Another Member of the “Greatest Generation” Meets His Reward for a Life Well-Lived

A SOLDIER, PATRIOT AND FATHER WHO FOUGHT THE GOOD FIGHT

by Sharon Rondeau

The U.S. supported China in its war against Japan, one of the Axis countries during World War II

(Jul. 25, 2011) — My dad passed away at 1:12 p.m. on July 25, 2011 at age 87.  He is survived by his wife, four children, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild, an older brother plus his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Dad was a product of The Greatest Generation.  He was the youngest of three boys, the oldest of whom passed away two years ago at age 92, also from complications of dementia and pneumonia.

Dad signed up for the draft in 1942 when he was 18.  I remember his saying that he knew he would be called to register anyway, so he volunteered.  After basic training, he served in the China/Burma/India Theater.  Later in life, he had a hat with the insignia of the CBI mission which he frequently wore.  He attended the annual CBI luncheon in his area until about 2005.

He had a lot of hats, a whole hat rack full, and you never knew which one he’d be wearing when you saw him next.

Similar to this brave man, Dad never spoke about his experiences during the war. I know that he was a radio operator in the Army Air Corps, but he never said much more than that. I believe he mentioned “the hump” a couple of times and that he had been in China and India, but very little else.  Many years later, before dementia took away his mind, he would expound a bit more on his recollections of that time when asked.

I was told that he returned from the war very thin, the thinnest he ever was in his life.  Some years ago, one of my siblings made sure that his name and that of my mother were inscribed on the World War II Memorial.

After the war, Dad went to college on the GI Bill and decided to become a music teacher.  I do not know much about his decision to pursue music, as his parents did not have money for lessons of any kind as he was growing up, as far as I know.  He had a nice tenor voice, which I believe contributed to his chosen path.  In the music education curriculum, he had to learn all of the instruments as they were categorized:  strings, percussion, woodwinds, and brass.  He studied piano and music theory.  When he had to take extra credits following his Master’s Degree, I remember his conjugating Italian verbs every evening in his corner of the living room when he did not have class in preparation for the next Italian exam.  Some of the words he already knew from being a musician, as Italian is the language of music.

My dad from his wedding photo, August 31, 1947, age 23

My parents wed in 1947 and were married 63 years.  It would have been 64 years on August 31, 2011.  On their 50th wedding anniversary, we all went to a local Chinese restaurant. To try to treat my parents, one of my siblings and I developed a scheme whereby we would pay for it without Dad knowing.  We knew that if he figured it out, he would never let it stand.  That was just the way he was; he never wanted anyone else to pay for something which involved him; he always felt responsible.  However, he caught us in the act at the cash register, hurried over, and said, “Not on your life!” and we couldn’t argue.  We had a wonderful time that afternoon, and it was such a blessing with both of my parents still in good health surrounded by their entire family, grandchildren included.

At our childhood birthday parties, Dad would always do a trick which no one else’s dad knew how to do:  he would swallow fire!  He would light a tissue with a match, watch it flare up, tip his head way back, and then put it in his mouth, extinguishing the fire and emerging unscathed.  He would then smile and say, “I learned that in the service.”  Our friends were always in awe of Dad for that and would request a repeat performance the next year.

Every Memorial Day when he would march with his high school band, he would wear a suit with all of his World War II medals, and I remember watching him go by and being so proud.  It was especially thrilling when he would wave to us.  He would rehearse with the band diligently as soon as the weather permitted so that they would march in unison like a professional organization. Every member’s uniform had to be complete, straight and pristine.  If you couldn’t learn to march and wear the uniform correctly, you didn’t take part in the parade.

When my mother had a pacemaker put in about 12 years ago, we were all in the waiting room at the hospital following the procedure, awaiting word on the outcome.  When we were told that she had come through fine, Dad got teary-eyed and jumped out of his chair.  Many years before, when she was 52, Mom had her first heart attack, and I remember that Dad was in shock but kept strong through it all.  He went to work, kept the house going, visited Mom at the hospital where she stayed for a month, and took care of all of us, including the youngest, who was eight at the time.  We all learned to get things done around the house while wondering if Mom was going to pull through.  That was in 1975 and our first experience with the tenuousness and value of human life.

There wasn’t one thing my dad wouldn’t do for my mother or us if he thought we would benefit from it.

My parents’ youngest child was born a bit unexpectedly when they were 44.  Almost from the beginning, she had a lot of colic, and Dad would stay up half the night walking her around while holding her on one arm with a 33 1/3 record of the solo violin Partitas and Chaconnes of J.S. Bach playing in the background.  The baby would cry and cry until she finally fell asleep to the artistry of Jascha Heifetz. Dad would get a few hours of sleep and then get up early to go and teach.

As I type this, I am hearing the wonderful sounds of Heifetz performing those timeless Bach pieces for the first time in 44 years.

My mother never learned to drive, so Dad did all the grocery shopping, banking and errands.  He drove us to music lessons and corrected papers while he waited.  I never heard him say that he was tired, and he never complained.

In 1962, Dad’s band was chosen to attend the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, CA, and they flew across the country in propeller planes.  I was too young to remember, but I was told that Dad was enamored with southern California and wanted to move there.  He began looking for work opportunities, but they never materialized.  He always liked the warm weather.

My parents lost their first child at the age of nine.  She had been born with a hole in her heart.  During the  late 1950s, heart surgery was a brand-new science, and not many hospitals performed it.  Ironically, while the surgery ended up successful, she lapsed into a coma.  I was three months old at the time, but I believe my parents had to make a decision to stop life support.  The child who died and I have the same birthday, and I have always wondered what the odds of that happening were.  They always kept a photo of her when she was about five years old on a bookshelf in the living room, but they almost never mentioned her or what they had been through.

Dad had a vast library of classical music records, some of which I now have.  It seems to me that those old long-playing records last longer than any eight-track, cassette, or CD ever did.  Later, Dad collected a lot of CDs of classical music which would always be playing when we would visit.  His favorite opera singer was Jussi Bjorling.

Dad had been fascinated with the harp because it was the only instrument he never had to learn in college.  It was not required in a music education curriculum anywhere at the time, although it has since been incorporated into such, pioneered by the gifted harpist and my last teacher, Eileen Malone.  Of the four of us, Dad chose me for the instrument because I had learned piano under his instruction and then gravitated to guitar and taught myself.  He accurately saw the relationship between guitar and harp, and I began lessons at the age of eight.

Dad on Christmas, early 1990s

At Christmastime, Dad would always give my mother lots of lovely things which she would put away so as not to wear them out.  The Great Depression was still very much a part of them, so new clothes were saved for special occasions. Many of them have never been worn.  He was generous to all of us year after year. To be the funny guy he was, he would stick one of the bows from an unwrapped present on his forehead and make the kids laugh.  When it would fall off, he would stick it on again and again.  He would always take a lot of pictures.  He would wear red, green and white plaid pants and dress in lots of layers.

Although not an athlete, Dad loved watching football and basketball on TV when he wasn’t listening to music.

Every year at the high school, Dad would conduct a formal band concert, and at the end, he would invariably have them play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa, with all of the piccolos coming out to the front of the stage to play their solo.  Another very popular march was the “Washington Post March,” also by Sousa.  There was no harp part in that, but on other occasions I actually played under Dad’s baton in such pieces as “Overture to ‘Candide‘” by Leonard Bernstein, arranged for band with harp, as I attended the same high school where he taught.

Another difficult piece which he had his band learn and perform was the “Lincolnshire Posy” of Percy Grainger, played by the best bands and wind ensembles in the country.  For a high school band, they were truly outstanding.

He was a very good conductor and had learned his conducting patterns well in college.

Diagram of Dad’s practice conducting patterns in the back of a book which he gave to me entitled “Assembly Songs and Choruses,” copyright 1929.  One of the songs in the book is on my CD.

During the 1970s, standards in the public schools had relaxed to the point where foul language was becoming the norm among the students.  Whenever my dad would overhear someone mouthing obscenities in the hallways, he would say, “Hey, watch your language.”  I would sometimes see the disrespectful whispers and laughing of the students behind his back, but Dad didn’t care one bit about that and never looked back.  It was the principle which mattered:  it was wrong and he needed to say something.

Dad retired at age 62 and had a great time.  He and my mother went to Europe, visiting Italy, Britain, Holland, and France.  They took day trips in an older Cadillac that he had bought for special occasions.  Dad knew it was hard for me to find a babysitter for a child with seizures, and he volunteered to sit with my son if we needed to go out every so often, making a special trip to my house and leaving my mother alone for an evening to help us out.  Once when we had moved to a home which needed almost total renovation, he came over to help and saw the kitchen in a shambles without a dishwasher.  He immediately mailed us a check to buy a dishwasher which we returned.  Dad had always used to say, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and we just couldn’t take his money.

I know that over his long career, Dad heard from many former students who communicated to him how grateful they were for his musical instruction and leadership during their high school years.  Many went on to become professional musicians and performers, including one who obtained a position playing French Horn in the prestigious Concertgebeow orchestra in the Netherlands.  She had been one of Dad’s drum majors, and he had been so proud of her abilities even then.

Once my parents attended a concert in which I was playing conducted by the famous Frederick Fennell, the premiere band director of the time, and my dad’s grin was so broad as he stood up to applaud at the end.  He was a band man through and through.  I had been able to obtain Dr. Fennell’s autograph before the concert, which was very special, as he passed away a few years later in 2004.  Many years before that, Dad had actually spoken personally to Fennell at an All-State Orchestra and Band Festival.  Fennell had conducted the band in La Fiesta Mexicana, in which I was privileged to play.  It was a very exciting experience for both Dad and me, with the dramatic opening movement and the “Carnival” conclusion.

Once when I was very young, Dad got to meet LeRoy Anderson when he was standing backstage at a concert in which I was fortunate enough to have been asked to play.

The night on which Dad got the call that his father had died, he conducted a scheduled band concert.  There was no one else to do it.

When I released my CD in 1998, I wanted to give Dad the first ten copies, but he insisted on paying for them.  He never, ever wanted or took anything for free.  He then made gifts of them to every family member.

In 2003, after the first soldier from our state was killed in Iraq, Dad put out his American flag and said that he would fly it “until every boy came home.”

There were many wonderful times when we would all be together, including my parents’ grandchildren.  When my son was five, he and my Dad developed a pet name which ended up sticking to my Dad, although it was intended for my son.  We have referred to Dad by that name now for more than 27 years.  Even my mother oftentimes used the nickname and made up one of her own to match it.

Dad often used to say that this world “is not the real place.”

Thanksgiving, 1999. While Dad had worked to lose weight at that time, the dementia had not yet overtaken him

My mother was a wonderful cook, as her mother had been, and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were always very special.  We were never allowed to bring anything; “just bring yourselves.”  Dad had developed diabetes in his 50s and would limit his helpings to keep his sugar readings down, but he would encourage us to eat as much as we could.  If you didn’t eat at least three helpings, Dad would say that you hadn’t eaten enough or that perhaps you were sick.  There would be at least two kinds of pie and cake for dessert, and Dad would have his sugar-free pie.

After my son was discovered diabetic at age 21, he and Dad would take their readings together when we had the occasion to visit my parents at mealtime.  We would often drop in between a rehearsal and a concert that I was playing in the area, and I would tell Dad all about the program music.

During his life, Dad had two benign brain tumor operations:  one when he was 53 and the other at age 80 because the tumor had returned.  The first time, I was away at college, but I took him to many of his appointments prior to the second operation.  The dementia had begun to rear its ugly head around that time, manifesting itself as forgetfulness, impatience, and sometimes withdrawal from others.  It was sometimes hard to know what to say.  He came through the surgery well, although it did not improve his failing memory.

They tried patches and pills, memory tests which he could not pass, and he finally stopped driving in 2007.  By that time, his conversations had stopped making sense and he began imagining things that hadn’t happened.  Once or twice he tried to leave the house in the middle of the night.  Had he not voluntarily stopped driving, we had planned to confiscate his car keys.  It was fortunate that he gave up that last bit of independence without a fight.

As the condition advanced, he wasn’t eating well, although if people were around, he would sit down with everyone else and have something.  He always had been a sociable and gregarious man.  When we would have Chinese food for their anniversary, he enjoyed the pepper steak the best.

The last public performance Dad was able to attend in which I played was one of Gabriel Fauré‘s well-known “Requiem” at a church just up the street from my parents’ home in 2007.  The final movement, “In Paradisium,” is particularly beautiful with some unexpected harmonic changes.  Also on the program was Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine.”

When my book came out in April 2010, I brought a copy to show Dad.  He held it in his hands and remarked that it was nice, but I’m not sure he knew what it was.  By Fathers’ Day that year, Dad didn’t know anyone’s names anymore and had lost the ability to recognize or even open the  card we gave him.  It had to be done for him and read to him.  That was a big change from the year before.  There were times when he seemed more lucid, one of which was when I related to him how I had been playing a wedding prelude last summer and one of the bass wires had suddenly snapped with a huge sound, startling the guests as well as me.  I dug into my string bag, which I always have with me, found the correct string, and replaced it with everyone watching.  It’s a harpist’s worst nightmare, but it does happen at least once in a career.

There was an astounding amount of denial within my family as the dementia advanced which strained, and finally destroyed, our relationships.  Some of you are aware of the acrimony surrounding these last months of Dad’s life and the shattered remains of what was once a family.  Dad had completed a living will in 2001 stating that he wanted no artificial feeding or hydration, among other things, if he were determined to be terminally ill.  When the time came, one sibling and I wanted Dad’s living will honored, while the other two, along with my mother, insisted that they knew better and demanded life support and aggressive medical intervention to try to put off the inevitable.

Dad with his great-grandchild, August 2010, shortly before he became seriously ill

In August 2010, Dad got to see his only great-grandchild for the second and last time.  Following a fussy moment and some tears, I had picked up the child to comfort him.  Dad had walked into the room with his cane and spontaneously sat down next to us, even though it wasn’t where he normally sat.  He didn’t know who the child was or why he had been crying, but he reached out, took his hand and kissed it.  The crying stopped, and the child’s mother quickly snapped a digital photo of that moment and captured it forever for us.

Two weeks later, Dad unexpectedly became totally disoriented, was hospitalized, and began his journey toward “the real place.” He went back and forth first between the hospital and  a rehab center, but developed multiple infections as the dementia worsened.  He stopped eating last October, developed shingles but went home briefly, then returned to the hospital with a severe rash, where he remained through the holidays.  I went to see him on Thanksgiving and was shocked at how deep into delirium he was. He didn’t know I was there, yet my mother was being told by the others that he was improving and communicating meaningfully.

In early December, the situation deteriorated and he lapsed into unconsciousness.  Shortly before Christmas, he was pronounced terminally ill, and we were told to call a family member from the West Coast in anticipation of his imminent passing.

However, the inevitable was postponed in what I consider to be the greatest disrespect to a man who had fought the good fight, always provided for his family, and had made his final wishes known in writing when he was still of sound mind.  At this point, the family became polarized, just as our nation is today, with one camp ignoring the living will with impunity and banning the other sibling and me from any future meetings at the hospital because we wanted Dad’s wishes respected.

The others didn’t care what the hospital said or that Dad was suffering.  Three attempts were made to employ a Dobhoff feeding tube which he pulled out all three times.  Not willing to let go, the family demanded the final step of inserting an abdominal feeding tube in late January 2011.  I had hoped that the hospital would not agree to subject him to the surgery, but they did.  After another week or so, he went to a nursing home, although the hospital team had said that he could have been cared for at home, even then, with outside assistance.  Within two weeks, though, he was readmitted to the hospital with double pneumonia.

They used the heavy oxygen mask on Dad which he tried to pull off, but the family would not relent.  They would keep him alive at all costs, regardless of the living will, the suffering, or the expense.  During that time, my like-minded sibling was told by a member of the hospital staff, “There is not one person in this hospital who would agree with what is being done with your father.”

They pulled Dad back from the brink again, and things seemed calmer for a while.  However, he developed a protein deficiency and two serious bedsores.  Still, the family insisted that any and all measures be undertaken, making ridiculous demands of the nursing home and hospital staffs to the point where very few people were even allowed in his room.  Finally, only one doctor on the entire hospital geriatric team would attend to Dad because his relatives had been so rude, demanding, obsequious and unrealistic.  I know that the besmirching of our family name which was an inevitable result of this behavior would have bothered Dad tremendously had he known.

For six months I did not visit, feeling that I could not give tacit approval to the suffering that I was sure Dad was experiencing and too ashamed to be associated with the family members who had insulted, belittled and commandeered dozens of health care professionals in their quest to keep Dad alive. I found myself praying for his peaceful passing, all the time knowing that it was really in God’s hands.

Last Sunday, something compelled me to visit Dad and bring my harp.  By this time he was in a different nursing home because the first one had been completely alienated by my two siblings.  I had called in advance and told them when I would be coming.  The nursing staff was very friendly as I brought in and set up my large instrument, bench, music stand, and bag of music, positioning myself so that I could see Dad.  I planned to stay about an hour and left the door open so that others could hear the music.

While I was playing, Dad’s leg moved a bit, but that was all.  I could see his rhythmic breathing, but he was completely unresponsive.  That was as I had expected it would be.  After about 40 minutes, the weekend nursing supervisor unexpectedly came in to the room and asked me how long I had planned to stay.  When I said about an hour, she stated that a family member was very upset that I was there, and they didn’t want to see “an altercation.” At that point I could see that Dad was moving his head around a little bit in the bed as if the interruption had disturbed him, although the supervisor was blocking my line of sight, so I couldn’t be positive.  I had just reached the point in my playing where I was wrapped up in the music myself, although I was aware of people going about their business out in the hallway.

I knew nothing about what the supervisor was referring to, but when she said, “I think you better wrap it up,” I complied, knowing that something was terribly wrong.  I started to gather up my things, and as we walked out to my vehicle, the nursing supervisor explained that one of my siblings had demanded that I not be allowed in Dad’s room.  That sibling had then put my mother on the phone to insist that she receive a phone call from the nursing home anytime I was there.  I had overcome my strong objections to what had been done to Dad so that he could hear harp music once more only to be shown the door upon my family’s demand.  The nursing supervisor clearly felt terrible about the situation, and when I filled her in on what had caused it, she became very choked up, especially when I told her, “It was Dad’s idea that I play the harp.”

When I returned to the room to retrieve my remaining things, my sibling had arrived and already had the rubber gloves on, cleaning everything in sight in Dad’s room even though everything was already clean.  The nursing supervisor and the aide who had been in the room when I arrived were in the hallway looking very upset, shaking their heads, and I heard one of them say to the other, “She’s already here.”   As my husband was packing up the harp, my older sibling made phony small talk with him as if nothing were wrong, and I picked up the remaining things which were in the hallway. Clearly, a face-to-face confrontation between the two of us was what the nursing home had hoped to avoid. The nursing supervisor again walked us out to the parking lot, confessing that they had called my mother at her insistence, who had dispatched the sibling to preempt my visit with Dad. She again became choked up and gave me a big hug.  She then said, “I can tell you have a gentle spirit because of the instrument you play.”  I hesitated but then gave her one of my CDs for the other patients’ enjoyment and told her quietly, “I won’t be back.”

I know that Dad would have been very upset had he known what has happened to the family he loved.  People grieve in different ways, but the realities of this world must be faced.  Our mortality must be faced.  The doctors had explained in December that he could not be rehabilitated.

One of my siblings was told that an abdominal feeding tube generally prolongs a person’s life for 3-6 months in a terminal situation.  It was almost six months to the day when Dad passed away, during which time he endured four bouts of pneumonia, bronchitis, bed sores, MRSA, and finally, sepsis coupled with pneumonia.

Dad was not political at all, but I know that he would have been extremely distressed to know that the Pledge of Allegiance is being outlawed in some parts of the country.  I don’t believe any “criticism” of reciting the Pledge ever existed in his mind.  He always stood up for what he believed was right, and that included respect for our American traditions.  As far back as I can remember, there was always a plaque of a bald eagle wrapped in an American flag above the front door of his house which is still there.

He expected respect from his children.  We were expected to take responsibility for our actions, to lead disciplined lives, and to tell the truth.

While this part of the saga is over, another road as yet untraveled lies before us.  My mother is 88 and very frail.  She is almost blind and very hard-of-hearing.  We have not spoken since December 30, 2010, when she called to tell me that I was not welcome at the family meeting scheduled at the hospital the next day to talk about Dad.

I never thought I was skilled enough to play opera, having attended only two years at Eastman, something that had bothered Dad deeply at the time.  Somehow, though, I think he anticipated that I would be asked to do it and gave me a book of opera excerpts so I would be prepared.  Sure enough, last year  I had the opportunity to play in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.  I was under-rehearsed with only one rehearsal, as I was a substitute for someone who had backed out of the entire show run.  There was a second longer opera on the program, the part for which I discovered, too late, had been missing a major cut.  Therefore, there was no way to follow along accurately after a certain point.  During the performances, I found out from the percussion player to my right where everyone was and picked up from there, which is a risky thing to do, at best.  Both performances went well, however, especially the aria in Gianni, O Mio Babbino Caro.  That had always been a favorite of Dad’s.

Book of opera excerpts which Dad bought for me 14 years ago and has now been used

I wish I had remembered that the book was up in my attic in May 2010, when I was harpist for a stage performance of La Boheme, which was probably the most difficult thing I ever played.  I had had the part for only five days prior to the first rehearsal and felt completely overwhelmed.

About seven years ago, I performed Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, which is scored for two harps.  The civic orchestra did not have the funds to hire two harpists, so it was expected that I would combine the two parts as best I could.  (There is never any extra pay for this; it’s considered part of the job when you play harp.)  The performance was nearby to my parents, who were able to come.  I had practiced the integrated parts hundreds of times once they were worked out, going back and forth between the staves of music, marking the pedal changes over and over, and listening to the recording dozens of times so I’d know the piece almost by heart.  The composition is multi-faceted with many tempo changes, not to mention pedal changes for the harpist!

There was again only one rehearsal.  Incredibly, it was the best orchestral performance of my life without one error made despite my mocked-up, combined part.  Afterwards, my parents came down to the stage where I was getting ready to cover the harp, pack up and go home.  My dad was grinning that smile of his, and he gave me a hug and said, “Now I can die happy.”  I recall saying, “Oh, Dad, come on…” but he said it again.  I then was told that the conductor didn’t have my check because the treasurer was in Japan, which was annoying after having worked so hard, and my mother was miffed at the conductor for failing to give me a solo bow.  Two years later, however, the same conductor acknowledged the harp after a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with its gorgeous Adagietto movement and again this past April in Georges Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2, which only partially satisfied my mother.

Given everything that has happened in my family, it was easy for me to become discouraged, just as millions of us are discouraged and dismayed at the performance of our elected representatives, regardless of party affiliation.  However, from the devastation around me, I see the opportunity for hope and optimism as we go forward.

The sibling who stood with me in defending Dad’s living will on December 30, 2010 is a staunch progressive who believes in nationalized health care and other government programs.  I consider myself a constitutionalist who advocates free markets, private property rights and very limited government.  Ideologically, we are diametrically opposed.  We didn’t get along well as children.  Yet, we agreed completely on how Dad’s situation should have been handled because of the document he signed years ago.  It wasn’t about politics, about left or right, “liberal” or “conservative;” it was about doing the right thing.

Is it possible, then, that this shattered nation, polarized just as my family is, could unite based on the principle of doing what is right, with those timeless documents, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as our guide? Can we agree that a contract between two people is binding, that we need to be true to our word, our fellow man, and our God?  Can we put differences aside and decide that being a person of honor, multiplied by many millions, could spark an American revival which will be so strong that nothing can stop it?  Can we become the country which John Adams described and for which the Constitution was intended?  Can we envision an America which is grounded in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers to restore our integrity, self-respect and prosperity?  Can we stop expecting to take other people’s money and carry our own weight?  I believe that only honesty with ourselves and others can rebuild this nation, and that includes selflessness and self-reliance instead of voting for the politician who promises the most benefits from our now-bankrupt treasury.

We need to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance, for public prayer, for leading godly lives, and for doing what is right.

If a candidate or elected public servant doesn’t have his uniform on correctly, then he shouldn’t get to march in the parade.

Thank you for the music, Dad.