Monday, July 26, 2010

Remembering Dad

Following is a sort of "remembrance" that I wrote for Dad. Actually, I wrote two of them -- one that was more biographical, and one that was more personal. The shorter, more personal one ended up in the  booklet distributed at the funeral. Here, I've merged the two:

 Our Dad, Norman Gerald Daoust, was not one to draw attention to himself or his accomplishments. In fact, every year he asked us (his wife and kids) to skip his birthday celebration—a request that was annually denied. For his 80th birthday, we put together a book of memories, but just as we began to read him some of the anecdotes, he stopped us with a raised hand, thanked us very much, and insisted that he would read them later.

He would undoubtedly protest this brief remembrance as well. Still, we did not want to let him pass without recalling a few highlights from his time with us. As a compromise, we will follow his constant maxim: “Keep it simple.” (He was a good engineer, after all.)

Dad was born on February 8, 1926, to Irene and Wilfred D’Aoust, in Worchester, Massachusetts. (The family moved to Windsor, Canada, shortly after his birth, and later to Detroit, Michigan.) The first of four children, Norman was the quiet one. He would often be found listening to music on his homemade radio, or climbing the plum tree in the backyard, or (in his teens) walking all the way into Detroit with a friend.

Occasionally he got up to mischief with his siblings. He liked to tell the story about how he and his family had a colossal food and water fight (the garden hose was involved); it took three days to clean up and dry out the house. At the summer cabin they visited on Lake Erie, he and his brothers would try to sink the rowboat for fun.

Beyond a few stories like that, he did not talk much about his growing up years. Those were the years of the Great Depression; for a while, his family lived in a single room in the back of a grocery store. He also faced personal challenges. He was legally blind (the result of Leber’s optical atrophy, an uncorrectable genetic condition) long before visually impaired people received help from the school system or the government. And as the quiet, near-sighted, classical-music-loving kid in a rough neighborhood, he had his fair share of trouble with bullies. It’s not surprising that he dropped out of his vo-tech high school; besides not being able to see the board, apparently the students were wild enough to regularly jump out of the windows, and at least one teacher lectured from a chair on top of his desk.
After leaving high school at age 16, he worked numerous jobs. According to the notes I have from an interview I did with my Mom for that 80th birthday remembrance book, he worked as a newspaper delivery boy, a shoeshine boy, a chimney sweep, a coal delivery helper, a carpenter’s apprentice, a butcher’s apprentice, and a draftsman. (Mom now says she doesn't recollect him having worked at some of those jobs.) He tried to volunteer for World War II, but was turned down because of his poor eyesight. In his early 20s, he found time to study the piano, eventually becoming good enough to consider pursuing a career as a professional concert pianist. At about the same time, he enrolled in a correspondence course in mathematics. Catching up on his education was a challenge, but he really loved math. Later, when he helped us kids with our math homework, he always worked very methodically, writing out the numbers in small, neat script on grid paper, so the rows and columns were all very straight and orderly. He eventually enrolled in Wayne State University (Detroit), where, in 1960, he earned a bachelor’s degree in math. He was 36 years old. 

 He landed a job with the Milwaukee-based AC Electronics Division of General Motors, where he worked on the inertial measurement and guidance systems that were used in NASA’s Apollo spacecraft. When he wasn’t working, he lived the life of a bachelor: a steak and a martini every night, fine clothes, and long nights spent playing the guitar with friends in his apartment. Because he couldn’t drive, he biked just about everywhere.

He was also involved with the Catholic Alumni Club (CAC), playing the guitar for their Masses and eventually becoming vice president. It was in the CAC that he met Patricia Donahue. They first met on a CAC canoe trip on the Wolf River; he offered her a place to sit next to him when the attentions of a few other guys seemed to be making her uncomfortable. They went on their first date (a steak dinner, of course) on her birthday, September 7. He proposed to her in November. Initially, her parents had misgivings about the sixteen-year difference in their ages, but he eventually won their respect, and the two were married the following June. It was 1967.

Two years later, Norman became a father with the birth of his first son. Two years after that, in 1971, he was laid off as a result of the space program winding down; his first daughter was born around the same time. He was unemployed for a year, and then worked for the city and a technical college as a math instructor for a while.

In 1974, he got a call from his old boss at AC Electronics offering him a job as a computer engineer with the Control Data Corporation, one of the world’s leading supercomputer firms. Norman worked for Control Data for the next eighteen years, first on supercomputers, and later, on quality control issues for the new computer hard drives that Control Data was pioneering. (These were the new 14-inch hard drives. He once worked on a problem for more than a year; he sat bolt upright in bed one night, exclaiming, "That's it!") He would bike to work in the summer and take the bus in the winter. After work, he would have an Old Milwaukee beer with his dinner. 

Many people define themselves by their occupation or career. But even though he worked very hard to get those good jobs (especially considering his visual impairment), Dad was not defined by his work. Several times throughout his career, he was offered opportunities to advance into management positions. He always turned them down, because he knew that management meant longer hours, and less time with his family. It was typical of him to quietly make a sacrifice for someone else.

With five kids in a small house, one of his major sacrifices was the quiet order that made mathematics and classical music so appealing to him. We kids had many fine qualities, but quiet and orderliness certainly were not among them. When we asked him why he didn’t say more during dinner, his bemused answer would inevitably be, “Because I can’t get a word in edgewise!”

He made room for us anyway, and then some. He played catch with us, even though he had difficulty seeing the ball; he was the “monster” whenever we went swimming; he took each of us out to restaurants for one-on-one “dates.” All of us kids remember the times he spent comforting us after a scary nightmare in the middle of the night. He didn’t rush us back into bed, but sat quietly and talked to us until we had calmed down. And whenever we struggled with our math homework, we knew where to turn. He would take out his golden mechanical pencils and his blue grid paper, and for the next half an hour or so, he’d methodically demonstrate how to solve the problem in his small, neat script.

He taught us how to live, too. As little kids, we got a few good spankings here and there; he didn’t like it, but thought it was necessary (“Someday you’ll thank me for this!” he’d say). As we grew older, lectures were his preferred method of discipline. The length of these lectures became legendary among us kids! But he was also willing to spend lots of time listening to our problems. He could commiserate, having had his own share of problems growing up. He handed on his faith to us, too—not only through his living example, but also during “Family Time,” a regular time for talking about family issues and learning about the faith.

As his health declined, he increasingly relied on that faith. His prayers had always been simple, respectful, and devout, but in his last few months, they became even simpler. “Jesus, have mercy,” was his constant prayer whenever the suffering became too much. And in the last few days, when he lost even his ability to speak, he locked his eyes on the crucifix on the wall, and his fingers around the crucifix in his hand. This was his final “Family Time” lesson for us: teaching us how to die well. Two days before he died, he kissed each of us goodbye, and whispered three words that seemed to sum up his life: “I love you.” 

Norman Daoust was a humble man, not one to draw attention to himself. And yet, we are left amazed by the fruit of his simple life. His sister and brothers call him their hero and their friend, and the love he showed his wife and five children has been multiplied again and again as it is passed on to friends and neighbors and twenty grandchildren, and finally, to the God of heaven and earth. In the end, that is his most beautiful and enduring mathematical equation.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Goodbye, Dad

My Dad passed away shortly after 2:30 this afternoon. Unfortunately, I am too exhausted to write much about the experience, other than to say that these past few days have been sort of like a retreat -- a very intense retreat, but a very fruitful one as well. For all the suffering my Dad has done, he has also given me a great gift by helping me to face my fear of death.

Although we are all responding in different ways, I would say that for the most part the family is truly happy for Dad while also mourning the loss of his physical presence with us.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

'I love you, Dad'

Yesterday, Dad was qyute alert for much of the day -- for the most part unable to speak, but speaking a lot with his eyes. At one point we each got to tell him that we loved him, and he was able to say the same in return; then, he showed that he wanted to give us a kiss, so we each bent down and received a kiss on the cheek. When it was my turn, I kissed him three times on the forehead, and gave him the blessing that I give my children: "May God bless you and keep you, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." This said with the sign of the cross made on his forehead. Not surprisingly, everyone was weeping -- but it was also a very blessed time.

My sense of this being a period of waiting -- like Advent -- continues. I spent a good deal of time today taking care of my sister's children while she spent time with Dad; I also had a good chunk of time to say the rosary with him (well, he didn't say it -- he has been sleeping muchof the time). He continues to have sleep apnea, where he will stop breathing for up to a minute, and then breath again in deep, gasping breaths. The hospice nurse assures us that this is more of an involuntary bodily reaction than something making him uncomfortable, which makes it easier to bear. His blood pressure and other vitals continue to look more or less normal -- although after five days of not eating or drinking, obviously this can't go on forever. He seemed much more peaceful today than he has since I got here, except for when people move him, which is still very uncomfortable.

Last night the entire family was with him until almost midnight, expecting the end (his breathing was very ragged and his pulse rate had slowed down so much). Tonight we will gather again to pray.....

Here is another amazing entry from my sister's blog -- you can get directly to her blog from the link in the sidebar of this blog. It's called, "It's STILL a Blessing." And, incidentally, thanks to all who have left comments or messages -- they are much appreciated.

Monday, July 12, 2010A day of goodbyes and happiness

My mother told a good friend of hers who came to pray at my Dad's bedside: "Today has been one of the hardest days of my life. But it's also been a day of happiness."

What a gift, what joy today has been. For the day, we had our Dad back. He was very awake and alert, knew who was with him and seemed to understand what we said to him. He was unable to talk but as my mom put it, "He talked to us with his eyes."

I came over about 1:30 today, hoping to have some time with my Dad. But it seemed that there was either someone in the room praying or else he was sleeping and he was not to be disturbed. I had come with my children and they were already fizzling out quickly. In disappointment, I headed for home and told myself that I really didn't need to be there. If it happened, then it happened. But I had wanted a chance to talk to my Dad one last time. However, he never seemed to know I was there.

Dennis understood my pain. He kept trying to talk me into going back but I stubbornly refused. I was hurt and angry. Me and my Dad never had the greatest relationship and I felt that his last moments were precious. However, he kept asking for everyone but me, and as selfish as it may have been to be thinking of myself, I was hurt.

Restless, I told Dennis I would like to go to Adoration to pray. On my way over, my sister called to tell me that my Dad was very alert and at peace. In the morning, he had been agitated, but then some friends came over and gave my Dad a healing cross and laid it on his chest and said the Divine Mercy chaplet. My Dad opened his eyes then and fixed them on my mom. From that moment on, there was a real peace about him. When he was sleeping, he slept normally. The apnea was completely gone.

My sister told me this story and said that a family rosary was planned if I could be there. I didn't really give my sister an answer--I knew I would be there, but I couldn't bring myself to say the words. I went to church as planned and after entering the chapel, I picked up a prayer book. I don't remember the exact words, but basically it said that we all make choices and that bad choices that hurt ourselves and others will only stop Christian love. And the longer that goes on, the more crippling it can be in our spiritual lives. I knew then that I would go. As Dennis said, "Put your feelings behind you and be there for your family."

I arrived and found that my mom was with my Dad. I didn't want to disturb her so I chatted with a family friend for a while. Then my mom came out and told me that my Dad wanted to see me.

I went in the room to find my Dad in the same weakened condition and unable to talk, but awake. He raised his hand to me and I held it. I then told him what I've wanted to say all my life:

"Sometimes children misunderstand and think the wrong thing about their parents in life, but then they grow up and realize that they all along they just really didn't understand. I misunderstood you, Dad, and I realize now that you did the best you could with me. You gave me all you could give me. And you were a father in the most complete sense. I've always known you loved me, even though we didn't understand each other or get along very well.

I love you, Dad, I always have. And I forgive you for everything and I hope you forgive me for the hurts I caused you. You've been a good Dad, and I thank you."

Through this speech my Dad squeezed my hand even harder, his face showed many different expressions, one of which he looked like if he had the tears, he would cry. I was already sobbing through this and when I finally stopped talking, my Dad looked at me and breathed out the words, "I love you."

The emotional burden of hurt and anger that I carried through a lifetime was lifted, I felt that God had answered my prayers of healing.

It's the first time I ever said "I love you" to my Dad. It's about the 5th time that he's said it to me.

The years of frustration with each other don't matter anymore, for today, I felt close to my Dad. Later, my Dad somehow conveyed the messege that he would like us to pray. We gathered around his bedside again and prayed the rosary. He was awake through it all, he was beginning to look scared again. After the rosary, he kept pursing his lips to kiss. My mom bent down to recieve his kiss, and then again, and again and again. The cross that he held so tight was brought to his lips to which he kissed.

My sister then offered her his cheek, and he kissed it and she kissed him in return. We all followed suit, all of his children giving him a kiss one last time and telling him how much we loved him.

My turn came and I again broke down. Now that I had my Dad I didn't want to let him go. I laid my head on my chest and told him, "I love you, I love you." I can never make up for enough "I love you's" in a day.

I went back to Adoration later in the evening to pray this time for my Dad. I felt at peace now, I was sad but I was at peace. Before I left the chapel I prayed to Jesus: "I have one thing to ask of You. Let him sleep. Let him sleep. Let him sleep."

When I got home he had lapsed into a coma. My mom had told him, ironically at the same time when I was at the chapel praying, "Go to sleep, Norm. It's ok to sleep now." My Dad said one last time, "Oh God."

His apnea has come back, he is no longer responsive. He is at about 50 seconds of no breathing now. We spent about 2 hours at his bedside praying, but my mom told us to go to bed. To leave him in God's hands. She would sleep with him.

I will be so sad to lose my Dad. But at the same time, I feel that God has been in this with us. God never snatches his souls to him, but takes them with a gradual drawing from our arms to His.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Accompanying Dad in his dying . . . .

As Starling mentioned in an earlier post, my Dad is dying. We had been vacationing with her parents in Alabama, but things started getting much worse on Friday, and by Saturday evening, it was looking like he might not make it to today (Monday), so I changed my ticket to come back early. I didn't take that decision lightly -- I miss the kids, and poor Starling has to fly back with three kids, a baby, and a carseat through three airports, with a midnight arrival -- but it really seemed as if he could go anytime. The hospice nurse said that his breathing was erratic, and my sister said that his apnea had lengthened to about 30 seconds.

When I arrived at about 6:30 last night, my parents' rosary group was just arriving. this is the group that my parents have been meeting with to pray the rosary for years and years. At first, I was uncomfortable with the notion of seeing my Dad on his deathbed at the same time as a bunch of people I hardly knew . . . but the love in that room was just palpable. It turned out to be quite a blessing to have this group of close friends praying and quietly reminiscing and telling my Dad goodbye.

Since then, I have been spending time in the room with him, either alone or with others, on and off. The hospice nurse -- who also has a degree from a Methodist seminary -- has been very good in ensuring his comfort. He is on morphine and Adavan, an anti-anxiety drug. He sleeps much of the time, but has been awake and conscious occasionally as well. He has not had anything to eat or drink for several days, and his kidneys are slowly shutting down; he seems to be no longer capable of speech, although he tries to respond a little bit when we say things to him. (He has had dementia, which would also impair his ability to respond.)

The rhythm of life around here reminds me a little of labor before childbirth -- the way the normal routine is suspended to completely focus on the one doing all the hard work . . . the long nights of quietly waiting and catnapping and meals on the hoof . . . accompanying the one doing the hard work, and doing everything we can to make them as comfortable as possible . . . the total focus on "getting there." In this case, we are praying for a peaceful transition to the next life.

I am going to quote my sister's last few posts on this, since she brings a different perspective. (This is my sister Becky, who had her own brush with death in December -- she has a blog called It's Still a Blessing):

SUNDAY, JULY 11, 2010
Maybe it seems weird that I keep blogging about my Dad when he is going. I suppose it's my way of coping, and letting out all the things that are on my mind in my heart but to hard to say out loud. And is hard as it will be, I know looking back on these posts will bring me some comfort, because it will remind me that not too long ago, my Dad was still alive.
I don't think it will be long now. Today I'm packing my bags to spend the night at my parents house. I don't know if he will go tonight or tomorrow, but we all have the very strong feeling that it will be soon. For some odd reason, they tend to go at night, when all is still and quiet.
My Dad developed a fever this morning. He won't recover from it, and it will end up putting him in a coma-like sleep. It will only be hours after that.
My sister and brother are both coming today too. My sister lives in WI and has about a 6 hour car ride over. My brother was vacationing in AL with his family but is coming in today on the 4:00 flight. I'm glad. I know my Dad has been waiting for them.
There are 5 of us in the family (kids) and although this is so painful, not one of us would miss this moment to be there for my Dad in his last moments. All the hardships of having him home to care for him have been worth it because now he can die surrounded by family. No medical things around, no strangers. He can go in the house he brought up his kids, had hardships and joy. He can go in his own bed with all of us saying the rosary by his bed. I know now why they call this beautiful. Death is hard, but being there to pray someone off to the next life is a blessing. A real blessing. Despite it all, I feel so blessed.
Yesterday my Dad said he saw two men standing at the foot of his bed. It won't be long now.

MONDAY, JULY 12, 2010
Still hanging in there...
My Dad is much more peaceful today. I spent the night on the couch listening to his breathing. It wasn't as morbid as you might think.
Last night my mom's rosary group came over. I admit at first I didn't want them there. It's a private time, and I wanted just family. But to see them all kneeling around his bed, praying for him brought tears to my eyes. To tell the truth, for the first time, I broke down and now I can't quit crying. I'm glad they came, it's been a great comfort to my mom to have people around. Most importantly, I know it was comforting for my Dad to see his friends there for him.
His apnea is up to 30 seconds now. When he's awake, he whispers, "Oh God", and "Oh Jesus". It breaks my heart. We hold his hand constantly, someone is always there whispering that he is ok. That he will go to a loving God.
I am home right now for a few hours because this is hitting too close to home for the kids right now. Max is afraid I won't come back and keeps asking who his new mommy will be.
I'll go back later today and then come home to make dinner is things are still holding steady with my Dad. This will be his 4th day of no food or water.
Thanks for the comments left, the emails and those who are constantly checking on my mom. I am not the most gracious person in these moments, yet I have noticed that she continues to be. She is always thinking of others.
Please continue to pray for him. We are praying to his favorite saint, St. Philomena. I especially am praying to St. Joseph Cafesso. He was a friend of St. John Bosco; he was especially known for comforting the dying.
Pray that my Dad will not be afraid. Pray that he knows he will always be with us.
In birth we must go alone and in death.


Hello All--Starling here in Alabama with my family.

We'll blog more about the Alabama trip when we can, but the news now is that Jackrabbit's father is clearly in his last days (maybe hours).  I'm here in Alabama until Wednesday night with the kids, and Jackrabbit is now back in the Cities with family.  If readers can please pray for a peaceful death and strength and consolation for the family, that would be appreciated.

Thanks.  Much more on Becky's Its Still a Blessing blog (see left) for details.