My dad died a year ago today. To say that it’s been a tough year is an understatement. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and wonder if he knows how much I miss him. My life changed that day forever, but, the changes started 3 years prior when he told me that he had Parkinson’s Disease.
My dad had always been a “do-er”, if anything needed fixing, he was your guy. Shortly before his Parkinson’s diagnosis, he started to have some issues which caused him to be a bit more reluctant to take on big projects. At the time, none of us really thought much of it, just that his shoulder hurt or his toe was messed up, but, looking back, those things were major precursors of what was to come. During the first year I was back in Pa. from Baltimore, my dad became more and more reluctant to commit to doing any major physical work. Looking back, a major red flag was when I asked him to come to my house one day when I needed a plumber and had to go to work. He had done it once before and not mentioned any issues, but, this time, he said that he couldn’t handle the dogs. I knew his toe had been bothering him and affecting his balance, but, now, I see that there was probably so much more going on. A few months after that, he told me that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, right around the time of his 57th birthday. I just remember saying “I’m so sorry daddy” over and over on the phone, crying with Paul and getting right onto Google.
My dad declined pretty rapidly. That shoulder problem got worse and the toe caused on-going balance and mobility problems. He had a hard time doing things that he previously enjoyed, like going to games and tail-gating. He did them for as long as he could and enjoyed them as much as possible, but, they took a toll on him. Over time, he focused his energies more on things that he enjoyed, but, that didn’t sap him as much: cooking, going out for dinner and lunches with friends. All of us who knew and loved him could see the decline, but, we could also see the tenacity to stay active and involved in living. It was admirable and inspiring. He would have two grills going, a game on in the kitchen and one in the family room and not only enjoy the eating of a good meal, but, the preparation involved. He loved to spend time with all of us and even when he was really not feeling well, made an effort to put on a brave face. He would usually miss the end of the game he had been waiting for all day, because all the cooking exhausted him *and he and Paul really enjoyed a good “specialty”cocktail*,but, he never, ever, complained. When asked how he was feeling, the most he would admit to was being a bit tired.
I loved when my dad and Lisa would come here to visit. Paul and my dad had an informal cooking competition going on and it was always fun to cook for my dad, because he was just so appreciative of good food. I swear, sometimes I can still see him outside, leaning on the fence, talking to Paul and my brother, Jason as the grilling was going on. When we went to his house, my dad would often have tried a new recipe or would make his famous meatballs, because he knew how much we loved them.
In November of 2010, my dad and I took a trip to Florida together. It was the first time we had done something that was just the two of us in a long time. While on this trip, his decline became that much more apparent to me and I knew deep down inside that he was not going to be around much longer. I just knew it. We had great talks on that trip and I treasure it deeply. Shortly after we returned home, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. And, suddenly, the end seemed even nearer.
Throughout all of this, I did not, and still do not have a relationship with my mother. My mother is not safe for me. I figured that out after years of arguments about how my dad was a terrible person, whose parents were terrible people, whose brother was a terrible person and how all of the interactions my brother and I had with my dad brought us that much closer to being terrible people ourselves. The final straw came in late 2008, when she said that my dad’s Parkinson’s diagnosis could be due to “lifestyle issues” and could not and would not simply be supportive or empathetic to the fact that this was a big deal for all of us. This made my father’s illness and death that much more difficult, because I didn’t have another parent to lean on, to cry with…but, when she called about a month after his death, not to see how I was doing, but, to remind me of a life insurance policy, I knew I had made the right decision a few years earlier. My mother is not someone I can rely on, but, fortunately for all of us, my stepmother Lisa is. Lisa was also someone my father could rely on and I am so grateful that he was with her through his illness and when he passed.
We spent much of last March going back and forth to Abington Hospital, where my father had surgery to remove the lung cancer. He fought hard to recover and after almost a month, he was discharged. I think of that month as being a whirlwind of worry, love and laughter. I have never felt so close to my father or the rest of my family. As usual, he rarely complained and showed us all why he was known as “Street Fighting Man” among his Rolling Stones friends. He did his exercises, joked with the nurses and doctors, enjoyed being rolled down to the cafeteria when he was well enough and kept his spirits high for all of us when we visited. The day he was sent home was one of the happiest of my life and I still have the text messages we sent back and forth as he was on his way home and I sat in a Bensalem parking lot between clients.
My dad was home for about 3 weeks before he died. He did some physical therapy, but, it was very plain to see the toll the surgery and the hospital stay took on him. He had lost a lot of muscle mass, and he seemed to have shriveled in on himself. I remember all of us getting together for dinner for my birthday last year, and him struggling to get up from his chair. I remember him looking at me as he walked back to the table and thinking very clearly that he was really not doing well and to be prepared. He died one week later. We had not spoken in between, as he was having difficulty with his voice, but, had texted back and forth many times. He assured me time and again that, though he wasn’t feeling all that great he was sure it would pass. I know now that he was just being brave for me…for all of us.
In the year since his passing, I have known more emotions than I would have ever thought possible. I went through a deep depression and for a while, believed I would always feel that way and that things were never going to get better. I have worried tremendously about my brother and his well- being. I have felt like an orphan at times. I felt deeper anger towards my mother than I would ever would have believed myself capable of. I have felt the love of the people around me and let that help me back to being me….for the most part, anyway. I still have a sense of sadness and confusion at times, but, much of that has been relieved by getting involved in something that matters deeply to me: dogs.
The link between losing my dad and working harder than ever to save dogs may seem indirect, but, for me it is pretty direct. Losing my dad, going through a deep depression and trying to find meaning in life again, which seemed so unfair and difficult caused me to reassess what matters to me and how I want to live my life. I think my dad lived his life that way: focus on what’s important to you and honor it. I have the opportunity, thanks to him, to make the life that I want and be proud of. My stepmother once said to me that if he was alive, he would say, “Thanks Wa-wie (his silly way of saying my name) for working hard to save animal’s lives”, and ironically, though we always had pets growing up, I think it was Lisa, my stepmother, who helped him see pets as part of the family and not something that was just there.
Sometimes, I am reminded of my dad in ways that are painful. My brother sometimes tilts his head and looks down in thought in a way that makes him look exactly like my dad. Sometimes, I have to have difficult conversations with people about things that I would rather not have. Soon, I will be faced with what to do with “The Florida Place”. This will not be just about selling a house that he loved, but, about cleaning out 20 years worth of his “stuff”. There are clothes, and old suntan lotion, golf tees and booze…all acquired through 20 years of visits with family and friends. Though I dread the idea of doing this and selling the most wonderful place on the beach I have ever been, I mostly dread the idea of losing the connection that the house symbolizes. It was a place he gladly offered use of to all of us, where memories are held and were made. For my whole family….it was home to many Super Bowl parties and visits, when it was played in Miami, it was a vacation destination for years for my uncle and his family, it was where I had the good fortune to travel to with just my dad on a few occasions and it was where he and Lisa got away once in a while to be together without having to do anything other than enjoy each other’s company. It’s been a big part of our lives for a long time, so, this is gonna be tough.
More often these days, though, I smile when I think of my dad. I still cry and am still sad, but, I will think of fun times and how he supported me through rough ones….like, how he and Lisa sent me flowers when I lost my first dog, Taz. Like how he never once bad mouthed my mother when I was upset, but, instead would comfort me and tell me how sorry he was for it. I think about fishing together and going to “the little beach”, how he took me to swim with dolphins for my 30th birthday and the “dates” we used to go on after he and my mother got divorced. I think of him cannon-balling into the pool for my young cousins, who had nothing less than hero worship for him and I think of what a kick he got out of himself when he could finally talk after surgery and sounded like Darth Vader.
This morning, my stepmother called and her phone usually comes up as her maiden name…today it came up as “Schmid, James D”…that threw me a little. A little later, we are all meeting for lunch at one of his favorite spots and going to the cemetery. I am sure we will laugh and cry and we will be there to comfort each other. The pain and the sense of loss will be there, for sure, but, so will the sense of love that he gave to all of us. My dad was way too young to die, but, he lived a good life that he could be proud of. At the end of it all, I think that’s the most important thing: being proud of who you are and what you have accomplished. Not in terms of career or finances…what you have accomplished in your relationships. My father cherished the people closest to him and I am so grateful to be his daughter. To have gotten to share some of his life with him. I try to remember that when I am feeling down or cynical…that it is more important to cherish and enjoy what you’ve got than anything else….the rest is just background noise.
This is me and my dad on that trip to Florida. We went to a classic car show and this car was on his “Bucket List”. I was so worried about him the whole time we were away…but, he sure did have fun that day 🙂