“White Christmas,” at the local Performing Arts Center, a big birthday party for me, and my church’s Christmas music were all on the agenda this past December, when my dad came to visit. I had invited him to spend the winter in warm North Carolina to get away from the cold of Colorado.
But December 17th, a week after shows and two days after my birthday party, fate took a different turn: Dad had a stroke which paralyzed his right side. My brother, Tim, who had just flown back to Colorado after the birthday party, got back on another plane to Raleigh to be with us. Larry headed down the highways from Pennsylvania.
Our dad was left in a hospital bed, unable to lift his right leg or arm. Fortunately, his mind was as sharp as ever. After a short 3-day-stay at the hospital he went to a rehab center to battle his way back to health, and my brothers returned to their homes. Dad and I enjoyed many conversations from that bedside, but the weight of the situation was always heavy in the background. “I bet you’ll never invite me back!” he often quipped during awkward times of me trying to get him to the wheelchair from the bed or watching an uncomfortable therapy session. Of course, my invitation would always be there, but at that point, an 85-year-old half-paralyzed man getting back to Colorado seemed like a long-shot goal. The battle was on!
My brothers were good at keeping goals in front of him.
“We need you at the wedding in Atlanta in February!” Larry said. (I put the wedding invitation on his bulletin board as encouragement.)
“The Colorado sunset you love is waiting for you. Focus! Time to battle!” Tim encouraged. (I put the sunset photo on his board.).
“I want your help planting my garden; you already helped me build the boxes!” (The sketch of the boxes wasn’t far away.)
One doctor actually made fun of me for “being a kindergarten teacher” of sorts, because of the way Dad’s board was decorated with goals.
Without vision, the people perish. (Prov 29:18)
Goals are important in everyday life but are more invaluable than most realize. Without something for which to aim, too many elderly succumb to focusing on ailments and doom, wallowing away their hours. I suppose without goals, the less-than-elderly focus the same.
After almost three months of daily therapy, plans were made for him to leave rehab and come live with me on March 10. He had worked hard! He was able to walk about 50 feet, carrying his dead leg while balancing weight on a walker. (It looked like he had to carry an eighty-pound LOG with him everywhere he went.) It was tough! But he was such an overcomer – often telling me, “just doing my best with what I have. Angels can do no more!”. The therapists gained new respect in my eyes, as they came back day after day for milestone after milestone. Move one finger. Now another. Now bend at the elbow. Now hold the spoon. Now use the spoon. His hand and arm had rehabilitated well, and he was even able to write with that hand on a wedding card that he sent to Atlanta, though unfortunately the rehab goals to attend the wedding were not met in time. Unmet goals are tough, but he reset and continued the battle.
After his rehab discharge, it would be a short stint at my house, hopefully a couple weeks, then we could finish the journey back to his place in Colorado! A new ramp was built; his walker and wheelchair awaited in my guest room.
We were all surprised when another illness attacked and on Monday March 9th, (the day before he was supposed to move in with me), he went by ambulance to the hospital. By that Thursday, they had inserted a breathing tube. They were able to safely remove it a day later, and an exhausted, sick father lay there in bed. Tim and Larry had been summoned again from Colorado and Pennsylvania. Covid-19 had not gotten to my dad, but its effects rampaged the hospital policies. We were limited to visiting one at a time and felt badgered by nursing staff who continued to adjust to new rules – and change them based on who was working at which shift. (One attacked me for wearing a mask. I was not sick, but had been around someone who was, so I had the mask on as a precaution. She felt better when I wasn’t wearing it. The irony killed me. I chalked it up for her own stress-level being higher than my own – which was reaching new heights as my dad’s health declined, knowing we were far from a Colorado sunset.)
By Saturday morning, March 14, my brother Tim prodded him, “Are you ready to get back to the battle? I need your help in my garden.”
“Yes,” my dad said and nodded, weakly since the removal of the breathing tube the day before had wiped him out. Tim reported the story to the rest of us so we could breathe a sigh of relief, awaiting our turns to visit.
However, that evening my exhausted father suddenly became very verbal. I have often joked that until my mother passed away five years ago, I did not know my dad could talk! (She is laughing at that in heaven while I type!) Especially in sickness, my father had been quiet and now talking was a strain. But this Saturday evening’s conversation is one that will be filed in my mind with meaningful memories:
“Will you help your brother plant his garden?” he asked me.
What?! Oh no! Should I say no? Should I tell him that he needed to get better and get out to Colorado and do that himself? Should I break down and cry in front of him or wait until I am out of his room? Should I be happy for him that he’s at peace to be at the end of striving? I knew this was a very loaded question: “Will you help your brother plant his garden?” Though I have had gardens, my brother would do just fine. This was my dad planning bigger things: planning his end of this battle called life.
I said, “Sure,” but to keep him talking (and avoid the ominous subject of his death) I asked, “When is the planting season in the Colorado mountains again?” I turned away from the bed to hide my wet eyes, and wondered if he had heard the crack in my voice.
It was then that my father spoke more than in the three previous months since his stroke. He told me row by row, inch by inch, day by day, every-single-bit of the garden. The “Ol Farmer” – as he often referred to himself, despite engineering and masters electrician degrees – could leave his Kansas childhood farm, but the farm could never leave him. He told me at what store the plants should be bought and where to only plant seeds. He told me what could start April 1st– since it would last a few frosts before the seedlings grew – and which ones needed to wait till Mother’s Day. Three boxes in my brother’s yard came to his mind. Like an artist sculpting a masterpiece, he put peppers and tomatoes in the middle and worked out the details around them, row by row of carrots and okra (Who knew my brother ate okra?) and lettuces, finishing with the herbs that would help my brother’s chef-worthy meals attain their final touch.
He was no longer in that North Carolina hospital bed; he had gone to Colorado in his mind. And then his sun began to set.
For hospice (palliative care without the battle), my brothers and I took him from the hospital to my home – where he passed into eternity just five days later, on Wednesday March 18.
It was interesting and almost metaphorical that in his final hours, he was planting a garden. He was such a selfless man to the very end. He didn’t want to force us to make hard choices of feeding tubes or breathing tubes. He didn’t want to continue dragging us through the Covid-19 hospital regulations, nor linger in an ICU bed needing full care. He and my mother both had end-of-life plans established and advance directives on file, so my brothers and I were out of the decision-making stress. But now, as he planted this garden, I could tell what was going on: his “ploy” of garden-planting was his taking care of me. He was communicating that life will go on, and he wanted to make sure I knew it.
It reminds me of a saying that he often said:
“Look around at every funeral, and you will see a baby.”
God’s not done.
Twenty-three years ago, we were laughing at my father’s fat belly, often the subject of jokes. (He always carried his weight there like Santa Claus and always had a good sense of humor about our jokes.) When I was 12-weeks pregnant with my first, my mother took a picture of Dad and me belly-to-belly. We laughed!
Fast forward twenty-three years, and that baby boy has grown up to be a fine young man, married to a wonderful young lady. This past fall, while my dad was at my house, she was 12-weeks pregnant, and we decided to take the same picture… and we laughed all over again. My dad laughed that he hadn’t given birth in twenty-three years! He was so excited to be a great-grandfather again, and was always asking me about the condition of “Hezi” (his name for in-utero babies of our family).
Just two weeks after Dad’s passing into heaven – where he no longer carries a dead leg or heavy arm nor strains to speak or breathe – his first great-grandson, Marshall James Brady was born. The timing didn’t work out for Dad to meet this little guy outside of the womb, but like the garden he planted in his final hours, Dad’s life continued – in the lifeblood of a newborn.
Ironically, born seven weeks premature, little Marshall currently resides in the NICU of the same hospital where my father was just over the corridor in ICU weeks before. Now, the pandemic rules have been narrowed to allow zero visitors, so I haven’t met my 2-week-old grandson outside of FaceTime yet. My prayers have changed from my father’s lungs, to this five-pound guy’s lungs, and the new life they represent. Though I will miss my dad, I am grateful for the memories. I thank God for the looking-forward I have in being a grandma. I look forward to Baby Marshall healing and getting out of the hospital, because after all, I will need his help in my garden!
And one day, when Covid-19 quarantining is done and we are able to gather for a celebration of my dad’s life – what some would call a “funeral,” – there will most definitely be a baby there. As with so many of my dad’s lessons for me in life: he was right.
John 14:2 “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” – Jesus Christ
In the “Celebration of Life” for my dad: