November 17, 2008

An Amazing Life in Descent

Monday October 27 was HH(my father-in-law)'s 70th Birthday. On Sunday, we gathered with the family - my husband's brothers and other extended family, wives, kids, and close friends. It was an amazing gathering, but one that also held a weight of sadness and change.

Last week, HH moved out of the house he's lived in for almost 30 years. The house that he built with his own hands, while my husband and his brother lived on the property in a trailer with their mother and father. The house that my husband grew up in, and that we were hoping to move into someday. He moved himself into a local assisted living/retirement community. He didn't tell us that he'd gone, and when we found out we were concerned. At first it seemed like he had moved there for a month as a sort of 'trial run'. He's talked about his options - about living at the house and having help, or moving in to this kind of place. But we had no idea it was imminent. On Sunday at lunch, he spoke with all of us and it became very clear that this is not a temporary move. He's left his home, and unfortunately will probably never move back.

You see, HH has Parkinson's. He's had it for 20+ years, and for most of the time I've known him, the most obvious sign of the disease has simply been a tremor in his right hand. 18 years ago, he had brain surgery that mostly corrected the tremor in his left side, but he never went back to have the other side done, for reasons I couldn't tell you. I suspect that fear probably played a part - the fear that it would go wrong or that it wouldn't help at all. In any case, for the last 10 years that I've known him, he's been doing fairly well. He was able to maintain his house and 10 acres by himself, and do projects like putting in a really cool swimming pool that his grandkids could enjoy.

For the first several years I knew him, HH was still the president of our local Community College. He retired in 2006 after 23 years of service. He wasn't just the president of the school. He was an amazing member of the community. He built the college up from one building ouside of town to what it is now - an amazing campus with 6 buildings that serves thousands of students. During his time there, he built amazing relationships with students, especially with the foreign exchange students. I watched him interact with them and become a father figure for them away from their homes. He included them in family gatherings and helped them whenever they needed it. Imagine all of the duties that he had during that time and still managing to have these amazing one on one relationships with students AND be a father to 6 kids and over 30 grandkids!

HH is an amazing, amazing man. I knew this. I saw his age, his tremors. In the beginning I was uncomfortable with it. I was frightened by it. You see, my parents are very young. My Mom is only 49, and in amazing shape. None of my parents are anywhere near being 'old', none are suffering from illness. I am lucky. The idea of watching a parent succumb to such a fate was not something I expected to experience, not anytime soon.

So, I didn't expect this. I didn't expect it to hurt so much when I found out that he'd moved. I didn't expect to be so upset when I learned that the house will probably have to be sold. I didn't expect to feel so bad about how little time we've spent with him in the last six months. I didn't know what it would be like for him in assisted living, how he would feel the lack of freedom. I didn't expect for another little piece of my heart to break off to live with him.

Despite all of this, I am glad. I'm glad that it's upsetting, because it makes me realize how much I love him. I knew that I respected him, but I didn't realize the depth of my other feelings. Most of all, I'm glad to have had some small part in his wonderful life, and to have gotten to know a truly amazing person.

We don't know what will happen from here. We don't know how short, or how long our time with him will be. I hope long, I hope that Sam will get to know his Grandpa who loves him and will tease him and tell him all the jokes he told me when I was new to the family. Things change, but love remains in spite of sadness, and I am glad for that.


Shana said...

What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.

Sarah said...

What a beautiful story...and a touching sentiment.