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The Winds of Change
by Stephanie Ehlers
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It was one of those bright cold days of January in Minnesota. The sun was shining, but the wind was so sharp it almost took your breath away. I was at Dad's house shoveling snow as he had been feeling sick and needed help. He came out to talk to me. He started coughing from the harshness of the air, and then spit fresh red blood into the pristine white snow. He had pneumonia that just would not go away.

Later that week I went with him to see a lung specialist. The doctor had found a mass behind the pneumonia, and he wanted to look inside my dad's lungs. After the testing was done, the doctor sat down with my dad and me to explain what he had found. It was cancer, small-cell carcinoma to be precise. It was fast growing and ultimately terminal. Even with adjuvant therapy such as chemo or radiation, the best we could hope for would be six months, maybe nine. For the first time ever, I saw my dad cry.

We went home and called the family in. Cindi, my younger sister who still lived at home with Dad, did not want to hear about it. My older sister Kathy, who was raising three small children, offered to help where she could. That left me. I was not living at home, Dad having kicked me out a few months prior. Cindi did not want her life interfered with and stated that Dad needed to be put in a home somewhere. I could not see doing that, at least right then. Kathy and I felt that, as family, we should be the ones taking care of him for as long as possible. I decided to move back home to take care of Dad. At 21 years old, this was not quite the way I wanted to act like an adult.

We did some rearranging of the house so I could move in. Cindi took over Dad's room as it was in the back and out of the way, I took Cindi's room, and we moved Dad into the front living room so he could access everything he needed. Every day, Cindi went to work while I cleaned the house, fed Dad, took him to his appointments, and did all the other things involved with running a house. When Cindi came home, she would eat dinner and go out with friends unless I worked that night, in which case she would stay home.

Dad and I spent a lot of time together those last months. We had never been very close. He was very abusive and I was very stubborn, so our relationship was rocky at best. During this time we talked about Dad's childhood, his fears, and his alcoholism, and also about my fears, how I felt growing up, what I wanted to do, and how I wished he had treated us when we were growing. Over time, we started to become almost friends and for the first time enjoyed each other's company.

Eventually Dad got some nursing care at home as he was starting to need care around the clock and I needed to sleep. Also my Dad's buddies from the American Legion and VFW would come over sometimes to play cards with him or take him to his appointments so I could get out of the house for a while and have a break.

His cancer spread to his brain. He became demented and much more difficult to take care of. He would argue about everything. He would forget where he lived. He would think he was living on Rice Street, even though he had not lived there since the 1940s. He would grab the steering wheel when I was driving. I had him sit in the back seat and then he would punch me in the back of the head when he thought I was going the wrong way. During his coherent moments, Dad helped us to pick out the hospice he wanted to go to. Our Lady of Good Counsel Cancer Home was the one he decided to use. He originally had wanted to go to the VA, but there was a waiting list of over a year.

Dad's girlfriend Marge made life difficult for all of us. Even knowing that there was a waiting list for the VA, she tried to tell Dad that we were just trying to pressure him into going to Our Lady. During his demented phases he would get very belligerent about it and accuse us of trying to abuse him and take all his money. One day, after I had been putting in 18-20 hour days with Dad's care for several weeks, Marge came out of the bathroom and said the least I could do was clean out the cat box. I rounded on her and told her to mind her own business. This became the first of many times I would yell at "adults" during Dad's illness. I learned early how to stand up for myself, but this was the first time I had to be so assertive about it.

One day the pressures of everything got to be too much for me. I was so frustrated and angry and had nowhere to direct it, so I started smashing things in my room. Dad came in and started yelling at me. I started screaming back and he grabbed me and cold cocked me right in the face. For the first time, I cocked my hand back ready to hit back. I just stopped. If Dad had been healthy and at full strength I would have hit him, but I refused to do so when he was so weak and weighed less than I did. The nurse pulled Dad out of my room and helped him calm down while I calmed myself down. Later that evening he asked if he had hit me and I told him he did. He broke down sobbing and apologized for it. We held each other and just cried.

It was a gorgeous March day when he moved into Our Lady of Good Counsel. The snow was just starting to melt and you could smell spring coming. Our Lady was a wonderful place. It was bright and sunny and did not smell like death and disinfectant. The nuns who ran the place wore white habits. This was a big advantage with my Dad as he had been raised to never argue with nuns, and that kept him from arguing with them when his tumor was making him demented and belligerent.

For the first time in several months, I actually got enough sleep and got time alone. I made sure to see Dad every day and continued to run the house while Kathy handled Dad's estate and custodianship. I felt a little guilty about being happy Dad was in hospice, but realized that at that point it was the best place for him to be.

The last time I saw Dad alive was a sunny day in late April. I came to see him as I did every day. He looked terrible. He was mostly unconscious, restless, and was having trouble breathing. I just knew the end was near. It felt to me as if his soul was already gone and just his body was left fading away. I left his room and made it as far as the lounge before I started crying. One of the nuns came up to me and told me to stop crying, that I had to be strong. I swore at her and told her my dad was dying, I probably would not see him alive again, and had every right to my reaction. I then stormed out.

At six the next morning Kathy called. Dad had passed away in the middle of the night. The nuns waited to call her until early morning so we could have a full night's rest. I packed up the clothes Dad had chosen to be buried in and met Kathy at the funeral home. Cindi decided it was too creepy and stayed home making calls to family and friends. Kathy and I made sure everything was in order at the funeral home, and then called the church and the cemetery. I also called the American Legion, VFW, the Saint Paul Police Department and the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad as he was a member of all of them and they wanted to honor him at the funeral.

The sky on the day of the wake was ominous, clouds heavy and green. The air was still, with electric potential that set me on edge. At the funeral home, I sat with dad for a while before people started coming to pay their respects. Dad's brother Jerry came in on his canes, paid his respects and sat down. The three brothers, Jerry, Dad, and Fice had not spoken to each other for over 30 years, but Dad made peace with them during his illness. Jerry and Fice were still not talking to each other, however. Later, I was in the family room talking with Fice. He refused to go into the room with my dad because Jerry was still sitting there. I told Fice to grow up, that this was the last chance to say goodbye, and that he needed to get over it with Jerry, at least during the wake and funeral.

Towards the end of the wake, I was sitting in the family room talking to my niece Colleen. I heard a strange noise outside and put my ear to the window. It sounded like the tornado siren was going off. I went out into the main part of the funeral home and looked out the door in time to see one of the big stone planters out front tip over and roll down the street. The sky was black and the wind was screaming. The funeral directors herded all of us downstairs.

We all stood around nervously, wondering if it was going to hit the funeral home. Suddenly someone, I don't know who, said "Hey, we left Bill upstairs by himself." Someone else said, "He don't care; he's dead." That got me thinking about the funeral home blowing away and having to go look for my dad. Fortunately, that did not happen.

Eventually the all clear was called. We came back upstairs to assess damage. There were many trees down, but we had not lost power at the funeral home. The tornado had missed the Highland Park area, but had hit St. Anthony Mall, which was near where my sister Kathy and her family lived.

Kathy called when she got home. Her neighborhood was devastated. There were trees down everywhere and the windows had been blown out of her church. Fortunately, it had missed her house. She did not have power and asked that I call in the morning to make sure they woke up for the funeral.

When I woke up in the morning the sky was still gray. I called Kathy, and then got ready. We met at the funeral home, and then escorted Dad's body to the church. The church had no power, so they were unable to ring the bells at the beginning of the funeral, as is the custom. We processed in and got into our places. Just as the priest was going to start the mass, the tornado siren went off again. He stated, "the Lord shall provide," and I started giggling about the siren being used in place of the bells. The funeral directors went outside to check on the skies while the funeral continued.

At the end of the funeral, we were all nervous about what we would find when we went outside. The doors opened and sun came pouring in. The skies had cleared. It was sunny and blue with a light breeze, a perfect spring day. Cindi, Kathy, and I got into the limousine, the first time I'd ever been in one. Kathy pointed out a man as we were pulling away from the church. He was my brother Mike, whom I had never met. He was from my dad's first marriage, which had ended badly.

At Fort Snelling National Cemetery, we held the graveside service. The color guards from the VFW, American Legion, and the Saint Paul Police Department were there. All the Memorial Rifle Squad members were there as well, as Dad had been a member. Dad had a full military send off with a full 21-gun salute and a flag-draped coffin. As the oldest child in attendance I received the flag off his coffin as well as symbolic bullets.

I kept my emotions together until the trumpeter played "Taps." Hearing that song, all the grief I had been holding back because I had been too busy finally came out. I hunched over and wept. I remember people touching me, patting me, and hugging me, but I sat in my grief for a long time.

Eventually I collected myself. We went back to the church to meet with family and share food and stories. Sitting there on what turned out to be a gorgeous spring day, I went over everything I'd learned about my Dad from talking to him and listening to the stories his friends and relatives told me. I thought about how far Dad and I had come in the last few months and deeply regretted it took his dying for us to become close. I also for the first time realized just how strong I was and what I was capable of doing. Spring was definitely here and a new breeze was building in the skies.

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Member Comments
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dawn merola 29 Jan 2008
wow, Stephanie, you portrayed such a tough, heartbreaking time in your life so beautifully. This is a bittersweet piece, raw, bold, truthful.I loved the way that you wove in the seasons/nature..throughout. Keep writing.


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