The Unforgettable Valentine

February 14, 2012

4 HLW

Remembering today…

In 2011, when my father became ill with what we would later learn was pancreatic cancer, I started writing a story. You can find it by clicking here. I never finished it and I have thought about that many times. I hear lines in my head and fail to write them down. It’s all there, but I just haven’t taken the time to continue on with it. At the time, writing everything down was how I was getting through it, a coping mechanism. To continue the story now is to go back, to remember and that’s not always something we are willing or able to do. Finishing what you start, however, is usually the honorable thing to do and in honor of my dad and for the benefit of anyone else touched by the loss of a loved one, I do want to finish the story.

This seemed a particularly appropriate time to go back, to return, to pick up the story. Everything changed, in earnest, on Valentine’s Day of that year. I realized then that how I viewed the day would be forever changed.

The Unforgettable Valentine

Dearest Katherine,

Couldn’t resist this cartoon.  It is appropriate.  Things moving along here.

I think you’ve been informed of all the doings.

Hope all is well on your end!

Our love,

Dad and Mom

I held the card from my mother in my hands, just staring at it as I sat at my desk in the corner of my apartment. It had the sweetest little picture on the front–a little girl shaking little red hearts out of a little tree.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Daughter…

She had enclosed a comic strip she’d cut out of the paper, Pickles–the old couple and their cat. It made me smile. In spite of everything–a valentine.

In our house, Valentine’s Day was always a little extra special. As a kid, instead of buying valentines at the store, my mom and I would make them–cutting out red and pink construction paper hearts and doilies at the dining room table, finding cute little pictures in magazines to paste inside. We’d make one for every kid in the class and one for the teacher, back when kids still did things like that in school.

My dad always made his own valentines too. Every year. He’d take “a good heavy card stock,” as he was so fond of saying, red colored pencils, a Sharpie or fountain pen and sitting at the chair in his office he’d busy himself with cutting out hearts, nothing too fancy–a few red ones, a few white ones, big and small. He would put them together into a valentine for my mother. One year he figured out how to make a pop-up card and seemed incredibly pleased with the execution of it. While the cards varied from year to year, the message was always the same.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Patsy.  I love you.

 

“Oh you just think you’re so clever,” my mother would always kid him and he would laugh, that mischievous twinkle lighting up his eyes.

 

The card would almost always accompany a box of chocolates from Oliver’s, a favorite shop that, in my dad’s opinion, had “exceptional treasures.”  When he discovered once that I liked one chocolate better than all the rest, he managed to arrange it so that my box of chocolates would be filled with just that one kind–chocolate meltaways–my favorite. Without fail, those chocolates came every year–wherever I was.  It was impossible to feel alone or unloved on Valentine’s Day.

I sat looking at my mother’s card.

Things moving along here.

It’s funny the way she turns a phrase sometimes–never one to overdramatize, to draw too much attention. She is the kind of person who carries on whatever the circumstance with a sort of quiet resolve, the kind of person who worries about everyone else. Always searching for a little levity, she is also the kind of person who would still bother to send valentines a week after learning her husband of 53 years has pancreatic cancer and, “at best” three months to live.

The doings.

That was what had finally happened. I was aware and, strangely, I had not spoken to my parents since they had received the news. It seems odd, I know, to not have picked up the phone immediately. I reasoned that I didn’t want to put them through it–having to explain. The truth was: I don’t think I could bear to hear them say it out loud, to put them in the position of having to say it out loud–my dad having to say that about himself. I worried mostly that I wouldn’t be able to hold it together and I didn’t want to upset them further. Our family is a little weird like that. We always worry about worrying each other. Despite the impossibility of it, everybody is perpetually “fine” and more concerned that “you’re okay.”  It’s more than a little goofy, but it works somehow.

Mostly, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother.  Sure, I was having to consider the idea of losing my dad, but I was very mindful of the fact that she was watching the love of her life slip away. I won’t live long enough to love anyone for 53 years even if he crashes through the ceiling right this minute. I felt like they needed their space, their own time to maybe digest it all–just the two of them, to take care of each other. Like everything else in life I thought there would be time. Barely a week after his diagnosis, though, there I was, sitting at my desk, turning that valentine over and over in my hands. I had to prepare myself.  The time had come to go home.

*    *    *   *

The phone rang the night before–a Sunday. It was later–a time of night when the sound of a ringing phone instantly heightens the senses, sends a chill. My sister was on the other end.  Ever even-tempered and compassionate she began the conversation with, “how are you doing?”

She said wanted to update me on what was going on and in her voice I started to realize that this was the beginning of the end, a conversation I had dreaded for the better part of my adult life. As it went on, I learned my dad was really not well. His condition had taken a dramatic turn for the worse in a matter of days if not hours.

“It’s taking three of us to help him get around,” she said. “He can’t do it on his own. We’ve had to call the hospice nurse.”

The hospice nurse. My mother would have sooner let a rabid animal into the house than to allow a complete stranger to hang around like that. I knew it had to be bad. In that moment, I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to worry my sister like that.  She paused and let out a deep breath.

“So….that’s where we are…aaand…I dunno.”

I dunno.

She did know and so did I. I’d heard her say that phrase so many times on so many occasions. “I dunno.”  It’s almost code for: “please come to the right conclusion so I don’t have to say it.”

I drew a breath. “Are you telling me,” I struggled to mask the cracks in my voice, “are you telling me that I should come home?”

Silence, another deep breath and then she whispered, “yeah….”

We both started to cry.

You do weird things when you get really bad news. I don’t know if it’s primal or what but the next thing I knew I was in a ball in the closet. With the cat sitting next to me, I sat there and cried, hating myself for thinking that the first thing I’d need to put in my suitcase was a black dress.

*      *     *      *

The next morning I had to go about the business of getting my affairs in order, I had to call work, to pack, to gather myself to drive the four-plus hours home. It was all a haze and then the phone rang–my sister.

“They’re taking dad to the hospital now in the ambulance.  He’s really not doing very well.”

“Okay.”

Dropping everything is not as easy as everybody always makes it sound. It’s much more difficult, actually. I hung up with my sister and ended up spending the next hour or more making phone calls and having surreal conversations with everyone from my boss to the human resources rep to a complete stranger named Steve at wherever the place is that organizes leaves of absence from my company. We didn’t exactly get off on the right foot.

He opened with something like, “I do this all the time. So, you don’t need to be so concerned about everything.”

I didn’t particularly dig his tone.  So, I shot back.

“Well, this is my first time, Steve. So forgive me if I have….a few…questions!”

The ball in the closet had now become Basket Case Number 866418 with forms to fill out and endless questions to answer–my name, my address, my social security number, my phone number, my fax number and then…

“What is your father’s date of birth?”

“My…what? You need that? Jesus. Um. Okay. October 19th.  He’s 82…so that’s…oh God, I have to do the math…what is that 1927?”

“Yes.  How long do you expect be gone?”

As if it was a vacation.

“To be honest with you, Steve, I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea. From what I know right now? I could be on bereavement by the end of the day.”

I shocked myself. I was so matter-of-fact. I almost didn’t believe what I was saying, how easily and directly the words came…the truth. He might be gone before I got home. What happened to three months? It was all happening so fast now. The worst part was I found myself feeing bad…for Steve. He does, after all, have to deal with this kind of thing all the time. Can you just imagine?

“I’m sorry,” he said, “we’ll make it open-ended, then. We’ll take care of it.”

“Thank you, Steve.”  And I added, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. I understand.”

It was at that moment I realized I was still in my pajamas.

“I have to get out of here,” I said to myself.

And so I did.

*      *      *     *

I don’t think I listened to the radio or anything.  I just drove.  I thought about what I would find when I got home and how I would handle it.

I kept coming back to the last time I had seen my dad. It was that January, just a few weeks before. I had made a weekend trip for my nephew’s birthday party, which my dad decided not to attend. He apologized more than once that weekend for not being “more sociable,” but he was tired, uncomfortable. Still, he was thrilled to play with my new computer that I had brought home to show him, thrilled to talk about how it worked and what it could do.  He sat in his rocker, tapping away at the keys, his eyeglasses down on his nose.

“I’m so pleased,” he said, “with your new machine.  It’s really quite something.  Marvelous.”

Small moments and little conversations. They were so normal and they were getting more and more difficult. As my mother and I sat and visited, I watched, more than once, as he put his head back in his chair and closed his eyes.

When Sunday came, we stood in the kitchen. I had picked up the last of my things and loaded them into the car, ready for the drive back to Albany.

“I’m sorry to leave that job to you and your mother,” he said. “Feeling awfully damn useless I guess.”

This was a man who could manage to cram practically the entire contents of an average home into the back of a station wagon using a combination of expert spacial relations and the sheer force of will.

“You’re not useless, Dad,”  I said, “we can manage and besides the exercise will do us some good.”

He rolled his eyes, sick of it all I think, everyone being so nice, so upbeat, but he smiled.

“Drive carefully, m’dear,”  he said.  “Call us when you get there.”

“I will,” I said, wrapping my arms around him, my head resting on his shoulder. His sweatshirt had started swallow his shrinking frame and it was all I could do to hold back the tears.

“I love you, Da-lee.”

“I love you, Katherine.  Get under motion, now, before it gets any later.”

And I left.

I thought of those moments the whole ride home that Valentine’s Day and probably a million times since. I thought to myself that if I never got to see him again or to talk to him, if he slipped away before I got there, I could be okay knowing that our last words were “I love you.” I spent that four hour drive making my peace with it all, acknowledging that you couldn’t ask for more than that, really.  What more can you possibly say?

My phone continued to buzz throughout the trip–updates from my sister.  They had waited for me as long as they could but wanted to get to the hospital and so I agreed to meet them there; but first, I would have to stop at home and drop off the cat.

Walking into the house I grew up in had never seemed so strange. It was nothing but quiet. In our den, my dad’s favorite green leather chair was empty. There was a walker I had never seen before, magazines, some papers, his journal.  He had not written in it in a few days.  He had always written in it everyday. And then I looked down and saw his shoes. He had not needed them when he left. Those two empty shoes hit me like a ton of bricks.

“I have to get out of here,” I said to myself.

And so I did.

*      *     *     *

I hate hospitals and I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t.  It seems weird to me now that I didn’t know where to go that day, because now I could walk around that place with my eyes closed. I took a deep breath as I stepped off the elevator, desperately wanting to hold it together for the sake of my mother and I did what I think anyone would consider a remarkably good job.

My mother, sisters and I fell into immediate small talk in the common area of the palliative care unit.

“How was your drive?”

And then, eventually,  “did you want to go see your dad?”

“Okay.”

Those hospital floors record every footfall, the sound just echoes, making every step one to remember. I felt like a kid, taking tentative steps toward the room in the corner, my arms folded. I peered around the door and was unable to see him at first. Then, there he was.

“Heeey, Dad.”

He paused a moment and then turned his head on the pillow, “well, helloooo, Katherine.”

It was just how he always greeted me and even though his voice was thin and soft and it seemed to take a great deal of strength to do so, that’s how he greeted me that afternoon.

“How was your drive?”

“It was fine,” I said.

Jesus, we all couldn’t be more alike.

“It was fine,”  I repeated, not knowing what else to say.

“Good,” he said.

We visited awhile–all of us–sort of getting our bearings, figuring out where we were and what was happening. My dad’s condition had improved. He was feeling markedly better. A little bit of rosy had returned to his cheeks and he was resting as comfortably as I suppose he could. I felt bad for him, lying there–the guest of honor, surrounded by clamoring, chattering family–cracking uncomfortable jokes and desperately trying to hold themselves together. He never liked a lot of fuss and more than once he told us all to go home. Suddenly, in the midst of all of it, he wanted my attention.

“What’s up, dad?”

“You should get going back to Albany,” he said. “I think The Weather Channel said we’d have snow.”

“Oh no, Dad,”  I said.  “It’s okay.  Work is going to let me stay awhile. It’s all arranged.”

True to form, he sort of sighed, shook his head and waved his hands as if to say, “well, suit yourself, have it your way, but don’t come running to me when you’re stuck in a snowbank on the Thruway”

“What are you trying to get rid of me?”  I joked.

“Nooooo,” he whispered and then he smiled and closed his eyes.

“Get outta here,”  I said and I held his hand.  He gave a little squeeze.

This was the first day of what I guess some people would call a new normal and it was Valentine’s Day.  It was not about romance or anything but looking around that room you knew what people would do for love. That is to say…anything….everything.

We are forever joined in this world by the people we love and the people who love us. You don’t need a box of chocolates or a dozen roses to know that you matter–because you do matter to the people who love you and the people who have the pleasure of knowing you. Your laugh, your smile, the way you tell a story or make a sandwich; I think we’re absolutely classified by the smallest of moments. In the end, no one cares about anything else. It’s your light and your spirit that define you–the sparkle in your eye, the spring in your step, the way you say hello. Nobody can do that better than you can.

This is what I think about now when I think about Valentine’s Day–my dad and those smallest of moments.  It’s bittersweet to be sure, but it helps to have a little perspective to see through the forest of roses and mountain of foil-wrapped hearts.

After all, that Valentine’s Day…was just the beginning.

A final note:  pancreatic cancer is a diabolical disease and it’s survival rate has not improved in a staggering 40 years.  Research is really the key.  Please consider a donation to the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Research. Thanks to corporate support, your donations go straight to research.  Thank you.

Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2012-2014 Kate Welshofer
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About Kate Welshofer

Kate Welshofer is an evening news anchor who loves to tell stories. The good news is: the voices in her head have finally learned to type and/or press record.

View all posts by Kate Welshofer

22 Responses to “The Unforgettable Valentine”

  1. Joleene Says:

    You never cease to amaze me with your writing. My heart hurts right now, and that’s not a bad thing. I love your honesty and the way you convey it. I look forward to having you sign your first book for me. (winkity, wink). xoxoxo – Joleene

    Reply

  2. Barb Says:

    Dear Kate,

    Hugs to you… thank you so much for posting that. There is comfort in sharing experiences. So here goes:

    I knew when my dad passed. I was in Ithaca working on a final paper for a college class, and suddenly I had a gut wrenching feeling something was wrong. With my dad. Strange right? Do you ignore it, or do you alarm someone?

    It escalated to an almost panic attack, so I calmed myself down enough to call my mother at work and ask her a few strange questions.

    “So… where is dad?”

    Like she would know where, at that moment during his workday, he would be.

    “I called the office and the house and he didn’t answer…”

    Okay. Not unusual. So why was I calling?

    “Mom, could you leave work and go check on him please?”

    Okay now you’re really freaking her out. She thinks you’ve lost your mind.

    We hung up the phone, and I sat at my desk trying to focus on the computer screen. Waiting for the phone to ring. Waiting…for her to call and say he was out walking the dog. Or in the bathroom. Or anything. Except…

    The phone didn’t ring.

    I waited.

    I finally broke down after what was probably 10 minutes, but what felt like forever, and called the house, where she answered… sobbing.

    She was waiting for the ambulance to arrive, but he was gone.

    Just like that the world turns upside down.

    You know the rest, as you’ve gone through it yourself.
    Sharing the feeling with you gives comfort to me, and I hope, a little to you. I’m so sorry for your loss. <3

    Reply

  3. Kerry Gleason Says:

    Okay, I’m sitting in Starbucks, tears rolling down my cheeks. Your words are as beautiful as your heart, Kate. I want to find that guy Steve and step on his toes or something. I’ll be second in line for your book behind Joleene!

    Reply

  4. Kirk Says:

    If there is a heaven your Dad is smiling down to you Kate every Valentines Day. Thanks for sharing such a heart felt story.. I know what it feel like to lose love ones.

    Reply

  5. Michelle D Keyes Says:

    Kate – what a poignant, heart wrenching and honest post! I was so moved by your love and devotion to your dad and the bitter sweetness of the moments you shared. It left me with an ache in my heart that’s hard to describe. You have a strong incredible voice. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal experience.

    Reply

  6. Kate Welshofer Says:

    I have been overwhelmed by the response to this story. I just want to say thank you to all who have taken a moment to read it and to share their own stories. I feel very honored by that. So, thank you very much. Best, Kate

    Reply

  7. megslin Says:

    Great job Kate! Your Dad would definitely be proud of your rediscovered passion for writing, your blog, and the way you told this heart-wrenching (and sadly all too relatable) story:) Loves it!

    Reply

  8. Zach Says:

    Very nice, very well written and very close to home. I hope the writng of your story acted as a means of catharsis for you as reading it did for me. Thanks for sharing it.

    Reply

  9. Beth Says:

    Kate, my Kate…I went to your blog interested in hearing what you had to say about last nights Bachelor debacle and found myself sifting through your writings. I am now in awe of your talent, while trying desperately hard not to cry at work. This was such a beautiful and honest account of what you and your family went through, during what I assume was the hardest thing ever. So glad to know you Katemonter.

    Reply

    • Kate Welshofer Says:

      Oh, thank you so, so much. Love ya, Beth. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to read through my stories. I really appreciate it. :)

      Reply

  10. Eric Says:

    Wow, you have a good memory for details, especially during such hard/stressful times. My father was born in 1927 as well. He fell out of a tree at 70 years old while cutting it down (begged him not to do it, but he’d cut down many trees before and wasn’t scared of such jobs). He died two weeks later after improving in ECU (in Buffalo), getting our hopes up, but then took a u-turn after they rolled him down the hall to run some tests perhaps a bit before he was ready for being moved, who knows. Most of those 2 weeks quickly became a blur, except for those darn warning buzzers – could not stand to hear them on TV for 1 or 2 years afterwards.
    The first year was torture, and probably took a chunk out of me. I don’t even know the exact date, too painful – why anyone would want to know is beyond me.
    Now my 83 year old mother, who still lives in her home, is sliding downhill – falling often. She’s been on oxygen the past few days (she smoked moderately for many years, tried and tried to quit, and somehow finally quit 5 years ago). Hopefully low oxygen was the cause of the falling. She discovered last week that she has a walnut sized lump in her breast…

    Somewhere or another you mentioned Oliver’s chocolates – I assume you’re referring to the place in Batavia on the corner of routes 5/98/63, which is my hometown. Are you from that area? My mom took me there every so often growing up, but had not been there in many years until a few months ago. It’s still a magical little store.

    Reply

  11. Eric Says:

    Ah, I see, you’re from Perry (searched your last name and Batavia and found info on your dad online). Now it all makes sense (why you’re a good writer, but I assume he didn’t have long blonde hair). I have distant relatives in Perry and a former coworker is from there (I’ll recall her name maybe in a few days, hahaha). My dad & I drove through Perry each winter (rt 356? 256?) to get to the nearest Letchworth entrance for snowmobiling (we lived off rt 63). I grew up next door to Adam Miller – remember Adam Miller’s toy/bike store in the center of Batavia (Center Street)? Wow, it’s late and I gotta run the garage sale at 9. I hope your mom is doing OK.

    Reply

  12. Pamela Says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your Dad, Kate. I remember him and how he always had a smile and a friendly hello (your Mom too) – whether it was at church or when I’d walk by your house. It’s so wonderful and you are so incredibly lucky that you had two parents who loved eachother and their daughter’s so much. I don’t have to have known him well to know that he would be so proud of you and how you have handled the good and the not so good. They say when one door closes, another opens…and that is all that happened here. He stepped through that door and into a new state of being…of loving. Make sure that you buy yourself some chocolate melt-aways every Valentine’s Day and think of him…because I am sure he will be thinking of you…and probably chuckling over the look of sheer bliss on your face at the taste of that sweet morsel. :)

    Reply

  13. Tracy Says:

    I don’t know you. You don’t know me. But this made me cry … so beautifully written. I’m so sorry for the loss of your dad.

    We have a mutual friend in Sally Cohen. That’s how I found you.

    Reply

    • Kate Welshofer Says:

      Hi Tracy. Thank you very much for your feedback. I so appreciate you taking the time to read my story. I do apologize for the tears, though. :)

      Reply

  14. Karen Says:

    Kate….I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know….I was so very sorry to hear about the loss of your dad. I remember what a special relationship the two of you had and I am sure your heart has been breaking. You were the apple of his eye and we all know the apple never falls far from the tree…although he must be greatly missed, his zest for life will always live on through you. :) Please give my best to your mom. -Karen (Monster)

    Reply

  15. Janel Says:

    Read this when you originally posted it. Sobbing again mostly because this is hitting closer and closer to home and it’s so hard to see your parents struggle especially when they’ve spent a lifetime together. Beautifully written.

    Reply

  16. Ron Says:

    Kate,

    Thank you for sharing your emotion and insight. Like you, my final words to my dad were, “I love you”. That always brings me comfort. As an older person, 70′s, I find that thinking of my own mortality is easier now than dealing with the potential mortality of my loved ones.

    I am reminded of my Dad every day, usually by some little item that pops up unexpectedly. These memories are happy, funny, loving, and profoundly important.

    This Valentine’s Day, looking at the falling snow produced a mental picture of my Dad trudging through a deep snow to bring a box of chocolates to his new girlfriend. She would be my Mother. I’ve heard this story many times from my parents and I can see it as if I had been there.

    They say there is no greater love than a parent for a child. I have experienced that and it is true. But, the love and appreciation of great parents is just as strong.

    Your story is so moving. It rekindles treasured family memories.
    Thanks for posting it.

    Reply

    • Kate Welshofer Says:

      I thank you so much for reading and commenting. It is good to know the story brings some comfort to others.

      Reply

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