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.