My father died Sunday morning.
My first response was a gut-jarring sense of loss. That was followed by an equally gut-jarring feeling of relief — because Dad’s last few days were not pleasant.
My second response was to start writing this column. I guess that’s an occupational hazard. Writing is how I can best process what I feel. I’ve never been one to cry much, scream or throw things in anger. Instead, my feelings — even the deepest ones — spill out in the written word.
Right now, before 8 a.m. on Sunday, my fingers are pounding a keyboard. I haven’t yet brushed my teeth or washed my face. Too many thoughts are filling my head for me to perform such mundane chores. Instead, I’m looking at the computer screen through still-fuzzy eyes, trying to make sense of all the memories and random thoughts flitting across the Cinemascope screen inside my head.
Thomas Albert Nielsen was 90 years old. Born in Muskegon in 1930, he and my mother married young. He had a long life — 15 years longer than average for an American male.
Dad began losing his hearing many years ago. His eyesight was getting worse. We’ve known for a couple of years that he was suffering from dementia. His back developed a severe curve. He needed first a cane, then a walker. Partly because of his vision and hearing problems, he long ago began avoiding social situations. As the dementia developed, he found it increasingly uncomfortable to be around people. He began to feel antsy even when his children visited, quickly taking his leave to do yard work.
The last year or two, he spent as much time outside as possible — mowing, raking, moving stones, trimming branches. The work exhausted him, so his days became a parade of alternating yardwork and naps. His poor eyesight and bad hearing made it difficult to watch television, impossible to listen to music, hard to read.
But yard work was still within his capability. He even enjoyed shoveling the driveway — last winter, he held the shovel in one hand while balancing himself with a cane in the other. He found satisfaction in rearranging furniture on a regular basis. He liked to keep busy, to keep working.
My wife and I visited my parents a few weeks ago — they live near Alpena — and Dad spent just a few minutes with us before he retreated to the yard alone. That was his refuge, his safe place away from children who gradually had become strangers in his mind. The yard was his comfort zone, separate from the wider world that had become frightening and confusing.
While talking with my mother, I’d watch him out the window. He was a shadow of his younger self, an old man battling human frailty while desperately clinging to the dignity of physical labor.
Mom told me about the times she brought him shopping or to medical appointments and he would become rattled and confused about where he was and what he was doing there. His condition worsened by the week. She wanted to keep him close at their little house in the woods 20 miles from Alpena, but recently she admitted that she no longer could care for him safely at home. She had begun to accept the idea that skilled care soon would be needed.
In the end, his body and mind gave out at the same time. A fall in the house a week and a half ago landed him in the hospital with a back injury and unbearable pain. The unfamiliar clinical surroundings — so unlike the home he had rarely ventured from in recent years — confused him. He descended into a private world of fantasy, unable to rise from the hospital bed.
My siblings and I took turns last week, each spending a few days at his bedside with my mother.
While I was there, Dad alternated between moments of overbearing pain and long periods when he was mentally far away, his shaky hands and feeble voice outlining a dream world that seemed to change moment to moment. I hope that most of those fever dreams were pleasant. They seemed to be. He had occasional moments of lucidity, when he recognized me or Mom. But mostly, for three days, his mind was traveling to places Mom and I couldn’t see or understand.
He was transferred, heavily sedated, Thursday evening to hospice care at a nursing home. My mother and I saw him checked in and listened to a hospice nurse explain how they’d care for him. Then I drove her home. She was exhausted physically and mentally from more than a week of eight-hour days spent at Dad’s hospital bedside.
My sister, who lives in Alpena, visited Dad both Friday and Saturday. He opened his eyes once on Saturday, she said. His body showed signs of rapid decline. She planned to bring Mom into town on Sunday for a visit. But that was not to be.
Our sister contacted my brother and me early Sunday morning to tell us Dad had passed away. Then she drove to Mom’s house to deliver the news to his wife of 70 years.
I’d like to think that Dad’s last hours on Earth were filled with pleasant dreams, perhaps of his beloved yard work or perhaps of happier times long past. Maybe I’ll find out when my time comes.