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A bittersweet Father’s Day

Updated: July 12, 2012 6:07AM

Father’s Day is a week away. The most memorable one I spent with my father, in 2001, also was the worst.

My dad was 73 and dying of stomach cancer. He had been living with my husband and me in Des Plaines for nine months.

I wasn’t even 30 when I became my dad’s caregiver. That’s a little young, but end-of-life care for parents is a dilemma most of us face sooner or later. And in first- and second-generation Mexican-American families, there is an expectation to care for one’s parents. Nursing homes are out of the question.

“Elders expect children to take care of them. It’s something that’s ingrained in the culture,” says Dr. Robert Lindeman, a retired geriatric division chief from the University of New Mexico Medical Center who saw the same tendency among Native Americans.

Whether you are rich or poor, it’s something you do. While covering college basketball for USA Today, I once talked to Lupe Izzo about this. Her husband, Tom, is Michigan State’s popular and successful men’s basketball coach. Lupe’s roots are Mexican, like mine.

When Lupe’s mother had a terminal illness last year, the Izzos cared for her in their home. Lupe said she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

That’s how I felt about my dad. My brothers and sisters also offered him their homes, but some had children or lived too far from his favorite restaurants and familiar places in Des Plaines.

He chose me, and I was determined to keep him comfortable, be at his side in his most trying moments and help him peacefully come to terms with his terminal prognosis. I sometimes succeeded. I can’t speak of my failures.

On Father’s Day 2001, he hadn’t gotten out of bed by 8:30 a.m. Usually he was up before sunrise. It was alarming.

I slowly made my way upstairs from the kitchen to his bedroom. He turned his head in my direction as I opened the door.

“Que pasa, Dad?” I asked casually, trying to hide my concern. We always spoke Spanish or Spanglish.

My dad said he felt weak and was having trouble getting up. He needed just a little more time, he said.

I started making phone calls. I left a message for my dad’s brother. I called my oldest brother, whom I asked to come over right away. Other brothers and sisters received calls from my husband or me.

If the end was near, everyone needed to know it. I always tried to keep them updated on his condition and on a day like this I moved quickly — and tearfully when out of his sight.

There was no need to call an ambulance. His weakness, nausea and pain were symptoms we tried to control at home with help from family, doctors and hospice (getting him to agree to in-home hospice was awfully tough, yet another story).

Always up for a fight, my dad regained some strength for several hours. He came downstairs and sat on our dingy white couch, the first piece of furniture my husband and I owned, and sipped water. My aunt and uncle came to see him. My brothers and sisters stopped by. He fooled some into thinking he felt fine.

“I had a lot of visitors today,” he told me that afternoon.

The illness, which would take his life about six weeks later, was cruelly beating him down, but there was a trace of satisfaction on his face and in his voice.

And that made it a better day.

Marlen Garcia is a freelance writer. She is a former Chicago Tribune and USA Today sports reporter.

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