Raise the Flag and Celebrate

Dad.UniformDad’s birthday is June 14, 1916.

My father* was born in the same year President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day**.

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress had voted and declared the “stars and stripes” as the official flag of the emerging nation. Wilson’s gesture honored that bold, revolutionary action.

Dad enjoyed raising the flag on his birthday. I suspect he was 95% honoring the country he’d served in the Army Air Corps during World War II . . . and 5% saluting George Patten! He died in 2012, with an American flag raised every year that he blew out a cake’s candles.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 is Flag Day’s—and my father’s—100th birthday.

Born during Wilson’s presidency, Dad was thirteen when the stock market crashed in 1929. Though his birth was in rural Utah, he spent his youth in the Los Angeles area. My father’s father was a building contractor and led a nomadic life. Most of the moves were in southern California, so Dad was never far from the original Hollywoodland sign (erected in 1923).

HollywoodlandLike so many others in the Great Depression, Dad cobbled together various jobs. He delivered papers. He recycled metal for pennies. He sold used cars. All the while he helped with his father’s contracting business until a day in 1940 when he joined the Air Corps.

Not long after Pearl Harbor, one of his assignments took him to Castle Air Field in Merced, in the middle of California. As with most soldiers during those scary days, he headed over to a church on Sundays . . . and thus met his future wife, and the mother of his three future children. George and Fran Patten were married in July of 1942. Dad never went overseas during the war, but served at numerous stateside bases until leaving the military in 1946.

He was thirty years old.

Mom and Dad had seen enough of the United States to like or dislike scores of spots on the map. They eventually settled in one of their favorites: Sacramento, California. As with millions of other young husbands following World War II, Dad started his life over.

01salesman-playbill-jumboHe sold insurance. Arthur Miller’s “The Death of a Salesman” debuted on Broadway in 1949 with Lee J. Cobb playing the deeply troubled Willy Loman. My father would become the energetic, optimistic opposite of the fictional Loman. Dad carved out a modest, rewarding life as a guy who sold people something they didn’t want to think about. I mean, who really wants to buy life insurance? It’s a reminder that bad things can and will happen. Dad succeeded as a salesman.

But first, he was a husband and father. And he eventually was proud to become a grandfather.

Dad was near his 36th birthday when I was born, the middle child. Though I’m sure he worked late into an evening or logged hours over a weekend, my childhood was anchored by his presence at home. My Dad was always there. Or so it seemed. I could mention a host of things we did together, but one activity stands out. We played baseball in the backyard. We tossed the ball back-and-forth a million times. A million times he swung a bat, smacking a ball into the air or onto the ground for me to chase and catch. I never realized the sacrifice he made to be home, to be available, to be a Dad. He could’ve worked more hours and made more money . . . but he choose to be home with his kids.

My father was not perfect, and it would be easy to list his faults. But a century after his birth, I don’t want to dwell on the trivial and transitory. He was my father and loved me. He loved my sisters. While Dad rarely said, “I love you,” the depth and breadth of his love for his children knew no boundaries. I’m not imagining that. I know that.

Then came dementia.

Mom & Dad.WeddingSometime in his eighties, my father succumbed to the most devious of illnesses. Since he religiously avoided doctors, he never had a formal diagnosis. Like winter’s darkness shortening the days, his dementia crept up on him. Dad, who in retirement enjoyed telling tales of meeting Hollywood stars or comparing the cars he’d owned since the 1930s, became a paranoid, delusional human wreck.

But he was also the father I loved. And the husband his wife treasured.

In his ninth decade, we had to put him in a memory care facility. Dad was of the “greatest generation.” Dad was occasionally mistaken for General George Patton’s son (our name is spelled with an “e” . . . but who cares about vowels when a George in a uniform arrives). Dad, successful in business, sacrificed much to sure his family always had a home. But my father spent his final days in a dreary room that had to be secured so he wouldn’t wander away.

I remember helping Mom calculate how long their money would last. Dad had dementia, but his heart and lungs were like those of a younger man. In the spreadsheet I prepared when he was 94, I projected the expenses for him, for them, to this year.

  1. When he would turn 100.

Dad and BeardIn 2011 a hospice admissions nurse visited the memory care facility to determine if Dad was “hospice appropriate.” But his heart was steady. His lungs were strong. And, though it was usually yelling, Dad sure could express more than six words. Therefore, his dementia didn’t qualify him for care. The nurse—I think she was new to her job—said “NO” to hospice care.

A few days later, another hospice and another nurse arrived. She examined Dad and said, “YES.”

If you’ve read this far, remember this: all hospices follow the same guidelines, but each hospice may have different shades of gray to determine eligibility. If you want to seek another opinion . . . please, seek it!

Dad died in that crummy, cramped room barely four months after a second hospice deemed him “appropriate.”

With tears in my eyes as I write these words, I tell you this: my father was a great man. Yep, he had flaws. But he was the most loving of husbands, and the most loving of fathers, and for the better part of a century, he lived a quiet life of service, integrity, and compassion.

If you’ve read this far, remember this: tell the story about your loved ones.

This is why I write about hospice. I long for people to have a good enough “ending” in their final days. I long for everyone to have a chance to bid farewell to a loved one, to journey with a beloved in the worst of times that can also be the best of times. I will never forget going with Mom to visit Dad when he was at his absolute worst. Dementia made him mean. Mom was crushed. He could no longer laugh or smile or remember his bride’s name.

But every day, she visited. And sometimes I’d go with her, and we would bring him clean clothes and candy and fruit and comb his sparse hair and tell him over and over how much we loved him. It was the worst time. It was a precious time.

Mom & Dad.1983Dad was the kid who collected scrap metal and recycled it for pennies. Dad volunteered to serve his country and in a tiny, tiny way he—along with others of his generation—saved the world. Dad marched into a church and fell in love. Dad had three children that he adored beyond words.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Please, tell the story of your loved ones. Tell the whole truth. Tell the worst. Tell the best.

Raise the flag of their lives.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)


*Apologies for this reflection on my Dad. It fits with my very general sense of what is important to share on this website . . . but it’s a tad self-indulgent. Forgive me . . .

**Wilson’s proclamation marked the official beginnings, but Flag Day wasn’t the “law” until President Truman put his signature on a bill in 1949.

At the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, California . . . where Dad and Mom are buried.

At the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, California . . . where Dad and Mom are buried.

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