Paulette came into the room and we met her for the first time. She went over to the bed and began humming gently and talking to him, as she washed and shaved his face, seemingly oblivious to the heavy gurgling sounds coming from his throat. She was so very calming. Then she began massaging his legs with lotion – he always loved that. The gurgling sounds got heavier and more labored. My mother and sister went to either side of his bed and held his hands. I rested my hand on his leg. The gurgling became worse. He was essentially drowning, but unconscious and sedated so he felt no pain, the nurse said.
Then the gurgling stopped and he heaved a sigh. Paulette and I looked at each other and she nodded. He gave two more sighs and that was it. Eighty-three years, six months and 28 days after drawing his first breath, my dad had finally breathed his last. It was the most wrenching three minutes of my life. And yet, oddly, the most calming. He was – finally – truly at peace.
His quality of life the last three years had not been good. He lived most of his last five years in his La-Z-Boy chair, where he also slept. Congestive heart failure and diabetes had been his undoing and made those years a real strain for him – and for my mother. So his last two years were spent in the nursing assistance wing of the 55-and-over complex where they lived. My Dad called it “The Hotel”.
He was born in the middle of the Great Depression. His childhood years were consumed by the home front sacrifices of World War II, going to school and peeling potatoes for his dad’s diner in Arlington, Massachusetts. He and his younger brother watched three older brothers and a sister head off to fight that war. They watched one less return. His French-Canadian parents never talked about that for many years.
His high school years were typical of his generation. He said his only claim to fame was that Olivia Dukakis was a classmate. He remembered her as shy and very much into riding horses. We all used to think he was a big band director in high school, because he had this picture of himself in front of a microphone with a director’s wand in his hand. He later told us he had directed the orchestra on a dare one night at the Capitol Theater. Once was apparently enough.
Polio kept him from the draft when he graduated in 1948, so he went right into the workforce. No college for him. He puttered around doing something in the accounting field for a few years and then, in 1952, he met my mother. She was the hygienist who cleaned his teeth and even through a mouthful of dental instruments, Novocain, and cotton, his charm won her over. He was four years younger than her. They were married six months later.
Dad was always a good talker and a very charming guy. He shook hands with everyone and was never at a loss for conversation. My brother said it well – “Leo never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” That’s what made him a good salesman throughout the bulk of his career, which was spent almost entirely in the fishing industry, beginning with managing a lobster shack on Rose Wharf in Boston. During the dinner after his funeral, nearly every one of my 22 cousins, most of whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years, recalled the day Uncle Leo, on a whim, brought burlap bags full of lobsters to our annual July 4th picnic. Everyone was amazed – except my aunt who had already bought tons of hamburgers and hot dogs for the event. She was downright pissed off.
My father did well enough that he and my mother began taking annual trips throughout the world while we were in high school. It gave us four kids time to terrorize the neighborhood – well, at least my brother and I. Leo and Rosemarie, in the meantime, saw the world – from flying a small airplane over volcanoes in Hawaii to riding on camels at the pyramids in Egypt. When he later retired, they’d snowbird for the winter in Venice, Florida, hanging out with his sister and her husband who own a little villa in the same retirement complex. They had some of their happiest days together, the four of them.
Of course, as with all families, my parents had their share of dark times too. But good always triumphed over bad in my Dad’s eyes – and he pretty much made sure it did. The eternal optimist. He wasn’t one to sit down and discuss the future with his kids. We didn’t get a lot of advice on choosing a college or making career decisions. And he was definitely stumped by the “New Math” once we hit seventh grade. But he did discipline us so that we always knew right from wrong – even if we often didn’t practice what he preached. And he was always there – or at least, on his way. We could have done a heck of a lot worse for a father.
In the end, as with anyone who loses a parent, we are left with the good memories and events we can now laugh about that perhaps we couldn’t have in the past. We can remember his smile and look in the mirror and see some part of him there – mostly nose, eyes and eyebrows, in my case. And like others, we can suddenly just come to realize, every once in a while, that he really is gone and that taking care of our mother now is a major priority and commitment.
So goes life…and so goes a really good guy. Thanks for all of it, Dad. You’re the best. And I miss you…again and again.
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