78: Thank You, Dad

78: Thank You, Dad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

Thank You, Dad

When you’re a nurse you know that every day you will touch a life or a life will touch yours.

~Author Unknown

I never had a chance to say goodbye to my dad. My father, Alfred Gaspar, was only seventy-four years old when he died unexpectedly. He and my mother lived together at home in Rochester, New York. He had been disabled by a stroke sixteen years earlier, his left side paralyzed. Overall, he was a healthy six-foot tall man who sat upright in his wheelchair. My mother helped him and encouraged his independence so he could remain at home.

I lived in Florida with my husband and two daughters. I had just returned home from the beach when I listened to the message on my answering machine. My brother’s voice on the recording was urgent: “Dad was taken to the hospital by ambulance in the morning. Please call back!” As soon as I heard the message, I called my brother. Dad was already gone. He had died in the hospital earlier that afternoon. I never got to say goodbye. I had visited my parents months ago, and had booked a flight to be with them later that month. I went to New York for the funeral and a sorrowful family gathering.

Eventually I had to return to Florida, to my home and to my nursing administration position. I worked with geriatric patients. My brothers and sisters asked me, “How are you going to go back to work and see older men sitting in wheelchairs?” “I don’t really know,” I replied honestly, “but I need to.”

More than once I felt a lump in my throat and tears forming when I approached a tall man sitting upright in a wheelchair. Little gestures and facial expressions of older men made me pause. I would gently say out loud, “There’s something about you that reminds me of my dad. He’s gone now, and I miss him.” In response, the older men would offer a smile, a hug, or express gratitude that I shared my feeling with them. Some men asked me my father’s name, and offered to say a prayer for him.

Years passed. I missed my dad’s voice and his chuckle and his one-armed hugs. I wish he had been alive to meet my loving second husband Ed, to see my daughters get married, and to enjoy our new granddaughter. But I have accepted losing my father and I try to apply lessons of honesty, love of family, simplicity and integrity, which he modeled all his life.

I resigned from nursing administration and returned to “hands on” clinical nursing practice. I became supervisor in a 110-bed skilled nursing facility. Half of the patients were admitted after a brief stay at the local hospitals. Some patients had complicated surgeries or massive infections or new disabilities. They came to my facility for a short-term stay, to stabilize, and benefit from therapy and skilled nursing care before returning home. The turnover of patients was high. As soon as one patient was discharged, another patient was admitted to that bed.

One of my many responsibilities was to meet and assess new patients as soon as they arrived from the hospital. I listened and answered questions from family members. I examined the person literally from head to toe, inspecting every inch of skin, and listening to lung sounds, heart sounds and bowel sounds. Physically the assessment process demands thoroughness; it is tedious and time-consuming. The subsequent paperwork is even more extensive and time-consuming. Work was stressful, managing many ill people—some critically ill—their anxious family members, and an array of problems that always seem to arise with pharmacy deliveries, physicians’ orders, and the dynamics of working with people.

On one such stressful evening, I prepared to admit a very old man from the hospital who was blind, deaf, full of infection, extremely weak and malnourished. His elderly wife accompanied him as the hospital transport team transferred him from their stretcher to his bed. I introduced myself to him and to his wife, and then started my head-to-toe assessment. I took my time and was very thorough, making notes. He was very thin and very frail, and I moved him gently in bed to examine him. Nonetheless, my mind raced with all the tasks I needed to complete before the end of the shift was over.

When I finally concluded my lengthy assessment, I carefully repositioned the frail man on his back. He reached over to my right hand, held it to his lips, kissed my hand, and held my hand in his over his heart. My eyes welled with tears at the intense familiarity of that gesture.

“I’m crying,” I said softly to the man and his wife, “because my dad used to kiss my hand and hold it to his heart just like that.”

“Oh, honey,” his wife reassured me. “Don’t you know your father is in this room right now?”

I still tear up at this memory. The loving gesture from my dad through that stranger was a gift. In that moment, my dad was tenderly holding my hand to his heart. I realized I needed to see the person in that bed, no matter how busy or pressured I felt. I was a conscientious, committed nurse. But at times I focused on my tasks rather than on the people who needed me. I allowed myself to be sidetracked from the powerful spiritual connections offered in “hands on” nursing. Staying in the moment, really present with the patient in front of me, was a gift to myself as well as the person in the bed.

Over and over, I have felt my dad’s presence at work. I sense him always during moments when I feel overwhelmed with my responsibilities. I halt my activity, quiet my mind and feel that my father is with me. Then I know I need to slow down my thoughts, focus on the person in front of me, really listen, and take time to be truly present and attentive.

I never had the chance to tell my father goodbye. But I do get to tell him, “Thank you.”

~Mary Beth Sturgis

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