I was my Daddy's first-born little girl, and I was only eight months old when he was called to serve in World War II. He sent gifts--a little Scottish wool tam that I still have, and a china doll for which my mother sewed a bridal dress closely resembling the one she had worn just a few years before (still have the doll and dress, too). Eventually there would be six of us siblings (two girls and four boys), and he loved us all, but for the first three years of my life I was His Little Girl and I knew he loved me best. I think that's a special gift that many first-borns enjoy without ever realizing it.
|Bud Peterson, gentle man and gentleman|
He read to us children at bedtime. One of my favorites was a nonsense rhyme, Bobbily-Boo and Wallypotump (a sanitized version, I learned recently, but that's another post). He read it often enough that I memorized it...and now I recite it to the grandkids. He taught us to fish (and taught me to clean them) and he taught my brothers a little about working in his basement tool shop. He paid my sister a quarter every time she made his favorite crescent rolls from an old family recipe. He took my mother dancing and bowling, and he dressed up in his tails and chapeau to participate in Knights of Columbus activities at church. (I loved the dress-up aspects but never did figure out what the KC was all about.)
Probably the single greatest thing he did for us (aside from earning a living and being a nice man) was to build a cabin about an hour from where we lived. He designed it; he and Mom built it. Our family spent weekends and Augusts (his vacation month) there for more than 30 years. It's where we had our best times as a family, where we built the memories that flood the mind with sunshine, the smell of jackpine and blueberries, the tug of a crappie on the line as the waves lap and someone says, "Grab the net." We thought we had a 99-year lease on the land, but the state changed the law and we lost it. By then Mom was dead, Dad had remarried, we all took on other obligations, and opportunities to get together as a family greatly diminished.
Last year on the first of June, Dad and my stepmother moved to an assisted living facility just over an hour from my home. It was an excellent move; instantly they were surrounded by caring staff and new friends. They no longer had to haul laundry up and down the (dangerous) basement steps or negotiate icy sidewalks. No danger of him falling from a ladder again, and spending months in rehab (for a time he forgot his own name). No facing months of isolation because of cold temps and those same icy sidewalks. The facility organizes occasional trips for fishing and, at his request, to Dad's favorite casino, along with more sedate activities like bingo and tea time (I have seen my future and it includes jigsaw puzzles). In addition, it was easier for my siblings and I to visit and for Dad and Kay to "host" us without having to make special preparations.
In January, Dad got much weaker. He fell, had trouble breathing, landed in the hospital, was told he had pneumonia and colon cancer, and then congestive heart failure. We understood, if he didn't, that the colon cancer would not be the thing that killed him. I began driving up every Tuesday afternoon, spending several hours with him wherever he was...at the hospital, in their assisted living apartment, and for the last couple of months in the nursing home just upstairs from the apartment. I got to know their friends and the cheerful, caring, overworked staff. I pushed his wheelchair to the big glass finch cage, or outside for a breath of air, or to the dining room for malts or cookies (Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 is snack time; I'm no dummy). I saw how everyone greeted him and wished him well. I saw how he kept his sense of humor, even when he was clearly not feeling well. I rubbed his back, and I set him up with an iPod Shuffle onto which I'd loaded Sinatra, Perry Como, Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, and the like. Gradually he spent fewer hours awake and lucid, and by yesterday afternoon he was incommunicado, lulled by Ativan and Bing Crosby.
As we left yesterday afternoon, we knew he wouldn't last more than a couple of days. I whispered in his ear, "Dad, we love you. We'll miss you, but we'll be fine. If you're ready to go, you go. Be at peace." Sounds just like the lovely little speeches you hear in the movies, doesn't it? But it was probably more for me than him, since the earbuds were still in place. Anyway, he was ready. A hospice volunteer was sitting with him during the night; nobody thought there was any need to summon Kay from the apartment downstairs. At a few minutes before 2 a.m., Dad's roommate woke up and sauntered over to say a few words. A nurse checked in. Moments later, the volunteer saw that Dad had stopped breathing. (We know this because that wonderful volunteer actually came back this afternoon to tell our family about those last moments, to reassure Kay that her husband had slept away and had not been alone. Thank you, hospice volunteers.)
Someone from the facility called my brother, our family's designated contact, right away. He called another brother, and each posted a "rest in peace" message on Facebook. At about 9:30, as I was just getting up, a childhood friend saw one of the Facebook posts and called her 99-year-old mother (once my Mom's best friend), who called me. She said something about my Dad finding peace and what a nice man he always was, and I said thanks. I knew that she knew he was dying; that's how I took her message. Then I looked at Facebook. "Rest in peace, Robert F. Peterson" would seem fairly unambiguous. But it took a couple of calls before I could reach a brother who confirmed that Dad had died. It's only a tiny part of the story, but it's a comment on our times. When he got bad news in the middle of the night, my brother turned to Facebook to make a quick declaration of his feelings.And because Facebook really is a network, a friend called her mom, who called me. I can marvel over that, and even be amused by it, and it doesn't have any impact on the bigger story, the fact that my dad, who never expected to live to age 65, has died peacefully at 95 in a setting where he was loved and supported and so were we all.
Over the last 25 years or so, I've spent some time feeling sad that my father often found it easier to spend time with my stepmother's family than with ours. I've spent some time feeling that she didn't treat him very well. During my "Tuesdays with Dad," I saw a new side of her - of them. I watched her nurture and care for him, and I saw them sweetly tell one another, "I love you," and their faces showed they really meant it. I let go of my resentment. And I spent enough time with him that in the end I felt no urgency to tell one more story or say "I love you" one more time. Equally important, I'd heard him say those words to me often enough that I believed it, I knew it.
Rest in peace, Dad. And thank you for everything.