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.
My prayers and condolences for you, and your mom and all those who loved your dad, and whom your dad loved.
Thank you, Ray. Your words caused me to remember my own father’s passing, in Sept 2015, three days before my birthday. Grief is a weird thing, and it is completely individual. I don’t think there is anything I can say about my experience that will guide you in your own. Well, perhaps one thing. The grief, I think, will change over time. It has for me and others with whom I’ve spoken. It may not ever go away. I still have moments, such as reading your words, in which I cry, missing my dad. But there is a way, I cannot explain, in which grief becomes a part of you, of your life, at least in time, and it becomes, I guess, manageable. For me, at first, it felt harsh and overwhelming. I kept recalling my father’s last breaths. But over time, grief takes me to more golden and wonderful moments. I think it might for you, too. You may already be on your way. Prayers, beloved brother. My prayers. And may your father’s memory be eternal.
It’s haunting how much you resemble your Father today, Ray.
He lives now forever in your heart…
Being told I look like my Dad has always been something I loved hearing, but as you can imagine, now, it means even more to me. Thanks, Michael!!
I believe it’s important for you and your grief process that you wrote about your dad’s “harrowing” last hours, even if no one else ever reads what you wrote; indeed even if you destroy the document rather than saving it. Upon the encouragement of my grief counselor I have written about my own recent loss, but I’m not nearly as talented a writer as you, so I know I will never share it with anyone. I am so immensely sad and sorry about what you and your family have been through.
Ray, this is so beautifully told! I watched my Dad take his last breath, when all the others around his hospital bed were busy distributing coffee cups the nurse had just brought in at 3 a.m. It was the most beautiful part of his final struggle. It was also a moment filled with pain. It is a bizarre sort of gift, to be able to share someone’s final moments. You never forget it, but it doesn’t overshadow the lifetime of memories you shared. Peace to you, your Mom and family.
My dad died 24 years ago, and I still remember him. He too died of cancer though in the end they put him on a morphine drip and he didn’t die in pain. I don’t think our grief ever fully disappears. Even as I write this, I am weeping, remembering him. A grief counsellor recommended that I write a letter to him, but I am still quite incapable of doing that. I often wonder why loving is so hard.
All the best.
Ray ray, I love you.
Beautiful piece Ray. You’re a great writer, and a good Son.
Ray, you truly did an amazing job! This type of job is most definitely not cut out for everyone, but you did it well. The last time I saw your family was the night before he passed & he was holding both you & your mom closely telling you that he loved you. Precious! Remember that moment best. He really was a great man. God bless you!