Because I announced my father’s death in this One-Liner Wednesday post, I’m linking the promised tribute to him with thanks to him and to all my friends and readers who have been sending out prayers and good thoughts on our behalf over the years.
My 96-year-old father, known here as Paco, died in mid-September, but I have been struggling to write about him. A good share of that is that the writing/analytical/organizational part of my brain has been too busy with all the phone calling and notes and paperwork that follow a death, which are by turns taxing and emotional and fraught. I’ve also been trying to find peace after so many months of complex medical and care situations which I found both exhausting and traumatic. I’ve also taken a week to attend a reunion residency with the Boiler House Poets Collective at MASS MoCA, which has been helpful both in reconnecting with family history as we are from the North Adams MA area and reconnecting with myself as a poet after so many months of sneaking in poetry time only intermittently.
But in this post, I will try to tell you more about Paco and our family.
People have asked me how my Irish-American father came to be known as Paco, which sounds more Spanish. My firstborn daughter E was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. As she was learning to talk, she couldn’t manage to say “Grandpa” and – after a few instances of calling him “Bucco” – settled on Paco as his name. This became his name with all the other grandchildren and often for other family members. It was natural for me to use it here on the blog.
It was a revelation for me seeing Paco interact with his grandchildren. Because my younger sister and I are only two years apart, I didn’t remember my father as a dad to young children. Unlike so many men of his generation, he reveled in playing with very young children and singing to them. One of the great blessings of our family life is that Nana and Paco retired near us when E was three and before T was born. Having them be so close by all those years was wonderful with walks and outings and school events and concerts, theater, and dance recitals, games and carousel rides and countless volleys of ping pong in the basement. Nana and Paco gave us so much love, care, and support for so many years; it was natural that we would provide the same to them as they grew older and developed health problems.
Paco had served in the US Navy as a SeaBee in World War II and Korea. The SeaBees were the Construction Battalion – CBs, get it? – and Paco was drafted before he could finish high school. Most of the SeaBees were older men, already established in various trades, who took Paco under their wing and taught him what they knew. The skills he developed there in electrical work set the stage for his career. Paco didn’t talk much about his service when we were growing up but, in his later years, he got some SeaBee caps which he would wear out in public. I was always amazed at how many people would comment, thank him for his service, and share their own stories of service by themselves or family members. Those tributes continued into his last days. One of the first things Hospice did after admitting him was to bring a certificate and a memorial quilt square to him. We are also applying for a service medallion to be added to his memorial in the mausoleum.
Paco worked for 43 years for New England Power Company, the last 23 as Superintendent of the Upper Deerfield River in southern Vermont/western Massachusetts. I wrote the poem “Hydro Superintendent” about him for his 90th birthday. We lived in a house that was owned by the company and often visited the powerplants and reservoirs. One of his biggest accomplishments as superintendent was overseeing the construction of Bear Swamp, a pumped storage plant built inside a mountain. Paco knew every detail of that project, which brought in contractors from as far away as Japan and Switzerland. It was so much fun walking through a giant tunnel to get to the huge powerhouse with its two turbines that could generate electricity and then reverse to pump water back to the upper reservoir. I started my interest in renewable electricity and energy storage technology young, thanks to Paco.
One of the things I admired about Paco was his work ethic. He always worked hard to get the job done right but he was also part of the team, even when he was the leader. He would help the crews do emergency work rather than just ordering them to come in. He hired the first Black and the first woman into his stations which had previously been staffed entirely by white males. (Point of information: Rural New England was not very racially diverse at the time. Some areas still are not diverse now, decades later.) He was always compassionate and understanding when employees encountered personal or family difficulties. He was also not one to “toot his own horn.” I found out how well-regarded he was by his staff through others, not from him.
We admired Paco even more when we discovered he had accomplished so much with undiagnosed dyslexia. When his youngest granddaughter S was diagnosed with an inherited form of dyslexia, Paco discovered at age 80 why he had always secretly struggled with reading and writing. S and her family launched the Paco Project to raise funds for Learning Ally to help others with print or visual disabilities access the world of books. We are proud to direct donations to Learning Ally in memory of Paco.
Paco was also proud to finally become a high school graduate. I applied for his diploma through Operation Recognition, a program which awards diplomas to veterans who left school before completing their course of study. In 2008, the same year that eldest granddaughter E graduated from high school, Paco received his diploma from Drury High School in North Adams, Massachusetts, the school that he and Nana, as well as I and my sisters, had attended.
Paco’s ancestors came to the United States from Ireland but he had never visited. Nana was too claustrophobic to consider flying, but after her death in spring 2019, my two sisters took Paco to Ireland to visit.
We were blest that all four of his grandchildren got to see Paco over the summer. We were especially grateful that granddaughter E with spouse L and great-granddaughters ABC and JG were able to visit from London UK. Because of the pandemic, we had not been able to see each other, but in August, just before the final and more precipitous portion of Paco’s decline, they were able to make the trip.
There were a few days during Paco’s last week where he was very agitated but we were fortunate to have some calmer moments. T was the only one of the grandchildren nearby enough for one final visit, which wound up being the day before he died. It was one of the most heartbreakingly tender encounters I have ever seen. T sang Irish songs to Paco and held his hands, which were still a bit restless from a medication side effect. She talked to him and I know that he could hear her because he was able to respond a bit. I admit that I couldn’t help but cry and that I am crying now as I try – and fail – to find the words to convey how special that last hour between them was.
It also happened that all three of Paco’s daughters got to spend time with him, both alone and in various pairings, on the day of his death. It was not clear that this would be his final day, so it was not that it had been planned, but I’m grateful that it turned out that way. I’m also grateful that in his last few days, I was finally able to sing to my father, something that my sisters had been doing but that I struggled to do. I sang both verses of “Over the River and through the Woods” to get to Paco’s favorite lines, “Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!” (Paco loved all kinds of pie.) I sang the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” because it is comforting to me and several beautiful Irish hymn tunes. Occasionally, I would get too choked up to continue singing but I usually managed to get through. On that last day, Paco could not respond but Hospice told us that the sense of hearing tends to remain and can even sharpen as the other senses are shutting down. My younger sister was alone with Paco when he died but I arrived soon after for my very last good-bye.
I have been so moved by the many people who have reached out to me during Paco’s decline and since his death. There have been so many kind words, both written and spoken – remembrances, prayers, thoughts, stories, expressions of gratitude for a long life well-lived. I was very touched when a friend that I made through Facebook but whom I have never met in person added my father to her Kaddish prayer on Yom Kippur. It has been the love I first learned from my parents but now experience through so many family and friends that has kept me going through all of this, even during the most difficult times. I thank all of you.
Last week, I went to the hair salon for a haircut with Diane, who has been my stylist since 1983. I told her about Paco’s death and she gave me a hug and told me that she had something to show me. It was her new puppy, who was sweetly asleep in his crate. She told me his name was Leo.
After having announced Paco’s death on One-Liner Wednesday this week, I had thought I wouldn’t post again until I had time and mental space to put together a proper tribute post or, perhaps, a post about last days and good-byes.
Then, the SoCS prompt arrived and it was puzzle and I knew I needed to post for it.
Until these last few months when he was too ill, Paco worked puzzles as part of the routine of his day. He still got the daily newspaper in print and did their wordsearch, which had the added twist that the remaining letters could be unscrambled to solve a question that was posted with the puzzle. Paco also had wordsearch books that he would work on. Wordsearches seemed like an unlikely type of puzzle for Paco to enjoy because he was dyslexic, something that he did not discover until his youngest granddaughter was diagnosed as a child with an inherited form of dyslexia. This led to a number of fundraisers organized by first Paco’s grandson and later his aforementioned granddaughter to raise money for Learning Ally, which helps people with visual impairment or print disabilities to access written language. These fundraisers came to be known as the Paco Project in his honor.
Another word puzzle that was part of Paco’s day was watching Wheel of Fortune in the evening. It came on right after the national news. My older sister would often call him at the time and they would watch part of the show together, even though they were hundreds of miles away from each other.
Paco’s other puzzle passion was jigsaws. When he was in his apartment in independent living, there was a card table in the corner of the living room with a puzzle on it for him, Nana, and visitors to work on whenever the mood struck them. For many years, he made 500 piece puzzles, with the occasional 750 piece thrown in. However, over his last couple of years as some dementia developed, he cut back to 300 piece puzzles. He worked on those until he fell in June and never recovered his ability to be up and about and clear enough mentally for puzzles.
At some point, after we get through this initial period of busy-ness with paperwork and bureaucracy following a death, we will find a home for the several shopping bags’ worth of Paco’s jigsaw puzzles that we brought home with us. I expect we will keep a few special ones as mementoes for ourselves and donate the rest for others, who we hope will enjoy them as much as he did.
While my blogging has been haphazard for months due to my father’s declining health, I wanted to share a post about the recent visit of our daughter E, her spouse L, and their daughters, four-year-old ABC and one-year-old JG. As people who check in here at TJCM periodically may recall, they live in London UK and the pandemic left us unable to visit each other. This meant that when they arrived in the US, it was our first chance to meet JG in person.
All the adults are fully vaccinated, but the children are too young to qualify. While our area of upstate New York is not a COVID hot zone, the transmission rate is still high enough due to the delta variant that we were very cautious about taking the girls to indoor public spaces. While I had scaled back my expectations for the visit a lot, I hadn’t scaled them back quite as much as I should have. For example, I had hoped to see a few more friends than we were able to. Unfortunately, Paco, my 96-year-old father, had more health challenges appear and his unit at the nursing home had to go into lockdown due to a couple of COVID cases among vaccinated staff.
In a way, though, it was nice to have them in our home, doing normal, everyday things like we had when E and ABC lived with us for over two years while waiting for E’s spousal visa to be accomplished.
B, with an assist from ABC, got to bake yummy treats for breakfast.
Everyone enjoyed watching the birds at the birdfeeders. ABC especially liked the tufted titmouse and goldfinches, while others were partial to the cardinals.
We enjoyed watching other wildlife, too. ABC even spotted some deer near the back fence. We also spent a lot of time watching the bunnies eating various leaves and flowers in the lawn.
One thing that they don’t have at home in London is rocking chairs. JG especially loved the one that was her size!
JG was an early walker so we missed her being a babe-in-arms, but Auntie T did get a taste of what that phase was like when JG got so tired she actually fell asleep in her arms.
L took the girls on walks. Here is ABC at the 1 mile – or is it 1 smile? – mark on the Rail Trail. Our area, like many others in the US, has re-purposed places where there used to be railroad tracks into recreational trails.
We also got to visit the parks and carousels. Broome County has six vintage carousels and it was very nostalgic to revisit them with ABC and introduce them to JG. ABC made friends everywhere she went.
We got to enjoy a lot of playtime with the girls. ABC, at four, has a great imagination and enjoys making elaborate scenarios. She is also quite operatic! Besides singing songs that she knows, often from Frozen I and II, she likes to make up songs while she is playing. With both her parents being accomplished singers and instrumentalists, she appears to come by music naturally. She is learning to play the piano, so we got to experience her lessons with her daddy.
ABC is also a beginning reader, so sometimes she would read to us and other times we would read to her. It was an honor to be chosen as the final bedtime story reader. Of course, she also requested a bedtime song before going to sleep.
The most important event of the trip, though, was the one visit we were able to make with Paco in the outdoor courtyard of the nursing home. ABC was being her charming self, singing and dancing and clapping for Paco.
The most precious photo is this one of the four generations.
Paco’s health has declined so much in the weeks since we had this visit that he has now been admitted to hospice care. I will be forever grateful that Paco had the opportunity to meet his second great-granddaughter who won’t remember that day and to see his first granddaughter E and first great-granddaughter ABC who certainly will.
Since I was a child, my favorite color has been blue.
The color of my eyes and my mom’s and dad’s and sisters’.
The color of the sky at midday.
The color of some of my favorite clothes, although not jeans, which I never learned to like wearing.
I still like blue. I’m wearing it today.
But today, thinking of blue makes me think of how I’m feeling.
Most of my #SoCS posts in recent weeks have been giving updates about my father, who is struggling to recover from falls, broken bones, infections, and we aren’t totally sure what else, while dealing with dementia and the wear and tear of ninety-six years.
I am doing everything I can to keep him as comfortable and content as possible and he is doing much better than he was ten days ago. We finally have the rest of his things in his skilled nursing/rehab room.
His Irish-themed banner and plaque are on his door, which makes it easier for him to find his room in the hall of similar-looking doorways. We finally got a temporary phone number working, although he needs help to answer calls and we aren’t sure if he can re-learn how to dial.
It’s just hard for me not to feel blue. As much as I understand that this is just the journey we have been given in this last period of his life and that we are doing everything we can for him, I can’t help but feel sad.
All the time.
It’s hardest when I am with him, although I have a really good game face and manage to be cheerful – or seem cheerful – when I am interacting with Paco. He is sleeping quite a bit, which is probably good. Most of the time, he isn’t really aware of how much he has forgotten, so he is not blue, which is a blessing.
The above inadvertently artsy shot with sunbeams is of roses growing in our back yard. This rose is a daughter of a rosebush that grew near my mother’s childhood home in Hoosac Tunnel, Massachsuetts. You can read more of the backstory in this post which itself includes a personal essay from before I started blogging.
This rosebush is the subject of the one poem that appears in both my chapbook and collection manuscripts, which I can’t share here because it is currently unpublished. It tells the story of the revival of this daughter bush from near death and ends during my mother’s final illness.
We have just passed the second anniversary of her death. The rose bush apparently liked the snowy winter and slowly unfolding spring this year and has more blossoms than I have ever seen. It has also grown very tall, as you can see in the photo below. For reference, I’m 5′ 1.5″ (1.56 meters), so the rose bush is probably close to seven feet (2.1 meters) high.
Because this is an heirloom close-to-wild rose rather than a hybrid, it has a very strong scent. With so many blossoms this year, the smell is heavenly.
There is an old song “What a Difference a Day Makes” but today I’m thinking about what a difference a year makes.
Two years ago this spring, my mom, known here as Nana, was living in the skilled nursing section of the senior community where she and my father, Paco, had lived for ten years. She was under hospice care as she was nearing the end of her battle with heart failure. My father and I visited every day for hours with frequent visits from my daughters and granddaughter ABC, who were living with us at the time. My out-of-town sisters were able to come to visit often, too.
Nana passed away in May 2019, a few days after her 87th birthday. We were able to hold her funeral in her parish church with a visiting hour before with friends coming to comfort us. There was also a gathering at her and Paco’s senior community.
Last spring, we were all in COVID lockdown. Visiting nursing homes was totally shut down with very limited exceptions for end-of-life situations. I often thought of what that would have looked like for us, if Nana had been facing death in spring 2020 rather than 2019. We would have lost those last few weeks with her, which were painful but also filled with precious moments. We were able to bring her flowers, including her beloved lilies-of-the-valley which blossom in May, just in time for Mother’s Day and her birthday. One of the last things she was able to eat was a little fruit tart I had brought for her birthday. I helped her by cutting it and fed her as she had me when I was a baby…
In 2020, we would likely not have been allowed to visit until the very end when she was unconscious. The church was totally closed, so there would have been no funeral, not even for family.
It was hard last spring, too, because we could no longer visit Paco every day in his apartment. Although visits to independent living apartments were not totally forbidden, they were supposed to be limited, with some masked outdoor visits preferred over anything indoors. My sisters had planned to visit for Paco’s 95th birthday in March but that had to be postponed. Little did we realize at the time that that postponement would turn into cancellation.
That brings us to this spring, which is just getting underway here with some of the early bulbs flowering and the first trees starting to bud. Paco is now living in assisted living which is part of the health care center. While visiting and gathering there are still limited, my younger sister and I were able to visit him for half an hour in his apartment on his birthday and he was able to share a large birthday cake we provided with the other residents and staff on his unit later in the day. Later this month, my elder sister will be able to visit in person for the first time since last summer. She lives out-of-state so hasn’t been able to travel to New York without prohibitively lengthy quarantine, but now, with vaccines available and changes in state policy, she will finally be able to see Paco again.
We have no idea, though, if or when daughter E and granddaughter ABC will be able to visit. They moved permanently to the UK in fall 2019, joining son-in-law L in London. They have since been joined by granddaughter JG, who recently had her first tooth break through.
Spouse B, daughter T, and I would love to think that this spring we could jet off to London to meet JG in person for the first time, but it isn’t possible. Maybe this summer? It depends on conditions with the pandemic and travel restrictions.
Will we get to hold her while she is still a baby or will she be an on-the-move toddler by that time?
Will Paco ever get to meet her in person? For the UK family branch to visit the US is much more complicated and we have no idea when that will be feasible. We also, sadly, don’t know how things will go with Paco’s cognitive decline. While sometimes he remembers names of family members, sometimes he forgets them.
Sometimes, he forgets that he has great-grandchildren at all.
In 2019, I knew that spring 2020 would be very different because my mother would not be there. I could not have imagined how different 2020 would turn out to be.
During the pandemic, I have listened to dozens and dozens of press briefings with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. I appreciated his updates on COVID, the latest medical findings, and what New York was doing to address the illness and all the other issues that arose from it. I live in upstate New York, so the information he provided was especially relevant to me, but there were many around the United States and even abroad who tuned in.
In recent weeks, there have been legislators and press members who have been critical of the governor and his administration’s handling of the reporting of deaths in relation to nursing homes. The state reported deaths by where they occurred; people who died in hospitals were reported as hospital deaths, even if they had been nursing home residents prior to hospital admission. This was the state’s consistent practice and one which was straightforward and easy to compile from death certificates. All COVID deaths in the state were reported, categorized by place of death.
The problem arose because legislators and the press wanted to know how many nursing home residents later died in hospitals and how many formerly hospitalized patients died in nursing homes. This information is more difficult to compile and the governor’s staff, who worked seven days a week for months on end, did not have time to comb through all the records to assemble a report. Unfortunately, this was perceived as a cover-up of something nefarious and things have gotten totally out of hand with accusations flying everywhere.
I am annoyed at those in the legislature who are upset with the governor over this. When they requested the information they were not in session. Like many states, the New York legislature only convenes part of the year, usually January through June. If the legislature wanted this information, they could have offered to have the legislative staff compile it, rather than expecting the executive staff to add it to their already long list of duties.
There has also been questioning of the state policy to release COVID patients to skilled nursing facilities after hospitalization, especially in spring 2020 when the virus was so widespread in New York. This was based on federal policy. It got patients who had recovered sufficiently out of the hospital, putting them in a more comfortable, less risky environment while freeing up hospital space for more critically ill patients. Although these discharged patients were likely no longer contagious, the nursing homes had to be equipped to place them in isolation. Because I was listening to Governor Cuomo’s press conference every day, I knew that, contrary to some reporting at the time, nursing homes were not “forced” to take patients; they only accepted them if they were equipped to do so. Somehow, this morphed into stories that COVID was introduced into nursing homes by these recovering patients. In truth, COVID entered the nursing homes through staff who were living, shopping, etc. in the local community.
I am not an uninterested bystander in this case. My father lives in a senior facility which has been operating under COVID precautions for almost a year now. Despite that, they have lost at least six residents to COVID and have had more infections from which residents were able to recover. The cases originated from the outside community, not from a resident discharged from the hospital. The staff of the facility is tested at least weekly and screened for symptoms daily, but, as we know, the coronavirus is virulent before symptoms and before it shows up as positive in a test, so staff have unknowingly exposed residents, their families and co-workers.
Somehow, it has become easier to just blame Governor Cuomo. The legislature is threatening to revoke the emergency powers it granted to the governor to handle the pandemic, which is their right to do. However, if they do that, they had better be prepared to remain in session and react quickly to changing circumstances with disease variants, vaccinations, etc. The New York state legislature is not known for being agile – or even functional a great deal of the time – so they had better think carefully before they vote. It’s a lot easier to complain than it is to govern.
There have also been complaints of the governor bullying people and recently of sexual harassment. I am not commenting on those accusations at all as I have no basis to judge their veracity. I did want to address the reports on deaths and nursing homes because those are matters of public record and were clear to me as they were unfolding. Suffering the loss of a loved one is difficult enough without having questions about the circumstances of their death circulated in the press.
It has just been announced that the United States has reached 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.
A half a million deaths among the 28 million confirmed cases. About 30% of those infected continue to have symptoms for weeks/months.
All of this in about a year’s time.
I had been watching a recording of mass for the first Sunday of Lent. When it finished, I tuned to a news channel. One of the frequent medical contributors, herself a physician, was speaking about the deaths and was struggling to keep from crying. The host noted how appropriate it was to react emotionally, as she herself was.
Such enormous loss. So much suffering. A reminder that, despite medical advances, we are nearing the death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic.
My eyes are filling with tears as I write this, both from the huge losses in our country and the world and from the losses of each one. Just recently added to the list a friend of my sister’s, the father of B’s co-worker, a resident in the apartments of Paco’s senior community.
Even with the vaccines becoming available, there will be many more illnesses and deaths. There will be uncertainty from the new variants’ effects, how long immunity will last after infection or vaccination, how people will behave as recommendations and policies change.