by: Craig Wiesner on June 12th, 2012 | 23 Comments »
My earliest memories of my father are of him whistling down the hallway on his way home from work and him singing Old Man River. He loved that song, and he had the deep voice to pull it off. What I learned later in life was that he especially loved Paul Robeson. This afternoon I sat at my father’s bedside reading a book about Woody Guthrie, and found myself on a chapter about a concert in Peekskill New York at which Robeson had performed, and after which the artists and attendees had been ambushed by town-folk while the police looked on and allowed them to be mercilessly beaten. Robeson had two things going against him. He was an outspoken black man fighting for civil rights and he supported the Soviet Union. As I read about the “Peekskill Riots” my father’s breathing became more labored than it had been shortly before and I called the hospice nurse to ask if we should give him another dose of morphine.
When I woke up this morning, I had no idea that by 6pm I would be saying goodbye to my father. I got a call when I’d arrived at work from the staff at my father’s Board and Care home. They were concerned that they hadn’t been able to get him to open his eyes today. Yesterday, after I’d fed him breakfast, he hadn’t been able to eat or drink anything else. Shortly after their first call, the hospice nurse called and said that she thought my father was “transitioning.” I asked her what that meant, and she used the “d” word. I did a few last-minute things at work and drove over.
Nearly five years ago, shortly after my mother’s sudden and unexpected death, we discovered that my father had something seriously wrong with him. It turned out to be an atypical form of Parkinson’s known as “Lewy Body” disease. He has received incredibly wonderful care from the Veterans Administration since he was diagnosed and we moved him from Florida to here in California. Without exception, every single VA person I have worked with for these years has been fantastic. Without the VA, my father would have died a long time ago and whatever length of time he would have lived would have been much worse. For the last two years he has received nearly 100% of his health care right in his home, a blessing for him and especially for me as his primary caregiver.
Soon after I arrived at his house today, his VA nurse practitioner called to say she was coming over to see him. She hadn’t yet heard the voicemail from hospice and was just planning a routine visit. She arrived at 3:30 and when she heard the way he was breathing she told me that she thought he was feeling discomfort and should be given a next dose of morphine. After that dose, she tried to prepare me for what she felt was coming soon by telling me what his last moments would be like, and suddenly Dad opened his eyes and looked at both of us. He couldn’t talk, but I truly felt like he knew who I was. She said she wanted to leave us alone for a few minutes and left the room. I sang Shalom Aleichem to Dad, the slow version I had learned in Hebrew School, welcoming the Sabbath Angel and telling Dad I was inviting her into the room to be with us. He closed his eyes, and breathed more easily.
By around 5pm, Dad seemed comfortable and was breathing quietly and peacefully. As I had dashed out of the shop this morning I knew that I should have something to read and I grabbed a book which Drew Durham (an amazing young man who works part time for us) had loaned me about Woody Guthrie. My father had always been known as “Saint Herbie,” because he would do anything for anyone and always saw the best in people. When I got to the part in the Woody Guthrie biography about the concert with Paul Robeson I found myself in even more awe of who my father had been. Despite the vitriol that had been thrown at Robeson, my father had continued to love him and sang Old Man River Robeson style for most of my life.
When I say that my father always saw the best in people, I have to add one instance where he didn’t. My father, a Jewish-American GI who landed in France on the day WWII ended, ended up at Dachau, destroying left-over German munitions and guarding Nazi officers on trial for war crimes. He saw the worst of humanity sitting through those trials and at one point nearly killed a Nazi officer who had made a joke about the Jews he had personally tortured. Dad’s friends pulled him off the guy, who would later be executed for his crimes.
When Lewy Body invaded my father’s brain after my mother died, it did so in the form of Nazi marching bands outside his Florida apartment. Fortunately, with the proper medications, my father’s dementia no longer included any Nazis.
My father was able to see the difference between people who had committed atrocities and people like Robeson, who had spoken their minds and then got accused of being terrible people. Robeson and the Jews whom the Nazis had vilified were the same, to my father, and I am my father’s son. Thank you Dad.
After reading about the concert and riot, my father’s breathing became labored again and I put the book down and focused completely on him. Awaiting a call back from the hospice nurse, hoping that I could give him another dose of morphine to ease his discomfort, one of Dad’s eyes opened slightly and he began breathing the way his nurse practitioner said he would when he was nearing the end. I told him it was OK, that I was with him, and I held his hand tightly. He breathed less and less frequently. Then, no breath for seconds and more seconds, and I thought, it was over. His one eye was still open and I thought of all the movies I’d ever seen about people dying and knew that my job was to close his eyes. I touched his lid and suddenly he breathed again. I’m not sure if I said it out loud or just thought it, but “OK, now you’re just screwing with me” is what went through my brain. But that was the last breath. I’ve never been with someone at the moment of death. It was peaceful and strange. My father, who had done so much for so many in his life, was finally able to sleep.
One of the staff walked by the door as I started to cry, and I told him I thought my father was gone. The phone rang. It was my sister. “Dad just died.” We cried.
On July 14th we’re having a Woody Guthrie birthday singalong at our shop. I have one request for the musicians who’ll be helping us that day. Let’s sing Old Man River for Herbie, one more time.
Farewell Dad, and say hello to Mom.