It’s been nearly two weeks already. Dad passed away on a Tuesday afternoon, December 8th, 2015 to be exact.
I’m really doing okay, but it’s still so hard to believe he’s gone, even considering how difficult things had become in the past three months. I even thought I’d been preparing myself for this day, but there’s no amount of preparation that can make such a journey any easier.
It started with a ringing telephone. It was Monday, December 7th at 3:45 am. The early morning phone calls were something I’d become accustomed to over the past months since Dad fractured his hip. Mom was on the other end of the line telling me that the paramedics had just taken Dad to the hospital. I wasn’t surprised. He hadn’t been feeling well when my sister and I were at our parents’ house the day before, packing up for the move Mom and Dad were to make to assisted living the coming Wednesday. When we arrived after noon that Sunday, Dad was still in his robe. I can recall him saying something silly to me when I first arrived, but for the life of me, I can’t now recall what it was. I wish I could, but it’s gone. There was some discussion about Dad taking a shower and maybe eating some lunch, but he soon made it clear he wasn’t feeling well. My sister mentioned that he sounded “rattly,” and everyone’s mind made the leap to pneumonia. She suggested we take Dad to the hospital and he instantly and adamantly refused. He’d had enough of transitional care and hospitals, and now had a great fear that going back meant he might never return home. Dad said he was going back to bed. He was snoring when I left to go home. I wish I’d gone in to kiss him on the cheek or give him one last hug that he might reciprocate. But we’d hugged and expressed our I-love-yous plenty in the days prior. At least I have that.
Later that Sunday evening, Mom called to tell me Dad had gotten out of bed and eaten some of the stuffed green pepper soup I’d brought over the day before. She wanted me to know that Dad had thoroughly enjoyed it. Food hadn’t often tasted good to him in the months since he’d broken his hip. This soup, he said, was delicious! I asked Mom if he was feeling better, and she said, “I think so. A little bit anyway.”
And then it was Monday morning and I was awakening to the news that Dad was on his way to another hospital stay. Apparently, Dad felt worse throughout the night. He continued to refuse going to the hospital, only until he grew scared enough that he told Mom she’d better call for an ambulance. Now I was asking Mom if she was feeling strong enough to go to the hospital with Dad. (We’ve been down this road before, and often Mom hasn’t been able to manage the hours in an emergency room with Dad. Often, it’s been one of us kids instead, only bringing Mom if things seemed really bad, or when things were settled enough for her to join us without feeling overwhelmed.) This particular morning, Mom sounded terribly weak and frail and told me she wasn’t sure if she was up to this.
I feel terrible about this now, but I told Mom she needed to tell me how bad this was. After the months of Dad’s recovery from his hip fracture, and all of the time I’d taken off for his care, I was nearly out of vacation time at work. I had just enough left to help make the move from my parents’ town house to the new apartment over the next two days, and then had only one more day I’d long ago planned to take during Christmas week. After that, I’d have no time left to take off from work. I could take advantage of FMLA and take time off unpaid, but didn’t want to go that route if not absolutely necessary. So I wanted to know if this was really “that bad,” or if like recently, we were just looking at another few days of relieving Dad’s heart and lungs of the fluid that kept plaguing him in recent months. If it wasn’t that bad, it was time for someone else to step up to the plate for a change. Mom said she wasn’t sure, and told me to hold tight. She said she’d call my youngest brother and see if he would go, although she supposed “he won’t answer his phone.” I was doubtful too. Lately, as Dad’s health has been so fragile, that brother had pretty much abandoned the family.
I hung up with Mom and within minutes, she was calling again. By some miracle, youngest brother had agreed to go be at Dad’s side in the emergency room that morning. I had been planning to go to the gym before work, but now decided to skip it, get to work early, then bug-out early so I could visit Dad later in the day. I showered and dressed, but before I could even dry my hair, the phone was ringing again. Mom told me the hospital had called and that Dad’s family needed to get there as soon as possible. He was in really bad shape.
I had been told several times by Dad’s doctors recently that considering the poor condition of his heart, and in light of the hip fracture and subsequent lack of mobility, he had a year, at best to live. Still, my heart and mind weren’t prepared for the fact that his one year had just become three months. I raced out the door, hair half wet, no makeup, and straight to my parents’ house to pick up Mom. We got to the hospital in downtown St. Paul as quick as humanly possible considering Monday morning rush-hour traffic. My other brother and sister soon arrived as well. Upon coming through the ER entrance, a member of the staff waved off the security requirements to sign-in and get a name badge and ushered us straight to a private family waiting room. If I wasn’t already certain, I now knew things were dire. Dad’s sisters and brother-in-law soon arrived, as well as my youngest brother’s wife and kids.
We didn’t wait long before we were allowed to go into Dad’s ER room and see him. He looked awful, all hooked up to tubes and machines. He opened his eyes a few times, but it was as if he wasn’t really seeing us. We learned that Dad’s heart had stopped twice by this point and he was in critical condition. A nurse told us we could hold his hands and talk with him. He could hear us, she said.
I went around the bed to stand opposite Mom and other family members where I could have more space. I took Dad’s hand and leaned downward, resting my forehead against his.
“We’re all here, Dad,” I said. “We love you.” I felt him nod against my head and that was the last sign of real life I saw in my Dad.
The hospital staff wanted to move Dad into ICU and as soon as he was stable enough, they moved him there by the fastest route possible. The rest of us were escorted by a staff member. I pushed Mom in her wheelchair and the rest of the family followed through hallways and up elevators to another family waiting room in the ICU. I was able to see Dad one more time for just a few minutes before we were told that he needed a specific procedure that would take about a half hour. We could return to see him when that process was finished.
My siblings, an aunt and uncle and I went downstairs to find some food for Mom and ourselves. We found a little deli in the hospital lobby that offered hot food. We’d paid and were waiting for our breakfast sandwiches to be served up when I heard a Code Blue called out over the hospital intercom. It was Dad’s room number that was announced.
We left our food behind and ran to the elevators, and then ran again to Dad’s room when we’d reached the fifth floor. The scene before us was straight out of a movie, with countless doctors and nurses crowded around Dad’s bed and orders being shouted out. Although I couldn’t see it, my sister later told me that someone was on top of Dad performing chest compressions and CPR. She said it looked extremely violent and Mom cried out for them to stop.
The hospital chaplain rushed into the crowd of family and urgently asked which of us were Dad’s children. As we identified ourselves, she pulled us in close to Dad’s bedside, telling us it was time to say goodbye. We all sobbed and told Dad how much we loved him as all of the noise of the medical team and their procedures disappeared. My brother closest in age to me was crumpled against me, sobbing as I cried and rubbed his back.
I thought we’d said our final goodbyes when in the quiet, I saw Dad’s chest rise again and heard a nurse say, “He has a pulse.”
The family was then ushered back out of the room and we looked at one another in grief and confusion. Someone, the chaplain, I think, tried to explain that although this appeared to be the end, that Dad had fought back.
We were allowed to return shortly to find Dad hooked up to life support. We learned that Dad’s kidney (the one I’d given him seven years ago) was failing and we could consider dialysis. Mom told the doctor that after his years of dialysis prior to the kidney transplant, Dad had made it clear he never wanted to go through that again. His doctor agreed this was the right decision, and told us that Dad had probably suffered some degree of brain damage by this point as well, and was likely to experience another cardiac episode, possibly within minutes. We were told not to expect Dad to live to see another day.
But that doctor was wrong. Then came the long wait. Although Dad’s eyes remained closed from then on, he stayed with us for the remainder of that day.
What followed the drama of the morning was a day filled with quiet, and tears, and more family members coming and going as we all gathered to await my dad’s passing. Exhaustion took over. Stories were told. We were even able to experience some laughter, and dare I say it, some healing of family divisions. Night time came. Mom, my siblings and I took turns sitting by Dad’s side, holding his hands, telling him how much we loved him, and giving him permission to go. I prayed silent prayers as I sat by Dad’s side, hoping he knew how much I loved him and that he wasn’t mad at me, that he didn’t think that by trying to take care of him as best I knew how lately, that I was trying to take away his independence. The strain of it all had just the last week resulted in ugly heated words between Dad and me. I tried to forget all that and focus on the reconciliation we’d experienced together just four days ago.
Tuesday morning arrived and Dad continued to hang on. We knew this day would bring a decision to discontinue life support. Now it was just a matter of time. When the medical team finally came around sometime after 9:00, the decision was made. We were assured this was the right thing to do. All we had to do was let Dad’s nurse know when we were ready and the process of letting Dad go would begin.
Jack had been with me the day before, but I’d sent him home on Monday night to try to get some rest. I now called him and sobbed that I needed him back again. He assured me he was on his way.
By this time, I also had my parents’ priest on “speed-dial.” Actually, I sent him a text and asked if he could come now. He called back and said he was on his way. Father Joe has been the head priest at my parents’ parish for a few years now. My dad had the privilege of serving as Father Joe’s deacon during Dad’s last year or so before he retired from fifteen years of clerical duties at this church.
Father Joe came quickly. And he stayed, much beyond what might normally be expected. He said one last mass with my dad by his side and it was beautiful, the way he addressed Dad and expressed his regret that never again would they be able to lead a mass together. After mass, all of the monitors and pumps keeping Dad alive were turned off. We were told to expect that Dad would likely pass very quickly.
Father Joe asked if he could stay and pray over Dad. We heartily agreed. He said he could pray silently or out loud, whichever we preferred. We said, “out loud.” As Mom and we kids and Dad’s extended family encircled him, holding his hands and telling him how much we loved him, Father Joe prayed.
And he prayed. And prayed. And prayed. He sang Silent Night and prayed some more. Dad hung on. Father Joe seemed to be searching his mind for what more to pray, and offered to lead us in a rosary. Someone mentioned that we didn’t have our “cheat sheets.” Father Joe assured us that he would take the lead and we were actually able to laugh a little at the thought that we wouldn’t be able to successfully pray the rosary with a priest right there in our midst.
I was amazed at how quickly the prayers and responses came back to me. I haven’t prayed the rosary in years! I sat on Dad’s bed, holding his hand the entire time as we prayed each mystery of the rosary. About an hour and a half after life support had been disconnected, when we had said every Hail Mary, every Our Father, every bit of the rosary, Father Joe addressed Dad. “Well done, good and faithful servant (Matthew 25:23),” he said. “You are free to go to your Lord.”
And in that moment, as I held his hand, my dad breathed his last breaths and left this world. While the end was so graceful and befitting of the way my dad lived his life, I have never felt so heartbroken in my own life. But at the same time, I became so certain that there is a much more beautiful life beyond the physical one that we know here on earth. In that moment, I knew without a doubt that my dad, who worked so faithfully in this life to honor the Lord he knew and loved, was now experiencing perfect love and peace such as he’d never known before.
There were certainly miracles and grace surrounding my dad’s passing, not the least of which includes my forgiveness of the brother I’d so recently been ready to dismiss from my life. (Oh, I’m not naive enough to think that our relationship will be perfect from here on out. But for now, I can embrace him, and do a better job of letting his stuff roll off my back.)
Father Joe was a godsend, and we’ve since told him more than once that we’re adopting him. (I joked with youngest brother, “You’re out.” … Don’t worry. He laughed!)
The visitation and funeral were incredible and beautiful. The outpouring of love and support was beyond all expectation. The church, during the funeral mass was full of friends and family, the pews filled from front to back. After years of seeing my dad through the lens of his illnesses and limitations, it was profoundly uplifting to see him through the eyes of all those who loved him, of those whose lives he touched. I thought I would cry through the visitation and funeral. Instead, I found myself smiling from ear to ear, and even laughing. I was able to see my dad as the man he worked so hard to be all of his life, the man whose faith in God never once waivered. I was so unbelievably proud of the man my dad had been in his lifetime. All of the worry, frustration and fear I’d felt in the past months and years, and the recent sense of feeling so alone simply dissolved. What remained was only love.
It’s amazing the clarity and peace I now feel in the wake of my dad’s passing. I thought I would feel grief stricken and morose for a significant amount of time after my dad’s death. Although there are daily episodes of sadness and tears, the main feeling inside of me is joy. Yes, joy. My dad worked so hard all of his life to teach his kids the deep faith he felt in his Lord. I resisted him for years, and even when I stopped resisting, struggled so hard to “get it.” Now that he’s gone, it’s so clear. My dad has reached the ultimate destination. I know I can’t possibly wrap my head around how beautiful and perfect is the place where my Dad now lives, but I know … I know he is immersed in abundant joy, perfection and peace. All of his weakness and frailty is gone from him.
Most cathartic, I think, is that I was able to write and deliver a eulogy. Father Joe told us that the mass wouldn’t allow for a family eulogy in addition to the one he would deliver as part of his homily. But any or all of us should feel free to speak during the funeral luncheon. Good thing. The funeral mass took over an hour as it was, and as it turns out, I had a lot to say. Besides, I felt much less stress at the idea of speaking in front of a crowd eating lunch as opposed to doing so during such a solemn and formal event such as the Catholic mass.
This entry is long enough as it is. I’m proud of what I had to say, and proud that I conquered a big fear and spoke in honor of my dad in front of a crowd. I’ll share those words in a future post.