What is a Personal Day of Infamy?

We never know for sure what a day will bring.  Odds favor it being just another in a long line of similar days; but, we don’t know if the circumstances that arise in that day will be minor and forgotten the next or be earth shattering and remembered a lifetime.  Most people over 70 years old recall where they were and what they were doing on December 7, 1941.  That was truly a day that lives in infamy.  Most people over 50 remember where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963.  News of the assassination of President Kennedy shook the world and the day became another which lives in infamy.  There is really nothing to say about September 11, 2001, except it is a day of infamy we all lived through and remember vividly.

These three dates rocked the world because genuine earth shattering events took place on those days that affected millions if not billions of people.  January 10, 1998 is a date that holds far more personal significance to me and my parents than even September 11, 2001, for it rocked our world.   Events took place on that day which changed our lives forever.  We all have personal days of infamy that are every bit as important as birthdays and anniversaries and more important than the world’s “days of infamy”.

My dad was born in 1914 in rural Minnesota.  My mom was born in 1918 in rural Kansas.  They had their fair share of physical, marital and financial problems, but they worked through them and were married for almost 60 years.  They lived in the same house in Wichita, Kansas for over 40 years and never seriously considered moving out of that house. 

In the early 1990’s, as my dad neared his 80th birthday, his health declined rapidly.  By the time he was 80, he was suffering from numerous serious heart and lung ailments, brought on by 60 years of drinking and smoking.  The local hospital jokingly talked of dedicating a wing to him or giving him a permanent room there due to his constant hospital stays for various ailments.  In spite of his physical problems, he took pride in needing no one’s help to live independently.

My mom began suffering the crippling effects of arthritis when she was in her early 70’s.  By 1998 she was walking with a cane most of the time and was living with unbearable pain all of the time.  She was a very short but heavy woman, and her size compounded her physical problems.  She had horrible sleep apnea which was amplified by her body’s inability to sleep at the correct times due to working the night shift as a nurse at the VA Hospital for many years.  Yet, in spite of her physical problems, she was able to care for herself, go to the store and keep up with household responsibilities. 

I was 45 years old and living near St. Louis, Missouri in 1998.  In June of 1997 I went to the Doctor because I had pain in my chest.  The next day I was in a hospital having the first of what have been 17 heart catheterizations.  In December of 1997 a Doctor placed three more stents in my right coronary artery bringing the total number of stents to 6.  In fact, I was in a hospital in St. Louis suffering from chest pain and other problems when I received the call that my dad was also in the hospital in Wichita having suffered a stroke.

The reason I tell you my immediate family’s history is to make a point.  For my dad, my mom and myself, January 10, 1998 changed everything.  For my dad the change was immediate, for my mom it evolved over the ensuing year, and for me it unfolded over many years.  What started out as just another cold winter’s day, turned into a day that lives in infamy for my family.

Although the stroke my dad suffered on January 10, 1998 was fairly minor, it turned out to be the first of many small strokes that caused his condition to deteriorate rapidly.  On August 2, 1998 my dad passed away after spending the final 7 months of his life being bounced from one hospital and nursing home to another trying to play by Medicare’s rules to receive their benefits.  Except for a short time when he received excellent physical therapy, he became more and more depressed as his ability to communicate, walk and care for himself disintegrated before his eyes.

My mom, perhaps because she was a retired nurse, always wanted to stay with my dad in his room when he was in the hospital.  Her rationale was if he had a problem, she didn’t want him to die alone.  However noble this idea was, in her condition it quickly wore her out.  Coupled with daily trips to wherever he was and the long walks to go see him; my mom’s physical condition deteriorated almost as quickly as my dad’s during the course of the 7 month ordeal.

My older sister was a school teacher at the time and could help only on weekends.  My older brother lived far away in Chicago and was a top executive at a major company and could fly out to offer moral support only on an occasional basis.  The only other child in the family was me and my condition at the time was almost as bad as my dad’s.

In light of these facts, can you see why and how one day could change everything?  Suddenly my mom had to deal with situations at the house she had never dealt with before; dad always paid the bills, kept up the cars, took out the trash, and multiple other things.  Suddenly instead of a husband, my mother had another child as far as care giving.  However sudden the events of January 10 were, they were inevitable due to my dad’s physical condition. 

 It took me a couple of weeks to get medical clearance to drive to Kansas to visit my dad.  At the time he was in a rehabilitation hospital being put through a program that reminded him of army boot camp.  The first time I saw him he called me over to his bedside and grabbed my arm and pulled me to him with all his strength.  I thought he was going to say some kind and loving words expressing his gratitude in my coming.  To the contrary, all he said was “get me out of here or let me die”.  I cried because I could not do either of the things he wanted.

I spent the next two months going back and forth between Missouri and Kansas helping my mom, visiting my dad and arranging to get him in and out of various nursing homes.  By mid March of that year I was in horrible shape and finally on March 18, 1998 I suffered a fairly major heart attack as the 6 stents failed to keep my artery open.  I was slumped on the floor in my mom’s kitchen and she stubbornly refused to call an ambulance.  She had to be the “good mom” and personally take me to the hospital as she had my dad so many times.

Two days later on March 20, 1998 my personal day of infamy occurred.  I went through the ordeal of double heart by-pass surgery.  Through the unbelievable benevolence of some people in Missouri, my wife managed to find people to watch all our dogs (5 at the time), get a plane ticket, get to the airport, contend with a freak snowstorm and make it to the hospital an hour before my surgery.  The sum and total of those in the waiting room during my surgery were my mom and wife.  The sum and total of visitors my dad had to help him deal with the stress of knowing his son was in major surgery was zero.

It was probably inevitable that I was going to need that surgery, but the stress of trying to care for my dad and mom for two months sped up the timing greatly.  I was finally given clearance to fly home many weeks after the surgery.  Little did I know that when I went to visit my dad before I left that it would be the last time I would see him alive. 

The operation that was to have solved all my problems only made my condition worse.  Infections, rhythm problems, fluid around the heart and even pneumonia all necessitated me spending between one and seven days in the hospital seven times between April and August of 1998.  I was in no way physically able to go back to Wichita and help my mom.  She wept daily thinking she was going to lose her husband and son at the same time.

When Medicare benefits ran out, my mom moved my dad home in late July of that year.  Within a few days he fell and broke his hip.  He died a few days later in the hospital.  Physically and financially it was nearly impossible for me, but I made it to the funeral where I was informed by my siblings that I was appointed caretaker of my mom from then on. That is another post for another day.

My point in telling you this morbid story is to stimulate you to prepare for situations that are coming.  The reason January 10, 1998 is a date that lives in infamy for my family is because my parents never prepared for their getting older and because their 3 kids never did either.  No one ever expects to grow old, have strokes, become disabled by arthritis or have heart attacks.  Yet, these things happen to thousands upon thousands of people every day of the week.  Those who were prepared survive and keep moving; those caught off guard are thrown into situations which have few if any positive outcomes.

As our parents age, we as their children, must take more and more responsibility for them.  Denial runs rampant in families with aging parents.  The kids don’t want to lose their lifelong friends and the parents don’t want to live out their days in a nursing home.  Assisted living facilities and retirement communities are not bad things, but in due time, if a person lives long enough, they will end up helpless and needing someone to care for them 24 hours a day.

If a family would sit down and honestly make plans for dealing with potential “days of infamy”, then when such a day happens, it need not mark the end of the world.  If aging parents and their working children, many times living thousands of miles away, would set aside one weekend and honestly talk about these things; then what happened to me and my family would not need to happen to yours.

To make a long story short; I did become my mom’s caregiver for the final 6 years of her life.  She was able to live the last 18 months of her life in a special room we built for her in the home she helped us purchase.  When the end looked imminent, she and I talked endlessly about “things”, and especially what she wanted and didn’t want when “the end” was near.  When that time did come, there was no unnecessary stress and she bowed out of this life gracefully.  Her pre-planned and pre-paid funeral went smoothly and her final wishes were carried out without a will even being needed.

This all happened due to the willingness to honestly talk about what no one ever wants to talk about; the end times.  Please, families invest the time to honestly talk about and plan for the inevitable “days of infamy” that we all know are coming.  Pretending they will never happen is nothing but denial and only makes the day of reckoning even harder to deal with.  Honesty in these matters is truly the best policy.  Trust me, for I lived through it.


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