In life, I tend to believe that timing can be everything simply because no one can tell the future.
Last Saturday would’ve been my father’s 86th birthday. He was born February 23, 1933 and grew up in Kincardine, Ontario, where the locals to this day apparently still use the motto, ‘Where you’re a stranger only once.’
Eighty years and change after he graced the planet with his presence, Jack Ruttle passed away in August 2013 at a long-term care home in Dinsmore. He died three days after my own birthday, but right on the actual day of my youngest brother’s.
Looking back, it was a pretty good idea to go ahead with that big 80th birthday bash for him in early 2013.
What’s crazy is that we almost didn’t go through with it at all. Right after the Christmas holidays and just after we all entered into 2013, my dad’s health took a sharp, troubling turn. The only way I can describe it is a flu mixed with a loose form of dementia. He was extremely sluggish, he almost didn’t even want to move to do the simplest of tasks, and he would speak in odd, random sentences; the kind where you feel that you walked into a conversation that had already been happening for a few minutes.
We checked him into the health centre in Outlook, where he remained in care for most of January, if memory serves me right. He had good days and off days; on a good day, you could find him sitting up in bed watching curling on the TV. On an off day, you’d be having a chat with him and he’d suddenly make a reference to a long-gone family member like as if they were still alive, like his first wife Carol or his dad. He’d be like that for a few minutes, then he’d be back in ‘normal mode’.
I’ll tell you this, THAT is when I was most scared of my father’s diminishing health. It wasn’t so much his physical decline as it was his mental one. I could live with the fact that my dad was up there in age and that his body was just breaking down with the sands of time; here was a guy who basically worked every day of his life in order to help provide for others around him. I could also live with the fact that my old man had basically always been….an old man. Most of the dads of my friends growing up were in their mid to late 40’s, whereas my dad was 52 years old when I WAS BORN.
But I couldn’t live with the fact that his mind was playing tricks on him and showing signs of dementia, or at least what we all feared to be dementia. Jack was always mindfully spry and it was awfully hard to get anything past him growing up, and he had a knack for remembering the most random of people from generations ago. To lose that and to see that spryness wither out simply because Jack had done the unthinkable and reached nearly 80 years of age just didn’t seem fair to any of us.
Meanwhile, his 80th birthday loomed. We had made plans to hold it during the Family Day long weekend in February, but now that Dad was bed-bound in the Outlook Health Centre, it put everything into question. Do we call it off? Do we hold some lame version of a birthday in his room, where everyone would just be disappointed at the situation and there wouldn’t be anywhere near enough chairs?
Luckily, Jack rebounded. Or at least, he rebounded enough to assure us that holding his birthday bash was still on the books. Dad was still in need of such care at the health centre, but he came around some on the physical side, while luckily ditching that scary bout of near-dementia. So, I went and “signed him out” on the big day and brought him home, where all of his kids, grandkids and his wife met him; a full house to greet a man with a full heart. We ate well, we laughed, we told stories, and we heaped a mountain of love on a guy who gave us all so much in his long life.
The day and evening came and went so fast that it almost felt like it didn’t even happen. Soon, I was helping Dad back into a wheelchair in order to load him into an SUV. His kids all hugged him and wished him well, and I distinctly remember my niece Christine breaking down in tears at the sight of Grandpa in a wheelchair, much like the one she lives in. To this day, I think the image of her once-commanding, strong-legged grandfather now in need of a wheelchair was just too much for her heart to take. I know the feeling.
Days later, there was a gastrointestinal outbreak at the health care facility, which meant that there were to be no outside visitors until the matter was resolved. We were crushed when the date of his actual birthday arrived and all we could do was call the facility and speak to him on the phone. The sound of my mother crying while wishing her husband of 30 years a happy birthday while separated by a phone line and a stupid outbreak will stay with me for the rest of my life.
All was well after a few more days, and we went into overdrive with the visits, heaping more love on the man and ensuring that the rest of his life was filled with love, appreciation and happiness.
Of course, we didn’t know back then that the rest of his life would only mean the next six months.
You never do know what’s around the corner, so I’ll always be grateful that my family could throw Jack a proper 80th birthday bash.
I only wish we could’ve thrown him a few more.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
For this week, that’s been the Ruttle Report.