If you’ve made it this far, you’re a trooper. It’s hard to sit in the space of trauma, but easier when it’s broken up into pieces and not everything that happens is horrible. We were blessed by some good and uplifting/hopeful experiences throughout those 17 1/2 years and this time, I will tell you about THE most uplifting experience, which occurred during my dad’s last year of life. But before that, a few more things to talk about during his years at the nursing home. The scary, frequent hospital visits started in 2011 and thus in 2011, 2012, 2013, and especially in 2014, time seemed to be marked by those hospital visits. My father’s body was continuing to break down, to follow the proper trajectory of the disease. The dopamine that used to run like a waterfall when he was young, slowed to a trickle, and this affected various organs and body systems, thus affecting his functioning in significant ways. He fought so hard during those years to keep afloat. What do you do when your own body is the opponent in the ring? Some days, you let it win because you’re tired and worn and the medication cocktail is too sedating. And some days, you muster up some gumption and say, “I got it. I won’t let this disease take me down.” I wouldn’t have blamed him for doing the first option most days. But it wasn’t often that he gave up or submitted to the body’s troubles. That wasn’t in his blood. As much as my mom was a caregiver in her core, my dad was a fighter in his core.
Dad would go to the hospital and just when we thought he was slipping away, he’d gather some of his strength back. The hospital experiences were terrible for all of us, and especially dad. He wanted to be there even less than he did the nursing home. For me, it was an emotional roller coaster and I’d go into a heightened mode of stress and vigilance quite frequently. I always wore my emotions on my sleeve and it was easy to see I was affected. Sometimes I’d fight by gathering more information and pushing for things that might help dad more; sometimes I’d flee by taking long drives; and sometimes I’d freeze for a bit with overwhelm; always I flocked to my mom and sisters so we could support each other. Those frequent hospital visits did afford me and my sisters opportunities to support dad in ways we never thought about when we were younger. He had a care team of his wife and six other women now, and this included a lawyer, a psychological practitioner (me), a doctor, a teacher, a social worker, and an insurance agent. I was so happy to serve him in this way with my psychological expertise and my understanding of trauma and sensory issues. I had a sixth sense for his suffering and what he needed. I’m not entirely sure how, but I’ll call it a gift. There were many times I happened to call my mother when they were headed to the hospital. And because I had been given that gift of sensing it, I knew I needed to be there. My sisters and I would all show up at different times at the hospital and do our things. One time, I had to tell the nursing staff that dad was having a panic attack; I also saw him be triggered by various things; he wasn’t being non-compliant, he was reacting to something that felt dangerous. Several times, I rubbed his feet for some soothing touch & relief (he loved it), and I remember how he let out sighs of relief and noises of content when we washed his hair in a special cap that had the shampoo in it. When your body is causing you mostly discontent, you relish those times when body experiences can be taken in the opposite direction. My sister the doctor kept an eye on the medications they gave him in the hospital, told my mom when one wasn’t a good idea, and asked informed medical questions. My sister the lawyer made sure mom had all the living will and regular will pieces put together. She advised on all things legal. My 1st grade teacher sister and my social worker sister were warm and gentle like you are when you spend lots of time with children; all of us were, we’d been taught well to care for others. The social worker sister was also a good advocate, right alongside mom. Remember how my youngest sister was 13 when my dad got diagnosed and still lived at home for many years into his illness? She and my mom developed a very close bond because they had been through a lot of the trauma together. She had that sixth sense about my mom that I had for my dad, and still does. She knows when mom needs something and alerts the rest of us. People have told me how fortunate my dad was to have my mom and all of us to help him during his illness. And I feel we wouldn’t have been good at it had he and my mom not raised us well. I am aware daily how fortunate I am to have had my father and mother as parents. The next piece of the story will undoubtedly demonstrate that.
In July 2014, my son Myles turned 8 and we had a birthday party at the pool in our neighborhood. Mom brought dad in his wheelchair. He still came to all the parties, even if he was tired. And this time, as he sat in his wheelchair watching the kids swim and jump into the pool, he managed to eek out of his shallow voice, “I just want to walk again.” That was his wish on my son’s birthday, to get up and walk, after about 7 years confined to a wheelchair. His wish was barely perceptible to my mom and my sister who were right next to him, and they more or less said, “Oh, you want to walk? Okay, let’s do it, let’s get that figured out.” This is how we approach challenges as a family. Not “that’s a terrible idea that will not work and be way too dangerous,” rather “okay, let’s figure that out.” I can’t tell you how many times that philosophy has come in handy in my work and my life. My son’s birthday is July 5th and although I don’t remember the date of his party that year, I do remember the day my dad walked again: July 28, 2014. I also distinctly remember the day he stood up again for the first time because I was on the beach in Florida for a family vacation and mom sent photos and video. That was July 14th. So what we have here is a seemingly impossible wish spoken in early July that was fulfilled within the space of less than 30 days. Say what?? And how in the world did this feat, and we are truly talking medical miracle here, get accomplished? The power of the human spirit, the power of faith, the power of love, and the power of support…
Enter another person who believes in the power of all those things: the new physical therapist at dad’s nursing home. A young, strong, bright-eyed, faith-filled man. Also know that my mother’s job had been suddenly eliminated one month prior to where she could spend many more hours a day at the nursing home supporting and caring for my father. Then realize that all the necessary pieces for a miracle to occur have been put into place: my dad’s fighting spirit and strong will; the faith of my dad, my mom, we his children, and his physical therapist; the support of all the people around him cheering him on; and the love I talked about in Part 3. Then you will see how a man whose muscles have atrophied extensively, whose body doesn’t know how to support itself anymore, and whose ability to walk in a forward fashion was stymied many years ago by the reduction of dopamine in his brain CAN FULFILL HIS WISH of walking again. I still get chills thinking about it. If you could have seen the video, you’d have chills too. If you could have seen him walking at different times for the next couple of months, you’d have been witness to this amazing feat and probably called it a miracle too. When we told everyone we knew, they celebrated with us and with him. We were as elated, if not more so, as the time after his first brain surgery, because this wasn’t a scientific or medical procedure that produced this. This was will, this was faith, this was love and support. This was divine intervention and this created hope. My mother later said, “God worked a miracle through dad and the timing was perfect; we all needed it to happen before his death.”
Photo: My mom took my dad to Dairy Queen to celebrate. This is him showing his pride and elation, as best he could with his facial muscles being what they were at that time. This, my friends, is what triumph over trauma looks like. This is precisely why my father remained my hero through his illness. This is how he earned the title trauma warrior. This David Bowie song “Heroes” sung in a slowed, deliberate fashion by Peter Gabriel, captures the wish and the fulfillment of a hero.
Until next time, which will be the conclusion of the story, may your day be sprinkled with HOPE,
Melissa Adamchik, Daughter of William Wambaugh, Trauma Warrior & Hope Ambassador