with apologies to John Donne, et al.
So part of my mean reds, by no means all, but a good portion, has to be related to the fact that today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of my father. Ten years. More than a quarter of my life now, without him. It takes my breath away to even think of it. I...ach. I could blither on, but I decided months ago that I wanted to reprint an article from the paper version of Languishing (Winter 2004, Issue 1, Volume 8) today. I wrote it just a month or so after he died, and I print it here mostly unaltered.
Mighty and dreadful indeed.
Death Be Not Proud
One woman's story of losing her daddy.
Wednesday, 24 July 2002: 7:30am: Mom called this morning. Seems dad's chest pains from last night didn't go away, so I'm heading over to Hillsboro. I talked to Jess, told her not to come. I know she feels so far away in the Cities, but this is just chest pains. She'll be home this weekend, and can see him then.
8:30am: Dad looks gaunt, almost skeletal. He always looks this way, though, in his hospital gown, when he's had a ride in the ambulance. How many times have we been here? Since I was twelve, after those first 6 months of rehab after the stroke, I've seen him like this....half a dozen times? A dozen? Too many, but it's not like any of us chose this life. It just is. I smooth his hair; what I feel towards my father, what I have felt for almost 17 years, is very much typical father-daughter love. But also motherly, because he needs care. I clip his fingernails, clean out his ears when they're dirty. I cut up his steak for him. Rustle my fingers through his beard when I try to convince him to trim it. But he is always my father. He wheels his chair out with me to the parking lot, checks my tires, makes sure the headlights work, makes me use my seat belt. He is comforting, familiar, strong. He tells me everything will work out, that I can do what I am afraid to do, that he loves me.
In this little hospital room with uncomfortable chairs and a television mounted on the wall, I talk to Jess again. Should she come? I ask Dad. No, he says, shaking his head emphatically, as if to say, Don't be silly. The nurse is in the room with us, and after a few minutes, he starts coughing, waving his hand at her, raising his voice. She doesn't understand him, and I'm still on the phone with Jess. "He's going to throw up" I snap at the nurse, frustrated that she doesn't comprehend our secret code of gestures and inflection. Jess says, "I'm on my way" just before I hang up on her, because the black bile is seeping through Dad's beard onto his faded gown. The nurse apologizes, and I do, too, because she couldn't know that this time "Deelo...deelo!" meant "I need an emesis basin."
9am: The doctor comes in. Mom is really worried, but I'm not. Jesus, he survived a massive stroke, the amputation of both legs: some little heart palpitation's not going to kill him. The doctor is short, shorter than me, and other than that he reminds me of my cousin Chad, with olive skin, dark, thinning hair, and a laid-back way. His news is not good. There's been a heart attack, of significant size, it seems. Dad's asleep now, because the nurse gave him medicine to help with his nausea. We stand over him, talk around him. Mom strokes his bald head. I ask what we should do. I get frustrated, because I feel like the doctor and we are speaking two different languages. "It's up to you," he says. Yeah, we know that. What should we do?? "Well, he has a DNR order..." Yeah, we know that too. What does this mean. How bad is it? WILL HE DIE? "We don't know yet. We could find out the extent of the damage, but he'd have to go to Fargo for that." He's sleeping now. I don't think he wants to go to Fargo. I don't know. So if we don't find out the extent of the damage.... what happens? We know strokes, we know gallstones, we know prostate and cancer and bladder infections and amputations, but we don't know heart attacks. "He could recover. The next 24 hours will be important." I'm glad Jessica is on her way. I call her cell and tell her so, and tell her that Dad's comfortable now, snoring lightly. She's scared, but our Aunt Shirley, Dad's sister, is with her. I'm glad of that too. They just left the city, and it's almost 10 am.
12 noon: Brenda, our friend and the wife of our pastor in Hendrum, stops by. She's an RN, and looks at Dad carefully. I show her his vitals, which I've been recording in my journal. Blood pressure: 90/40; pulse 120; temp 99.2; oxygen 84%. She talks to Dad, although he's not really awake at all. Tells him she's here, says a prayer with us. The Lord's Prayer hurts my chest when I say it. "Our father, who art in heaven." Brenda does a healing ceremony, instead of communion, and it involves anointing with oil. It feels too much like last rites and Mom and I both cry.
Dad's kidneys aren't working much. He's been in the hospital since 7:30, and he's made no urine. This is very bad, Brenda tells us. Her seriousness scares me. She takes mom out for lunch, and I sit with Dad, tell him about work, Shaun, our dog, our house. I tell him I love him over and over and over again. I know he knows: it just helps to say it. Beverly, Dad's other sister, who lives in California, calls. She wants to know how he is, and I tell her, as he sleeps. Dad and Bev were so close as children, practically twins. As she's about to hang up, he opens his eyes, and I say, wait, here he is. I hold the phone to his ear, and though he's groggy, I tell him it's his sister Bev. He hears her voice, and responds. He knows it's her: I don't know what she says to him, but he says "yeah," a few times, tells her he's okay, I think. I take the phone and tell her he knew it was her, and she says she knows. She's looking into flights to Fargo.
2pm: The doctor stops by again. The kidney thing has him worried. Why aren't they working, we ask. His blood pressure is so low, they're not getting enough blood. His heart has been damaged, so it's pumping where it can. Will that get better? Maybe. Let's inject him with some saline, and some medicine to make him urinate, and see if that helps. Okay. C'mon kidneys. Mom is really quiet. I don't see why everyone has to be so solemn. It's been bad before.
3pm: Jess and Shirley arrive. They stopped in Moorhead and picked up Shaun. Dad wakes up and knows Jess, certainly, and she kisses him and cries and cries. He's hardly awake at all any more, from the medication or the effort his heart is making to pump what little it can. Mom, Jess, and I talk with Dad, who won't wake up, about how we won't resuscitate. No breathing tubes, no surgeries. If the kidneys work, they work. If not, we'll have to let him go. Dad agreed to this years ago, but we tell each other again that this is what he wants, what we all know should happen, if it has to.
The doctor comes back, and as the saline and medication have not jump-started the kidneys, he recommends we bring family in. This is the first time I'm really startled. He says "If there's family thinking of coming, you should tell them to come. Now." We use Shirley's cell phone to call relatives. I call three of mom's siblings: Bev, John, and Sharon. "This might be it, the doctor says," I tell three people, and for some reason it gets harder every time. I can't call any one else after that. Jessica calls the others, and we let Shirley call Dad's side of the family. We are very, very tired.
6pm: We go eat supper in shifts. Shirley and I and Shaun go first, to the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Hillsboro. It feels like a VFW hall, kind of, with industrial tables and chairs. I eat fried shrimp, and the three of us talk, and sort of look at each other, surprised, kind of, by what seems about to happen. i feel like my eyes are wide open, insistently watching, waiting. Shaun feels helpless, afraid for us, and doesn't know how to help. When we get back to the hospital, Uncle Harry, Dad's older brother, is there. They have been fighting with each other for about 10 years, or maybe 15. It feels like forever, but we're glad he's there. Even Dad, I think, knows how much Harry loves him this summer night.
7pm-on: Through the evening, we have lots of company; Pastor Tim comes, and Shaun's dad, and Carla and Darrell and Janice, friends of our family. Lots of people, it seems, and we are all grateful. Most everyone is gone by 11pm, when the nursing shift changes. Our night RN must've been in the military, I think. She is all business, and her gruffness worries me a little, because Jess and I will push back if we need to, but we're not exactly strong right now. Instead, she insists on just a few things. "He must be kept comfortable. Tell your mother to get some sleep. I'll let you know if it gets close to time." Now I know there's no going back. This nurse makes no pretense of recovery, and it is just the waiting. Because the hospital is nearly empty, we get the room next to Dad's, and mom goes to sleep for a few hours. She's been up, by our count, nearly 40 hours straight. Aunt Shirley dozes in the lounge, and Jess and I stay with Dad.
The next few hours will remain forever some of the most memorable of my life. Sitting with my father and my sister, knowing that time is so literally almost out, I feel desperate to stay awake, to soak in every second we have left together. Jess and I cry, even sob, at times. Finally, we decide to make the best of it. First we talk about our favorite memories with Dad. She remembers things I'd forgotten, and vice versa, So we tell him we love him, and why, and tell him what he's taught us, and what we'll remember. At some point, we shift, and talk about the future. Jess tells him what she hopes to name her children, and I do the same. "We promise to tell them about you, Daddy. We promise to take care of each other, and of Mom." We recognize out loud that if we'd been a TV movie, we'd have changed the channel by now.
2:30am: After taking Dad's pulse, Army nurse says we should wake Mom, so we do. But Dad has no intention of dying yet, so we sprawl around his room...in hospital chairs, across the foot of his bed, on the floor, and take turns dozing. When morning comes, he is still with us, and we joke, wearily, about his stubbornness. Sometime in the morning, Brenda comes again. She tells us an amazing story about letting go, about the path toward death as a journey, and we all cry. Brenda, Mom, and Jess go out for lunch, and Shirley goes to pick up Bev at the airport.
While they are gone, Dad's breathing gets more sporadic. He has a kind of apnea, it seems, and stops breathing for a second or two or ten...and then breathes again. Brenda told us this would happen, And that it would indicate the end was coming closer. She said it would get worse until finally the space between breaths was greater and greater...and eventually, he would just stop.
2pm: Mom and Jess come back from lunch, and walk in with Uncle Harry. Harry says, "I'll go," and we tell him he has to say good-bye. So he does. "We'll see you, Dewey," he says, shaking Dad's hand. It is one of the saddest moments I've ever seen.
Jess has to run to the bathroom, just down the hall. Mom and I sit, listen to Dad breathe, then stop. Breathe, then stop. When Jess gets back, Mom has to go. While she's gone, Jess and I watch Dad wince twice to draw breath: it really seems to hurt him. Finally, mom gets back. She sits with Dad's good hand, on his left. I sit on his right, and Jess sits on the foot of his bed. We tell him we love him, that he can go...and he does. He just...stops.
Again, if it were a TV movie, it would be too ridiculous. But that's how it happened, how we got to say good-bye, and be with him. How we watched him die. I don't have a moral to this story, and I'm not telling you this for pity, or to make you sad. It feels good, somehow to share it. It was a gift he gave us, being able to be with him. He was a good man. I miss him.