The majority of adults do not give much thought to how their lives will change as they grow older, especially with regard to our parents. We don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that they too would age, possibly become ill and eventually leave this earthly plane. Many of our parents may have not considered this either. They are too busy parenting us and being our caregivers. They feed us, protect us and teach us. It may not occur to us that our parent/child relationship may one day change. Life is filled with change. It is what we do with that change that helps us to grow and hopefully become better human beings. When my dad became ill, the last thing I expected was to become his fulltime caregiver. One may view my story as a lesson in not taking for granted those that we love and care for most as well as preparing oneself to expect the unexpected and to find the silver lining in that event which will contribute to our growth and progression in life. Initially, I didn’t handle this change so well. My transformation was slow but eventually became such a pivotal and essential part of the person that I am today.
My dad was a true “man’s man.” A part of him enjoyed the gruff persona that preceded him, but once allowed in close enough to crack just the tiniest speck of that hard outer shell, the pearl inside was an incredibly soft heart adorned with a very dry, yet hilarious sense of humor and a dedication to love, life and family that was second to none. He loved and supported each of us in the very same fashion, unconditionally and without hesitation, even if he wasn’t in 100% agreement with us.
He was strict and strong. He and my mom ran a very “tight ship.” Most importantly, my dad insisted we learn what he perceived to be “Rules for Life.” The first rule was that upon meeting and or greeting someone I gave a firm handshake and a solid look straight in the eyes. This rule applies to both male and female. Always trust my gut and then always keep my word. Those two go hand in hand and will most often assure a positive outcome. Protect my own at any cost. His favorite example of this was, “I can say whatever I want to about my family but don’t you dare try it!” ” He taught us also to hold tight to the strongest character and highest level of integrity possible
Life was great. We all had homes, jobs and were quite secure and comfortable with our lives. Lately though, my dad had started to change. It was subtle at first. He just wasn’t quite himself. He began to forget everything! He also began having little minor accidents on his job sites. At least they seemed minor at the time, but these were things that happened to the “common man”, not to Joe Zamora, the guy who could tip toe across a two by four propped between two buildings like a cat on a tightrope. The minor accidents included things like cutting the cord while using his power tools. He had a couple decent falls by tripping over typical “job site junk” (electrical cords, chunks of wood, etc.) that he just didn’t see. The worst of these incidents was a day that he called my mom in a sheer panic. He simply couldn’t remember his way to the job site. Thankfully, my mom was able to talk him back home safely. This was not only a very scary incident, but a very telling one as well. Finally, we had to face the ugly truth. My dad had been diagnosed with a ruthless and unforgiving disease called “Lewebodys” Disease. It’s a cross between Alzheimer’s which attacks the cognitive faculties and Parkinson’s disease which affects the part of the brain that should’ve told him to take a step or to stand up straight. The loss of that brain function was what caused Parkinson’s patients to shuffle their feet and appear as though they were always bending over. It even caused my dad’s voice to become so low it was barely audible, yet he had no idea. Some patients were stricken with many other more severe afflictions. Most common were involuntary movements such as flailing of the arms and legs. Thankfully, my dad never reached that stage.
It is said that everything happens for a reason. Just at that time, my daughter and I needed a short ordered place to live and my mom needed more help with my dad, so having us move in was the perfect solution. It was a win/win for all concerned. The move, however, was nothing like I imagined. On some level I was in denial, and in some dimly lit corner of my mind, I almost expected to be stepping “through the looking glass,” and I would have my dad and my life back just like it was a minute ago. I stepped through the glass alright, but it was shattered glass. My dad, “the strongest man in the world” who never needed help of any kind from anyone was now incapable of formulating a complete thought and needed our help with every function of his life. He was slipping away right in front of us.
I’ll never forget the moment when horror filled my heart and a sickness filled my soul as I looked into my dads’ eyes and realized for the first time that our roles in life had changed. They had somehow been reversed. All of a sudden, one day, I had become his fulltime caregiver. In an instant, things were completely out of control. I felt as though my life had been shot from a gun. At first I hated it…and even worse, I hated that I hated it. These feelings broke my heart and kept me in a state of constant turmoil and guilt in addition to having the physical responsibility of caring for my dad. To make matters worse, my mom was gushing with anger. It took me a while to realize that she was in such deep denial and so desperately wanted to “fix” my dad. We fought like cats and dogs for a good period of time. Finally, I knew that it was me that needed to change my behavior, not her. Somehow, in a moment of awakening or “growing up”, definitely through a process beyond my conscious capacity, I realized I could not have created a bigger blessing in my life!
I came to later realize that the ironic thing about my being the one to step into the position of caregiver to him was that when I was born I was very ill for several months. The only place I found comfort and peace was in my dad’s strong and comforting arms. Now, it was my turn to be his comfort, peace and strength. As the days slipped by, his condition quietly slipped away as well. On September 20, 2008, my dad lay ever so still in the hospital bed we had set up in our family room. I, my mom, my daughter, the rest of my siblings and all of his siblings surrounded his bed as though in a circle of protection around him. We each leaned in and whispered our final “I Love Yous’” and told him it was ok to go when he was ready. My family all held onto his hands. I laid my head on his chest and felt him relax as he took his last breath. Though I had known for sometime that this moment was eminent, acceptance did not engage willingly. I knew that his suffering was over, but that didn’t stop the stabbing pains that ripped at my chest like a knife. I wanted to scream and shake him awake! My mind was zipping in every direction like a carnival ride. I looked up at the somber faces that surrounded his bed. Tears flowed from each, yet the room held an eerie silence. In spite of the chaos spinning in my head, there was a definite “Peace” present in the room. “She” seemed to whisper, “Safe now, no more sadness, no more pain.” One at a time the circle began to disburse. Some found a corner to grieve quietly. Others found solace in sitting around the kitchen table sharing memories of my dad. Speaking for my immediate family, we all seemed to morph into an auto-pilot mode.
My dad served in WWII and had earned several medals of Honor. We felt it befitting to have him buried at the new VA cemetery in Dixon. The drive out to Dixon is a good 45 minutes which felt like 45 hours. When we got out of the car, I felt immediately as though I was going to be sick. I knew the cemetery was brand new. I had been out there several times making the arrangements. Apparently, I never noticed just how new it was. The grounds were stark and baron, nothing but dirt with patches of perfectly aligned headstones. That first wave of ill was quickly replaced by a second, completely different in nature from the first. As we approached the gazebo and I saw my dads’ casket draped with the American Flag, an entirely new set of emotions began to churn inside of me. As is fitting for a man of his stature, his funeral service was standing room only. The ceremony was simple yet so dignified. Just like my dad. The young military women and men of the “Honor Guard” stood in perfect formation, looking like statues yet statuesque at the same time. The silence was suddenly disrupted by the smooth and spine tingling notes as the Honor Guard began to “Blow Taps”. The “21 Gun Salute” immediately followed. The shots proudly rang out. Though ear shattering, it’s a sound that one never forgets. “Blowing Taps” and the “21 Gun Salute” are two of the most powerful and profound ceremonial practices of our time.
Overall, the best gift my dad ever could’ve left us is his “Rules for Life”. They provide me with strength and courage when I think I’m fresh out. They give me that little extra shove when I’m certain I just can’t take another second of life, and if I stray from my path, I just have to ask myself, “What would “Pa” do,” and as if by magic, I feel myself guided right back on track. My capacity to push myself and give more of myself to love, life and others has grown like never before. I now know that life does come full circle and being the one to “switch roles” and give back to my dad just a tiny speck of what he’d given to me is the most special and cherished experience of my life.