Today I leave for home.
How do I adjust to my normal daily routine when I’ve been here, in my dad’s world, at the hospital, at his condo, comforting his cats, packing up our memories, crying with my sister? It will be a strange transition, but Don went through the same thing when his father died. His father’s illness was sudden, I had to stay home with our fragile dogs, and Don had to face all of that without me. He’ll be waiting for me at the airport tonight. I can’t wait to hug him.
Dad’s decline was due to a series of things that seemed to spiral out of control. His blood became too thin, his back injury caused him a great deal of pain. He was on pain medicine. Perhaps the combination of everything was too much for him, we don’t know. Some of this is a mystery. He was very, very ill when I arrived, but he could talk. Not a great deal, but he let us know when he needed water. He hated the oxygen that was flowing in through his nose and he kept trying to pull it out. He also hated the monitor that was taped to his finger. So he had to have soft restraints to keep him from pulling everything out.
As the hours passed on Wednesday, he became a bit more articulate. Meredith said he had smiled twice that day before I arrived, both of them at the mention that I was on my way. Later, he smiled when Stacy, his health care aide, mentioned that the cats were getting into mischief at the condo. He knew I was there, he knew Meredith was there, and he knew Stacy was there. Stacy was very close to my father and she was a big part of his life, so we made sure she was included in his final hours. He was very restless, and a couple of times he said, “Let me die in peace.” Finally, late Wednesday, a combination of a sedative and morphine enabled him to sleep and Meredith and I left for her house around 11:00. He now had pneumonia.
On Thursday morning, he seemed a bit better. Just a bit, of course, but you measure those little improvements as something momentous, don’t you? He asked a couple of questions, he wanted to know if the doctors had figured out what was wrong with him. We told him he had pneumonia. He grew frustrated sometimes trying to make his words and thoughts clear. But he was making more sense. His doctor came by and we all decided to wait another day and see if he improved a bit more.
When some aides came in to move him and do some procedures, Meredith, Stacy and I went to the cafeteria to get some lunch. We were only gone for about 45 minutes, but when we came back, everything had changed. He had a fever. He was trembling. He moaned. His heart rate had accelerated and become erratic. The nurse was trying regulate his heart rate and his blood pressure. He got more and more confused. He said “Help me. I’m not well. I need to get to bed.” I explained that he was in bed and he was in the hospital and that doctors and nurses were taking care of him. Then he stopped talking. We began to tell him that if he needed to go, we understood. We knew he wanted to be with Mom again. And my brother. And all the loved ones he has lost. We told him we would be okay, and we thanked him for being our father.
All through this, we were adamant that nothing was to be done to prolong his life if the quality of his life would be forever changed. He wasn’t on life support, but he was being supported in such a way that would only artificially lengthen his time on earth. Each time the nurse gave him something like potassium or albumin, we wondered if that was only prolonging his agony. He grew worse and worse. We asked for an increase in morphine because we didn’t want him to have any pain. As we sat there in that darkened room, Meredith holding one hand, me holding the other, we told him how much we loved him, we talked about wonderful memories, like camping together, and spending time at the lake and on the sailboat. We stroked his hand, we rubbed his chest, we tended to his needs as he tended to ours when we were babies.
Before we were to make any final decision, I needed to talk to the doctor one more time. This doctor was the most compassionate doctor I’ve ever had the privilege to know. He understood. He said “We are humbled every day at what we cannot fix.” I said it seemed like putting bandaids on a wound only to have another and another appear. He agreed. So we made the decision to stop anything like antibiotics, to ease up on the oxygen (he was at 100%, which told us there was little hope), to let him be.
I left the room to call Don and tell him what was going on. When I came back, there was a chaplain there from Mom’s church. She had appeared out of nowhere – no one called her. And she asked us if we wanted to take communion and have a small service. She would anoint him with oil. She would utter words of passage. We agreed. And she leaned into my father and spoke in his ear, telling him what she would do. He knew. As we went through that rite, he grasped Meredith’s hand and squeezed it with great strength. He only relaxed that grip when the ritual was over. He knew. That chaplain was an angel. She told us to say the words: Thank you, forgive me, and I forgive you. We did.
The three of us held him and spoke to him. Stacy left the room for a moment. And I broke down, sobbing as I grasped the fact that his breathing would eventually stop and then his heart would follow. The enormity of it was too much. Meredith came over to my side of the bed to comfort me. As she held me, we heard his breathing change. And we knew the end was close. He struggled for breath, with short periods of no breathing. Stacy came back in the room and we told her the end was near and she was shocked, just as we were, at how quickly he was leaving us. As we stood around his bedside, holding his hands, stroking his brow, we watched him take his last breath.
From the moment we decided to honor his wishes to the end was a mere two hours. That told me that he was ready to go. Just as his taking a turn for the worse happened when we were out of the room, as if he needed us out of there so he could let go enough to start his final journey.
It was beautiful and devastating. Both. But to be there with him as he took his final breath, as he left this plane of existence to move on to a joyous world was an honor I will never forget. Never. It was the most profound experience of my life.
When my brother died, he was in Michigan. I was in Boston. When my mother died, it was the middle of the night in Florida. I was in New York. So to be able to be with my father, to let him know how much I loved him and that he wasn’t alone was a gift. Just as he gave me the gift of life, I was able to give him the gift of presence, of being, of love. Thank God for my sister. We were fully in agreement on everything. When one of us collapsed in tears, the other was there to embrace and comfort. We knew.
And how utterly sad that our estranged sister wasn’t there. She, who hadn’t seen my parents in 14 years. Who had never come to Florida to introduce them to her youngest child. Who spoke to them on the phone daily, but never gave the gift of herself and her family. Who cut herself off from most of the family, including Meredith and me.
I volunteered to call her when I was about to leave for Florida. It was the first time I had spoken to her in 9 years, since the time my dad suffered an aortic aneurysm and almost died. At that time, I begged her to come down. So did Meredith. She didn’t. When I called her on Wednesday, I told her it didn’t look good and that I was flying down there. No mention of a similar plan from her, but why was I surprised? I won’t go into what else happened on that call, but I was shaking with rage when I hung up. Don heard it. He was furious.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t get away. I understand that sometimes it is impossible to get away. It’s that she chose not to come.
Dad knew I was there. He knew Meredith was there. He asked for both of us at times, when he couldn’t see us for a moment. He knew Stacy was there, Stacy who thought of him as a father figure, who loved him. Interestingly, he never asked for my other sister. Not once. He knew she wouldn’t come. How heartbreaking to know without a doubt that one of your children won’t make the effort to be by your side.
When I followed through with my sister’s direction as to how to update her, she accused me of deliberately misunderstanding her. I did not misunderstand her. There I was, just having gone through the death of my father, and she was staying true to form and, by doing so, leaving me shaken. She lives in a fantasy world of her own making. Meredith and my brother-in-law urged me not to let her get to me, not to let her take anything away from the profound experience we had just been through. I called Don, who said the same thing. He remembered exactly what she said to me during that phone conversation. He had been there. So he told me to think of her as a gnat. As an annoying gnat that I no longer had to deal with. Never again. That was a gift my husband gave me. A true gift.
I never want to hear her name again. I want nothing to do with her. Neither does Meredith. The only tie that bound us was my father. And he is gone. We will send her some photos and memorabilia that we’ve found in the last two days that she might want, which, frankly, is more than she would do. My father has been scrupulously fair in his will because he loved all of his children, so that won’t be an issue.
Such pain, such profound beauty, such sadness, such heartbreak. My bond with Meredith grows ever stronger. My bond with my father and mother will never die. Both of them gone in less than two years time. Both of them loved eternally, as is my brother.
I know this was long, and I wasn’t going to post today, but I felt the urge to write. Writing has always helped me make sense of things. Thank you for listening.