The love of a father, that one Christmas night

Published in the Duluth News Tribune

The Christmas of 2012 was the first Christmas in 51 years that I missed being home for the Holidays.  I remember calling my mom one afternoon, trying hard not to cry.  “We’re not going to make it home.  I’m sorry.”

My adult daughter, Kristi, who was 24 at the time, had a routine surgery on December 6th, 2012.  On the third day of Kristi’s recovery, she started crying out in pain whenever she sat up.  She was still inpatient as we rounded the corner into the Christmas holiday, and the cause of her headaches was still unknown.

“Oh.  That’s too bad,” Mom said, distracted.  “Would you like to talk to Laurie?”

I could picture Laurie, my younger sister, glancing over at Mom.  She was probably filling the dishwasher with the dirty lunch dishes.

“Is something wrong?”  I asked.

“Your father!” Mom shouted into the phone.  She told me he went for a drive with my brother, Del, at 8:00 that morning.  Del, who lived in Texas, spent as much time with Dad as could when he visited home.  “They’re not back yet!”

Dad was 91, and had dementia.  One of his favorite things to do was to go for car rides.  My brothers, Del, Lou, and Mark, took turns taking Dad out for a drive.  Sometimes he led the boys on a ghost hunt, searching for things that weren’t there, or people who were long dead.  But the boys would fulfill his requests anyways.  The drives allowed dad a sense of freedom.  They allowed the boys time to accept the fact that our dad was going to die.

Mom held the phone away from her ear, “Laurie.”  I heard the phone transfer hands, “Doris is on the phone.”

“Hi Dor,” Laurie said.  Her soothing voice calmed my growing anxiety.  “I’m sorry you’re not here.”

“Me too,” I said.  “How’s it going there?”

“Oh, you know,” Laurie answered.  “Mom’s worried.”

I could feel our shared loss.  There was no magic spell that could heal my daughter or my father.

I called back after suppertime, hoping that my family’s familiar voices would bring me some Christmas joy.

“Hello?!!”  Mom’s answer to my call diminished my hope.

“What’s wrong?”  I asked.

“They’re not back yet!!  No phone call!  No nothing!!”

“Oh . . .”

I understood her concern.  Roads got slippery in the wintertime.  And ten hours was a long time to be gone for a car ride, especially with all the family who were home for the holiday.

Our silence was broken by the familiar squeak and slam of her back door.  Mom must have put the phone down.

“Where have you been?!!”  I could hear the fear still lingering in her voice.

Dad was going to get an earful this time, sick or not.  I almost felt sorry for him.

Mom turned her attention back to me.  “It’s your father,” she said.  Her voice changed into that of an angry kind of thankfulness.  “Is there anything else you wanted?!”

Well, yes!  I wanted to scream.  I wanted Kristi to be okay!  I wanted to be there!  Be with family!  Be there for possibly, my dad’s last Christmas.

“No,” I answered, feeling selfish.  Mom had so much on her plate.  “I’ll call later.”

Except I didn’t.  Instead, I put a Christmas show on for Kristi, faking some holiday cheer.  And after she fell asleep, I wept into my pillow.

Dementia is such a cruel disease, for the onlookers that is.  My dad on the other hand seemed quite content and proud of his children’s grand accomplishments.  But that is where reality and the disease ran interference.  His children weren’t quite as successful as he boasted.  Dad’s illness had us sharing the same level of success as famous people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

When Del, my oldest brother, took Dad out for his beloved drives, Dad would point out power plants along the way and say, “That company is using your Fusion.”

Del spent his lifetime working on a solution to our world’s dependence on oil.  His Fusion theory would use water, the most abundant resource on earth.  Although his concept is ready to launch, finding multi-billion-dollar donors to build the equipment, has left him in wait.

So, if what Dad said were true, it wouldn’t be as far-fetched that our family would be invited to the Gates’ estate.

There was a time when we all tried to reason with Dad as to what was real and what was not.  But this conflicting information only agitated him and each of us had to learn that it was best just to listen, smile, and try to redirect.  And as the disease progressed, and when redirecting was no longer effective, we learned how to walk away.

I hated walking away.  It felt like such a rude thing to do to a man who had always demonstrated respect and kindness to others in our presence.  But because the disease was dictating the outrageous stories he told, I found the plot became more inflated the longer I allowed the conversation to continue.  For the first time in my life, Dad would get mad at me.

“I’m telling you, it’s true!” Dad would shout at my retreating back.  “Mark owns that dealership now!”

My older brother, Mark, was a car salesman.

“I know that . . . ,” I would respond in defeat.  I don’t know what hurt my feelings worse.  If it was the fact that my dad yelled at me, or that I turned my back on him.

As the days turned into the next and our Mom wasn’t getting much sleep, we began to worry about her.  My father had become a fitful sleeper.  It seemed to start happening more often than not, that my mother would retreat to the living room couch to get her rest.  It was no surprise when her back started to bother her.  There were bedrooms in the second story of their house, but my mother wanted to stay near her husband.  She was on call 24/7 and it became the norm that my father would get up in the middle of the night for something to eat or a little scooter ride through the house.   Numerous relatives and friends suggested, “You could put him in a nursing home . . . there is no shame in that.”

“What would be the point in that?!  It isn’t like I can’t handle this!  He’s my husband for crying’ out loud . . . what do you think in sickness and in health means anyway?!   This is life!  . . .”

My father passed away on December 23, 2013.  Mom went to get him a glass of water, and when she returned, he was gone.

After the funeral, our family gathered at our parents’ house.  My brother Del sat in a chair next to mine.

“I missed his last Christmas,” I said, my heart breaking.

“No, not really,” Del said.  A chuckle rose up from his grieving heart.  “I’ve got a story for you. . . .”

The story he told me, happened on Christmas day, Dad’s last Christmas, and it went like this:

The family was finished with supper and presents, so Del offered to take my dad out for a drive.  When my brother backed out of the driveway, Dad instructed the destination plan, “We need to go pick up Doris!  She’s at work!”

Del tried to explain to him numerous times, “Doris is in a Hospital with Kristi in St. Paul . . . St. Paul is 250 miles away . . . We can’t drive there tonight . . .”

But Dad was not going to accept Del’s excuse.  My dad knew I was always, always home for Christmas.  “I have an important meeting scheduled with her!”

Del kept driving around and around our rural town.  He turned when Dad told him to turn.  He pulled over and stopped when my father directed him to.  And all through those miles of traveling up and down the quiet city streets, where family homes were decorated with Christmas lights, my brother knew that their destination was a pointless adventure.  There would be no joyful reunion.

Finally, the search ended at an old lumber mill outside of town.  The sign on the building read, ‘Bayside Timber.’  My dad demanded my brother to stop the car.

“That’s where she works!” Dad said with a sense of relief . . . “She owns that mill you know!”

“Maybe she already went home for the night?”

“No.  She’s working . . . It is very important I meet with her.”

Del knew there was no point in arguing. There was nothing he could say that was going to convince my father otherwise.

“She’ll be out in a minute,” Dad insisted.

My brother and Dad sat outside the building for what may have seemed like an eternity.  My brother listened to more stories that were fabricated in a mind that was deteriorating.

I knew from experience that those intimate moments were sometimes agonizing to endure.  The father we knew was only found in a glimmering trace somewhere between the fantastic stories as seen through his dreams.   In some ways I felt it was God’s way of slowly taking him away from us. I believed God was giving us time to say our goodbyes.

After at least a half an hour, my brother tried to reason with Dad and asked him, “How do you know she is here?”

“Prayer has a lot to do with it . . .”

When my dad answered his question in a way that was difficult to debate, my brother tried a different approach. “How about if I go and look for her?”

Del got out of the vehicle and went to the nearest door of the building.  Surprisingly the door was unlocked.  Del went inside and aimlessly looked for what he knew did not exist.  He knew Dad was watching from the car.  He wanted Dad to believe he was doing his best to track me down.

Del returned to the car. “She’s not there, Dad.  I think we need to get back to the family . . .”

“It is really important that I meet with her,” Dad insisted one last time.  “But if you think we should go, that’s okay.”

Although he may have been slightly disappointed at Del leaving me behind, it was just as quickly replaced with that sense of pride as they passed a local dealership in town.  “Your brother Mark owns that dealership you know . . .”

“Yes,” my brother replied.  “Yes, he does . . .”

I knew my dad loved us children.  I knew he always wanted to protect us from harm.  I knew he wished us to be successful and happy adults.  But I had never felt the love my father had for me, as much as when I heard how he searched for me, one Christmas night.

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  1. Lena Gipson on December 24, 2020 at 1:02 am

    I loved your story. I wondered if your daughter got okay? I write stories as well and enjoyed yours… family. I miss my parents.

    • Doris Rauschenbach on December 24, 2020 at 8:36 am

      Hi Lena. Yes, my daughter got better and we brought her home on New Year’s Eve. The cause of her symptoms turned out to be dehydration, believe it or not.

  2. Kay Sherffius on December 29, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    I love your story. My father died at 54, way too young; with my younger brother and sister still in high school. He and I had our cross-haired times, and I felt so guilty… Shortly after I got my first apartment; after getting my.few things moved in, I thought how I would have loved for him to see it. That night I dreamed someone knocked, and when I opened the door, there my Dad was! I made us coffee and we talked and he said he loved me and was proud of me! I told him I loved him, and he smiled and said “I know”. Then he had to go… I woke up and remembered that dream in full, and thought what a lovely dream. Then I walked into my tiny living room….and saw the coffee pot and two cups sitting on the coffee table! I truly believe I received a gift from heaven; whether a dream or a visit, I believe it actually happened.
    I have had near death experiences also; I know God is our Heavenly Father and Jesus is his son and our Savior. So, I know we shall see our loved ones again!

    • Doris Rauschenbach on December 30, 2020 at 7:39 am

      Wow, that is quite a story! Thank you for sharing!!

      • Qené on December 12, 2021 at 5:54 pm

        My mom passed away on December 14, 2013. Two weeks before her 81st birthday. We took care of her at home with hospice help, and a sibling who is a nurse. As my mom took her last breath, the radio randomly played the Hallelujah Chorus. We knew she was with God.

        Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad your brother told you about the Christmas search for you. Q.’

        • Doris Rauschenbach on January 14, 2022 at 1:05 pm

          Thanks for sharing, Qene’. What a beautiful memory you have of your Mom..God was most certainly with you that day. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

      • Christine poser on December 22, 2021 at 1:11 pm

        My mother suffered from dementia….I would go home as often as I could ….my dad kept her at home for 5 yrs till the end …..I had planned on spending 3 mos.during the summer of 2015 but my husband was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer so I couldnt stay the summer…I had to take my husband to apts…hospitals etc….we were 250 miles apart so I would go a weekend while someone took care of my husband…but the one time I went she wasnt talking at all but when I said I had to leave…she cried.. “Dont go dont go ” broke my heart……but the one morning I woke early and there was my dad putting on her jewelry and makeup!!!! My mother wouldnt of known if she had makeup or jewelry on but my dad knew after 65 years that was important to her…he never saw me …but what a memory…

        • Doris Rauschenbach on January 14, 2022 at 12:54 pm

          Thanks for sharing, Christine. What a beautiful memory you have of what true love looks like. Blessings to you and your family.

  3. Diane Fogarty on January 3, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I too can relate. My mother, her 2 brothers and her sister all had early onset Alzheimer’s and passed away.

  4. Doris Rauschenbach on January 14, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    I’m sorry for your losses, Diane. Thanks for sharing.

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