80 Years Young…. My Dad

Tomorrow, my dad will be 80 years old. He’s playfully denying it.  And, he can get away with denying it since he looks so good and still runs around like a maniac.   He spent many years taking care of my mom as she declined from dementia, and since her death, has finally been able to retire; she was work (though he loved her enough to stay with her through anything and everything).  He is healthy, has friends, and can do pretty much what he wants to do. He’s blessed, and he spent years working to have a nice retirement.

My dad was the first born child of immigrants from Sweden.  His father came from Borgholm, Öland, Sweden, and his mother came from Nordmaling, near Umeå, Sweden.  They arrived in separate boats, and had very different experiences on their journeys.  Grandpa thought everything was a party, and enjoyed the whole trip.  Grandma and several of her thirteen siblings were miserable, and once they got to Ellis Island actually ‘lost’ little  Elida, who had gotten sick. They later found her in a New York City hospital suffering from asthma. She was eventually sent back to Sweden, and never saw the Midwest.  None of them spoke English, and their last names were changed to a more American spelling.  Then one of them goes missing. It was a terrible first few experiences in a new country.  It got worse.

Grandma and her siblings took a train from NYC to Chicago. En route, one of the passengers slit his throat in the bathroom of the train, and they all had to watch the blood flow down the aisle of the train car.  From what she told me, nobody did anything to help the situation.  They were all quite young, in a new country, not knowing the language, and witnessing things that were completely horrifying to anybody who was familiar with their surroundings.

My dad was born in 1932, and his parents were too poor to care for him initially.  They were thrilled with a new son, but heartbroken at not being able to care for him. They were very  grateful to have family friends  ‘keep him’ for nearly eighteen months until they could properly care for him.  They all saw each other, but it wasn’t the same.  Once he was back with them for good, he did the typical things a young boy did. His first major accomplishment was to learn English when he went to kindergarten; he spoke Swedish the first five years of his life.  His parents learned English from him, and immersion in the American culture.  Dad went to Boy Scouts, had a paper route at age nine, and ran with his friends in the neighborhood.  He still has some of those friends now.  He remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor when it was announced on the radio.   He remembers clearly when his younger brother arrived in 1946.  He remembers every job he had, and worked hard for decades.

He became a born-again Christian just prior to going to college.  That was the single most important decision in his life.  He joined a solid church, and still goes there nearly every Sunday.  His core circle of friends is there- and they’ve all known each other since the 50s or before.  I’m indescribably thankful for his decision that I be raised in the church.

Dad went to college with a good friend, by working his way through, and graduated from the University of Illinois.  He became a teacher of history and P.E.  He got his Masters in Education in night school.  Later he became an assistant principal of a middle school, then the principal of another middle school, and finally a high school principal at the school I attended.  He was there for twelve years. Now they can’t get anyone to stay for more than a few years. Fortunately for me, he was liked, or that could have been weird.  At first, he’d gone to college to become a lawyer !

He and my mom got married in 1957.  A couple of years later, they lost their first son to hyaline membrane disease (something that would be easily treated now).  Another couple of years later brought more devastation when they lost the second newborn to the same disease. My mom never saw the babies.  Dad had to plan each funeral on his own- both before he was thirty years old.  It was then they decided to adopt a child, and got me in 1963. Mom never really recovered from the deaths of the babies; dad became more driven to work.

Dad and mom travelled extensively over the years, getting to all fifty states and fifty countries before mom died in 2003.  As a teenager I wasn’t that thrilled about not getting to go with them, but I got to stay with my grandparents (I was the only grandkid on that side of the family, which definitely had perks).  That was OK.  Now, I’m so thankful they had the opportunity and ability to do that traveling.  Since mom died, dad has travelled even more, including two cruises (Australia and the Panama Canal) and a trip to Ireland.   He’s done countless road trips, and winter escapes, in this country.

Mom’s illness had a huge impact on dad.  She had multiple cancers and other surgeries,  so was frequently in some state of recovery.  The dementia from the brain radiation was the roughest , as she deteriorated one cell at a time. That left a shell of who she had been and froze the grieving process mid-stream, as she was still technically present. He never complained about taking care of her.  He shaved her legs, trimmed her radiation-ravaged hair, and bought her clothes. He learned how to dress and transfer her from her chair to the bed, and anyplace else she needed to ‘land’.  When she thought it was time for Thanksgiving in July, he went to as many grocery stores as it took to find pumpkin pie for her.  He never thought to tell her ‘no’, as he never wanted her to  feel he was treating her without dignity.  When she died, I knew what was happening (I’d been a nurse for 18 years at the time), but he thought she would pull through just like she always did.  He was heartbroken.  He really loved her; they were faithful to each other for 46 years.  He has told me that if he were to do it over again knowing how she would end up, he still would have married her.  She could be difficult; she  could carry on a conversation about 40 years ago, but don’t ask her what she had for breakfast.  He still stayed with her, and refused to consider a nursing home.

He was (and is) fortunate to have many church and high school friends, and kept active in those early months after mom died.  He found people to hang out with, and when my health has had some significant bumps in the road, has always been there for me.  His main ‘job’ when I’m in the hospital is dog-sitting.  He loves his grandogger. And she loves him.

My dad isn’t perfect, and some in my mom’s family have seriously disliked  him over the years.   He cares about them, because they’re part of my mom. He’s ticked me off at times, but he’s my dad.  I love him more than I could ever stay mad at him.  Yeah, he can drive me nuts sometimes, but that’s just ‘normal’. I’m sure I drive him nuts sometimes, too !  I was never beaten or otherwise abused by him.  He always sought my greater good.  But he never ‘made’ me do anything for his sake.  If he nudged me, it was for my good.  He has a really good heart, and can’t stand to see anyone in pain.  That’s the only thing he’s ever stepped away from the room for when I’ve been in the hospital- even if I don’t complain. He can’t stand to watch someone he loves hurt.  The people who don’t believe that don’t know my dad well enough to have a clue.

In the end, I know he is the primary human in my corner, who is there  unconditionally.  I dread the day when his time on earth is over.

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