One of my favorite renditions from Yuri’s touching violin repertoires is Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.” It never fails to affect me with his heart-rending notes leaving me hanging on to the very end. One of the many reasons I fell in love with him was the way he cared for his father in his declining years as I had done for mine. They taught us what it meant to be there for the person to who you made your vows.
Six decades ago, Yuri, ten years old, was awakened early on New Years’ Day morning with the news that his mother became very ill. Shocking. No details. He had to deal with the same Unknown as the adults because no one knew what would happen next. His mother just forty years old suffered a massive stroke. At the time, women’s health care was a mystery. With limited treatment, she was incapacitated and disabled for the rest of her life.
For the next thirty-four years, Yuri’s father was the primary caregiver. His immediate thoughts likely were how am I going to do this? His eighteen-year-old daughter was out of the house, but his young son just lost his mother the only way he knew her. Occupational and physical therapy was left for the family to figure out. He confided that he didn’t know how to cook and would burn the water out of the pot.
I treasure his worn cookbook filled with recipes, handwritten and newspaper clippings, expired coupons, and notes for making an apple torte. It’s an aroma of resilience and determination that made their home. His wife’s needs came first, his young son came second, and he, himself came last, by choice.
From the photos, I see Yuri’s father as handsome and dashing, and in those days, they dressed to the nines at social gatherings. A dapper gentleman, his pencil-thin mustache always groomed. He was loyal to his school chum who later became his brother-in-law promising he would always take care of his sister. In his later years, he remained thoughtful and pragmatic always taking care of his wife. Yuri took care that his dignity continued to be on his terms to the end of his life.
In contrast, my parents’ marriage was typical. They raised a family of four daughters in an active social and community life. Graduations, weddings, grandchildren, et al. Longtime friends and many voyages on the cruise lines they so enjoyed. After forty-eight years, they still considered themselves to be the honeymooners until it all came to an abrupt halt with a sudden discovery.
After my mother showed signs of irritability, forgetfulness, repetitious behavior, we thought she might have had a small stroke. It turned out to be a brain tumor. A glioblastoma multiforma, the worst of the worst. While we know a bit more these days since well-known people have succumbed to it, twenty-three years ago, the only thing we knew was that there was no cure. It was fatal.
We didn’t know how much time we had at first. Turned out it was only eight weeks, barely enough time to wrap your brain around what this was never mind what we could do about it which was nothing. Almost immediately, I watched with awe at the care and warmhearted compassion my father showed my mother as he took charge during those final weeks. There was barely enough time to coordinate hospice care and nurse aides, and my father stepped into the role without a second of hesitation.
At her side for most of the days and nights, he took care of all her physical needs with exactness shielding her from any indiscretions that might have caused her discomfort. We kept up the usual distractions, playing cards, buying scratch-off cards, reading Dear Abby. But, of all things, I recall a most tender and private moment when he wheeled her into the kitchen, made her a cup of tea, and gently stroked her cheek, he called her “kitsiu” (kitten). It wasn’t long after that she passed away on a beautiful summer day in her home surrounded by her family and the love of her life. His grief was inconsolable.
We never know when something will happen that will become a life-changing event. But that’s what life is all about. Change. Constant change. And we don’t always know what we would do in any given situation. But having the examples we did in our lives, it couldn’t have been written any differently for how it’s playing out. Better or Worse, Richer or Poorer, in Sickness and in Health, til Death Do Us Part. Our fathers showed us how it’s done. It’s who they were. It’s who we are.