Holding My Dad’s Hand

While I hold my mom’s hand as she walks to help steady her, dad was never the hand holding type.  As he got older, he would use his cane, and then a walker, to get around.  He would reluctantly accept some help getting in and out of the car, but that was pretty much the limit of the contact he would accept.

 Last week I took Keely to see dad at the nursing home, the day after he was moved from home. He knew who she was, and reached over to take her hand. 

Keely holding Grandpa's hand
As we talked, Keely kept her hand on his.  That was the last time Keely saw her Grandpa.  I purposely kept her away as the process of death accelerated.  I wanted her to remember him as he was that day, frail yes, but still the Grandpa that she knew.


Each day as I visited, there were changes.  The last few days, he withdrew into himself, sleeping, or drifting in and out of concisions, I’m not sure which.  It seemed obvious that he didn’t know we were there. 

Holding his hand became a way for us to connect with him, to hope that he could feel our presence.  I could judge his progress on this short final journey by holding his hand.  I was amazed, that first day, at the strength of his grip.  He looked at me, squeezed my hand, we talked.

Holding my dad's hand

The last two days, his hand lay in mine; there was no grip, no strength at all.

Lying awake last night, images in my head of these last days.  My brother Michael, holding dad’s hand and gently wiping the hair off his forehead, tears streaming down his face as he looked at his father lying in the hospital bed.   I wish I had thought to get a picture, but that image will be in my mind for a long time to come.  Michael took the lead in taking care of dad these last years, exasperated by the cantankerous man that my dad was, he was still fiercely protective of him, agonizing over this process. I saw a side of my brother that I had never seen, vulnerable, yet strong in so many ways, doing whatever was needed to take care of his dad. 

My sister Anne-Marie came to my parent’s house almost every day.  Helping with dad’s care when he was still home, taking much of the burden off of mom. 

Tracey spent several hours yesterday with dad.  I was there for a while, we talked.  We cried.  It was so very obvious that the time was getting short.

Tracey holding dad's hand

She held his hand the entire time.  

One of the most difficult parts of this was watching mom with him.  It was hard for her, seeing him in the nursing home, watching the very visible decline in his body.  The first few days, there was recognition.  She teased him, he smiled. 

I don’t know if he recognized these were the last days with family.  We made the conscious decision not to tell him.  There seemed to be no reason to cause him agitation or stress. And really, what could words tell him that he didn’t already know?

I told him that Kathy had reminisced about him giving her a ride on the riding lawnmower, of hitting golf balls with him out at our farm.  He smiled.

I gave the message, from Kathy and David, that they said “hello.” 

What I was really doing was telling him goodbye for them. 

Then came the time I took mom to see him and there was no conversation, there was no eye contact on his part.  He slept.  He didn’t know we were there.   

Yesterday, his last day, she held his hand.  Talked to him.  As we were leaving his eyes opened.  She told him goodbye, that we were leaving.  She repeated it, louder this time.  For the first time in two days he looked at her, and he waved his hand goodbye.  Then he closed his eyes.

As we walked out, mom and I smiled.  He had heard his wife’s voice, responded to her.   

A few hours later he was gone.

As I look back, I realize that the last voice he heard, really heard, was my mom talking to him.  Telling him that she loved him, and goodbye.  How fitting is that.  The voice that he loved for sixty five years was the last voice he heard.  The last words “I love you Mike”.

Mom holding dad's hand

It Is Not Easy…This Death Thing.

My father, Mike Schuller, and Keely

It is not easy watching someone die.

I know, with every breath that we take, that we are, in fact, dying.

I know that there is a cycle to life.  There is birth, and death.

I know all of this.  But experiencing is different than knowing.

My father is 87.  By any calculation, he has lived a long life.

I’ve watched the decline.  The strong, athletic golfer of my childhood started getting old.  I knew that life had changed when he retired his golf clubs.  My dad was an exceptional golfer; he almost went pro when he was in the Navy.  Even in his 70’s he was playing with scores under his age.  But his aches and pains started to interfere with the joy of the game, and one year he didn’t renew his membership at the golf course.  The clubs were put in storage.

A broken hip, lung problems, and a litany of other ailments in the last few years further curtailed his activities.  He was attached to oxygen and used a walker to get around the house.  His trips to Tunica with my mom became an ordeal for all involved, oxygen tanks and scooters had to be arranged at the casinos.  He griped and grumbled, and wasn’t really very pleasant to be around.  My dad did not like this process of getting old, and he pretty much let everyone around him know it.

Dad was never a smooth communicator.  Mom had that talent in the family.  He was very direct,  if he thought something, it’s was going to be said.  He was very authoritarian when I was growing up, but became softer as he aged. So gruff and irascible on the surface, he would get sentimental and tear up over a birthday card.

We fought some battles, my dad and I.  There is much of him in me.   His stubborness is my perseverance.

I’m the oldest of four.  Up until the time I was 8, dad was in the Navy and wasn’t home much.  When he retired, we moved to Arkansas.  I know that it was a tough adjustment for him after 25 years in the military.  It was also a tough adjustment on my parent’s marriage, this living together without the break of three to nine month cruises while dad was away and mom handled the kids and the household.   Two strong willed individuals, hey have grown old together, squabbling and loving each other in their 80’s just as they did when they were in their 20’s.

They have been married 65 years.

These last weeks he has been mostly bedridden.  Two nights ago, he got up in the middle of the night and fell.  Now he can’t get out of bed without help.   Yesterday, we made the decision to move him to hospice.  Mom, age 84, has been pretty stoic about all of this.   The hospice nurse explained about the signs of the end of life, and that we were looking at days, perhaps a week or two.  Mom said that she was surprised that this was happening so fast and then the tears came.

I didn’t sleep much last night.  Remembering times with my dad.   Making a mental list of things to do.  Thinking about my mom.   Last night might be the last night she spends under the same roof with her husband of 65 years.  It’s hard starting a new phase of your life at 84, but that is what will happen.  Nothing any of us can do about that, there is no way to protect her, or ourselves, against the reality of death.

Cherish what and who you have because you never know when they will slip away ~ Unknown