My father passed away yesterday, Visitors. John B. Newkirk, known to his friends as Jack, lived an extraordinary life. He was born in 1920, the last of four children. Dad was a Navy officer in WW2, he led a crew that demagnetized ships in order to prevent them from setting off floating mines the Nazis would use to destroy entrances to harbors and other places.
He and my mother Carol produced four children, of which I was the third. When I was three, as the story goes, I was bitten by a mosquito carrying encephalitis. I developed the disease, and the resulting brain scarring left me with a condition known as ‘hydrocephalus’, or ‘water on the brain’. I was implanted with a device known as a ‘shunt’, which diverted the fluid into my body cavity and lessened the pressure on my brain. This shunt has a steel ‘body’ about in inch or so in length. Shortly after the initial operation, the device developed a blood clot inside the steel body, which necessitated another neurosurgery to clear it. That started Dad’s wheels a-turning. Dad was a chemist and metallurgist by training, and by his own definition a ‘plodding genius’. He thought that there had to be a better way, and eventually developed a shunting device that had a pliable shunt ‘body’, rather than the steel one I had.
At the time, this was revolutionary technology. Dad went on to develop and patent several other devices for the control of fluids on the body. A device for the eye that helped many with their vision. Another for the ear that improved the hearing of thousands. One for the gut that provided relief for patients with last stage liver disease. People would often fuss about Dad being ‘brilliant’, a charge which often made him chuckle. He simply saw a problem, and plodded along until he could find a workable solution. Lots of lessons to be learned, there.
Dad would have been 99 next month, which by any measure, is a enormous helping of years. About five years ago Dad had a minor stroke, and became unsafe, so we moved him into a terrific assisted living facility.
It was funny, Visitors, Dad and I fell into a routine after that, one that we both found unexpectedly comforting. At the time, my three older kids were either graduated from college, or completely involved in their studies, and my youngest was in the last two years of her high school education.
The demands on my time had lessened considerably, so Dad and I began to spend Sundays together. I’d pick him up from his place, trundle over to church, then spend the afternoon and evening in this extraordinary relational place called ‘hanging out’.
The list was delightfully mundane.
“What do you think, Dad, tacos or burgers?”
“Ok, sit tight and I’ll get them, plus your Wall Street Journal and Scientific American’”.
“I’ll be here when you get back!” (snicker, he’d better, as I’d locked the walker in the trunk.)
I’d scurry into the grocery store, get the items for the afternoon, scurry back, and we would adjourn to my house. This wouldn’t vary much, Visitors, perhaps we would add a drive to look at the leaves, a visit to my brother’s house, or park at the handicap spot at Evergreen Lake to watch the goings on there.
Last week, I realized with a start, that Dad and I did this for five years. As the time flowed by, I had a front row seat to the declines of aging. See, physically, Dad did everything right. He never smoked anything, drank alcohol very, very rarely, and lived a physically active life marked by long canoe trips, alpine and cross country skiing, ten k races, and long family bike tours.
(Funny story, Colorado Visitors. We did the week-long Ride the Rockies tour once when Dad was a mere eighty years old. On one of the seventy-mile days, Dad was swept off the course by a kindly police officer.
“Sir” the officer said as he stopped Dad going up Fremont Pass. Dad was at the tail end of the pack.
“Sir, it’s getting dark, and it’s not safe to be out here now. You’ll have to get in the car and come with me”.
Dad did, and groused about that for YEARS.
“By golly, that’s a PUBLIC ROAD. I can ride on it in the middle of the night if I wanted!” We’d roll our eyes, and eventually gave up pointing out that the officer likely prevented a very messy Dad versus Truck scenario.)
Staying fit and active was very important to Dad. So he did, and in his nineties I got to see that brain dysfunction can be a very unsettling consequence of a long life.
For the first few years of our Sunday visits, Dad and I would have delightful, chatty catch-ups about the kids and the world at large. I’d tell him about the goings-on at the preschool I direct, about various real estate projects I was involved in, and all kinds of other things.
Eventually, I noticed that these conversations became more repetitious. When my kids would visit on school breaks, I noticed that Dad would need a few moments to connect who they were, and what they were doing at his place.
Once, not too long ago, he called my oldest daughter by my name, and had trouble recognizing me. The decline had begun in earnest. This saddened me greatly.
Caring about the very old requires a great deal of flexibility. Dad could do less and less as the years rolled by. Walking up the four stairs to my house became less mundane and more dangerous. Moving from the walker to the car became a cautious affair. Loading the wheelchair into the trunk ‘just in case’, became a wise thing to do.
Toward the end of his life, our time together centered around long drives to beautiful places in Colorado. One recent Sunday, I suspected that it would be a feat to successfully transfer Dad to the car, so I thought it best to make it special. I baked some lovely peanut butter cookies, the kind with the big Hershey kiss in the middle.
I packed a box of those, a drink and some sunglasses. Several of the helpers in Dad’s place successfully transferred him to the car and we set off to Summit county. We ambled up the highway westward, and admired the scenery. Dad’s conversation had become a bit lost and disjointed, so I suggested classical music.
I handed him the cookies, and amped up the Bach. We drove along companionably, munching cookies, and I noticed a look of contentment had settled on Dad’s face.
He didn’t have much to say, more likely couldn’t say much, and it was OK. Humans do best in relationships, and Dad and I were on the home stretch of our relationship here on Earth.
What happened after that was an exercise in obligation and paying our debts. American Visitors, have you noticed in our culture that we have been veering off a sense of responsibility in recent years? Doing our own thing, behave however you want, all laws and any sense of morality is off the table? And God forbid, you should judge anyone for anything?
I just can’t stand that.
See, the past few weeks have been very difficult for me. Dad died incrementally, a slow sense of letting go. Gradually, Dad lost interest in eating and drinking, and lost the ability to care for himself.
Practically, that meant I had a hand those things. I would hold his hand and aid the helpers in changing his adult diaper. I would feed him applesauce. I would hold the straw to his mouth and encourage him to sip.
I would be part of the conferences to make sure that he had no pain or anxiety, and in the last few days, wheeled him around his living space, and chat with him as we sat in the sun.
This was difficult for me, and it was my obligation, a debt I gladly paid. After all, didn’t he feed ME applesauce? Didn’t he make sure MY diaper was fresh? Didn’t he wheel ME around to places in the sun, and have limited conversations with ME?
We lose a claim to decency if we ignore debts like that, Visitors. Sometimes, love means muscling up and doing hard things. This was hard for me.
So, here I sit. I am sad, but I am far from heartbroken. I’ll miss my dad, and our years of Sundays. But as a Christian woman, I believe with all my heart that my dad feels much better now. It gives me great satisfaction to know that he’s running, jumping, singing and dancing with my mother in the presence of our Lord.
Godspeed, dear Dad.