Julie Yeager-Camp, volunteer coordinator, Stein Hospice
Leadership Erie County Class of 2010
"Parents are the best teachers."
We have all heard that phrase. Parents are the ones who teach you how to walk, how to talk, how to go potty on the big potty! Parents teach you how to tie your shoes, ride your first two-wheeler and how to make your bed. But it wasn't until the death of my dad that I realized the most important lessons we get from our parents are not as obvious as learning to cross at the light or how to jump rope. The really important lessons parents teach their children come from acts of everyday living. You see, we teach our children how to live by showing them how we live.
My dad was a man who really enjoyed his work. Frank Yeager worked hard all of his life, from sunup to sundown. He put in a full day's work every day as a trash hauler. That is why his diagnosis of heart disease was so hard on him, physically and emotionallly.
Lesson: Take pride in what you do, whatever you do.
After he was diagnosed with severe heart damage we were told that my Dad would suffer a massive coronary or stroke within a year. The doctor advised us to make the most of every day we had with him. We took him home and he continued to enjoy his life, fully at first and then later, however he could.
Lesson: It's a great life if you don't weaken.
With tender loving care my dad survived the next few years, though he became weaker and weaker. There were many trips to the hospital in the middle of the night; depression over his illness; episodes of confusion; numerous hospitalizations; periods of breathlessness, incontinence and finally invalidism. But he never gave up the fight.
As my dad began his decline, the care he required doubled. As he lost physical strength and control over his body, I was overwhelmed by the raw look at life I witnessed, but I also felt privileged to be a part of it. I listened from outside the bedroom door one day as my mom helped my dad out of bed that morning, to the care she took, the encouragement she gave. These are two people who had seen 50 years of life together. They watched their children grow and welcomed grandchildren, they buried a son and two grandsons and now they were going through this journey, together, at the end of my dad's life.
Lesson: Take what life throws at you and do the best you can with it.
When my dad went to the hospital for the final time, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. In order to fight the infection, the doctor asked my dad if he would agree to a procedure that could, potentially, be fatal but also could provide the information they needed to treat his pneumonia successfully. After the explanation, my dad, who could only whisper, said, "Go for it."
Lesson: Bravery in the face of fear.
As a family, we all held out hope for the results of the test to find the magic potion that would bring our dad home for Christmas. At the hospital, my dad repeatedly asked to go home. We finally told him if he went home he would die and he whispered, "I'm going to die anyway!" We discharged my dad as soon as we could and took him home.
Lesson: Face reality.
I was with my dad all night that night, and I was with him when he died. His last words to me were, "Julie, how old am I?" As his birthday was two days away, I told him the truth, "You're 79, Dad."
"That's old enough," he said. As I leaned close to him in his bed, one of my brothers wrapped my dad's arms around me for what turned out to be the last hug between father and daughter.
Lesson: Accept the things you cannot change.
The six of us, my brothers and sisters and I, were pallbearers. It was an honor to take my dad the rest of the way home.
Lesson: Finish the job, no matter how long or how tough.
Not long after my dad's death we learned of a suicide of a distant relative. This man was just diagnosed with severe heart disease and couldn't accept the fate that would eventually be his. It was then that I felt the full impact of what my dad did for us. I sincerely believe his fight over four years was not for himself, but for us. When I think of what I would have missed had he not fought so hard. I learned to work together in a family and to respect others. I learned to make the most of every day and I try hard not to sweat the small stuff. I learned that it IS a great life if you don't weaken. I witnessed what a positive attitude can do. I saw the meaning of integrity, compassion, strength and courage. My dad taught me what was right.
I have a sign on my desk that says, "Go for it!" My big brother had them made for all of us after my dad passed. More than once it has provided the motivation I needed to make a life decision.
The lessons I learned from my dad no one else could have taught me. His life and illness was a raw look at life in its truest form. After living with him, loving him, caring for him and watching him fight and then die, I will never be the same, and I will be thankful to him for that for the rest of my life. How blessed I am, how lucky I feel, to have had a father who loved me enough to want to be the best teacher I ever had.
Please consider the lessons you are teaching your children. Everything you do, say and feel, everyday, is a lesson to them. It's a wonderful opportunity and a big responsibility, and, as a parent, it's all yours.