That Monday “Would’ve been” Dad’s 91st is the way some people represent a loved one’s passing, adding the years since to their chronological age at the end. In Waldo Fitzgerald Shorkey’s case, that was the end of January, 2013. He was laid to rest on Groundhog Day, and unlike many of the 70,000-plus Americans who have died in this pandemic over just the last three months, there were friends and family joined communally close afterwards to recall a man’s life well lived.
Congestive heart failure was the end reason – Dad was down to about 15% function, on straight oxygen – and his youngest brother, Donnie (USAF) died in the same Tampa hospital two days before from the same thing. I mention Donnie’s service because Memorial Day is close, and all four guys in Dad’s family served – Howard was a Marine trigger-puller during two Pacific island assaults, Harold was a tail gunner on a Corsair (USN), Dad was also Navy.
That’s when one nurse said, “I can’t help that guy, but I don’t like the looks of you either” to Dad. He got checked out and they kept him. Monday afternoon, Mom said she really didn’t know why, “he didn’t look that bad to me,” and the doctor who came in shortly after I arrived said small declines or changes over a long time are often not recognized by those who see it every day.
“He looks a lot better than he did yesterday though.”
That’s when Mom stated again that both of them had agreed anything like this would be a DNR situation; no extraordinary means, no ventilator. No sense cracking an old man’s chest, or putting him on a machine he’d never come off was Mom’s position, so the end was only a matter of time.
We weren’t in control, but things moved in a steady, reasonable, end of life way. No ugliness or unknowing stress and foreboding by families, seperated much earlier by the rules COVID creates, not witnessing the suffering of their loved one’s end.
I took Mom to the retirement house they’ve lived in since 1988, just a block and a half off terrific Bayshore Boulevard, and came back to sit with Dad, lifting the mask and giving him occasional ice slivers until after 11:00.
It seems a good death because they got to follow through on choices made long before, not hasty decisions violently thrust on them. Dad was only in the hospital two days; there was no pain, no emotional roller-coaster wreck for Mom, no expensive treatments totally dismantling the safe economic future they’d worked on for her to go forward with.
Compared to most COVID-19 families, Dad’s passing will sound like a fairy tale. It might be close to how you’d imagined those final circumstances for yourself though.
Being there for even a day of service to my father, Gratitude is the word. I was there for Mom, knew he went in peace, that he wasn’t alone and unseeable, or just an image on a screen. Ask those 70,000 or so families if events like that came together so well in the time of COVID-19, the ability to gather a family worth of support.
He had a good death, being there counted
We didn’t get to the hospital until almost ten on Tuesday, and I went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. Waiting to be buzzed back into ICU, I met two communicants from my folks church, and I put Dad on their list for delivery. When we had to leave so they could “do hospital stuff,” to the phone call, and the final breaths after the oxygen was turned off, was about ninety minutes.
Almost like the movies good timing, I walked in the back door and Mom’s phone was ringing, the hospital saying there’d been a turn for the worse.
Mom had actually dropped me off at the house to go shop, I got the message just as my cousin Debbie arrived. Sending her after Mom I rolled, making calls to three brothers on the way back. One left Albany, NY with the clothes on his back; I caught Mike just as he started driving from Charlotte to Tampa, and he made it back to the airport, catching the same flight as brother Steve.
Dad received Last Rites by the time I got back to the hospital, and Debbie delivered Mom – Dad passed at 2:00. Not too long after he passed, we drove two blocks to the same neighborhood funeral parlor that had served Mom’s parents, and my Aunt Jo’s and Uncle Frank’ s funerals.
We had to made arrangements to move Dad, because the small hospital didn’t have facilities for keeping bodies overnight. It wasn’t the piling up of bodies in refrigerated trucks in NYC we’ve seen on TV though.
My three brothers all arrived at 6:00, just one trip to the airport for me, and eventually a week together for the mourning. I got to fill them in about how things went down early in the process so Mom didn’t have to remember. The next morning we all went to the funeral parlor with the right paperwork – Yes, a veteran funeral, left or right location relative to her parents, do you want the $350 inset vase, or just what the VA provides?
There was a roomful of people at the wake, and a good-sized group at the funeral service the next day. Cousin Pam and her husband had another funeral in upstate NY Friday, then made it to Tampa. I took a couple random pieces of wood from Dad’s scrap barrel and quietly put several hand tools into my car – ‘The Dad Project’ pictured represents how he always kept his work area neat.
Mom told Mike he hadn’t spoken very loudly during his eulogy, he said he’d done the best he could. I got through some words at graveside, using ideas from the takeaway piece I’d produced for their 50th anniversary in 2005, a thank you to people who had loved them from the beginning, had shared joy with them for so long. At the top is my favorite picture, Christmas, 1983 I believe, and some forty reasons why it made a difference to be part of their family.
Having always believed that listing was a feeling I wanted to share at the point of their greatest joy, I knew it would stand the test of time, be true to the end. That idea of not saving the thoughts till the end when someone can’t hear them guided me, and its got to be a lousy thing to miss saying final goodbyes to someone dying from an invisible monster.
At some future time, a great many Americans will have a collective time to mourn our dead. Yes, I’m grateful for the difference of being there for Dad, and Mom, made. If its possible to convey that simple caring for someone resting in peace to any readers, consider it sent.