My brother, sister, and I sat around the bed our dad lay in watching each breath get more brief and shallow. It had been nearly six days of making sure there was no more pain, but that also meant there was no more ‘dad’ for us to connect with. I watched this once pivotal, bigger than life, story-teller of a man shrink and drift away.
And then a long pause.
Inhale. Exhale. …
Another long pause.
We each placed a hand on him.
The vein in his neck stopped pulsing.
exhale. … …
We all looked up and said ‘good-bye’ as we imagined him finally being free of the pain he had suffered over the past year, both physically, and emotionally.
On September 2nd, 2017 at approximately 8:00 pm CST, my dad died.
The next hour or so was the three of us cleaning up the hospice room we’d been in for nearly a week, taking turns sleeping overnight, waking when his breathing changed, or chatting with family and friends who came to visit. But, to me, he had been gone for nearly a week.
With my wife and my brother-in-law present, both coming to hospice after dad’s passing, we said a prayer and a final goodbye as dad’s body lay in bed cool to the touch. We all left, and the funeral home people went in to take dad away for cremation. I decided to stay in the hall outside, while everyone continued to walk to the exit… except my wife who stayed by my side, holding me – just holding on to me.
I was his firstborn. I felt it my job to at least see his body taken away. Probably wasn’t, though. It was actually the first time I got choked up thinking about the fact that the man who had been there since the day I was born was really gone.
My feeling that this just couldn’t be happening had been going on for months. That there was no way dad could die from this stupid thing called cancer. His family genetics were strong and his own parents grew to be in their 80s and 90s, not a mere 74 years of age. His sister was sixteen years older and his brother, who had unfortunately passed away a little over a year earlier, was ten years older. How could dad die of cancer?
Where my denial came into play was only a few weeks earlier, just before the total eclipse of 2017 that was visible in the United States.
My dad had beat the cancer that had formed a tumor in his neck. Cancer was not a surprise. He was a weapon’s specialist in the Air Force during Vietnam loading up bombs, some of which were radioactive. He also smoked for years – apparently saying since he was fourteen, “But I’ve quit several times and can anytime I want,” he would tell us still smelling fresh cigarette smoke in the air.
There had been many issues as he had been in the VA system and from the time he was diagnosed to the time he started treatment was nearly three months or more. But we thought with the cessation of smoking, he’d have many years ahead.
There was no way he wouldn’t beat this too.
But a few months after finding out he had beat the throat cancer, they found spots on his lungs. His mental exhaustion kicked in. It was apparent he was tired of the process and had thought once he had finished the throat treatments, he could return to a normal semblance of life again.
Sunday’s were our time to ‘get out’ of the VA Retirement Home and grab a Dr. Pepper or snack and drive around town. While the conversations always started kind of negative, most of the time, by the end of the drive, there was hope and positivity.
When the treatment was to begin for the lung cancer, and dad’s physical issues really came into play: cataracts, on-going back problems, swallowing and refusing to even try to eat, receive physical therapy, or even speech therapy (for eating), I started to get really irritated with my dad.
How could he not do everything that was asked of him to beat the cancer?
Now here is where I vent.
We all were furiously frustrated with the VA System, the doctors, the hospitals, and many others for taking so long to get started. Once started, the process seemed overly complicated. My siblings and our spouses set up smartphone apps, email addresses, and more just to track all the medications, appointments, reports, logins, and crazy documents.
Dad would complain about the various staff, the doctors, the medications, the retirement home and staff, how he felt, the food, and many other things that escape me at the moment (or that I’ve blocked out).
All of us changed our schedules, missed meetings, missed days of work and home life. We tirelessly organized rides, made calls, and paid bills. All the while listening to our dad complain. ‘Was he always this way?’ I would ask myself.
His back hurt. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t taste anything. He couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t shower. On and on and on.
Compassion told me that he had isolated himself and needed connection.
Anger said he did it to himself. Sitting for ten to fifteen years in front of a computer, drinking beer, often smoking, not exercising, not eating well – or at all. He had ‘done everything’ he had wanted in life but did not participate in it at all. The few visits he had with his kids were generally relegated to us visiting him. His visits lasted an hour or so and he would leave.
Not always, mind you. He had engaged with us early on when he arrived after leaving his second wife in Canada. He joined a multi-level marketing company my wife and I tried involving ‘healthy’ chocolate. He even went out on some dates, but – from feedback we heard – they did not go well. He would go out to dinners, and events, and stayed active. Until he went to live by himself.
But I was angry because I knew if he didn’t do everything he could to beat the cancer, I would lose my dad. My dad who pushed me to do the hard things to be better. To follow the things you love to do. To experience the world. To – and here is where I get a little cheesy – seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before! Yes…he introduced me to Star Trek.
So when I got the call, after a particularly rough two weeks, that dad just wanted to go to hospice and die.
I was so angry I went numb.
“If only he hadn’t left mom and moved to Canada,” I thought.
“If only I had met up with him more often.”
“Made him get his back fixed.”
“Forced the doctors to start treatment sooner.”
“Been a better son.”
Yeah. All that ‘bargaining’ and more went on and still does. But most of it goes back to wishing he had done things differently. I know that’s the selfish part, as now he’s not here to talk to, ask questions about the family, talk about heraldry, or just listen to his crazy stories. Stories, which we discovered after his passing, were what nearly all our friends in high school loved about coming to our house. Stories his friends shared.
I cannot recall a single fictional story, like short stories or novels, that he ever wrote, but I can recall a time my brother and I caught him making up a story to our sister’s boyfriend (way back in the day). It was the first time we caught him and it was huge for my brother and me to discover that, indeed, he made stuff up. He constantly defended his authenticity, but we knew the truth.
All that being said, I think the only thing I’d really like to bargain for is less for me and more for some of his friends and family. Too late we realized we could have used video calls to allow him some final words, but in the end, he said he was sorry. “I feel like I’ve let everybody down.” We tried to convince him we thought otherwise. And sad that one of his friends from high school drove nineteen hours to say goodbye only to find dad already drifted off in a morphine haze. He had said ‘no food or water’ and to bring him out of the drugged state would more than likely have been excruciating. His friend stayed for about three hours, visited with us, stood over dad’s hospital bed sharing some words, and left.
The trouble with dad’s oldest son is (as he writes briefly in third person), is that he knows what is right, why people do things they do, and can logically understand why his father made the choices he did until his death, but he feels let down – and guilty because of it.
This is not my first ‘death’ in the family.
Although I wasn’t as close to my grandparents, since they lived so far away in Pennsylvania, I still felt pretty sad. Though, if I’m honest, I think I felt more empathy for my parents at their loss.
My mother died twenty years earlier, suddenly. She had also struggled with smoking and severe alcohol addiction – one of the things that drove my dad away and had him file for divorce. We hadn’t ‘seen’ her for several years. Every encounter was a repeat of things discussed, or random slurred discussions we knew wouldn’t be remembered the next time we spoke. We were stunned when she showed up after a three-hour drive already intoxicated.
Luckily, after a second hospitalization due to extreme intoxication, an intervention with friends and family occurred and she went into rehab for several weeks. When she came out, it was the first time we had seen and heard our mom in years. She did the normal steps from those kinds of programs and apologized to us. We said, “We’re all still here, mom.” She looked and said, “Not all of you.” And we knew, she meant dad.
She had always said he had been a crappy husband but had been an awesome friend, and a great dad.
That year, several people she knew passed away. I attended a few of the funerals.
One week, mom called me at work. Busy, I told her I’d give her a shout that night. I didn’t call. I was watching a movie and feeling lazy.
Arriving at work early, I got the call she passed away the night before sometime. They were certain it was sudden. Sitting on the edge of the bed, one foot propped up on the edge, one on the floor, she was laying back with one hand on her temple – as if simply resting for a moment. I recalled the phone call and remembered she said she’d been fighting a bad headache.
The verdict was an aneurysm sometime after ten o’clock. About an hour or so later than when I said I’d call…and didn’t.
It was about two or three months later when I recognized that I wasn’t sleeping well, was breaking out into rashes, and otherwise feeling bad. I didn’t drink, at the time, but I did eat poorly.
Coming out of that experience, I know things to watch in myself for similar depression symptoms. I also know I’ve created an environment so stressful, that it is simply allowing me to avoid depression, sadness, and all the grief. I am careful in most other aspects, but part of writing this as a coping mechanism for what I’m currently feeling; hopelessness.
What’s it all for? What’s next? What am I supposed to do? How much time do I have left? My mom was 54 when she died. I’m 51 at the moment. Do I have another 23 until I reach dad’s age of 74? How can I motivate myself to do more? Be more?
Luckily, it’s all just ‘this moment.’ I’ve followed a fairly optimistic viewpoint in life. Maybe with a little pessimism. “Expect the worst. Hope for the best.” I heard…from dad, really. I have started three businesses in the past, endured heartbreak, loss, and failure. So, hopelessness for me is fleeting, but often crushing – only for a bit.
This phrase came to me while writing: As long as there is life, there is hope. As long as there is hope, there is life. I like that.
I wish dad would have believed it a little bit more.
This part has already come to pass.
While I don’t like accepting what has happened and will no doubt loop around the five stages of grief, I do accept it. Unlike my mother’s death, I was with my dad when he transitioned. I had better closure, I think.
Still so fresh in my heart, his passing, I still find times where I start to call him or think, ‘I should bring dad here,’ when I find a place or food he’d like. Reality quickly crashes back in, but not horribly. With my mom, it was more intense, but infrequent, and took a long time to heal. With dad, he made his choices, he lived his life, and he chose when he was done.
Mostly, and the whole reason I’m even slightly accepting of his passing is that I couldn’t stand to watch my dad suffer so much pain. My heart tells me that some of the pain he experienced was simply from numbing himself for years with beer, cigarettes, video games, and zoning out. That, in the end, he had to really feel all the things he had shoved away. Many conversations were had about mom, his leaving, his regret, and more. We’ll never really know what happened between our parents. Mom never really said. Dad only said a few things after mom passed, but they seemed – unimportant, somehow.
I’d like to think – envision – the two of them together as they were as teenagers. Before dad’s open heart surgery. Before mom’s struggles. Before money, fights, and struggles, that pushed them apart. Before their own parents passed. Even before us kids – though I know they loved us all.
No, I like to think of them back in their high school days, out with their science club on a hillside in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on a dark night, their telescope out watching the stars, laughing, in awe, and thinking of a bright shiny future filled with possibilities.
~ Kahlil Gibran
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.
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Thank you for this writing, Eric. I feel a connection to so much of your experience, while sharing only some of its particulars. Life is big, eh?
Big indeed. And, yes, only a few particulars, but the ones closest to the surface through all of this.
Thank you for this beautiful writing, Eric. I enjoyed reading this and, also enjoyed the videos. I went to school with your dad and he was a very nice person. A very handsome, mannerly guy. Sorry he left you all too soon. Thank you for the wonderful tribute to him.