Sunday, January 15, 2017

How do you say goodbye when you just said hello?

Jan 13, 2017
The week before Halloween we got a call from the hospital saying Rodger had been taken to the ER. Four days in the hospital and my 69 year old father in law had a diagnosis. Dementia. 69- he was 69!

We hadn't seen Rodger in about 10 years as he had cut himself off from his sons and their families. He missed every grandchild's graduation, every wedding and every birth of a great grandchild. Everything. We struggled to understand why he did this. Why we weren't important enough to be a part of his life. We sometimes harbored anger, resentment and especially feelings of rejection. As we were all thrust back into each other's lives we came to a new understanding of why. Why he closed himself off from his family and lived in a world separate from ours.

Rodger was drafted into the army in 1968 and spent a year and a half as an infantry soldier in Vietnam. Looking through his photos the difference in his face from before Vietnam to during is remarkable. He went from being a fresh faced all American boy to a war torn young adult. And like many Vietnam vets his drug of choice to numb the pain was alcohol. Over the decades following Vietnam he seemed to have periods of sobriety- but they wouldn't last.
Photos Rodger took of Vietnam- 1968.
Painting a building- "FTA" 
Summer of 1967. Looks like your typical All
 American young man.
1968. What a difference a year makes when you 
are in the middle of a war zone. 

Seeing him in the hospital last October, with a decade of life written all over his face,
seeing his confusion, his vulnerability and helplessness turned all of the negative emotions I had been harboring into sympathy, concern, and love. Forgiveness came as easy as breathing. Just like that- we had Rodger back. Not the Rodger we had known. Not the Rodger who loved to fish Strawberry Reservoir, camp in the Uintah mountains or turn wood on his lathe in his wood shop. But a new Rodger. One that was heading to assisted living because he could no longer tell you what day it was, where he was, or even who we were. This new Rodger would go from being an independent 69 year old to a locked up, which shoe goes on which foot, and what did I eat for lunch 69 year old. But none of that mattered to us, because we had him back.
Big outdoorsman.
Doing what he loved most. 

Assisted living.
We were lucky enough to get him into the VA's assisted living facility and could now visit him every week. As long as we brought him Hershey's bars all was well in Rodger's world. Like so many vets returning from Vietnam Rodger struggled to understand how he was feeling. He would comb through books on Vietnam trying to find answers, trying to find vets who felt as he did. One of his ex wives shared with me that sometimes when she would attempt to wake him he would unknowingly attack her if she startled him. She learned to wake him from the end of the bed rather than the side. When they married he told her he couldn't be a father to her 4 teenage boys because he couldn't even be a father to his own sons. One can only imagine what he experienced in Vietnam. There is a name for what was lingering inside of Rodger. We now call it PTSD.

Now we know. Now we can try to treat PTSD because we have a deeper understanding and acceptance of this horrible mental disorder. Back in the 60's we did not. So instead of prescribed antidepressants and counseling a large number of our vets self medicated with drugs/and or alcohol. In addition to the trauma of fighting in Vietnam Rodger was exposed to Agent Orange. He was awarded a purple heart for wounds suffered in combat. But he never talked about it. Ever. He lost a kidney in his 30's, had back problems, high blood pressure, vertigo, Macular degeneration, a detached retina and finally developed dementia. I wonder how different his health might have been if he hadn't been drafted.
Last time we visited Rodger we took him a regular size candy bar.
This is how big he wanted the next one to be.
We found this 5 pound chocolate bar for him when we left the
VA the day we took that photo. We never got to give it to him.

Studies have shown that vets who suffered from PTSD and were exposed to Agent Orange had an increased risk of developing dementia. It actually doubled their risk.
We would spend 3 1/2 months getting to know the new Rodger through our weekly visits. We spent more time with him in those few months than we had in 20+ years. We loved to sit and listen to his stories. Things that never happened and conversations that never took place were what was happening in Rodger's world. Instead of correcting him we would enter his reality and play along. Ask him to "tell us about it." We joked with him and laughed at the nonsensical things his complex, intelligent, spiritual, creative- yet shrinking, dying brain would think up. We thought we were going to have more time with him. That at just 69 years old (did I mention 69) we would traverse to and from the VA for a good, long time. But our time with him would be cut short. At 4:15 this morning this gentle giant was called home.

Subdural Hemorrhage.
Rodger had suffered from vertigo for years. And while he was in assisted living he was put on a dementia medication that can cause dizziness. And insomnia. We were told by his care givers at the VA that he hadn't slept in three days. They found him on the floor of his room Tuesday morning. He had fallen. And although he didn't remember hitting his head, he developed a subdural hemorrhage. The CT scan showed that he had developed bleeding on his brain previously as well.

Surgery or Comfort Measures.
To do surgery or not to do surgery? After consulting with the hospital staff and neurosurgeon it was decided that Rodger's odds of a meaningful recovery were slim to none. That to draw out his suffering and stave off the inevitable were not humane or in his best interest. We were able to sit with him for the good part of the day and make sure he was comfortable with pain medication eventually being administered every 15 minutes. We were told we would have somewhere between days to a few weeks with him- but God had other plans.

One Last Goodbye.
With one last goodbye we would leave him yesterday afternoon and return to his body this morning. 12 hours after comfort measures were started he peacefully fell asleep. What a gift the last 3 1/2 months have been.  With a lesson on forgiveness, and memories we will cherish forever, how can we not be grateful? I'll never be able to look at a Hershey's bar again without thinking of Rodger. When we get his ashes from the mortuary we will take them to Strawberry Reservoir and up to Sage Creek in the Uintah mountains where he loved to be, and he will become one with the earth.
Ecclesiastes 12:7- "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."
Friday the VA facility flew the flags at half staff in honor of
Rodger. We were very moved by this gesture. 

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