Three months before my Dad, Thomas J. Kelly Jr., died I went into his office and asked my father if he would like to go to lunch like we had so many times before. He eagerly agreed. My Dad and I worked together for almost 30 years. Although there were ups and downs, we worked well together. My dads mind had been gradually declining for years and a stroke 5 years before didn’t help at all. When his wife, Joan, my mom, died a few years before, his mind deteriorated even more. He missed her. At this point in his life at age 83 he had a hard time comprehending anything too complicated and understood nothing that was going to be new to him. It wasn’t very often that just the two of us would go out to lunch any more, the conversations were just too difficult. It was better when there was a group where there would be discussions and my father could listen and try to follow along and laugh. He was happy just being included but would become frustrated when he had to think something out.
On this particular warm and sunny summer day I suggested before we go to lunch that we first take a walk in Foster Park. Something I periodically do to keep in shape at noontime and I thought he might enjoy joining me. He didn’t understand it, but said OK.
When we arrived, I lumbered out of the car, popped the trunk and fished my crutches from way in the back. My Dad was confused and wondered why we were at the park. I explained again we were just going for a walk before lunch. He shrugged and followed. We meandered down the road in the park and looked at all the people, the river, the trees, but didn’t say much. He finally looked at me and said “This isn’t too bad”. And we continued past the big Oak Tree, I sometimes called the Hanging Tree, almost to the pavilion before turning around. On the way back I stopped at the Old Oak tree and showed it to my Dad. I asked him to look at it. I said “Isn’t that a beautiful strong old oak tree?” He looked at the tree and then at me with puzzlement and shook his head and told me I was a bit strange. The rest of the way back was in silence. But somewhere along the way he reached over and patted me on the back. The two of us strolled together and for me a special memory.
When we arrived back to the car and I reminded him to strap his seat belt. He had a hard time remembering that any more. He again shook his head and said. “That was nice, but I sure don’t get it, a little bit crazy to me.” So we headed to lunch at Lambros Steakhouse, a regular eating place we had gone many times and discuss business, family and sports. We never discussed anything too deep or emotional. It just wasn’t in my Dad’s nature.
My Dad was a rather unemotional man. He was not more than 5’ 7” and weighed 140 pounds but was tough. In his prime he was logical, pragmatic, and excellent at picking up the pieces, putting them together. He was also very good at reading comprehension. I could give him a document. He would read it and tell me what it was all about. I like that about him. As a business man he also had his weak points. He was not terribly decisive nor a futuristic planner or strategist. He generally enjoyed reacting to problems and figuring out how to solve them. The business survived in its early years because of hard work and he was good at organizing the chaos his two partners created. He commanded a good deal of respect and appreciation from those around him. This also added to the early success of the business. Lack of delegation and planning along with the limitation of his partners basically kept the business small.
But today we had our last lunch together, the last one of maybe over a thousand. We ran out of things to talk about early. We both sat there. I was thinking of all the lunches we had before and the things we discussed, wasn’t sure what was going on in his mind. So, we decided to go back. We drove through the old neighborhoods and I showed him the house on Maple Grove Ave, Tacoma Ave. and Maxine Dr. where we lived at one time. Then we toured the neighborhood surrounding them. I asked him if he remembered the paper route days and how he would have to get up so early and take us to deliver papers in blowing snow storms. He smiled and said he did.
Three months after our last lunch and stroll in the park by that strong solid Oak tree, my dad had a heart incident at Yen Ching restaurant. He gradually lost consciousness and slowly fell to the floor. I thought he had died. He wasn’t breathing. I turned to my 14 year old son who loved his granddad dearly and told him I was sorry that he had to be there to see this. We called the ambulance.
But shortly he started breathing again and my Dad bounced back. We waited for the ambulance and slowly his color returned. While riding in the front of the ambulance I could hear him yell at the ambulance attendants. They had to stop the vehicle twice to try to get my Dad under control. He was a tough old bird. After arriving at the Hospital I jumped out of the ambulance and ran to the back. When they opened the door the big burly male attendant looked at me and said that my Dad had beaten the heck out of him and was one strong guy.
You see my Dad was a lieutenant in the Second World War. He was in charge of the big guns they used in artillery. They were called Howitzers. He saw many dead young men. At the end of the war he was at Dachau, the concentration camp in Germany, the day it was liberated. I can’t imagine the effect on him when he saw the boxcars of bodies. He said he walked through the ovens with the bodies piled up. He always remembered the tags on the victim’s toes.
He told me when he arrived at Dachau the American GI’s who were of lower rank but in charge at the time, came running up to him. They had found a couple of SS men hiding in the woods. These titans of evil surrendered to the American GI’s. They thought it would save their lives. They had heard the Americans treated prisoners according to the Geneva Convention unlike the Russians that were closing fast from the East, but the Jewish prisoners overtook the GI’s and beat the two SS men beyond recognition. As my Dad use to tell the story the GI’s were upset. They explained to him that there wasn’t anything they could do because they were not going to shoot the starved prisoners. My dad told them it was Ok and they did a good job. For some reason these two men that were lying on the ground beaten as my Dad described it “so bad their own mother’s would not have recognized them” affected him more than anything else through the war.
But today three months after our walk in the woods my Dad started the battle with the end of his life. He was released from the Hospital and went home on Wednesday. I was to have shoulder surgery on Friday. At first I thought of canceling but the Doctors said he checked out fine so I went ahead with the operation.
When I woke up Saturday morning after the operation and in tremendous pain, I was told that my Dad had a heart attack, an aortic tear. He was not expected to live through the day. Sick, in pain, still feeling the effects of the surgery I decided to still go and see him. When they pushed me into the Hospital room in a wheel chair, my Dad was angry at everybody. He did not recognize me and with the whole family present, I knew I was just in the way. I told my Dad good bye, patted him on the back and left. I could do no more.
But he did not die. Astoundingly, they released him to his home, something they said they had never done for someone with an aortic tear. When he arrived home he held up a glass of wine and said let’s toast. But the family was told he would not last long. Hospice came and they brought in a bed and Morphine. It was time to die.
For a few days I was just able to call and talk to my brothers and sisters. I wished my body was healthy and cursed the fact that I decided to have the operation. I should be there for him I thought.
On the following Monday I had the strength to go visit him. My family had told me Dad probably would not recognize me. He had been having a good deal of problems comprehending what was going on. They told me he was making very little sense and care was difficult. So when I arrived that Monday Morning I first spoke with my brothers and sisters that were sitting in the living room. Their faces were tired and forlorn. I could tell they all had been in a battle and were exhausted. I was informed that it was not good. So I proceeded slowly with my arm in a sling and in pain to the bedroom to see and talk to my Dad.
My brother Matt was sitting across the room in a chair next to the bed and I sat in the chair next to my Father. I softly said “Dad, it’s me, Tom”. He opened his eyes and said “Hi Tom. How are you doing?” We talked about things the way it was ten years before with clarity. He asked about the business and customers, whether I was taking care of everything. He asked about the rest of the family. He asked about my shoulder and wanted to see how it looked so I showed him. When I tried to button up the shirt he insisted on helping. He was concerned. Then a look of seriousness overtook his face. He looked me in the eye and told me that this was bad, real bad he said. I nodded my head. He wanted to make sure that I was going to take care of everything. I promised that I would. He held out his hand and I grasped it. We shook for a long time. Then he lied back down and wanted to know if I understood what was going on, I said yes and that not to worry. He sat up again and shook my hand. I remember telling him that I was still going to ask for his help once in a while so he should be listening for me. He waved his hand at me like I was crazy and finally said that he was tired and it was time to go. So I stood up and he extended his hand the third and final time. I shook it and told him not to worry and that I loved him. It was the last time he recognized me.
He lasted until the following Saturday, October 15th, my Mom’s, his wife’s birthday. The same day my good friend and painting mentor, George McCullough, died a year earlier at 3:00 in afternoon. I went over to the house every day that week but somehow I knew it would be Saturday. I arrived in the morning and it didn’t look good. He was in a coma. At about 2:30 we decided to call those that were not there to come over because it would not be long. Along with the family I stood next to his side like I did George a year earlier and watch his breathing slowly stop and he died. I kissed him on the forehead and told him I loved him… and said goodbye.
The image of the handshake was planted on my mind. So I did a painting of the handshake. My Dad is painted in gray and sickly colors while George and my Mom were smiling and looked healthy and happy. They knew they would soon be with him. My dads hand is extended to me. An image I will never forget. I also will never forget that last lunch and walk in the park. A point in time that I wished could have gone on and on.