It's funny how when you are a kid, your heroes are usually people (using that term loosely here) like Superman, or the Road Runner for always pulling one over on poor Wiley Coyote, or maybe the latest sports hero like Michael Jordan. My heroes were usually Cubs players or Bears players, Blackhawks or Bulls (Could you tell I had two older brothers, or a mother who knows more about sports than anyone I have ever met? The hockey referees thought she was so worthy-or they were tired of her telling them how to do their jobs-I'm not sure which, that they gave her an official referees jersey!) Then I got into music and one musician, and then another, were my heroes. It's funny, as you get older, you begin to realize what you may have been missing in your own surroundings-the same surroundings you worked so hard to escape as you began to be independent.
Last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I was tapped on the shoulder (in reality, it was more slapped upside the head, as in the Marx Brothers movies I so loved as a teen) and shown what I had been ignoring for so long, in my own way. My heroes were the same people who loved and nurtured and raised me-and believe me, that wasn't always an easy thing to do! That day before Thanksgiving, when many were washing the turkey and cutting up the celery and onions for the stuffing, I was sitting with my mother, 3 weeks into recovery from a heart attack and triple bypass surgery. Also there was my sister, who tag-teamed with me for almost a month to provide round the clock care to my mother, and also to my father, who has been ill for many years with congestive heart failure, advanced emphysema, and cancer. My sister did this while trying to also spend precious moments with her wonderful and supportive husband and 4 children. To fill out this pre-Thanksgiving crew was the most important ingredient in this mix-my brother (my Irish twin) and my nephew. They had no idea what an important part they had to play in this day.
I'm getting ahead of myself in this story, so let me backtrack a bit. As I mentioned, my mother was about 3 weeks out from surgery and home for about 2 weeks. Within days of bringing her home, the paramedics were back to take my dad to the hospital. He has always been something of a miracle. Every time a doctor would tell us, over the many years he has been ill, "He is not going to pull a rabbit out of a hat this time", out came the rabbit. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, there were no more rabbits, and the magician wanted to come home. We struggled with whether we could get him home, but we promised him anyway. We brought him home on a beautiful, warm and sunny November Kansas City day. The temperature was one degree below the record high! He got to enjoy the sunshine and warm breezes and he was loving every minute off it. He knew he would never venture outside again.
That night, he drank a couple of Bloody Marys, his drink of choice for the last few years, and sat while I read him my brother's blog (see justblowingsmoke.blogspot.com). He was so proud of his son, who sometimes kicking and screaming, followed in his father's rather large footprints, and made his own unique version of them. Now my father, WWII Marine that he was, was not exactly what you would call "computer user friendly". Yes, he and my mother have a computer, but I don't believe my father ever touched the keyboard. That very night, as I read my brother's blog to him, he asked me to move over and show him how to do it. I taught him how to scroll through, pull up archived blogs, and even how to read the comments others made. He read every one. I was so amazed, I teased him and pulled out my cell phone and took a picture of him sitting with his oxygen tube at the computer. I knew no one would believe my father had entered the cyberworld. Little did I know how important that picture would become.
On Tuesday, my sister and I watched, and prayed, as my father struggled to hold onto this world and the family he loved so well. We knew my brother and nephew were due later in the evening and hoped they would get there in time. My mother sat with him and, without us telling her, realized that her 57 years of marriage to this man she so loved was about to end-at least for now. That evening, when my father realized that my brother and nephew would be walking in the door any moment, he suddenly became someone we hadn't seen in a very long time. When my brother and nephew finally arrived, we rushed to warn them that this was not what we had been seeing over the last week, and not to get the wrong impression. My father proceeded to become again the over-achiever he had been all of his life. He told stories of his childhood and his wild and crazy teenage years as a hot rod driving farm boy in Iowa. He told stories of joining the Marine Corp. at 17 and landing in the Marshall Islands soon thereafter. He told of his bachelor days just out of the Corp, and the early days of his courtship with my mother. We all talked for nearly 3 hours, when he became tired and said he was ready for bed. My sister helped him into bed and my father's over-achieving was coming to an end.
Throughout the night, my father slipped further from us. We gathered around and told him that we loved him, held his hand, kept our vigil. We assured him that my mother would be fine and he had fought the good fight. He dozed and awakened intermittently. At one point, he awoke and, when asked if he needed anything, said "Hmmmm, it's not what I expected." We all speculate on the meaning of that! As we neared dawn on Wedesday morning, he awoke one last time and my sister told him she loved him. He said "I love you too" and slipped away from us. Several hours later, his body let go. He had his family surrounding him, the wife he adored for more than half a century at his side, and a son and sister he missed beyond words waiting for him on the other side.
You may ask "Why share the details of something so personal?" I answer that, although this was one of the most devastating moments of all of our lives, it was also one of the most beautiful. This great man, who loved his family beyond everything else in the world; who was a true and loving life partner to the same woman for 57 years; who was lauded in the industry he was part of all of his adult life as a brilliant man with, as my brother always says "a moral compass that was always true and held others to the same standard"; had fought the good fight for more years than he should have had to. This man was no longer tethered to oxygen tanks and IV stands and struggling so hard it broke your heart. This great man was free! This man, along with the woman who stood by him and cared for him in his illness with the love and compassion that only comes with truly, unselfishly loving someone, showed me what real heroes are. They are the people you meet everyday. They quietly go about their lives, raising their children, providing for their families, never asking for anything, and not complaining when they don't get a fair shake in life. They lead by example, and though not perfect, I'd put them up against politicians, actors, musicians, sports figures, or just about anyone else you'd care to match up and I bet I'd win.
Monday, we celebrated my father's life, not his death. It was personal and healing and I know he was watching. I could feel him there, giving my mother, myself, my siblings, his grandchildren, friends and extended family his quiet boundless strength. Best of all, he was in his church with his God. His "band of brothers", the Marine Corp. was there to send him home with the pomp and circumstance they reserve only for one of their own.
Just one more note on this: my family will always be indebted to Catholic Community Hospice of Kansas City. They made my father's final hours peaceful and provided unselfish and unwavering support to my mother and the rest of my family, while asking for nothing in return. At the moment of his death, a sweet angel by the name of Nancy, stood with us as John McDermott sang Irish tunes in the background on the CD player. As he took his final breath, she whispered, "Listen to what song just came on." We were so lost in the moment, that none of us realized that in his final moment, Amazing Grace began to play. We will always be eternally grateful that she noticed. It became an integral part of his celebration, as was the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
As the roses and Bells of Ireland begin to fade, the memories of one of the world's true heroes never will for those who were blessed to know him.