A few weeks ago, I ran into Amy Dickinson, the internationally celebrated author and advice columnist, at a writer's event in Skaneateles. Dickinson, who has immortalized her nearby hometown of Freeville in Tompkins County, had a question.
She wondered if we'd be interested in her written "thank you" to Buffalo.
Until last spring, she said, her father, Buck, was in long-term treatment at an assisted care facility in Smethport, Pa. He survived a catastrophic head injury in 2013, when the pickup truck he was driving rolled over.
In May, after doctors suspected he'd endured a stroke, he was airlifted to Mercy Hospital in Buffalo.
Dickinson's father abandoned his family when she was a child. She would eventually become the syndicated advice columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and her 2009 book, "The Mighty Queens of Freeville," made the New York Times best sellers list.
Much of her recent memoir, "Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things," while bemused, self-effacing and simply funny, is spent confronting and working through the pain caused by the absence of a father she describes as "a rolling stone."
Even so, she showed up in Buffalo for what turned out to be the final days of his life.
Once, he woke up and looked at Dickinson. She asked if he knew where he was.
"I'm in my garden," he said.
Dickinson was there when her father died. She used Twitter, throughout the vigil, to reflect on the grace and kindness of hospital staff and the community around her.
She said she'll never forget the way this city embraced her. Her father even donated his body to the University at Buffalo for research. She believes he made that decision by utter coincidence decades ago because one of his "many wives," as Dickinson put it, had Western New York roots.
Once she went home, her appreciation became the inspiration for this essay, which is really addressed to all of you.
Before last spring, I had never set foot in Buffalo. I don’t know why this upstate kid has lived in New York, Washington, London and Chicago, but had never even been to Buffalo. Maybe this lapse is because I spend so much time commuting back and forth between my hometown of Freeville, N.Y., and Chicago to visit my office at the Chicago Tribune and put in my time as a panelist on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”
I think I always assumed that Buffalo was just a Chicago redundancy – two big-shouldered cities stoutly guarding great lakes.
But one night last spring, my father was airlifted from a nursing home in Pennsylvania to Mercy Hospital in Buffalo. Taking this 85-year-old man with a head injury to Buffalo seemed like a fairly random choice at the time, but it was a fateful one.
I guess it’s important to know that if you looked up “Bad Dad” in the dictionary, my father Buck’s name would be there. He tore through life, with no sensor and an indeterminate conscience. His personal GPS was always set to “outahere.”
At the end of this life – after the five marriages, the abandonments, the bad business dealings – I was the only one of his four children who would have anything to do with him. And my involvement with him was pretty minimal.
And so I took myself to Mercy Hospital last May, to be a witness to my father at the end.
One thing about being with someone at the end of life is that the end could come in an hour, a day or a month. I think my original intention was to show up, hand out my phone number to the hospital staff and sneak away.
But Buffalo opened up its big arms and took me in. And so I stayed. I stayed in Buffalo for over a week, and I experienced such a flow of kindness and generosity, that I wanted to say thank you.
Maybe you could share this with your readers:
Thank you to the staff at the Lafayette Hotel. Each evening when I checked in for yet another night, wearing rumpled clothes and worn-out from my strange and lonely bedside vigil, they found a room for me. And the rooms seemed to mysteriously upgrade as time went on, until finally I was put into a suite that looked like a movie set, which made me so happy that I burst into tears when I opened the door.
Thank you to the couple who treated me to a Buffalo Bisons game one night. All I did was stop them on the sidewalk and ask where the ballpark was (I was standing almost in front of it). And they said, “That’s where we’re going. Come with us!”
They bought the tickets, I bought the beer, the Bisons won, and I forgot about my sadness for one night. Thank you.
Thank you to the staff at Mercy Hospital. Their professionalism and flat-out loving kindness gave one bad dad a good death, and granted one worn-out daughter a measure of peace.
I’m including a series of Tweets I wrote and posted, as I experienced my father’s fading and death. Reading them now, these statements seem like real-time poetry to me.
God bless the orderlies and the nurses and the army of people who provide care in our hospitals. (I'm with my dad in the ICU).
Because there are at least 30 people providing various levels of care to my old man. Including Martin, a 6'5" orderly.
God bless the night shift of hospital workers who administer the meds and change the beds and attend to the beeping machines.
God bless the early morning orderlies and the PT lovelies and the social worker half my age who wants to bring me coffee.
Here's to the floor sweeper and the sleepy security guard and the hospice volunteer who will all shepherd you into the good night.
Here's to the hospital weekend staff. They took the tough shifts, missing ball games, picnics, and prom pics — just like their patients.
Here's to the nurse Christine, at the end of her shift, who talks to my dad as she treats him, and then asks what she can do for me.
God bless John, who cleans the room, and Jake, overnight orderly, who says, "Tonight, I'm your guy. Anything you need, you find me."
Here's to the hospitalist, who prescribed a Tim Horton Boston Creme donut, for me. (I filled the prescription. Twice.)
Here's to Shannon, I think she's a PA. She's wearing scrubs and a smile and her pony tail swings as she walks down the hall.
God bless the hospital chaplain, who pops her head in, now and again. My old man was not the praying type, but I might.
God bless the charge nurse, who wordlessly brought in coffee and a tray of cookies, set them by the window, and waved his way out.
Here's to Dr. Jen, who showed me my old man's CT scan and then said, "Cute jacket! Where'd you get it?”
Here's to the family visiting the man in the next room. They look like 'Sons of Anarchy,' but their talk is funny, kind, and tender.
I have no words – only tears – for the hospice worker who helped my family – and my father, have a good death, surrounded by compassion.
RIP to my father. He led a hair-raising life, but was granted a very gentle death. Bless the army of caregivers at Mercy in Buffalo, N.Y.
Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News pleased to offer this forum for Amy Dickinson, who shares a passion for Upstate. Email Kirst at email@example.com or read more of his work in this archive.
Story topics: Amy Dickinson