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What my father wants most

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My dad isn’t doing so well.

His wife of 65 years and six kids could be doing better, too.

He’ll be 89 in July and his body is showing its age.

His legs don’t work so well due to stenosis of the spine, plus he’s been in and out of skilled-nursing centers and hospitals the past few months with infections and other issues that won’t relent — the two worst months of his long life.

The hardest part is that he is apart from my mother. Boy, does he miss being with her.

After all these years, they still hold hands as they fall asleep each night — or did before the ambulance took him away after a bad fall.

They met when they were teens in high school. My mother saw the big fellow arguing with his friends over whether a lemon slice would leave a stain on a Formica countertop.

“I’d never met anyone like that before!” she recounts with laughter.

Once he set eyes on her, that was it for him, he told me. He told me he knew right away he would marry her and he did.

He was a tough son of a gun. He grew up in the city streets, where fist fights were common — though few dared mess with him.

He went on to become a football star with several scholarship offers — in 1953, Chuck Noll, then team captain at the University of Dayton, took my dad to dinner with hopes of getting him to sign.

My dad broke a lot of hearts when he didn’t sign — his mom’s, his coaches’ and lots of people who saw his potential — but he didn’t sign because all he wanted then, as now, was to be with my mother.

He got a good-paying job with good benefits at Bell Telephone. He worked hard and often long hours to provide for my five sisters and me and spent little on himself.

It is difficult to watch such a powerful, capable man become weak.

It’s maddening to see how the institutions that are in business to care for the elderly sometimes see my dad as a revenue-generator, not a human being.

There are lots of wonderful people providing care in these places — some are saints.

But there are others who are not so polite to the patients who are dependent on them for their most basic needs.

We Purcells are imperfect people who have had our share of downs and are having one now, but the ups have been wonderful and there were many of them.

Human suffering abounds in this world — particularly in nursing homes, where we see so many elderly people wishing God would take them from their worn-out bodies, so they may be at peace.

Suffering often brings clarity, however, and even peace as it forces us to sort out what is truly important from all the noise.

As my sisters and I do our best to help our parents get through this difficult period of their lives, here’s what’s important to me:

My dad and mom still share one of the greatest love stories of all time and we hope and pray they will soon be able to hold hands as they fall asleep each night.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Tom Purcell is an author and columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email him at


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