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Hospice volunteer struggles with death of elderly father

TAMPA — Standing in an aisle at the Dollar Tree store, Shoshana Berman felt the tears breaking through again, like they do at the gym, in the car and in the shower.

This time, it was the perfect Father's Day card, one she couldn't give her dad. It showed that iconic image of a little girl dancing on a man's shoes, a real memory only some daughters are lucky enough to have.

She was one of them.

Her father had lived to be 91, sick for only months of that long life. The daughter is 60, a retired nurse with decades of experience watching people die, a hospice volunteer dedicated to comforting children who lost their parents.

Shoshana thought this would have been easier.

She bought the card.

• • •

In the fall, it was the broken hip.

You don't have to schlep all the way over here, he would tell Shoshana. She lives in Tampa. He lived an hour north, in New Port Richey.

Then, it was the kidneys. Later, two aneurysms. By January, the man who had been healthy all his life — who had won medals in pingpong and shuffleboard at the Senior Olympics into his 80s — was confined to a hospital bed.

She walked into the hospital room, where family gathered around him. Look at the camera, someone told him. But his eyes stayed on Shoshana. They still had that spark that had kept her from noticing he was growing old, even after his hair turned gray.

He was the grinning Navy sailor in the black-and-white photos. The dad who jumped off a fishing dock when her sister fell into the bay and emerged holding her, still wearing his glasses.

He was the pack rat who spent his retirement wheeling around the neighborhood in a bicycle, filling its basket with pieces of scrap wood and metal to make into model cars.

He was still smiling, still cracking jokes. But in his eyes, Shoshana could tell he knew. He was slipping.

When Shoshana was a young nurse, hospice was a foreign concept. People's lives often ended in cold, sterile hospitals.

Her father's birthday was in four days. He wanted to spend it at home.

Paul Zolinsky was born on Jan. 20, 1918, but New York's hall of records was closed that Sunday. So his birthday was registered the following day.

Every year, his family asked which birthday he wanted to celebrate. Both, he would say.

He always made celebrations out of everyday moments. Even impromptu afternoon visits to Shoshana's house called for pizza and soda.

But on the eve of his birthday, her father had no appetite, not even for Cheez-Its, his favorite. Shoshana talked to him alone, as they had so many times — in his workshop, on the phone, in his ear, as they danced at her wedding. She held his hand.

"You know, Dad, I'm going to see you again," she told him. "And in the next life, we'll be best buddies."

He squeezed her hand so tight he cut off her circulation.

"We already are best buddies."

The following day, her sister baked a cake, made of brownies. He couldn't even try it. But in his wheelchair, swaddled in a blanket, he sucked in the air around him.

And he blew out the candles.

• • •

In the Jewish tradition, commemorating a loved one is simple. You place a stone on one's grave and he or she knows you were there.

In the modern American tradition, where individuality and self-expression reign, we've come up with all sorts of elaborate ways. Last year, before Shoshana's dad broke his hip, she traveled as a volunteer to LifePath Hospice's Camp Circle of Love, where kids ages 6 to 16 grieve together. At the end of the weekend, they make a quilt.

Now, five months after her dad's death, Shoshana needs to make something, too.

Today, in the solace of her back yard, she will dig a hole.

Surrounded by statues of angels, near a rose bush, she'll bury a white candle for eternal life, a black candle for protection, a poem her friend wrote, an old Father's Day photo with her dad and one of his shirts.

And that card she bought at the dollar store, inscribed with a message she hopes he somehow gets:

Love you, Dad,

for all the sweet memories …

And for all your love.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

. Fast facts

Sound familiar?

If this is your first Father's Day without your dad, LifePath Hospice's grief services coordinator Kelly Thorpe has a suggestion:

Make a plan. "Think about something you can do in memory of them," she said. "Go to their favorite restaurant. Make their favorite food."

Don't ignore the day. Trying that might make it worse, she said. In her experience, those who had special plans realized the day wasn't as bad as they expected.

LifePath Hospice offers free counseling for anyone who has experienced a recent loss, even outside of hospice. For more information, call (813) 877-2200.

Hospice volunteer struggles with death of elderly father 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 9:09pm]
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