Vitauts Take 3 (Death)

It didn’t take long to convince dad that we had to let her go. So we all went to her room where she was still plugged into the machines. I had brought along a mix tape that my sister had made for her, and we played it. I will never be able to listen to “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel again without thinking of her taking her last breath.

The six of us siblings had managed to fill the room and the world with a whole bunch of grandkids. I think the official count is eighteen, but let me do the math. Andra has three, Paul has five, Norman has two, Susan has four, Alan has two, and I have two. There are some step-kids in there also, and one great-grandchild, so we make an impressive clan when all in one place. And here we were collectively crying as we watched dad hold her hand for the last time, and kiss her goodbye. I can’t write it three years later without crying.

We saw vulnerability in our father. The facade that he had developed over the past 85 years or so had cracked. He was no longer infallible and fearless. He was a man, flawed and now opened up and raw for the first time in our lives.

I think I had seen him get choked up when his oldest son, Arnold, died of AIDS twenty years earlier, but that was only a maybe. He never cried. He didn’t crack. He simply persevered and went on to comfort others in their sadness. I suppose that’s what a pastor learns to do, and he did it to the best of his ability.

But on that day, and in the days since, he has cried many times. His face will hollow, and his eyes will water, and he will speak of his “Dear wife” or “beautiful wife.” “My wife, your mother,” he will start, and then tell us the same stories over and over. It’s a beautiful, if slightly dishonest, or at the very least twisted narrative. That’s the nice thing about dementia and old-age; Vitauts can convince himself of anything.

The family at Liesma's viewing in 2012
The family at Liesma’s viewing in 2012


Vitauts Take 2: Memory

We all knew Vitauts had been having problems with his memory, but we had no idea just how serious it was. While mom was alive, she would tell us that we had, “No idea…” what it was like to live with dad. I’m sure he drove her crazy with his stubborn ways and constant forgetfulness. God knows I drive people crazy, and my memory isn’t half as bad as his.

The first time that we all collectively saw him flustered was at one of his final church services. How many Sunday services had he performed up to that point? Fifty-two Sundays a year for over fifty years? Twenty-five hundred regular services plus a boatload of weddings and funerals. And on this day, he stood at the altar, and he literally drew a blank as to what came next in the service. All of looked anxiously at each other wondering if we should help. Paul, my oldest brother, the rock of the family, took the lead and shouted out to dad what to do next. It was a touching moment between father and son, and Vitauts took it in stride with his usual sense of humor and Latvian accent. “Ja, I know, I know…” he said as he continued the service in stride.

I wonder if he even remembers that? Probably not.

The night my mom died, she was in the hospital and the surgeon and doctor told us that it was just a matter of time. They said that she may hold on for awhile, but they asked us what we wanted to do. We sat in a little room crying together, and I had gone home to grab a bottle of liqueur. We did shots, and collectively decided to let her go. Dad said it’s what she would have wanted. “We always told each other that we didn’t want to keep living if we couldn’t be fully alive.”

Paul was still driving in from Iowa, but the six of us (seven counting my nephew Chris) made the decision together. It was ultimately dad’s decision, but he needed a little bit of strength from all of us to tell the doctor what we wanted to do.

But then, strangely he had the urge to leave the hospital and go home. He refused to stay, and so we all went back to the house with him. We had another shot together, and resolved to return to the Bryan Memorial to say our last goodbyes. We literally had to convince dad to come back. He had either drank a bit too much or literally forgotten exactly why we were going back, but he came.

When he got there and the doctor asked what we wanted to do, he started to talk about letting her stay on life support for a little longer, and he went one. We interrupted, I’m not sure who, probably me or my sister Susan and told him that wasn’t what we had decided. It sounds a little cold now, but we had come to the incredibly difficult decision hours before, and we couldn’t go back on it now.


Vitauts Take 1

I have started to keep a blog of my encounters of living with my 87 year-old father. He retired last year, and he’s been living with me for ten months now. It seems like it’s been longer and shorter, if that makes any sense.

I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but life just seemed to deal the cards, I picked them up, and I ended up with a family. Ana left last April, Maija moved in last summer, and then dad moved in shortly after. I had the extra room, and I think I felt like it would be a good thing to do. The right thing to do. The only thing to do.

As a family, my five siblings and I had discussed our options. There really weren’t very many. We didn’t even consider a retirement home, or whatever they are called now. Dad had been living independently since his wife and my mother died in 2012. That shocked our family out of a collective midlife funk right back into reality. We started going to dad’s Latvian church in Lincoln once a month, and we started spending more time together. My brother Paul, who is the only one who lives out of state, now seems to find any excuse he can to come visit. The whole family is much closer now, ironically.

My oldest sister Andra recently suggested that mom died first to give us the gift of knowing our father. Growing up, I guess none of us really knew him. I thought it was just me because I was the youngest, and dad was just bored of having kids around. But apparently his lack of interest in any of his seven kids was true for all of us. Oh, he took my brother Al fishing, and went to watch his football games, but I wonder if they ever had a serious conversation about anything meaningful? He played chess with my brother Norm, but they were silent and thoughtful as they moved the pieces across the grid.

So I cried when she told me that. I was out taking a walk on Blondo street just a few blocks from my house. The streetlights had just turned on, and I was working up a sweat trying to get some exercise. Andra and I were talking on the phone, and she just blurted it out. Dad’s twilight was a gift to all of us. The irony? He doesn’t really remember much of anything anymore. He has dementia, for whatever that means.