Frank died on the day before Christmas, 2011. He outlived his wife, Marie by about 8 years. He spent the last years of their marriage at her side, watching helplessly as Alzheimer's disease slowly stole her away from him. 2003 was the roughest year for Frank and everyone who knew him. His son-in-law, Mike, died in March, Marie died in May and his son, Jack, died in July. Every time he turned around, death punched him in the neck.
Frank was deeply depressed, but he was never alone. He was surrounded by a big family and a wide circle of friends who helped him travel down some hard, hard roads.
He was in agony but he never inflicted his own pain on others.
When Marie was in the nursing home, he was a fixture there, spending each morning caring for her and feeding her lunch. Given his druthers, he would have stayed all day. His devotion to her was clear to anyone who walked into that little room. He often received visitors there, usually one of his kids, perhaps a few of his grandchildren. Friends from the Alzheimer's support group would drop in regularly, as well as a church deacon who brought Communion to the residents.
The Deacon is a local television personality. Outside the circle of people to whom he ministers, his religious vocation is not well known. He doesn't make a big deal of it. Bring the communion, say a prayer, chat a bit and be on his way. When the Deacon met Frank, he lingered a little longer than usual. He marveled at a man who could make you feel as though you'd known him all your life. Frank made you laugh while he held Marie's hand and she was silently fading away and away and away.
He was in agony but he never inflicted his own pain on others
The staff was always glad to see Frank. By tending to Marie, he was lightening their workload and that was not unappreciated. He made sure the bureau drawer just inside her doorway was always filled with chocolates and told the nurses & CNAs to help themselves, 24-7. He told them some good, clean jokes and never flirted.
The staffers were almost exclusively female. A nursing assistant's job is physically demanding and emotionally draining. For every patient who gets regular visitors, there's another who is all but abandoned to the care of strangers. A woman who works there cannot avoid wondering how that coin-flip will land when she herself grows old. A steady, working man who lived by his marriage vows for over 50 years, "in sickness and in health" quickly earned these ladies affection and respect. One of the more outspoken ladies told Frank that he was a fine husband and asked if he had any sons.
"Five" he replied.
With hope in her voice, she asked if any of them were single.
"They're all married."
She voiced her regret that all the good ones are always snapped up and half-joked that if any of his boys turned up single, he should let her know.
He was with the love of his life every morning, but after Marie had eaten her lunch, Frank was gone. At the insistence of the support group, he was barred from the home in the afternoon and evening. He hated to go, but he knew she'd be gone someday and he had to learn to live without her. He drew comfort from knowing that staff passing by her room would stop for a piece of candy and in so doing, look in on Marie. Occasionally, in the evening, he would drop in and kiss her as she lay sleeping. The drive home took about ten minutes. How much heartache can you pack into ten minutes? Frank knew.
I did my best to visit them at least once a month. Although he showed a cheerful face to others, he occasionally let his guard down with me. He had striking blue eyes, but they seemed to fade when he exhaled a breath of sadness and pain that might have extinguished the stars. A dark bit of wit, a tight-lipped smirk might slip out and disappear as quickly as it had come. He turned back to her and gently raised a paper cup to her lips as the color came back to his eyes.
Out in the world without her, he had his daily breakfast with a group of retired gentlemen. Marc, John, Jon and Larry made a round of three diners. They joked, jibed, argued and solved the world's problems over coffee and eggs in time for Frank to be at the nursing home by eight. He napped at home in the afternoon but was up in time to pray the rosary with his friends at church. Sometimes he ate supper with one of his daughters, sometimes he ate alone or would go to meet his friend Lawrence for some pork hocks and sauerkraut up in Fredonia.
Frank was the youngest of 13 children. His parents were Bavarian immigrants who landed in Glidden, Wisconsin around 1907. They struggled (and failed) to turn 100 acres of clear-cut pine forest into a farm. After selling out, they moved to Chicago where Frank's father took a job driving a beer wagon. Frank was born in 1923. Unlike his older siblings, this blessed event took place in a hospital. Two of his sisters remained in Glidden, married to local men. The rest of his family was scattered between Milwaukee and Chicago with outposts in Ohio, Colorado and Oregon, not to mention some aunts, uncles and cousins back in Zwolfhauser, Germany.
He spoke on the phone once a week with Ray, his last surviving brother. After Ray passed away, Frank was the last of his generation. By default, he became a sort of family patriarch. Many of Frank's nieces and nephews were only a few years younger. He visited with them in Glidden, but only for a weekend. He had to get back to Marie.
He sometimes took a bus ride with his nephew up to Wisconsin Dells to play the slots at the casino. On Saturdays, he had breakfast with his daughter-in-law and his grandsons, Little Jack and Sam. His grandson Kevin mowed his lawn and shoveled the snow off his sidewalk. His daughter Carolyn washed his clothes and made sure he had something to eat in the house.
When Marie died, they had been married for 57 years. He carried on "alone" for another eight years. No matter how deeply he missed her, no matter how sad he felt inside, he never inflicted his pain on others.
I had the honor of singing at his funeral. A close family friend named Roon gave the eulogy. Roon is no stranger to grief and loss. He was only 3 when his mother died, 14 when his father passed away. Roon told the crowded church that when he heard the words "Father, Husband and Worker", he thought of Frank. At the reception afterward, several people thanked me for the song. One of them was a woman from the rosary group. She tearfully told me what a pillar Frank had been to them. The Deacon and I talked a bit about the mornings with Marie at the nursing home. He said he had felt the presence of Christ in that little room.
I smiled and nodded but I only remembered the sadness. I miss him deeply and wish I could have him back, if only for an hour.
My Pop was a devout Catholic. I'm a churchgoing, choir-singing Lutheran atheist. He had faith in abundance and I have none at all. When he died, I decided look for the face of Christ in everyone I met. I see that face of pain and peace often and sometimes I see Dad grinning back at me.
There's a picture-perfect Jesus made of gilded plaster. He eats beeswax and incense. Peace be unto him and farewell. I believe in the Christ I can see. I see the pain that pours out of blue eyes and green eyes and brown. I see the boxes and bags lined up at the food pantry. I see ladies walking up to the visitor's entrance at the prison. I see people walking picket lines out in the wind and the rain. They're having a Rolling Jubilee. They're standing out on an overpass with lights in the darkness. They're being arrested for singing in the State Capitol. They are kind to small animals.
Their hearts are not pure. Their courage falters and at times they give in to despair. Some of their treasures are not stored up in heaven. They sin and swear and forget to feed the dog. They are sad, sorry bastards and I am learning to love them with all my heart.
Christ Has No Body
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks out with
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)