Tag Archives: Journal

The improbability of my dad’s life

Today would have been my dad’s 93rd birthday. As I was thinking about him I couldn’t help but wonder about how unlikely it was that he became my dad.

When we look back at our lives there’s a good likelihood we can identify some points where things could have been completely different had even a seemingly minor detail been changed. For me and my dad, there are actually a bunch of them, and some weren’t minor at all.

My father’s father was born in what was then called Russia, but it was really the part of Poland that had been taken over by the Russians (the other part was taken over by the Prussians). He had been “drafted” into the Tsar’s army at age 16 but managed to escape (or desert, depending on your point of view). Although he had managed to elude capture, marry and  start a family he never felt secure and in 1912 left his wife and two children to sail to America (including a voyage on the Lusitania to Liverpool). When he had made enough money he paid for my grandmother and two aunts to come as well. There were more children until my dad was born in 1921, the youngest.

Dad didn’t want to be dependent on his parents for anything and joined the US Navy in 1939. Thus he was already serving when the war began in Europe and when the US joined it in 1941. He was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) as an aviation ordnanceman, responsible for loading ammunition and bombs on the various planes.

The Wasp‘s first assignment was supporting England against the Nazis but following Pearl Harbor, the bulk of the US Navy’s offensive forces were redirected to the Pacific. Wasp was assigned to the group that attacked the Japanese on Guadalcanal. During a lull in the fighting Wasp was hit by a torpedo from a lone Japanese submarine and despite a tenacious effort by the crew the captain ordered abandon ship.

Since this was an aircraft carrier, that meant jumping into the ocean from the flight deck, and distance of approximately 50 feet. My dad was ready to jump when he noticed two other sailors near him who were afraid to make the jump. He told them he would jump with them, linked arms and all three went into the water. All three survived, as did almost all of the crew save those lost in the initial explosions and fire.

Following rescue, my dad was assigned to one of the islands that we had captured from the Japanese to build landing facilities. During this period, the island was heavily bombed by Japanese planes. My dad had hid in a fox hole while everything around him burned. When it was finally over, he thought he was the sole survivor but it turned out that everyone else had fled to the sea to escape the explosions and flames.

Once the war ended, Dad was discharged and returned to the NYC area. He took a course in electronics on the GI Bill and prepared to enter the workforce, eventually taking a job with the Bell System’s Western Electric division as an installer for telephone switching offices. He dated, apparently a lot, but hadn’t found anyone he wanted to get serious with.

Somewhere along the line, his niece (who he had grown up with) introduced him to her best friend from high school. They hit it off and were eventually married. After living in a number of apartments in the city, they bought a house on Long Island in a small village called Floral Park.

Things were going well except for one little detail: children. After years of trying the doctors told them my mother had a “twisted uterus” and would never have children. Resigned to this unhappy fate they adopted a dog and settled into what they thought would be a childless life. My mom became pregnant with me in less than a year.

I’m not a statistician but you can probably imagine the odds of my dad living to 92 and my being here to write this are both incredibly low. But life has a way of thumbing its nose and laughing at the odds. All I know is that it gave me 56 years with him and that’s all that matters.


Doctors Tell All—and It’s Bad

Meghan O’Rourke in The Atlantic: Doctors Tell All—and It’s Bad.

Having watched my father in his last days, most of which were spent in the hospital, everything she says is true. Being in a hospital, even a smaller one like my dad was, is a terrible experience for all involved. The routines and lack of connection with reality can cause serious mental disturbances, especially in the elderly. Sleep is difficult at best, the food unpalatable and most of the staff, from doctors down to the maintenance folks, are overworked and seem distracted. It’s a truly awful environment.

It’s not all bad. My dad had been going to a podiatrist for months complaining of a painful toe. The podiatrist (I’ll refrain from calling them a doctor) misdiagnosed and mistreated it. Finally, they sent him to a rheumatologist who basically took one look and sent him to the emergency room. If not for that, he would have died sooner.

But he still spent months needlessly in pain. He wasn’t the type to complain so I didn’t think much of it until he finally admitted to me one day that he had trouble sleeping because of it. But by then it was too late, though we didn’t know that at first. That trip to the ER ended up being months of time in the hospital interspersed with time in a rehab facility before he finally passed. He never made it back home, even for a visit. But even in the hospital, getting pain medication for him required far more work than it should have. Since the doctor only stopped by for a short period each day (if at all), asking the nurse for something more than Tylenol required them to have to page the doctor so that he could prescribe something stronger. This would then allow the nurse to unlock the pain medication cabinet for a pill. And if he needed another one later, we would have to go through the same process again.

I don’t place all the blame on the doctors and staff. They were working within the system as it exists today. Most of them were kind and caring and did the best they could under the constraints they must deal with. But something fundamental has to change. After what I’ve seen, I hope I die of a massive heart attack or get hit by a bus, literally anything that will keep me out of a hospital or nursing home. It shouldn’t be this way.


Have You Had The Conversation?

I was going to post something on this but ran across this site before I could do so. No matter how old you are, it’s time.

One of the impossible-to-ignore facts of life is that it ends. Despite this, we humans prefer not to talk about it much if ever. Which is fine, I suppose, at least until you or someone you love is suddenly faced with the end without having communicated exactly how you’d like the end of your life to happen. That’s why journalist Ellen Good co-founded The Conversation Project, to get people to communicate their end-of-life wishes long before they’re needed.

It’s not legal advice but it starts the process with you and those close to you about what your wishes are. You will still need a will, a living will and a healthcare proxy but this will help you make sure there’s someone besides your lawyer who knows what you want.

My dad made his wishes known and had all of his paperwork done back in 2007 when they moved back to Long Island. When the end approached it made it easier on me to make the decision to begin hospice care because I didn’t have to guess what his wishes were, they were written out for me.

Thoughts on life (and death)

When you’re young, it’s hard for you to imagine that life actually has a beginning and end. You feel as if you’ve always been alive and the idea that someday you won’t be is inconceivable. But over time, the evidence starts to pile up. Perhaps a beloved pet passes on, maybe a grandparent. If you’re really young, it might not register but if you’re older there might be some understanding. And so the real story of life begins for you.

Yet, you still don’t really get it. Even into your twenties, you “know” that life will end but you somehow can’t really get your hands around it. You act as if it won’t. To be honest, for most of us the end is so far away this feeling is unavoidable. But over the years, it slowly starts to dawn on you that you won’t live forever.

My mom died when I was 14, but even then it didn’t register with me. It still felt like something that happened to others. It seems remarkably dumb, but that’s how I felt for almost 30 years after.

That’s when I had a serious motorcycle accident that frankly should have killed me, but didn’t. All of a sudden, the realization that my life had a definite expiration date was inescapable. To say it left me changed is an understatement. I suffered from panic attacks for a few years afterwards before eventually learning how to deal with them.

But I got over it. And then my dad became ill. He was remarkably healthy for a long time but eventually time, if nothing else, caught up with him. It’s different than my mom. My mom went from initial diagnosis to death in a year or so. Dad, on the other hand, has been slowly declining over the past few years with no real end in sight. Yes, the end is coming, but no one will predict when it happens. He’s at a point where he requires care all day long and there’s no way he can get that at home. You know what that means. With every week, or so it seems, there’s a new issue doctors have to try to deal with while dealing with all the existing issues.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel not far from the hospital and rehab facility he’s been in for months. I’ve been here before, and I’ll be here again in the future. Until the end.

I don’t know when that will be. I hope it’s not too soon, but that’s not something I have any control over. Funny how life is like that.

Veterans Day 2013

My dad in Coronado, CA in 1945
My dad in Coronado, CA in 1945

This Veteran’s Day is especially poignant for me. My dad, a veteran of WWII’s Pacific Theater has not been well lately and we very nearly lost him not too long ago. It was an unwelcome reminder that the generation that fought hard for our freedoms is almost all gone. Even the youngest to serve are in their late 80s and many die each day. Our task to make sure they and everyone who has served our country are not forgotten. It’s the least we can do for them.

Some advice for you

If there’s one thing you can count in life it’s that life is short. Oh, the numbers may say otherwise but believe me, it’s short. You may be tempted to think you’ve got time, that you can catch up later. But you’d be wrong. Our parents, our grandparents, even our friends aren’t going to be here for much longer. So don’t wait, let them know you love them now.

It’s something you’ll only regret if you don’t do it.