by Mary Wissink
My dad’s journey may be different from others with this dreadful disease. He was diagnosed with PSP when he was about 78 years old. At the time of writing this, he is 87 years old, so he has had the disease approximately 9 years.
My dad, Al Wissink, grew up on a farm during the Depression and, like so many of his generation, fought in World War II. Dad was a gunner in the ball turret of a B-17 bomber. The ball turret was a plexiglass sphere attached to the underside of the airplane. Once the gunner slipped into the turret, it rotated so that the gunner sat upside down in the little sphere with two side-by-side .50 caliber machine guns. The ball turret was completely exposed. Dad said it was either the best view or the worst view depending upon the mission! When I tell him he is a hero, he says he was just doing his duty.
After the war, dad returned to Spokane, Washington. He began studying to become a Jesuit Priest when he met and married my mom – a beautiful and charismatic girl named Martha Barovich. She came from Bear Creek, Montana to attend Kinman Business University in Spokane. She was Serbian Orthodox and was deeply committed to her family and her religion. They had two children – my brother Dave and I. I was named “Mary Martha” after my mom. True partners for life, my parents owned and operated an appliance repair business named ALMAR Appliance Service (Al & Martha – hence ALMAR) for over 30 years. Dad did all of the repair work while mom handled the business side. Mom passed away unexpectedly in 2003. This year they would have been married 60 years. I was a single mother of 4 children. Mom and dad were always there for my children and I.
Every morning, dad drove over to my house to take the children to school. He picked them up again after school, prepared after-school snacks, and helped them with their homework. His dedication allowed me to work so that I could provide for my children. He was always involved. Even though he was at least 20 years older than any of the other dads, he was the first to play softball at the parents’ day softball game – he was pretty good, too!
In addition to helping me raise his four grandchildren, dad repaired anything that needed to be repaired. He could fix everything. When the faucet leaked or dishwasher wouldn’t drain or when the washing machine wouldn’t work, Dad was there with his toolbox! When my house needed to be painted, dad painted it. Of course he fixed the bikes and repaired the broken toys. He wiped away the tears and dressed the skinned knee. He was there to take care of the kids when they were sick, yet he still had time when my friends called to fix their appliances. Dad always enjoyed helping people in need. He expected little in return.
In 2004, dad fell and broke his hip. After his release from the nursing home, he came to live with me. He wanted to move back to his house, but he couldn’t realistically live alone. Dad treasured his independence and feared being a burden. He always was the one helping others. He couldn’t possibly be a burden! Shortly before he broke his hip, his doctor misdiagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease – a fairly common scenario.
Since 2004, dad’s condition has degenerated to the point where he cannot walk without much assistance. Over the years, we have had more trips to the emergency room for falls than I care to think about, including a devastating fall off the porch where he suffered a skull fracture and another fall when he suffered a collapsed lung. In a peculiar way, it’s easier now that dad is not as mobile. Despite all of this, he has never once complained, and he has always been more concerned about me and how I was inconvenienced. “Inconvenienced” – can you imagine that? A Depression survivor, belly gunner on a B-17, and a surrogate father for my children, worrying about being an inconvenience?
In April 2007, dad’s neurologist called and told me that he thought dad had “PSP.” I had never heard of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy! The devastation set in when I learned that it was a progressive disease for which there was no cure. Neither dad nor I could fix this one. After I had a good cry and had come to my senses, I had an “aha” moment. I realized that this life-changing situation marked the point where I had the opportunity to take care of my dad. I finally had the opportunity to show him a measure of gratitude for what he had done for me and my children all those years. I’ll never be able to repay him, but maybe I could show him gratitude.
In October 2007, dad and I went to UCLA Medical Center to participate in a PSP study. On the way, dad told me that this was just part of life’s journey and that death was not the end for him. What courage! What faith! Dad wasn’t going to let this cruel disease define him. His has not been separated from his Lord. His body has weakened, but his spirit is strengthened. His suffering without complaint and his display of love for life, his family and God exists without limit.
Dad continues to amaze me with his strength and resolve. He doesn’t give up! He can no longer speak in full sentences, but we work on his speech – he always tries. On Sunday, dad is at the door in his wheel chair ready to go as I am invariably running late. He exercises in his chair and is an avid sports fan. His smile still lights the room, and his attitude is infectious. He is a “hit” everywhere we go. He demonstrates strength to face this disease and he has the courage to accept it and maintain his dignity.
I thank God every day for the opportunity to be with my father. He continues to teach me life’s lessons as he approaches the end of life’s journey. Dad will not see a cure to PSP in his lifetime, but he is an inspiration to the victims of PSP and to their families. I will continue to support, educate and spread the word of awareness about PSP. Thank you for letting me share my story of my dad, Al Wissink – my hero.