Tuesday night I slept in a chair in the hospital family/visitor’s room. On Wednesday night my brother and his family arrived from Atlanta (my brother had to fly in from Chicago where he was working). We couldn't get Mom to leave Dad's room, so my brother stayed in the room with them both all night Wednesday. I slept on the floor in the aforementioned visitor’s room, along with my sister-in-law, my aunt and uncle, and my husband. Dad was semi-conscious Tuesday and I talked to him, but I don't think he could really understand much at that point, other than that he was surrounded by love. My dad's mother came to say goodbye and she was able to spend a few private moments alone with Dad. Mom and Dad’s pastor arrived, and over the next two days he was right there alongside my family to offer comfort and friendship.
By Wednesday morning Dad was no longer conscious at all. By then it had been seven days since he had eaten any food and four days since he last had any water (his swallowing reflex had disappeared). His breathing was labored and deep. I hugged him, told him how much I loved him, played music for him. Mom held Dad and showered him with kisses and whispered remembrances of their life together. My daughter, Lara, climbed in bed beside her “Papa” and hummed songs to him.
Dad passed away Thursday, August 15 around 5:30 p.m. He fought it until the very end. My mom, Aunt Dorothy, and I stayed by Dad's side until he was gone. I can't even begin to describe what it's like to watch your dad leave this life...
After Dad passed, those in the family who wanted one last time with him were given the opportunity to say their final goodbyes. My aunt and uncle took my mom home, then my husband, brother, sister-in-law, and I packed Dad's belongings. I left the hospital at 8:35 p.m on Thursday night, a good 55 hours after I had arrived. I walked out of those hospital doors a completely changed person.
The funeral service was Sunday at Faith Baptist Church in Cochran. I was overwhelmed and humbled by all the people who came to honor my father. My brother and I both spoke about Dad, and then Mom and Dad's pastor spoke. Pastor Robbie's eulogy was indicative of the relationship that he and my dad shared. We played “For the Good Times” by Ray Price and, per Dad’s request a few years ago, Brad Paisley’s “When I Get to Where I’m Going”.
Monday at noon we held a full military service at Andersonville National Cemetery for my father. It was by the far the most intense emotional experience of my life. Prior to the service, waiting for the honor guard to make their appearance, my father’s flag draped casket standing like a lone sentinel, I sat quiet and still between my mother and husband. The memories of my father sharpened and dulled in and out of focus. I looked up and saw a blue/black butterfly the size of a teacup flitter into the pavilion. I watched it flutter and land on one of the red flowers of the wreath my mom, brother and I had placed near Dad’s casket. The butterfly then flew in and out of the pavilion between the columns before coming to rest on the far end of the flag draped casket.
Amid the silence and the peace, surrounded by the white markers of men and women who had served their country, I paid silent tribute to my father in my splintered heart.
After the pastor spoke and offered a prayer, my Uncle Dan, who served with my father in Vietnam, stood up and gave an impromptu speech at the behest of my brother. My husband recounts the speech better than I can:
Jimmy and Dan enlisted, one in the Air Force, the other in the Army, after getting caught stealing a boat, a judge "recommended" they join the service. Both served full careers and retired. Jimmy was in the communications field, listening to foreign radio traffic in morse code. Dan was a grunt, later a helo pilot in the Army. They both were in Vietnam together. In Vietnam, Jimmy was a radio/crewman on EC-47s, listening to NVA radio traffic.
Dan was an infantry platoon leader. Dan had a couple of days off, and decided to visit Jimmy at his airbase at Pleiku. When it came time to leave and return to his platoon, where he was to report for a security mission on a small hill top near the Laotian border. Dan mentioned that his platoon was not full strength. He asked Jimmy if he could find him some air transportation for him. When Jimmy did, he also showed up with his bag packed and said he was going along, since his plane was down for a couple of days for maintenance. Dan now had 37 in a platoon that should have had 42. Dan found Jimmy an M-16 and .45. Remember, Jimmy was a "flyboy" and not trained as a grunt. When Jimmy met the platoon, in the normal custom, they all kidded him about being a flyboy, clean living, and now he would have to get dirty.
That night, the hill top came under a heavy ground assault. Jimmy jumped in the bunker with Dan, and they fought side by side. The next morning, when the attack was over, everyone in the platoon had a new respect for Jimmy; he was now called "Sgt Coley," and they all shook his hand and showed their respect and appreciation for what he had done. When med-evac birds arrived, many WIAs were flown to the hospital. There were many others “that were sent to a different place." Jimmy rode the med-evac with the wounded, he wanted to make sure they made it to the hospital.
In the couple of days prior to the funeral, I was going through Jimmy's military belongings, getting pictures to display, collecting his medals, and awards. In addition to two Air Force Good Conduct medals, there was an Army Good Conduct Medal. This did not make sense to me. I figured it must have been a souvenir he collected somewhere. There was no mention of an Army Good Conduct Medal in his service records. It was not in a box- just folded up. Later, after hearing Dan's story, I began to wonder about the medal. I told Dan about it. Turns out that when Jimmy left the hilltop, the soldiers gave him a box filled with various items. In the box was an Army Good Conduct Medal.
At Andersonville, the flag covering Dad’s casket was folded, taps was played and rifles fired. The flag, along with the rifle shell casings, was handed reverently to Mom. It was then that I finally allowed my grief to surface. A pent up dam of the past few years' sadness and sorrow was unleashed and I cried so deeply that I missed seeing my Marine Corps uniformed youngest son walk over to Dad’s casket, snap to attention, and salute his grandfather. I cried from the sheer ache of wanting nothing more in the world than for Daddy to wrap his arms around me and tell me that everything was going to be okay. But that will never ever happen again. I am fifty-one years old and I feel like a scared six-year old little girl.
I still want my daddy..
But I am proud of the goodbye that we gave Dad. My heart sings with the knowledge that Dad, in his last days and years, was gathered in a cocoon of love and care when he could no longer care for himself in the shattering face of Alzheimer's. Mom, who cared for my father tenderly and lovingly for so many years, is understandably adrift. When the Alzheimer's journey started no one in my family understood the price it would exact from all of us, or the toll it would ultimately take as it robbed us of a husband and a father, and even stole Dad away from himself. In the end, as I look back over my life, I realize how much Dad taught my mother, my brother, and I about the meaning of family. I will honor his teachings for as long as I draw a breath.
As my brother said as he looked down upon my dad's casket in the church, "Here is a good and decent man". No other eulogy other than that is needed.