“What? No. Is that something that happens to people?”
I laughed a little. “Yes, Dad, that’s something that can happen to people.”
“Hm. Well, nope. The chemo didn’t make me sick, my hair didn’t fall out, nothin’. I actually feel pretty good.”
“Guess you’re just a tough old bird.”
That was the last conversation I had with my stepdad. The next day he went to a hospital in Iowa City for a biopsy and “some tests and stuff.” He was supposed to call me afterwards and tell me about the results. Instead, I got a text message to call my mom. A biopsy had turned into a lung removal. I called the hospital and was told my dad couldn’t talk because he was on a breathing tube.
“Are you telling me he’s on a respirator? Like life support?”
“Yes, he’s getting help with his breathing.”
“Is he… is that… is he going to be able to get off of that?”
“Well, that’s what we’re hoping,” the nurse said.
I had a press trip scheduled for the next week and my mom told me she would go to the hospital to see him. She said he was conscious and responding, and he rolled his eyes when she told him that I was afraid he’d think I’d forgotten about him. I went to Mexico.
While I was laying in a hammock overlooking the water, I got a text message from Jared telling me that Dad had another surgery and came out of it fine. I was relieved to hear good news. It wasn’t until I got home the next day that I found out he had merely survived another surgery, but that there was no such thing as good news anymore. About 24 hours after arriving home from Cancun, I boarded a Greyhound for the first time. At noon the next day, I finally arrived at my dad’s hospital room and it was clear that I had come to say goodbye.
I know he recognized me at least once, and he knew who I was that first day when I told him that I loved him. That certainty and recognition faded quickly, however, and I spent the bulk of my time trying to guess if he wanted Vaseline on his lips or water squirted into his mouth. At one point, that wasn’t enough.
“Please,” I begged him, “please squeeze my hand or blink your eyes or something to let me know that you love me. Please. I’m sorry, but I need you to tell me you love me one more time.”
I put my head down on his bed and cried. The little old lady whose husband was recovering from hip surgery on the other side of the room peeked around the dividing curtain. She looked as helpless as I felt. “I’m praying for you,” she said. I apologized for disturbing her, and then apologized to my dad for falling apart. He continued to look past me at some spot on the ceiling.
My step brother – Dad’s only biological child – his sister and I met with doctors periodical. First we made him a DNR, then we agreed they could let him go if he began to deteriorate quickly when no one was around. I slept and ate in the hospital to reduce the chances of that happening, and to make sure he would know he wasn’t alone should he have any moments of lucidity. Finally, we had the meeting to discuss letting him go.
I woke up in the SICU tent city Thursday morning and went into his room to tell him good morning. I smiled, and then realized that this was the day we’d decided he would die. It felt like a betrayal not to tell him, but I just kissed his forehead and told him I’d be back as soon as I’d changed clothes and eaten breakfast.
On my way to the showers, I sent out a Tweet:
“Went in to tell my dad good morning. Didn’t have the heart to tell him this would probably be his last. How do you say that? How do you not?”
Becky, thank God, responded with this:
“He probably knows. And I think it is perfectly ok to acknowledge the day. I am so thankful you are able to be there. XO”
It occurred to me that the day we die is no less significant than the day we are born, and so I would, in fact, acknowledge the day in his honor. I bought shampoo and conditioner from the gift shop and washed my hair. I picked out clean clothes that matched, and I put on makeup. The last face he saw, I was determined, would not be that of a haggard daughter who’d been sleeping on pull-out chairs in a waiting room. I went to the coffee shop and ordered a soy chai latte, a favorite of mine and a treat I save for special occasions.
I went to his room and I waited for my brother and my dad’s sister to come.
We spent that last day together, just me and my dad, watching TV and holding hands. I turned the speaker up by his ear during a Sex and the City episode and teased him that this was payback for grounding me for an entire summer. I showed his picture to the nurses, explaining that he was a very vain man and he would want them to know that he was cute as hell when he was healthy. I played George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone for him, just like we’d all promised him we would years ago when death was some faraway thing.
I also played Vince Gill’s Go Rest High on the Mountain, one of the few spiritual songs he’d ever visibly connected with. My sister-in-law had suggested I play a song called Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus), so I found it on iTunes and Dad and I listened to it together. For the first time that day, I broke down and cried as Chris Rice talked about going to heaven. I was trying to make my dad’s passage easier for him, but I didn’t want him to go to heaven. I didn’t want him to go at all.
By the time my brother arrived I was centered and calm and ready to handle the next step. I must have seemed too prepared, because at one point I was asking about timing and offered to go get snacks for the wait, and my brother snapped and demanded that no one “rush this thing along.” I assured him I was in no hurry, I was just trying to get everything ready, as if that’s something we can do before we let someone die.
Eventually, of course, we were ready. I sat on my dad’s right side and held his hand, my brother on the left. Dad’s sister and brother also stood by the bed, silently crying with us. A blonde nurse stepped in between Joey and his aunt and asked if we were ready. Joey nodded, and I lost it again.
“No! Stop!” I cried. “I’m not ready. I am not ready to let him go. I’m not ready for him to just be dead. I want him to wake up and get better.”
I hoped someone would tell me to shut up and instruct the nurse to proceed, but no one did. Joey told me everything was going to be OK, then quietly waited for me to collect myself, leaving me to tell the nurse one final time that, yes, we were ready for her to inject morphine into his IV and turn down his ventilator.
It happened quickly. As Joey and I told him we loved him and thanked him for all he’d done, he took one last deep breath, and died.
The next day, Joey called and asked me to bring over pictures from my mom’s house – whatever I could find – for a photobook his wife was putting together. When I got to their house, he was just getting home from Dad’s house, where he’d found a scrapbook my dad had been keeping for the last several years.
My mom had originally made it as a birthday present when she was going through a scrapbooking phase. It had pictures of his parents and each of us kids, and one page was dedicated to my wedding. I was amazed that he’d held onto this for so many years; the man couldn’t keep a phone number for more than a day. I noticed he’d made his own additions.
The first page of the book had pictures of me in the hospital with Devin taped over some construction-paper letters. A recent picture of Joey was also stuck to the cover page. As I flipped through, I saw evidence of several photos that had been removed, added or moved to a different location. About ten photos I’d brought him from our trip to Costa Rica were neatly affixed to the last few pages.
He’d not only kept the book, he’d obviously looked at it, and he’d taken the time to update it with photos of me, Jared and my kids. I couldn’t believe it; this overt sentimentality was so out of character.
He had told me one last time that he loved me.
The week your dad dies is not what you’d normally consider happy, and yet I don’t have to look hard to find moments worth highlighting.
I got to hold this man’s hand while he died. My brother, who always willingly shared his father with me,instinctively made room for me in a sacred circle.
With Vaseline for his lips and a wet sponge for his dry mouth, I got to repay my dad for the countless dinners cooked, loads of laundry washed, and weekends ruined by teenage angst.
My dad once told my would-be husband to always remember that I was special, and I remembered this week what a gift it was to know without a doubt that you amazed someone. My dad adored me, and he knew that I loved him, too. That certainty brought me happiness and, more importantly, peace.
I hope my dad has found peace as well.
I take the time to highlight what made me happy each week because gratitude is the root of all happiness. I encourage you to develop your own gratitude practice; I wholeheartedly believe it will change your life.