Andrea Macko, Dishing It Out
This Thursday, Aug. 9, marks the first anniversary of my Dad’s passing. The death of a parent is never easy, especially when degenerative disease complicates the relationship. This is a shortened version of the eulogy I gave after his funeral.
During the past few days, while Dad’s health has declined in hospital, his three children have taken turns holding his hands. At first, we did so to keep him from removing his uncomfortable IV — but as he weakened, we did so to comfort ourselves. Despite losing so much weight since our childhood, his hands were still as thick, and seemingly strong, as when we were kids.
Dad’s heart and soul were in his hands. Whether he was coming home from a day planting or plowing, they’d be covered in grease and grime — and inevitably, Mom would “holler” at him to go wash up before supper. He was an occasionally gifted mechanic when it came to farm machinery; he could bring the ailing engine of tractor back to life with his nimble fingers. Other times, those fingers would wrap around a hammer or wrench to give it a few whacks in frustration.
I remember my Dad’s hands leveling the wheat seed in the planter, or opening a soy pod to see if the beans within were ready for harvest. I also remember his hands scratching the head of one of many beloved farm dogs as he relaxed under the big willow tree in our yard after a day’s work, or cupping a handful of peanuts (his favourite snack) from a jar one of us kids usually bought him for Christmas.
In fact, it was Dad’s hands that foretold of the Parkinson’s disease that would eventually overwhelm his life. Mom noticed how he walked around the yard of the family farm near Dresden, one arm bent slightly, and hand clenched.
When Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he didn’t handle it well; his stiffened or shaking hands diminished his ability to do his life’s work. It was a heavy blow to the core of his existence, and he never emotionally recovered from it. You see, aside from spending his first year in the former Czechoslovakia (the Mackos emigrated to Canada in October 1938, as Nazi forces invaded), and six weeks at a mechanic school in Toronto, Felix lived his life on the land — a one-kilometre stretch of good clay on Highway 21, to be exact.
As a child, Dad often missed school because he was needed to help on the farm. Even though he didn’t graduate Grade 8, Dad could be counted on to give us kids a hand with high school calculus and algebra problems, often solving those “if there’s a train leaving from one station at X time, and one leaving another station at Y time” questions in his head (not much help to us, in reality!).
Dad was a hard worker who went to bed early — and, as my brother recalls, never complained about a long day’s work, even if it ended in a combine fire or a flat tire on a V-box of corn on the way to the elevator.
Dad always had high expectations of his kids, whether it was dropping us off at a farm with the expectation of hoeing soybeans for four hours on a steamy July day, or to graduate university and be successful in life. Personally, he could be quite intimidating. Dad typified the “strong, silent type” who had a knack for scaring off potential suitors for his daughters — including my own husband, initially. Of course, it didn’t help that, when one of our friends called to ask if Paula, Carl or I was there, the answer was “Yes”… EVENTUALLY followed by “do you want to talk to them?”
Dad was also very traditional in his beliefs; even though all of us had to help pick up rocks in the fields, only my sister and I were expected to help Mom in the kitchen, while our brother lounged on the couch, much to our chagrin. This traditional view also resulted in a few heated discussions with Mom, the big-city working girl who he married in 1970.
Felix and Emily first met in the late 1950s at a wedding in Chatham, but, both being on the cusp of adulthood, no romance materialized. But a visit by her family to his parents’ farm in 1968 proved otherwise. Mom says that she and her parents were late — and that Dad was impatiently waiting (as usual) outside to go out dancing for the night. As she drove up the driveway, Mom took one look at Felix and the rest was history. They married in Montreal in the dead of winter because a spring wedding would, of course, interfere with the planting season.
Mom and Dad moved to St. Marys in 2008 so that they could be closer to us children and medical care, and to be away from all the machinery Dad believed he could safely operate. I think we also secretly hoped that, by being in an unfamiliar place, Dad’s dementia wouldn’t progress — but we were wrong. He still tried to “go feed the pigs” (in the middle of the night), or to combine wheat (in the dead of winter), scaring their new neighbours half to death.
In 2010, Mom made the difficult decision to turn over Dad’s care to the wonderful staff at Wildwood Care Centre, after years of managing his medications and many appointments with military precision. But no one could keep Dad from himself, in the end. One night, he unfastened the seatbelt on his wheelchair, so he could go for a walk — but instead, he fell, breaking his hip. While he sailed through the operation, the recovery proved difficult. Even on the best of days, Dad wasn’t a good walker — and a body weakened by Parkinson’s meant that physiotherapy would be a painful, if impossible, challenge.
Dad’s last few days were a bittersweet blessing in some ways. It was a relief to finally see him calm and comfortable. Friends and family visited, and it was wonderful to see Dad’s face light up at the voices of loved ones once again. Suddenly, after so many years, Dad’s Parkinson’s didn’t define his existence. We didn’t have to worry about medication, falls, or dementia — we could just be together.
And, in looking through all the photos, and sharing memories of Dad during the last week, I recognize that Dad’s Parkinson’s does not define his life — even though our family has spent the past decade so focused on his disease.
I know that Dad’s death has brought him a new life. He’s looking down on us from heaven — although we’re sure that for Dad, heaven is the “home place,” as he liked to call it, with the weeping willows and blue drive sheds. And if God is as kind as we believe Him to be, there’s also 50 acres of weed-free soybeans waiting for him.
Love you, Dad, and miss you.