Today’s art is a digital painting of my Aunt Stella and my Uncle Gene Warden. Stella passed away in 2007, while Gene died Friday. I was asked to take the photo that this painting is based on and airbrush Stella out for Gene’s obituary. I did so, but the truth is that I felt that the entire picture needed to be seen. Gene was not complete without Stella.
I wrote the first draft of the obituary that ran in the Gazette on Sunday. It was edited by diverse hands, and kept short at Gene’s request–he was frugal to the end and didn’t want the obituary to go on for too long–but I also wanted to present a more full picture of my life as Gene’s caregiver here in PopCult. I try not to get too personal in this blog, but this time I think it’s appropriate to make an exception.
Folks who have been reading PopCult from day one know that, in the beginning, I was acting as the sole caregiver for my mother. She’d suffered a stroke that left her bedridden, and I took care of her at home. I’d been taking care of my father, who suffered from Leukemia, until his death in 2003. Mom’s stroke was in 1997, and she passed away in 2006.
This sort of made me the family expert on elder-care, and only a few months after my mother’s passing, my Aunt Stella asked me to help manage Gene’s health care. He was not doing well at all in late 2006, and Stella did not think that he was long for this world. I was not really eager to jump back into the caregiver fray, but I could never say “no” to Stella.
It turned out that Gene’s biggest problem was that he was over-medicated. Simply getting his doctors to communicate and cutting out a lot of un-needed medications got Gene back to the point where he was vital and even driving again.
However, in the spring of 2007, it became apparent that Stella’s lifetime of smoking was catching up to her. She succumbed, rather suddenly, to lung cancer. Before her death, she asked me to take care of and protect Gene. The loss of Stella was a major emotional and physical blow to Gene, and after a few months it was obvious that he would require round-the-clock help and companionship.
Gene was a man of means, and staying out of a nursing home was his most fervent wish, so we started to assemble a team of caregivers. Over the last six or so years, I have devoted between 40 and 100 hours a week to overseeing my uncle’s needs. Over the last few years we struck gold with a family of caregivers, Cricket, Sheila and Shelly Graddy, who were so attentive and mindful that I was able to relax and let them carry the bulk of the work. I was still putting in at least 40 hours a week, but that was far less than it was in the early years. I would also like to thank Kyna Hill, who was a key member of our caregiver crew until a couple of years ago. We formed a truly caring family for Gene, and he lived a higher quality of life due to it.
I was still in charge of taking Gene to his doctors and coordinating his medical needs. He named me his medical power of attorney so that I could handle his medical issues more easily. It was a big responsibility with little reward, but I was really the only sane choice.
Gene was my dad’s boss, first at Wholesale Services and later at Warden’s Incorporated, the kitchen design place. Gene was a stern taskmaster. In his heyday running his businesses, and up until the end he always wanted his orders carried out to a “T.” Truth be told, he was far from an easy man to work for.
Gene financed CODA Publishing, the company that published CODA, the comic book written and drawn by my brother, Frank, with a little help from me on the back-up features. In his later years, Gene would joke that, of all the failed business ventures that he bankrolled for family members, ours was the one that cost him the least. When it came to business, he was pretty much lost without my Aunt Stella, who was really the brains behind the business ventures, something Gene would often admit.
The last six years have been a bit strange for me. The role-reversal, going from being the slightly goofy nephew to the primary caregiver was striking. I got to know Gene on a whole new level. The overwhelming sadness of his life without his beloved Stella was heartbreaking to witness.
I learned about my cousin, Ronnie, whose death from Muscular Distrophy at 11 months was a crushing blow from which my aunt and uncle never truly recovered. These were stories from nearly a decade before I was born, and in those rare moments when Gene would discuss his son, you could see that the pain had not diminished one bit.
We actually talked about what he wanted in his obituary a lot over the last six years. It sounds morbid, but it was important to him. He and Stella were impressed with my father’s obituary ten years ago, and made me promise to write theirs as well. I honored their request. Like I said, I could never say “no” to Stella, but I would like to go on record as retiring from the job. It’s not fun.
As I spent more time with Gene, I got to know a lot more about what made him the complex man he was–a businessman and community leader with no college degree. His politics evolved quite a bit over his life. He started out as a staunch Democrat, became a donor to the Reagan presidential campaigns in the 1980s, finally switching parties to work on Cecil Underwood’s gubernatorial campaign in the 1990s, and was tickled to death to see Barack Obama elected president in 2008. It was stunning to watch this man, whom I assumed had always been a Republican, shed tears of joy during Obama’s first inaugural address.
He later confessed that his enthusiasm for President Kennedy, and his later alliegance to Ronald Reagan was mostly due to his fondness for Frank Sinatra, who campaigned for both men. One of the perks of my job as his caregiver was that, when the GOP would call asking for donations, I was to dismiss them as rudely as possible to deter further calls. He told me, “You really seem to get a kick out of that.”
While he was occasionally generous, he was also very frugal. It was hard to get him to spend money on the simple creature comforts in life. He could afford anything he wanted, but he still wanted to pinch pennies when it came to himself. I’m sure it was a generational thing, with him growing up during the depression. It was such a strange dichotomy, where he would have us buy the cheapest brands of food for him, but he bought full-sized brand-name candy bars to give out for Halloween.
Another example of Gene’s curious generosity was his donation of a large tract of land to Habitat for Humanity back before Stella passed away. I played a small role in that. Gene had purchased the North Hills land hoping to develop it into a subdivision of homes aimed at upper-middle-class folks, like the engineers at Union Carbide. When Union Carbide was sold to Dow, and they shipped most of those folks’ jobs out of state, Gene was left with this land. I told him about Habitat for Humanity, and he looked into it further and gave them the land, essentially as a tax-dodge. That land now has four Habitat houses, and counting. To be honest, I was shocked that he acted on my suggestion. It was the first time I felt like a grown-up around him.
It wasn’t the last. In his waning years I had to be there for the scheduled and unscheduled trips to the hospital. I had to take him to all his doctor visits and I had to fill his pill boxes with his prescriptions, all while maintaining a career as a freelance artist, writer and videographer. Gene trusted me because, as he told me, he admired the way I took care of my parents. He actually told me that he’d been proud of me since the time, back in 1991, that I volunteered to stay with my second cousin, Lou Romano, the night before he passed away. Lou was my Dad and Stella’s cousin and Dad’s best man at his wedding, and yes, he was the legendary Coach at Charleston High School.
We did manage to have fun together. I now know more about Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Waltons that I ever thought I would. He played his own personal mindgames to keep himself amused, behaving differently with each caregiver, cracking jokes in a deadpan style that initially flew over our heads, promising people things in his will that he had no intention of giving them. But there was always the underlying sadness. He never got over losing Stella.
The most gut-wrenching thing I had to deal with was, at the end of every doctor’s visit, when he’d look up meekly and ask, “Doc, am I ever going to get any better?” He already knew the answer, but he always looked disappointed when he didn’t get a “yes.”
Gene had recurring nightmares. Occasionally he would wake up in a panic, yelling that he’d rolled over on a baby and we needed to get it out from under him. He admitted once that he feared that his neglect has caused his son’s death. Other times he wake with a jolt, screaming that Stella was climbing a ladder behind him, and had fallen off. It seemed that loss ruled his thoughts. At times, calming and consoling him was nearly impossible.
Still, we kept him in good health, chugging away into his 88th year. Last winter he suffered a tremendous family disappointment and never really seemed to recover. He had a variety of ailments including prostate cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and signs of Alzheimer’s, but his will to fight seemed weakened. His resolve was fading.
Three months ago his health worsened. We tried a new medicine, which, in the end, proved to be fairly worthless. A few weeks before his death he encountered another personal disappointment, and lost his appetite. The decline after that was rapid and soul-crushing to watch.
Last Tuesday, which was the tenth anniversary of the day my father died, we brought Gene home from the hospital with Hospice care. We knew it would be a matter of days. While waiting for his discharge, I had to spend four hours fifty feet away from the room where my dad had passed away. I got Gene home–the caregivers had moved his hospital bed into the living room to accomodate more visitors–and we prepared for the end. This was one of the most emotionally grueling days of my life. I had to deal with some foolish family drama that I really didn’t need, but we had Gene where he wanted to be. This was all about following his wishes.
On Friday afternoon, Gene peacefully drew his last breath. He was surrounded by most of his caregivers. We’d become his surrogate family, so it was fitting that we were there. I made the call to Hospice. Gene was reunited with his wife and son, and I had kept my promise to my aunt.
UPDATE-August 13: No mention was made of me or my nearly seven years as his primary caregiver during Gene’s funeral.