Staff Sergeant Eddie Schall

I came to New York on Friday afternoon to spend four days with my father. It had been a month since I had been able to visit. I call him most days and for about the last two weeks, the calls have gotten harder and harder. He’s been facing increasing dementia for a while now, but it appeared to have taken a pretty sudden turn for the worst. My three siblings are all close by and they reported the same thing — dad was no longer just confused and prone to repeating things. There was a real break from reality.

When I arrived Friday, he was getting ready for Passover dinner with the family. He was happy to see me and explained to his aide that Lawrence, an old and dear family friend, had arrived. She told him I was one of his sons, but he brushed that aside as nonsense. It took me a while to explain, but he eventually seemed to accept I was one of his children. For some time now, he has seemed to believe he has five children, not the four there are in reality. The fifth is actually my sister’s boss, the President of NYU. “Do you think John is confused about the family relationship?” he asks. “No,” I answer, “I think John understands,” and we move on.

As my dad was getting dressed to go out, he inquired: “When do you think I will be discharged from the Army?” And so it began. My dad was honorably discharged from the Army in 1945 or ’46 after having served 42 months. He had graduated from Princeton in ’39 and Harvard Law School in ’42. Back then, such people were drafted and served. My dad’s current reality is that he is in the Army and can’t seem to get out. I decided to go with the flow and took out his Army jacket to show him. He insisted on wearing it to Passover dinner. I saw no reason to fight that. He looked quite handsome after all. While we were in the street, me pushing him in his wheelchair over to dinner, we passed a homeless man in the street, asking passers-by for money. When we walked past, he stood up and saluted my dad: “Welcome home, Sergeant. Thank you for your service.” My dad didn’t seem to notice, but that little encounter just about brought me to my knees.

Despite all this, we have spent some sweet time together. This morning, my brother Rich and I drove Sergeant Schall to Morristown, NJ where he grew up. Being out and in familiar territory brought a lot of clarity to my dad. He told story after story, all pretty accurate as far as we could tell. He really loved the adventure, including, it seemed, a trip to the cemetery where his parents and his wife, our mom, are laid to rest. He knew pretty much everyone there and had a story to share about each one. He asked briefly where exactly he would be buried. He asked if they would move our mom over so he could fit neatly by the Schall marker. No need, we said, he’d fit just fine right next to mom. Just like our dad of old, he quickly moved onto something else.

Tonight, Sunday night, I was leaving his apartment and he begged me not to go. That had never happened before. He seemed genuinely frightened. “What was the man who was watching him going to do with him and where would he sleep tonight?” “There is no man watching you, dad, and you’ll be fine tonight, and sleep in the same bed you have slept in for 25 years.” Tears came to his eyes. “I am completely confused. I don’t have any idea what is happening, but I trust you, so you can go. Will I see you tomorrow?” “Yes, dad, you will see me tomorrow. I love you.”

I know thousands of people have gone through this before and I know I am unbelievably lucky to still have my dad at the age of 58. But it’s hard right now to imagine anything sadder than to see him this way. So, so sad.

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8 Responses to Staff Sergeant Eddie Schall

  1. Beth McKenna says:

    Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing this story. Your Dad is a wonderful man — always so full of life. The twists and turns of aging can be painful for those of us watching, but there is always the humor, too.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes. You, your dad, and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Much peace, love, and blessings to you all.

  3. Nancy says:

    I am incredibly heartbroken from reading this. I don’t know your dad, but do know YOU and can feel through your beautiful words what this loss means to you and your family. My grandmother suffered 12 years with it, followed by 3 daughters (my maternal aunts) and my siblings and I all keep an eagle weather eye on my mom because of the family history. You are in my thoughts and prayers for peace.

  4. Didi says:

    Larry: you brought tears to my eyes. I know how difficult this is for you. I’m sorry. It’s a terrible thing to go through for all of you. I remember visiting my mom one time and finding some photographs of a young me with my dad …torn up in the waste basket. I felt terrible.

  5. I lost my father at age nine. That has always seemed wrong to me. But your essay reminds me that there is never a good time to lose a parent. Thank you for sharing your father with me.

  6. Ginger says:

    Oh Larry,

    I know your sentiments intimately. It was so hard seeing my dad go little by little via the grade aid of radiation. I do believe that everything in life is a lesson in humility. No matter how great we climb, at the end of the day and life; we are children of God and at the mercy of our mortal coil.

    Hugs!

    Ginger

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