How It Might Go

Sometimes we tell a story when it is fresh. There is a malleability about the way events affect us. A week or a month or 10 years from now, I might remember things about Wednesday that are barely on my radar now. Perhaps the parts of that day that haunt me today will in time be replaced by a peace, an acceptance. I might read what I am writing today and think, boy did I get THAT wrong. And if so, I guess that’s okay.

My Dad died on Valentine’s Day. 10:25 am. He had battled cancer several times. With every occurrence, he fought like a warrior and yet, each attack took something away from him, depleted him. He had not eaten a regular meal since July 2012. His voice at the end was so hoarse that we sometimes had no idea what he was saying to us. For the last three months of his life, he didn’t even have the energy to go to church.

For awhile in January we thought he might be on the mend, then one day, things changed and before I knew it, I got a call that he had been placed on hospice. I came home two days later and I have been home, caring for him ever since.

Because my Mom has macular degeneration, I became his primary caregiver. It was not something that came naturally. I learned how to administer medicine and Ensure-like cartons of nutrition into his feeding tube. I was introduced to a dozen medications that I’d never heard of before and apparatuses I had never seen before. And most of those apparatuses, I actually learned how to use.

And the whole time, I was always constantly aware that it was my job to both keep him alive but also, as gently and comfortably as possible, to guide him to his death. Pain management was key. Sometimes we did better than others. Sometimes I was not attentive enough and sometimes he rejected the offer of a med in an attempt to play the strong man. Or maybe sometimes he just wanted to be more lucid when family came over to visit him.

I don’t think anyone who knew my Dad would say he had a bad life, maybe a hard one at times, but he had a good life. His family and friends loved him. He had periods where he made a nice living and lean periods too. He had a comfortable home, a new vehicle every few years. Golf and golfing buddies. A garden that fed many of the people he loved so much.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I’ve been shocked by how many people in the last few weeks have said that my Dad was like a grandfather to them. There is this thing that children who move away from home kind of think and that is that their parents in some ways, stopped being vital the second we left the state line. It’s been sweet (and humbling) to learn of my Dad’s enduring effect on so many lives.

But I do have to get to something and I know I must be careful about how I frame this. I don’t want to scare you, but I need to tell you a little bit about how my Dad died.

Last night, I wrote a lengthy, harrowing account of my Father’s final hours. This morning, I woke up and realized this is not the time, and maybe there never will be a time, to share that story.

When we learn our parents are dying, and we place them on hospice, we think (or hope) that hospice will be able to keep them out of pain and distress as they exit this world. That was not the case for my father. In the final hours, as much medicine as we gave him, as directed by hospice, we were not able to alleviate his pain or suffering. For nearly 11 hours he was surrounded by six people who loved him dearly, maybe the six people he loved most in this world. And all six of us watched his agony and felt completely incapable of helping him.

When we were finally able to give him a stronger medicine, he went fast and, all things considered, somewhat peacefully. After all we’d witnessed, we were relieved that he was no longer in pain. In a better place, as we like to say.

I had hoped that such a remarkable person would have had a painless and comfortable journey from this life to the next, but that’s not the way it worked out.

Yesterday a friend texted me to say, “I don’t know the circumstances of your dad’s passing but one thing that a friend said to me when my dad died which was really comforting and turned out to be true for me is that there will be a time in the future when your strongest memories of your dad won’t be of him sick or in pain, and will be of him from before he was sick.”

And of all the sweet, comforting things people have said in the last few days, and there has been an avalanche, those words have comforted me the most. It’s what I needed to hear in these days when all of his anguish is still so vivid.

I know, we all wonder what our last moments will be like. We wonder what the last moments of those we love most will be too. And I’m here to say, it may not be as beautiful as the way James Garner and Gena Rowlands go in The Notebook. It might be really crappy.

In the end, that’s just life. And death. My strong Dad had one last battle before he left this world, and he fought hard. And he was able to die at home. And he was surrounded by the people he loved, the people who loved him. And the good is what my always optimistic Dad would focus on.

I don’t think I will ever be able to see the bright side of things the way he did, but I’ll try. I am still that toddler in the photo being steadied by his Daddy’s powerful grasp, my Father’s son. And I always will be.

Prepare to Stop

I feel I have entered a lenten season of sorts, these days are a series of reminders of “the lasts” my dad experienced. His last Christmas, last New Year’s. Last January 15 was my parents’ last wedding anniversary. February 2 was the last time my father sang “Happy Birthday” to his wife. His hospice started in the last days of January and he died on Valentines Day. So, its been nearly a year. Everyday, I take a mental inventory of where we were in the timeline on this date in 2018. The following is something I wrote not long before he died. February 11. I am a man child trying to understand what the other side of this event is going to be like, look like and feel like.

One thing about living in Los Angeles, where there is barely even any rain, is that we never have to worry about driving on ice. A couple of times, since I’ve been in Independence, I’ve had to drive on roads that were compromised by either ice or snow. It’s funny how it comes back, this tentative braking in inclement weather that I used to know by rote. That when the road is icy, you start to brake earlier than when you need to. You ease into it, give yourself extra grace. You tap the brake to suss out how much traction there is.

Tonight, after several days of pretty much just taking care of my parents, I went out to meet some friends for a drink. On the drive to Uncle Jack’s, I wondered if maybe I might be crazy for venturing out in freezing rain. My fears were somewhat assuaged when I walked into the restaurant to a full house.

I had a nice time. I talked with a few friends I knew would be there and also to a few friends I had not expected to see. I’ve said it before, but it’s been a blessing in this last year, how deeply I’ve connected with the people and the places of my hometown. You sit in a booth at Penn and Main and you talk about high school days and you gossip about classmates and wax rhapsodic about going to see Grease for $2 at the Booth Theatre and the Girl Scout house on Park and for a few minutes, you think that you’re 16 again and the biggest worry is whether or not your parents will let you go see Prince in Kansas City. (Spoiler alert: they won’t.) For a few minutes, you’re just that pimply brace-faced four-eyed know-it-all, thrilled that anyone let you sit at their table and drink a beer with them.


It was nice to be out, but I didn’t stay long. I wanted to get back to my parents, to make sure my Dad is okay, to make sure my Mom is okay too. In the last two weeks, since my Dad has been on hospice, the daily, sometimes hourly questions are, how is your Dad? How is your Mom? I answer with some script that I think I’ve been given. We are taking it one day at a time. Or, as well as can be expected. Yesterday, a group of people were sitting in my parents’ living room, engaged in yet another polite discussion about the weather. I volunteered about all the times I got my car stuck in a ditch, driving on icy and snowy roads when I was growing up. “Were you able to get our on your own or did your Dad have to come save you?”

My Dad, he sat in his chair. This is also what we do. We tell stories from 10 and 20 and 30 and 40 years ago and we look at my Dad to gauge whether or not he is listening, whether or not he has something to add. Sometimes he does and sometimes not. I looked at him, but his eyes were closed, oblivious to this discussion. “I don’t think he ever had to come save me, I think I got out on my own.” I said that, but I wasn’t sure. Some of us, we think we remember so much. It’s a complex time. There are moments when I feel like I’ve already lost my Dad. I feel him slipping away and then come back a little, then slip away more. As I drove home, in the freezing rain, my windshield wipers flapping furiously in an attempt to warm the glass enough for me to see out, for a minute again, it all felt so normal. Maybe I wasn’t in high school, but in my 20s, on an unburdened visit home to see the folks and the old friends. Still, not the smartest fellow, because I started driving before I let the car warm and the windshield ice melt. But I made my way, back to my parents’ house. This home that has been part of my identity for the last 40 years. One day, of course, this house will belong to someone else.

As I turned onto the street before my street, I slowed my car, flashbacks of the times I’d misjudged my speed, on icy days, in my beat up ’65 Mustang, and ended up careening into the neighbors’ ravine. With a certainty I did not have yesterday, I was quite sure that there had been times indeed that my Dad had been the one to come tow me out of ditches. He had been the one, not always but at least sometimes, to rescue me.

And I was glad that he was at home, sitting in his chair, waiting up for me. I thought, if I wanted, I could bound into the house and ask him if he ever towed me out of a ditch? I could ask him what other stories he might want to tell me before it’s too late.

As it happened, I did not do that. I shed a tear in my car and then wiped it away and walked into the house and optimistically called, “How is everyone?” “Doing fine,” my Mom answered with equal levity. I asked my Dad how his pain was and he said okay. He was a little more lucid than when I’d left. Fox News was on the television. For these last two weeks, every day it seems, I’m slowly tapping my brake, trying to get a sense of how much traction I have, how slick the road is. I wonder what it will feel like to be on the other side of all this. What will happen when I don’t have my Dad around to tow me out of ditches, to keep me safe?

This is Where We Are

I’ve hesitated sharing the specifics on both my blog and Facebook, but I thought it was time to let folks know that about 10 days ago, we started my Dad on hospice. I have been in Kansas, staying with my parents and helping them for over a week now.

As is often the case in these situations, he has days, and within those days, hours, that are better than others.

Additionally, last Friday was my Mom’s birthday and all weekend our house was full with family and friends. The phone rang continually with people wishing her a Happy Birthday and sending their love to both of my parents.

I try to wrap my brain around the days and weeks ahead and I come up short. I will say, I can’t believe how much I’ve learned in 10 days. Not only do I know what a nebulizer is now, I know how to use it. It is my prayer that this one day at a time approach will carry us through to the next phase. And then the phase after that, and then the phase after that.

I am not sharing this chapter in my family’s story to ask for sympathy. And please, whatever you do, don’t click that darn crying emoji 😢 on Facebook over this. I can’t say that the last few days or weeks or months haven’t offered their share of tears, meltdowns and anxieties, but we have also, through all of this, been cognizant of and grateful for our many blessings.

So this is where we are. If you are so inclined, feel free to keep my parents and my family in your prayers.