Daddy was being so helpful posing for this picture. I was learning to use the camera and new lens for a class I was taking, seeking to better my photography skills for my job. I was attempting to take my favorite kind of picture, where the lights in the background turn into "bokeh"--out of focus circles--while Daddy remained in good focus. Just look at that sweet face.

My Daddy

My dad, Bill Engstrom, was a wild soul! He was a hard-working fella, public relations officer at a local bank. On the side, he had “Bill Engstrom’s Dixieland Dance Band” and a barbershop quartet called “The Bank Notes” that did radio advertisements for his bank. Daddy also directed the church choir at our local St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Rawlins. My two sisters Lorie and Connie and I enjoyed the life with our sweet mom and energizer-bunny-of-a-dad.

But when Daddy’s mom died of a colon cancer that had metastasized to her brain when I was 5 years old, Dad didn’t handle it well. He started drinking. He drank hard and played hard. He still had the Dixieland Dance band, added golfing to his agenda, and somehow also kept his banker job despite his drinking.

Dementia from head injury

Dad developed dementia. The dementia might have come because of all the drinking, but mainly because of the many falls he had when he had been drinking. He hit his head many times and ended up in the Emergency Room, especially after our mother had died of colon cancer. Time and time again, my sisters found dad having fallen on the driveway or in the house.

So, we brought him to Spring Wind Assisted Living in my town of Laramie, Wyoming. We wouldn’t have been able to take him there if he were actively drinking–but get this: the dementia had made him FORGET he was a drinker!!!!! Hallelujah!

Dementia and difficulty with words

Dementia can present differently with different folks. With Dad, he lost his ability to find words with which to communicate, so he became quiet and enjoyed watching the life around him. That was unusual, since Dad had always been the life of the party, the one with a joke for every occasion.

So he spoke very little, and we daughters started talking more. It was rather therapeutic! But we were all amazed after Dad’s funeral, hearing what the nurses and CNAs said about Dad. They knew him so well and loved him so much in spite of his not communicating verbally. He had gestures that were engaging to the staff. He was able to communicate his sweet personality, sense of humor, and gentlemanly self just by gestures, nods, winks, and a few words.

C02 Crazies

Dad also had severe COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) as a result of his younger smoking years. In COPD, there is a frequent build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in one’s lungs. Whenever that built up in Dad, the words that dementia had stolen would miraculously reappear! We were able to get more insight into the man our mother loved and married through those times.

Case in point: When CO2 built up in Dad’s lungs, a nurse told us that it can “leak off to the brain and make him a little crazy.” Crazy for dad was suddenly wondering why he was there and not at home in Rawlins. So, he would start packing up his room, thinking he could put everything in his truck, which he thought was in the parking lot. He would go into a packing frenzy, even though he didn’t have suitcases or boxes. He’d try to stuff jars of Cetaphil cream and random puzzle pieces into his trumpet case; and in puzzle boxes he’d crowd his electric razor. He’d unplug all the wires to the TV units and stuff them in bathroom drawers. He’d take all his clothes out of the closet and put them on the bed. [And he commented on those clothes: “Look at all those clothes I have!” he said with a sense of unbelief. He had grown up in the Great Depression with just a pair of pants to his name. So a closetful was incomprehensible to him in his present state.]

So, once the nurses saw what was going on, they would give him something to calm him down. He would relax a bit, they’d dress him in his pajamas, take his teeth out for the night, and pull the covers up to his neck while he lay back in bed. But his mind was still active, and he continued talking. I could just see his head, since the blankets were covering him. He was a talking head without teeth and so cute. This certain memorable evening he said, “I’m so glad to see my trumpet here! I think I’ll take it out and practice tonight.” (Oh boy, did the nurses’ eyes bulge out when they heard that! Can you imagine the confusion amongst the other memory-care residents if they heard the trumpet playing Reveille in the middle of the night?!!) Then Dad said, “I think I’ll go find Danny [he was the trombonist in Dad’s ‘Bill Engstrom’s Dixieland Band’ for years]—I think he’ll play with me. Then we can go find a gig, and I can pay for this room!”

So through comments like that, we saw his strong sense of responsibility. I told him at that time, “Don’t worry about the money, Dad. Connie and Lorie are taking good care of your money and using it to pay for this room. You don’t have to worry about that.” But what I said made no difference. He wanted to go make money to fund his stay at Spring Wind.

Bee-U-Ti-Ful TV!!

Also during such a time, when he had been anxious and we were trying to distract him to calm him down, I found the TV cables that he had removed and hid in the bathroom drawers. I reconnected the TV and DVD player and played an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical, “Strike up the Band!” It must have been colorized. When I turned on the set to start the movie, Dad said, “That is the most bee-u-ti-ful TV I have ever seen!” He was transfixed. His mind was back in the time before color TV came along. He just knew black and white TV in his present state, so the colors blew him away. He didn’t even turn to say goodbye to me that evening, his eyes fixated on that amazing instrument. He truly had a childlike appreciation of beauty!

Live in the Moment

I remember taking dad to a wonderful concert at the University of Wyoming’s concert hall to see a military brass quintet perform. That quintet was FABULOUS! The performers briskly walked out onto the stage–and continuing to stand up–skillfully and energetically played dad’s favorite marches and music. I remember when they finished the first piece, Dad and I looked at each other, both of us exclaiming, “WOW!!!!” We were entranced, loving the entire concert. It was over too soon!!!

Afterward, I took dad to my car and proceeded to drive back to Spring Wind. I said, “I am SO happy that you and I got to hear such an incredible concert!” Dad replied, “What?” He didn’t remember ANYTHING about the concert we had just witnessed. My heart sank. So I had to go back to the place in my mind where Dad was LOVING the concert. I couldn’t bring it back alive to him now. It was a big lesson to learn. LIVE IN THE MOMENT.

Trips to the ER

Because Daddy had such problems with his lungs/COPD and all, we ended up at the Emergency Room a number of times throughout his 9-year stint in assisted living. Two different occasions stick in my mind, due to Dad’s mind and his sweet sense of concern.

One time, doctors actually admitted him to the hospital and gave him his own room. He was there for a few days. On the day I was to take him back to assisted living, I announced to Dad that I had come to take him home. He replied that he couldn’t go with me. Why?? All the time he had been laying in that bed, he was looking up at the ceiling. He found a ceiling panel that needed painting. So he said, “I have to stay and paint the ceiling.” He was always so responsibility-driven!! But I had learned how to talk with this sweet fella. So I said, “Have you seen all the young men in the blue pants and tops around here?” [They were the nurses, CNAs, etc.] Dad shook his head yes. So I followed that with: “Those young men are the painters. They are waiting for you to leave so that they can get up and paint that ceiling.” Dad looked so relieved, and said, “Oh, thank God. I was not looking forward to doing that job!”

The second time we were in the emergency room, the doctor came in and asked Dad what he thought was wrong with him. Daddy told the ER doc he was sure he had leprosy! They still ran some tests in spite of Dad’s self-diagnosis, and we had a very long spell as we awaited results. It was quite late at night, and we were both exhausted. Dad didn’t sleep though. He kept staring ahead, and finally spoke: “Do you see that box of blue gloves across the room?” He had been staring at them for hours. Then he added, “Go take those gloves out to the nursing station. That’s why they haven’t been in here to take care of me. They are looking for those gloves!” So I dutifully took the gloves out to the nurses. What smiles his discovery put on those tired nursing faces! Hahah! When he finally was dismissed from the ER, my sister and I dressed him to leave, finding in his clenched fist a Life-Saver candy. As if that is what really saved him that day, it struck us funny. As the EMTs came in for the purpose of carting Daddy back to assisted living, they positioned him on the rolling gurney, headed out of the room, and the whole ER staff was waiting in the hallway to say good-bye, all with huge smiles. Dad had been an entertaining customer!

Dad’s Death

Dad’s death came a week after he had a bad fall. But the week BEFORE the fall, he seemed to know that he would be “going home” soon. That week he had one of his CO2 episodes, packing up his room, etc. However, this episode was different. Once the nurses had calmed him down with some medicine, he was in a reflective mode while lying in bed and his words returned to him: “You know, this is a nice place. I am sort of sorry to be leaving here. They are good to me here.” He had never said anything like that before.

Dad also called me “Claire” for the first time since he came to assisting living 9 years previous. He hadn’t called me by ANY name for those 9 years. At times he seemed to think I was Mom. Most of the time, he was probably just being courteous to this stranger who came and kept him company. But this day I almost fell out of my chair when he said, “Thank you, Claire, for coming to visit me.”

Then, as he did in earlier episodes, he was wondering what we were going to do with all the pictures we had on his bookshelves. He always worried about how he would pack them and take them with him. I always responded that Connie, Lorie, and I would pack them in boxes for him, that he need not worry about them. But this time was different. He said, “What about those pictures? Would you like to take some of them? Which ones do you want?” I have heard that when people know their time is near, they start wanting to give possessions away. I remember thinking that at the time, wondering what was in store.

The Big Fall

So Dad tripped over his oxygen tubing. We were amazed that he hadn’t ever tripped over it before in the NINE years we had him at the facility. He always ran around like a man with purpose, pushing his walker way too fast with oxygen attached and tubing precariously in the way. Staff and family were always trying to rescue him from the inevitable. But one morning we weren’t successful. He had tripped over his tubing, fallen and hit his head on the hard bathroom floor. The nurses called to have me transport him to Urgent Care. Staff had done the best they could with him, staunching the bleeding, bandaging him temporarily. They had placed him in a wheelchair with his cowboy hat atop his head (he wouldn’t go ANYWHERE without that cowboy hat! A true Wyomingite!!) When I arrived and hurried down the hallway, Dad saw me and raised his hand to wave.

Urgent Care to Hospice House

Urgent Care couldn’t help Dad. The cut on Dad’s head was too deep and too close to his eye. If we took him to the Emergency Room, they would need to address all his other physical problems, which were not addressable any longer, and thus he was now on Hospice Care. Comfort care was needed, so a nurse friend who was accompanying me talked about taking him to Hospice House. What a blessing that facility was to my Dad and to us as a family! They kept Daddy comfortable and resting.

One of my sisters was able to come quickly to be with us. As she came up to Dad’s bed, she leaned over and said, “Hi, Dad! This is Lorie, your oldest daughter!” And Dad at first said, “Oh, Hi — you are sure cute!” Then he paused and said, “No… you’re beautiful.”

Dad’s Exit

The last day, we were playing music for Dad, standing by his bed while he rested. Lorie asked me to find a song on my phone that was sung
a capella by a group of young men: “O Holy Night” – by Face Vocal Band. Dad had loved that song. Our mother used to sing it as a solo every Christmas Eve in our church when we were growing up. Lorie and I were really touched by this young men’s version. Toward the end of the song, the words are, “Oh night di-VINE…” with the voices going up to a high note. In this version of the song, ALL the young men went up to that high note and seemed to hold it forever. Then all the voices broke off except one, a voice that gained in intensity, holding that note longer still. All the while Lorie and I were watching Dad’s face.

We had been monitoring Dad’s breathing that morning, since he was having bouts of apnea, where we could count how many seconds before the next breath. But after that musical high note, he never took another breath. Lorie and I were counting silently. Finally I said out loud, “He went out on the high note!” When it struck us as to what I said, both our faces erupted in smiles.

Dad would have loved that exit. First of all, he was an entertainer most all of his life. But secondly, he was the first to try to help grieving folks through mourning. When we were growing up in Rawlins, if someone our family knew died, Dad and Mom would cook/bake their specialties, load them and us three daughters into the car, drive us to the grieving family’s home, and show up at the door with everything but the dog. Then we would sit down, and Dad would start telling rather funny stories about the person who had died. I remember being horrified at first! Then I noticed everyone would start laughing, and the heavy atmosphere of grief would lift. Dad had a great gift. How he would love knowing he left his daughters with a smile… and a great story to tell others!

1 thought on “My Daddy”

  1. I’m so glad you’re recording all of these stories and moments for the whole family. Beautiful writing!!

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