad asking him if he’d be interested in doing a magic show for his troop.  Oh my goodness, Dad was SO excited! 

However, Dad has been having problems lately with some of his tricks.  I think Mom – afraid that Dad couldn’t do the performance alone and wanting to protect him – asked Todd to invite himself along.  Todd had learned magic from Dad while growing up and shares the same interest and passion.  So, it was “magically decided” that Todd and Dad would put on a Father/Son Magic Show!

The show was tonight and apparently it went extremely well!  Dad had a ball and so did the Boy Scouts!  Mom attended, took pictures, supported my dad and brother in general, and said it was very special that Todd and Dad had this opportunity together.  Todd is a great buddy to my dad.  He was the perfect support system while Dad practiced his tricks downstairs in his hobby Magic Room and then ultimately performed for the crowd.  Todd would prepare each magic trick for my dad and hand him the trick ready to go!  Then, Todd would do the next trick and quickly hand my dad another one.  They also had this gag where their sign read “Father/Son Magic” and then, when Dad wasn’t looking, Todd would flip the sign to read “Son/Father Magic” and so on…

Appropriately, Todd designed the show so that Dad would only do tricks that Todd knew he’d be able to handle.  Brilliantly, Dad wasn’t even aware that anyone was covering for him!  Abracadabra – take that!  🙂

My brother Todd in action!

My dad looking on and flipping the sign!

The Magical Trio: Mom, Dad, Todd!

My dad’s Surprise Retirement Party was today and it was PERFECT!!!  🙂  I have been working long and hard planning all the details: picking the location, designing the theme, orchestrating graphics, choosing decorations, printing posters, ordering food, printing invitations, hiring musicians, buying gifts… 

I had the unique opportunity to produce the party of a lifetime for my beloved father, and it was my absolute pleasure.  I am SO PROUD to call him my father.  I love him SO MUCH.  It was touching to witness the large amount of people who poured into the room… to pay homage to him and to all the good things he’s produced: friends, family, companies, memories to last us all our lifetimes.  He has truly touched MANY lives in a very positive way.  Frank changes lives.  I don’t know how he became such a good man but I feel the need to follow in his footsteps and not waste any of the lessons and skills he’s taught me.

I played the song “Kind and Generous” by Natalie Merchant for my father as our family of five stood in front of the room and honored him.  We gave him a framed collection of all of his career business cards, and we had all of the party guests sign the back.  My brothers and I gave him 3D wall art that looks like steel tubing that spells the word MAGIC in cursive for his Magic Room.  The gift perfectly represents the melding of his past steel tube manufacturing career and his future volunteer work as a magician.  A lifelong magician hobbyist, he now plans to focus in retirement on magic shows for kids.

I can’t describe the amount of joy and satisfaction I received from throwing my dad this party!  My father truly deserved a grandiose send-off.  He deserves everything I can give.  And I can’t ignore the fact that his retirement party had a deeper meaning because it was so succinctly timed with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis just four months ago.  This party was filled with both spoken and undercurrent messages of congratulations, thank you and goodbye from all of us.

The official party poster

The official party poster

Dad's initial reaction upon walking into his surprise party with Mom!

Dad's initial reaction upon walking into his surprise party with Mom!