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UP AND COMING: 50th wedding anniversary.
Grelen Family
UP AND COMING: 50th wedding anniversary.

A life worth living

Life | For a decade my father was unable to walk or communicate, but who is to say he had no good quality of life?

Issue: "China's abortion regime," July 26, 2014

I knew exactly what they meant, the preacher and the lawyer, about my father’s quality of life in the years before he died. I know both of them well enough to know that their intent was to comfort, to acknowledge that Dad’s last decade was hard and that finally he was better.

They intended no offense, and I took none. For I, too, have occasionally indulged in the same misapplication of meaning as I considered, in the abstract, the matter of “quality of life,” a description rendered benign by its familiarity, which is the purpose of euphemism—to declaw accurate characterization.  

But in the here and now, two days after my father’s passing, their pronouncements stung. Their words were a judgment of an actual life, my father’s, and indirectly and unintentionally, an indictment of my mother’s devotion to him.

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The preacher, a long-time friend who was my parents’ pastor for more than 20 years, lives in another state now. He had been in town and visited my parents the afternoon that turned out to be my father’s last in the home in which he had lived for more than half a century.

With the long drive only 10 days behind him, the pastor alerted us that he wouldn’t be able to return for the funeral. At Mother’s request, then, he wrote a eulogy, which he closed with these words: “I have two feelings on this day. One is deep grief. I mourn the loss of one of the really good guys in this world. … The other feeling is one of relief. Harold was disabled for so many years and toward the end, there was no good quality of life.”

Then came the lawyer, a friend from high school, who offered a similar characterization as we talked at Dad’s visitation. 

No good quality of life, they said.

DAD WAS POSTED to Fort Bliss, a fitting assignment given that he found the woman he would marry in the same town as the Army post. My parents met in December 1952 in Sunday school at Immanuel Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas.

Dad, fresh from Fort Lee, Va., already had his orders to go to Korea for a six-month tour. He and Mother discussed a pre-deployment wedding, an urgency very unlike my staid, unsentimental, and pragmatic father, who never bought a product without first consulting Consumer Reports. 

Although Mother was inclined to marry 2nd Lt. Harold Eugene Grelen, who ran the bakery on Fort Bliss, they chose practical over romantic. So he left for the conflict a single man. The war shut down practically upon his arrival: Dad touched down in early July, and on July 27, 1953, the armistice was signed. 

On Dec. 21, 1953, a year after my parents met, after only six months of a courtship that was interrupted by an international conflict, and only two weeks after his return from Korea, Janie Charlene Miser took my father’s last name, and the two of them took off for Ruidoso, N.M. 

WITH DAD’S long and mysterious decline behind us, we are comfortable that Lewy Body Dementia is the accurate diagnosis, with the added complication of Fahr’s syndrome and peripheral neuropathy, which shut down his feet. In addition to Lewy Body and Fahr’s, Mother and Dad considered many another diagnosis over the 20 years: Parkinson’s, Parkinsonism, and depression were the primary guesses. 

My father retired from the U.S. Forest Service in the fall of 1985. Technically, you could mark that as the beginning of his end, although we can’t show any cause and effect. Six months before his retirement, he suffered an acute reaction to a sulfa drug, which required a hospital stay and damaged, apparently, his vocal cords. He never really regained his voice.

The next things to go were his agility and his cognition. The man who could fix most anything no longer could patch a hole in Sheetrock, much less hang a ceiling fan. Without a good diagnosis, pharmaceutical aid was guesswork. Some medicine seemed to help, most of it didn’t. Mother marks 2004 as the year Dad went to bed to stay.

He could sit up in his hospital bed, feed himself. When my brother-in-law Ramon or I were there, we would put my dad in his wheelchair for a meal with his family at the big table or transfer him to the chair lift in the living room so he could watch us come and go.

Mother once put Dad in their car (with help, of course) for a visit to my home in Maumelle, Ark., and then the three of us traveled to Nashville, Tenn., for a visit with his brother, the last time they ever saw each other.

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