C'est la Vie

by Jeff Saunders, Reporter

In his 80 years, my father had his picture taken quite a few times, but one of the best is a photo my sister Chris took in early March 2006.

To the casual observer, it might be a nice photo, a close-up of an elderly man with an impish-looking grin gazing into the camera. There might not be anything remarkable about it.

But putting it into its proper context, it is remarkable, even miraculous, and it is the smile and sparkle in his eyes that makes it so.

Dad died only a few weeks after the picture was taken. His death was hardly unexpected. He was in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and suffering from congestive heart failure. A broken hip nearly six years before his death had disabled him.

His rapid decline had begun in the fall of 2005 when he had his gall bladder removed. His Alzheimer's advanced quickly, a risk when anesthesia is given, a doctor told my mother.

In his final few weeks, he had stopped eating and was not even drinking much on his own and was receiving most of his fluids and nutrition intravenously.

His time out of bed dwindled more and more until he was a virtual prisoner of it.

He was in a great deal of pain, a suspected side effect of blood-thinning medication, and had just started taking a prescription pain killer when he died March 29.

It was a proud achievement of our family that we kept him at his and Mom's home in Bedford, taking care of him with support from Western Reserve Hospice.

By February, his smile had pretty much disappeared, except for a few brief seconds one evening.

Chris, a dedicated daughter, was planning to come up with her family from Texas in June. But with Dad's even immediate future uncertain, she flew up alone for what turned out to be one last visit. How she got the picture is uncertain. The smile was there long enough to take the photo, then it was gone.

I now see that snapshot as an oasis in the desert. It doesn't have to be Father's Day for me to think of the most important man in my life. Even now, nearly 15 months after his death, it can still hit me hard when I suddenly remember that he really is gone.

Images of his final years and months do often intrude, but mostly, I try to think of him as he was when he was healthy and active. When he was happy.

I think of the man who often, while in conversation, would say, "That reminds me of the time when ..." and he would launch into a story from his life, often of his time in the Army during World War II and the Korean War.

Or the man who loved the bumper cars at amusement parks, gave his kids encyclopedic answers when they asked him questions and drove his son crazy with his odd yen for foul-smelling corned beef hash.

Or the man who gave me my first lesson on a bicycle in the rain, would make up bedtime stories and could be counted on to say "Yes, you can," when one of his kids said "I can't."

Or the man who once taught as a substitute in my high school American history class for three weeks and was not hurt or offended, but understanding, when I did not want him to acknowledge our relationship. Indeed, he was actually proud that we managed to keep the secret and for years afterward would brag about it.

I try to confine my thoughts as much as possible to the man who loved a good joke, loved life before it turned on him and loved to smile and laugh.

The man who was strong enough to raise the heavy curtain of darkness hanging over him just long enough to leave the wife and kids he loved and who loved him a final gift: One last glimpse of who he really was.

Editor's note: Saunders is a reporter with the News Leader.

E-mail: jsaunders@recordpub.com

Phone: 440-232-4055 ext. 4105