For my Dad – a Different Kind of Journey

Four months. That’s how long it’s been since my father passed
away. February 20, 2016. There were a lot of things I expected about grief. The
tears, the fatigue, the depression, the yearning, the weight of it all. I did
not expect to become obsessed with the passing of time.

I noted the one hour mark – my father has been dead for one
hour. Now 24. Now 2 days. One week. Two weeks. One month. Two months. Three
months. Now four. Every day at around 10pm – another day has passed, and I note
it. It becomes a milestone, something you mark on a mental calendar, like a
birthday but in reverse.

I did not expect to crave to go back to long days in the
hospital, to miss those last few days just sitting idly in a room with my dad,
who was heavily sedated and intubated, but still alive, and his body was still
warm. Still warm. That’s what I crave going back to – being able to touch my
dad and him being still warm.

Now his ashes sit on the mantle of the fireplace at my
parents’ house (my mom’s house?) and there is nothing more disorienting than
being able to pick up my dad in my arms. This man, who, especially when I was
younger, was strong, big, tough, and even scary when he was angry, now fits in
a bag that sits in a box that I can hold in my arms. I did not expect that
feeling.

I did not expect to experience my dad’s energy so often and
in so many ways, but I’m always grateful when I do. From the mysterious phone
call my dad’s phone gave to my mom’s as we left the hospital the night he
passed, to Tim’s front bike tire spinning quickly and on its own volition while
sitting on the trainer in the living room, to see a truck identical to dad’s
while visiting historical sites with my mom and brother – sites where he and my
mom had been on dates. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe in ghosts.

And, there really is a lot to be grateful for in all of
this. I’m grateful my family is so close and that we were all there together
when he took his last breath. I’m grateful that my job makes it easy for me to
travel home to visit my family. I’m grateful that my dad made peace with
himself and with those he loved before he passed. I’m grateful to have seen him
become so grateful and patient in his last few years of life. I’m grateful that
this story in my family’s history, though painful, is also one of the most
beautiful.

I want to share it here.

My mom called me on Sunday February 14 – Valentine’s Day –
to tell me dad was in the hospital. He’d been sick with kidney disease and on
dialysis for several years and it was not uncommon at this point for him to
have to go to the hospital with complications related to that. I was at the
airport in Reno, Nevada, heading back to Baltimore, Maryland for work after a
friend’s birthday party at Lake Tahoe. My mom and dad had spent the weekend at
a nice hotel near where they lived. The hotel had a Jacuzzi in the bedroom and
a swimming pool, and taking these one-night getaways to local hotels was an
affordable and convenient way for my parents to have a mini-vacation, without
having to travel or re-arrange my dad’s dialysis schedule. That morning, my dad
became very sick after swimming. He vomited and said he needed to go to the
hospital – he knew something was wrong.

I only know what my mom has told me about what followed –
that he was in a lot of pain, that he was admitted at St. Francis hospital, and
that they thought it was pancreatitis and complications from kidney disease.

I talked to my mom when I got back to my hotel in Baltimore
that night. Things sounded serious, but stable, and she told me she would let
me know in the morning if it looked like I needed to take the week off work and
drive down to Richmond (just three hours from Baltimore).

I woke up Monday morning to several missed calls and
messages from my grandmother (Baba), mom and brother (Travis). I talked to my
mom and she told me the doctor had said things looked really serious, that
people don’t typically recover from this, and that she should contact all of
the family. I cried, called Tim to tell him, and pulled myself together to
figure out how to get down to Richmond. I had misplaced my driver’s license and
was worried about being able to get a rental car. Thankfully, the lady at the
Avis desk said it wouldn’t be a problem after I explained my situation.

I don’t remember much about my drive, aside from that it was
snowing pretty badly. Somehow though I made it to St. Francis hospital in about
3 hours despite the traffic and snow. I met my mom in the waiting area outside
of the Critical Care Unit and she filled me in. Dad was sedated and intubated,
and I could go see him but he wasn’t going to be awake or aware. I went in and
kissed his forehead.

The subsequent days are a bit of a blur. I think at some
point on Monday we learned more about what had happened. My dad, over years of
having reflux, had worn a hole into his esophagus. This caused the fluids
inside his stomach to spill out into the space surrounding his organs. This is
what made him feel so sick, and can also cause severe septic infections. They were
in the process of pulling that fluid out of his body and treating the
infection.

We spent every day at the hospital. Dad was awake one of the
days – I think Tuesday – and not intubated so he was able to talk. He was
really confused about what had happened, but still had his sense of humor. When
the nurse came in, she asked him about his birthday – “October 2, 1962 – does that
date sound familiar to you?” He looked confused and shook his head – then started
laughing and said, yes of course.

Mom, Travis and I tried to explain to him what happened. He
just kept saying, “I don’t understand, what happened? I just don’t understand.”
The plan at this point was to place a stint in the hole in his esophagus.
Ideally, they would have been able to surgically close the hole, but the
esophageal tissue was so damaged it was inoperable. We understood at this point
that his chances of survival were about 50/50, though we didn’t tell dad that.
As we left the hospital room for the clinicians to place the stint, dad asked
me, “Is this going to kill me?” I said no. That’s the last time I saw my dad
awake and able to speak.

The next day, I think Wednesday, dad was awake briefly but
intubated so he couldn’t talk to us. I updated him on what had happened up
until now and told him the most important thing he could do was rest. He rolled
his eyes at me, which made me laugh. I was happy to see my dad’s sense of
humor.

After this, the nurse sedated him again – in order to help
him rest and save his energy for healing. He would remain sedated for the rest
of his life.

Everything Wednesday until Saturday is a blur. Tim came into
town at some point. Mom agreed to a do-not-resuscitate order – meaning if dad
went into cardiac arrest, rather than performing CPR (which would damage the
already precarious stint anyway), clinicians would not try to revive him.

The days at the hospital seemed to last forever and were
passed conversing with visiting family members, taking short walks around the
hospital, and grabbing food.

Saturday morning, mom called me earlier than expected to go
to the hospital – the doctors had said they anticipate he could go into cardiac
arrest at any point. So, back to the hospital we went.

In the late afternoon, his vitals started to crash. The
nurse told us there was nothing more she could do since he was maxed on all the
medications. We stood around him and tearfully told him we loved him and held
on to his arms and hands. We thought this was it. Somehow, though, his vitals
improved – maybe he could tell we weren’t ready yet.

That evening, around 8:30pm, after conversations with the
doctors and nurses, my mom, brother and I all arrived at the same conclusion
around the same time – we didn’t think it made sense to continue to draw this
out if there was only one possible outcome in the end.

All of my dad’s siblings (he was the youngest of 5) and his
mom and some of our extended family and friends were in the waiting area. We
told them our decision to take dad off of life support and, thankfully, no one
disagreed. I say here that we “decided” but truly, dad’s body decided for us –
there was no other choice at this point, and one thing I’m grateful for is that
we never had to make a true decision or speculate on what “might have been.”

Once everyone had come in to say goodbye to dad, the nurse
took him off of the intubation and adjusted his medications to make him more
comfortable. Sedated but breathing on his own, mom, Travis and I sat there with
dad for about 45 minutes. We held on to him, we told stories, we laughed, we
cried. I gave him “farty kisses”. Travis told dad not to worry – that he would
take care of mom. We lived a whole lifetime in those 45 minutes. There are no
words to explain the experience of sitting with your dad as his body slows down
and he takes his last breath. There are no words to describe the connection you
feel when your mom and brother are there with you. And there is no way I could
ever adequately describe how deeply proud and grateful I am that, after
everything my family has been through together (and it’s been a lot), at the
end of my dad’s life, which was a short, full and complicated one, the four of
us were all right there together in a bond that nothing can break. It was
heartbreaking, and probably a bit traumatizing in a way I haven’t fully appreciated
yet, and it was beautiful. One family. Forty five minutes. A lifetime.

If you read this far – thank you for taking the time to
share in my grief.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad – I love you and I miss you.

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