This past weekend we held the services for Shawn’s father. After 10+ years of battling Parkinson’s, he passed away a few weeks ago, after a short stay in hospice care. I don’t have much experience with death and dying, but I commented to Shawn that as far as dying goes, it seemed to follow a very natural and healing path. The time between Don leaving his home of the past 10 years to settle into an assisted living facility, and then into his final days seemed to move along at a pace that allowed for everyone to adapt to the changes and accept the progression.
In his final week, he seemed to have moments of clarity. After being told that he would more than likely not wake up from the coma he had fallen into – he woke up (only to ask for licorice, talk about someone with a sweet tooth!:) As his wife of over half a century caressed his frail arm or rubbed his head, you would see fleeting waves of pleasure play across his face. He was aware of those around him, feeling their love and appreciating the kindness and care they offered as they prepared to say goodbye.
This all has been a strange process for me because I didn’t know Shawn’s father. Although Shawn and I have been together for over 6 years, and I have spent time with his dad plenty of times over those years, I did not know him. By the time I came into the picture, Don was a shell of the man he once was. He was frail, with limited mobility and his ability to communicate was gravely constricted by the effects of the disease. The entirety of my relationship with him was…
That’s it – not much of a sense of who the man behind the illness is, who he was, what he thought and believed, what he valued and cherished most in life. I didn’t know any of this about him, only what other’s had told me about him.
And here is the thing. Apparently, Don wasn’t always a good guy. He didn’t ever win the “Parent of the Year” award, and would have never even placed as a runner up as “Husband of the Year.” It may seem pretty shitty of me to speak ill of the dead but my take away from his passing and yesterday’s services is that although he may not have been perfect, may not have always made the right decisions and may not have always been a nice guy, his life was filled with people that loved and cared about him.
But even more than that, I began to see a picture of a man, that despite his narcissistic tendencies and gruff and blunt exterior, accepted the changes to his life and body with grace and acceptance. The Don that I knew was a soft spoken, appreciative patient. He seemed aware of all the help and support that his wife and family provided, and seemed contented by it.
As I spoke with many of the friends that had come to say goodbye to Don, and I heard more about the man he was, I began to see more clearly just how amazing he was for how he chose to deal with the deterioration that Parkinson’s brought into his life. To be able to accept and roll with the changes, when such submission is not inherently present in one’s character prior to the illness is pretty amazing.
That is a true sign of strength in my opinion.
He could have been a complete asshole. I should know. It’s not easy living with a chronic illness and certainly not one that can abduct your whole life, wreaking havoc on all that was considered “normal.” He could have been a mean, grumpy old man – angry at everything and blaming others for his condition. But instead, he was able to re-invent himself to be a kinder and gentler being. He allowed his family to help him, accepting their care with humbled dignity
As I sat and watched Shawn’s mother, flanked on either side by a loving, caring and supportive son, I couldn’t help but think what a lucky man he was. Through to the end, his family and friends were there with him – sharing memories of good times and swapping stories. He may not have done all the right things, made the right choices, or even lived up to other’s expectations but he was a man that showed amazing strength and tenacity in his battle against the disease that slowly took over his body and his life.
When asked to bow our heads in memory of him, I realized that even though I don’t have any memories of my own, I had all the stories other’s had shared with me. I bowed my head in respect for him – and the grace he showed in dealing with his illness until the very end.
Don D Tabert
January 16, 1942 – March 14, 2017