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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tribute to My Father-in-Law - One Fine Man

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Today was my father-in-law's birthday.  He would have been 83 today had he lived.  Ken was a great guy.  Lighthearted, very funny, and a bit quirky after having suffered a debilitating stroke in 1991.  He always had a smile and a one-liner for everyone he met.  We sure do miss him.

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Ken and Geneva were married for 52 years when he passed in March, 2005 from an undetected case of pneumonia.

He and Geneva had one son and one child only - whom they always called "Bobby" and whom I call "Big Bear" (that's because that is exactly what my hubby is - a big bear). 

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Ken served honorably in the Navy during WWII, and worked for J.P. Stevens & Co. as a regional sales manager for for the Gulistan Carpet Division for 35 years.  He also worked for the Hecht Co. for a long time.  He didn't make a lot of money in his lifetime, but he worked hard to support his wife, whom he adored, and his son, who was the apple of his eye.  Ken's pride in his son was never more evident than when he smiled and snickered and hung out with Bob.

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I knew Ken for 13 years before he passed, and four of those years he and Geneva lived with Bob and I in our 4-bedroom home in Woodbine.  They had lived for 35 years in their home in Olney, Maryland.  A home that they loved and took great pride in.  It was a small home in a nice community, and had all the elements of "cozy" within.  Geneva and Ken, both, prided themselves on the simple decor, and 70s elegant colors that they lived with for 30 years before Bob decided it was time for a change. 

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Ken let Bob do whatever he wanted to their house.  He tore out the carport and singlehandedly built a huge 3 car attached garage.  Bob ripped out the kitchen down to the studs right before we were married and spent nearly every weekend over at his parents remodeling their kitchen (Believe me when I tell you I had to bite my tongue and practice enormous patience and tolerance for these endeavors at his parent's home)

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Bob built a beautiful sunroom on the back of the home too which was originally supposed to be a room for Ken after his stroke so that he didn't have to walk up and down stairs.  Ken couldn't talk well after his stroke.  He muttered his words, slurred his vowels, stumbled over what he was trying to say, and occasionally show such frustration over not being able to get out of his mouth what he was trying to think that he would take his right hand, swat the air in front of him, and say "Oh Hell, forget it."  He always managed, somehow, to get those 4 words out if nothing else.

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Ken was also a prangster and a flirt.  You couldn't help but love him.  In Maryland, where he worked for so many years, they called him the "Mayor of Georgia Avenue."  Don't know the whole story, but it had something to do with him flirting with all the ladies.  He was a goofy character.  He never stopped trying to live as full a life as he could after the stroke.  He knew that Geneva needed him and couldn't live without him.  She depended on him for nearly everything and when Ken had the stroke, she turned to Bob.  Geneva was fragile like that.  Nevertheless, Ken adored her and flirted with her to the end. 

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"Hey you - who are you? what's your name?" he would ask Geneva nearly every day.

"Pootin-tane, ask me again and I'll tell you the same." She'd reply with a laugh and a big smile. 

He'd ask the same comical line of each of us at one time or another while trying to look serious.  Oh, what a look he had.  Too funny he was.

Every time we passed a cemetary he'd pipe up - "Hey, do you know how many people are dead over there?" he'd ask the kids.  All the kids would holler "220!  400! 350!"  Ken would get that snicker on his face and say "You all done?"  "Yep Granddad, how many?"  Ken would say with a skip in his voice - "All of them!" and we'd all laugh and carry on.

Ken was the king of cleaning his plate of 2 big helpings of whatever was for dinner.  It didn't matter what it was, he'd finish everything then take his finger and whip it across whatever particles, crumbs, or gravy was left on the plate.  Poor Matthew.  One evening at dinner after Ken had finished eating and Matthew was still working on his meal, Ken reached over and said "Matthew, pull my finger."  "Why Granddad?  Does it hurt you." "Yep, go ahead boy, pull my finger."  Well, you've all heard this one a thousand times and yes, that elephant lifted him about 2 feet off the chair.

Ken told the same jokes over and over again.  We'd go out for a meal and he'd always ask for Potomac punch.  "Potomac punch?" the server would ask.  "I'm sorry sir, we don't have that."  "The hell you don't! It's water - Potomac punch - get it?"

Or Jack Daniels.  Lordy be, you couldn't ask him what he wanted to drink with any meal without him immediately responding "Jack Daniels."  Jack Daniels.  Jack Daniels.  Yeah, yeah, Ken, Jack Daniels.  Just so you know, on Ken's birthday every year, and tonight was no exception, Bob toasted Dad with a shot of Jack Daniels.  "To Dad, we love you wherever you are, and we are sure you are chasing the pretty girls."

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As easy as it was to get along with Ken, it was miserably difficult to get along with Bob's mother, Geneva, but that's another story for another time.  It wasn't all roses and fun in the 4 years that they lived with us either.  We had noticed that Ken was having difficulty getting up and down and Geneva was becoming more frail and her memory was horrible.  We'd argue with her constantly over bills not being paid, the electric being turned off because the bill wasn't paid, her insurance lapsed for the same reason, and basically just falling apart.  We had Geneva tested and it was determined that she probably had progressive Alzheimer's disease.  So right before Thanksgiving, 2001, they came to spend the holidays with us and never left.  Bob had just lost his job then too from Compaq due to a layoff and acquisition with Hewlett Packard, so he had some time on his hands to help with his parents. 

We cleaned up and cleaned out their house in Olney.  35 years of memories accumulated.  It took us 2 years to go through it all and fix the house up so that it would sell.  The strange thing is, they didn't show signs of missing it all that much.  They enjoyed being with us all the time and having the grandchildren to dote over each day.

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They'd get outside and take walks to the end of the driveway now and then, especially when the weather was nice in the spring and fall, and Ken would drag himself out of the recliner at Geneva's insistence for a breath of fresh air.

It wasn't easy caring for them.  Geneva got progressively worse and became more and more agitated with everyone around her as her memory continued to fail her.  She started to forget where she was, or wander out the door to go home - her home in Olney, even after it was sold.  She occasionally thought Bob was her brother or her husband.  It was tough.  Very tough.  Ken - I could tell he was feeling a bit depressed with Geneva as the days, weeks, and months went by.  I had never seen Ken get angry - really angry - with Geneva until she wanted to fight with him about every subject they discussed.  He and Geneva would sit for hours at our kitchen table and just sit.  Sometimes they'd play cards, but then Ken would get frustrated and pound the table and cuss.  Poor Ken.  He tried hard to be tolerant of the changes that his lovely wife was experiencing.

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It was taking a mental toll on Ken, and I could tell that in his last years, he was feeling less and less of a man and more worried about Geneva.  His stroke had made it difficult for him to get to a bathroom in time, and he had trouble with the circulation in his legs and feet.  There were times we were certain it was gangrene setting in, but the doctor said "no."  He just had poor circulation.  He always coughed too.  Always.  He'd cough and spit into a kleenex.  I know, gross.  I thought so too.  It gave me indigestion and grossed me out somethin' awful.  And I can still hear him coughing and hacking in my brain as if he were in the next room.  Isn't it amazing how these quirky things stick with you permanently even after a loved one is gone? 

Ken had all but given up on Geneva.  She had come downstairs from her bedroom on about 3 different occasions at around midnight if we were downstairs and say to Bob: "Excuse me kind sir, but there is a strange man in my bed and he won't leave.  He came for a visit, but now it is time for him to go home and I can't get him out of my bed."

As you can probably guess, this irritated Ken and broke his heart.  Geneva would confabulate the most elaborate stories about this man who was visiting her and how he was a friend, but she couldn't remember his name.  Only that he was from Tennessee and needed to go home.  When we told her that that was her husband, Ken, and they had been married for 52 years, she'd smile and say "Noooo.  I've never been married."  This went on for six weeks, so...

When Ken sat in his favorite recliner one March afternoon to take a nap, Bob didn't think much of it.  I was sitting in the other recliner watching television and preparing dinner with the children while Bob was mowing the grass.  Ken looked to be resting well.  Bob had taken him to see the doctor just 2 days prior and everything seemed to be fine.  But something was eating at me.  I kept looking over at Ken and my instincts told me he had to go to the hospital - immediately.  Bob said "no, he's fine, Susan, I just had him to the doctor!"  Men, why don't they listen to a woman's instincts.  This world would be a lot better off if more men listened to their woman. 

I got fed up.  Dinner or no dinner, if I had to take him to the hospital myself, he was going to get there. Ken said "no, I'm fine.  I'm just tired."  And he continued to lay in that favorite recliner and snooze.

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Watch out for me when I've got a camera in hand.  I am forever taking pictures.  I like un-posed, natural, real-life pictures, and my camera goes with me everywhere.  It is always within reach, so I took this picture of Ken, paper towel in hand, and a bunch on his lap too, sitting comfortably in his favorite chair.  He looked peaceful, but I knew something was dreadfully wrong.  I called an ambulance - then I told Bob.  He had no choice but to go with the flow. 

Before they arrived, Ken shuffled, as he always did with his cane, to the golden  wing-back chair by the front door.  He sat down and I helped him get on his coat and socks and shoes.  As I tied his shoes I looked up at him and told him "I love you, Ken"

to which he replied "What's your name? Do I know you?" 

"Pootin-tane, ask me again and I'll tell you the same."  and he smiled his big smile and then snickered at me with those endearing blue eyes looking right through me and he patted me on the head like a puppy dog.

All the children ran up to him and cried, hugged him hard, and told him they loved him.   He patted them all on the bee-hind and said "I love you too.  You be good." 

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He looked at Geneva and told her he loved her.  She smiled and said "I love you too" and for a moment we'd think she had her faculties about her.  Then Ken said in his comical manner, "We're getting married next week, you know." and Geneva would smile and laugh and say "Okay."

Ken looked at my mother, Mary, who has lived with us for 10 years now, and he said the darndest thing.  He said "Well Mary, I guess this is goodbye."  My mother got really upset.  I can't remember the last time I saw my mother get that upset - "What do you mean, 'goodbye' Ken?  You'll be back home giving Geneva hell by tomorrow morning."

He just smiled at my mother and then at all of us.  Matthew, his grandson, our baby boy, asked Ken if he could sit on his lap and read him a story.  Ken said "Sure Matthew hop on." 

So Matthew hopped up on Granddaddy Ken's lap and read him some stories about Curious George.  A few minutes later the ambulance arrived.  They put him on the gurney and strapped him in.  They checked his pulse.  Ken was waving to us in his funny way and making faces at the kids - sticking out his tongue and wiggling his ears.

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Bob and I went to the hospital, following the ambulance to the Emergency Room.  They took Ken directly back and started monitoring him.  They discovered that one of his lungs was completely filled with fluid and half the other lung was too.  Now Bob was beside himself upset because the doctor, just 2 days prior, had said he was fine.  What we learned is that when pneumonia is severe, sometimes it can sound like the lungs are clear when they are actually full.  I don't know, I'm obviously not a doctor, but Bob and I were torn apart by the news. 

They did all they could and for a while it looked like he was going to pull through.  I had high hopes, but Bob just looked at me and said "Susan, we haven't hit the witching hour yet."  "Huh?  What's the witching hour?"  Bob took my hand and said "That's the 4am hour.  The hour that most people die."  Well, I had never heard such a thing and I wasn't about to give up hope.  Neither was Bob.  He was worried about 4am, though.  I could tell.

By 3:30 in the morning, it wasn't looking good and his blood pressure started to drop little by little.  With Bob holding his father's right hand, and I holding his left, Ken took his last breath at 3:59 am.  He was at peace.  Bob and I both let out a scream and a cry and the doctor and nurses came in, but they knew it was over.  There was no hope.  Ken knew too.  He knew before we did. 

Well, today is his birthday, and it has taken me the entire day to put together my favorite pictures of the man I called "Father-in-law" and whom I loved dearly.  I wanted to share my memories with you.  My friends.  He taught me how to laugh in the midst of chaos.  Thank you, Ken.  I sure did learn a lot from you and I promise to keep smiling, laughing, and joking even when it's tough.

We love you.  We miss you. 

Your only daughter (in-law) Susan

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