Monday, January 29, 2018

Remembering My Dad

I don't think I fully appreciated my dad until I became a father myself. For better and for worse, much of what I started out knowing about being a father came from my experiences with my dad. Sometimes I think that I took after him in all of his worst traits - we're both impatient, short-tempered at times, and tough on our kids (and others) - but that I did not inherit his better qualities such as being resourceful, able to fix anything without having the benefit of YouTube videos to turn to, and just being mentally tough.

My favorite story that epitomizes his toughness was the time when I was a kid that he accidentally hammered his thumb and the internal bleeding swelled his thumb against his thumbnail causing him great pain. Rather than go to the hospital as most people would, he took out a power drill and bore a small hole through the nail to relieve the pressure. That he could think of this in that moment speaks to his resourcefulness; that he could execute this without completely drilling a hole through his thumb speaks to his ability to stay calm under pressure; and that he even dared to do it at all speaks to a certain audacity that he had, or craziness if you will.

My dad was never one to shy away from challenges. When we were in Hawaii when I was 13 years old, he once climbed up a coconut tree without a ladder, using only his hands and feet to pull himself up. You can see the exuberance he had for life in that big smile in the following photo.

Dad loved the outdoors, and did a lot of hunting back in the day. He got a few trophies, but my favorite story is of one that got away. Dad was bow hunting out west when he spotted a grizzly. It was too far away to shoot, but Dad tried to get into position. Suddenly, the bear started to run toward him. Most of us would have either turned and run or frozen in panic, but my dad set himself in the path of the bear and pulled back his bow. Just as the bear got close enough for a shot, it suddenly veered away, saving either himself or my dad.

As a father, my dad was tough. If I am totally frank, I will say that I loved and adored my mom, but didn't always even like my dad. He had high expectations, held us to high standards, and made us pay the consequences for shortcomings. I didn't like that at all as a kid, but now that I'm a father myself, I can understand a little better where he was coming from. Mothers usually earn their kids' undying love, but it is often up to the fathers to play the bad cop and holding their kids accountable. And while I hope I am a little less old school and more communicative and understanding than my dad was, I know that at the core, I take after him in that regard.

* * * * *

We got the call late last week that my dad was "transitioning" into the last stages of life (their words).

His Alzheimer's had gotten progressively worse over the past few years. He could not remember anything you told him for more than a few seconds and thus "conversations" such as they were, were extremely limited. He always was irritable or angry. And so, while he received good care at the memory care facility where he stayed, his quality of life was poor.

In recent months he started to lose the ability to swallow. He had been on pureed food and now they told us he did not want to eat at all.

For the first few days late last week he was able to acknowledge my presence. But Monday, he looked much worse, and we knew the end was near. He passed away early Monday afternoon.

This was Kai's first experience with the death of a family member that he knew. He wasn't as close to my dad as he is to his other grandparents. My dad was never all that kid friendly to begin with, but his Alzheimer's made it even more difficult for Kai to interact with him. I wish he had known my dad before his mind was stricken, but he did have some fond experiences with him before my dad's condition got too severe.

Kai said that he especially enjoyed visiting his grandfather when he still lived on his own in rural Michigan. During our fall visits, Kai enjoyed picking apples and spending time outdoors.

Of course with my dad, a visit to his place never meant a weekend just relaxing. My dad always put us to work and it was no exception with Kai. Here is Kai clearing the path of logs that were blocking the way.

Another place that Kai enjoyed going to with my dad was the Chicago Botanic Garden where they shared a love of plants and flowers.

My wife brought Kai to my dad's place after Kai got out of school on Monday. My dad had passed away about an hour before, and Kai gave me a big, tight hug. It was the best hug of my life.

I asked Kai how he felt, and he said he was sad. He was also introspective, which is not a common thing for him, as he said that he would be even sadder if it were one of his other grandfathers that he is very close to.

* * * * *

My dad loved to play the harmonica. After my mom passed away, I think that was what brought him his greatest pleasure. He frequently carried his harmonica with him and broke it out to entertain widows and widowers he met through grief counseling sessions, and even at airports while waiting for a connecting flight. But he especially enjoyed playing for the kids at his neighbor's daycare.

The following video clip was taken at a family Thanksgiving gathering about a dozen years ago where he tried to cajol everyone to sing along to a Japanese children's song while he played. The "kids" in this case were my teen and tween nephews who were a bit old for the sing-a-long, not to mention they didn't know the Japanese lyrics (which told the story of the tortoise and the hare). Watching this video again this past weekend as we awaited the end of his life, brought tears to my eyes to see how vibrant my dad was not all that long ago.

* * * * *

On Monday afternoon, just prior to my dad's passing and also afterward, several of the caregivers at the facility where my dad stayed came to his room to say goodbye and pay their last respects. I was very touched at how genuinely sad they were. It was somewhat surprising considering how difficult he often was these last few years. I thanked them all for taking care of my dad so well, and for putting up with his irascible ways. They smiled, and some of them acknowledged how tough he could be, but they all said that he was such a sweetheart inside. I think they were able to clearly see what I had not for so many years. That behind all the toughness was a man with a good heart who truly cared for his family and loved ones.

And as I say goodbye to him, I will try to honor my dad by striving to keep this best part of him alive inside of me.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

UPDATED: Enrolled in Swim Training for the Special Olympics

We enrolled Kai in a swim class that is intended to train the participants for the Special Olympics. His first session is Thursday evening and this is the first time we have tried this. We have absolutely no idea how many kids will get to compete, but hoping that Kai will enjoy it and give his best.

He loves being in the water and has become a very good swimmer, but he doesn't like exercise classes or PE so we will have to see if he participates well in this class.

Here is a very brief clip of Kai swimming this past November. This was taken on our Thanksgiving trip when we went out east to visit my sister and her family, and stayed at a motel on our drive back. The pool was small, so he didn't have much space to really get going, but you can get an idea of his ability.

Since this video was taken, his swim coach has taught him the backstroke which we understand is coming along very nicely.

Updated Friday January 26:
We went to the class last night. The class is for eight though only six were there last night. One boy was about Kai's age but the rest appeared to be much older and fully grown up. It was cute when the tallest young man sat next to Kai and engaged him in conversation. They made a funny couple in that Kai looked so small and boyish next to the other swimmer.

When it came time to swim, Kai did very well. The folks who were running the class were very surprised and excited to see how well he swam.
My wife and I don't have many chances to see him swim seriously in a larger pool as when we go on vacation, he usually wants to just have fun than to go all out. But we had his regular swim instructor there with us last night and he got Kai to swim his best. He timed Kai's laps and motivated him to swim faster to improve on his times.

It was very exciting for us to see Kai excel this well at something. For parents of special needs children, I think it can be hard sometimes to see typical children excelling at so many things that your kids struggle at. We have seen Kai have many great struggles with school, and not have particular aptitude for things like sports or music that many kids enjoy. And so, for my wife, especially, it was heartwarming to see that our son has a great talent for something - swimming in his case.

We looked up the records from last year's Special Olympics state qualifying meets and it looks like Kai is fast enough to have a pretty good chance to challenge for a spot at the state meet, perhaps even at several different distances. Unfortunately, we found out that the district meet is at the same time as a family wedding this spring so Kai will not be able to swim at the Special Olympics this year. Hopefully things will work out next year and he can keep improving. Here's hoping.

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