My dad crossed over in 1999 – December 23 to be exact. He had suffered a stroke in early November 1999 while driving. We were grateful no one else was involved in the accident. As a result of his stroke, he lost his swallowing reflex. He spent nearly six weeks in the hospital or in skilled nursing facilities but he never came home again.
Most of the first weeks he was in and out of delusions, drying out from decades of alcoholism. He spent the last month with a feeding tube in his stomach for nutrition – he became adept at trying to pull it out and ended up in restraints for his own protection. Because of no swallowing reflex, saliva would constantly seep into his lungs and create potential pneumonia issues. Dad knew he would not recover and that he would not be going home again. At 83, he was tired and done – no longer the swimmer, diver, surfer, snow skier – proud man he once was. No longer the Air Force retired major – but a frightened shell of the man he once knew.
My mom would spend the days with him – my brother or I would spend evenings with him so he was not alone. Once his mind cleared a little, we had some wonderful conversations – some serious, some reflective – some just remembering – some trying to say the things we felt we needed to share. Thanksgiving was somewhat lost in the confusion – I think we celebrated in shifts – as we came and went from the hospital. As Christmas approached, we decorated his room with a small potted tree and pictures on the wall of family and the cards that mom and dad received.
Other brothers from Southern California would come up as often as possible to visit with him – it was nice to have them around when they could be there.
He was always thirsty – always hungry. As the weeks went by, he begged for more than the dampened lip wipes and miniscule ice chips he was allowed. He would tell me, I’m dying anyway – what does it matter? And I would tell him, no – it would hurt him. And he would plead to me, just a taste – just a taste of something – please. He was rapidly losing weight – no longer able to be tied sitting up in a chair. Getting weaker. The doctor told us there was really nothing they could do for him. We made sure his DNR was in order. We started talking about the option of hospice.
It was a three days before Christmas Eve – on a spur of the moment decision, I grabbed a small container of orange sherbet on my way to the hospital. His eyes lit up, he smiled – two tiny tips of a spoon of the icy, cold sherbet – that was all – all he wanted. He held my hand – thanked me – and a tear ran down his cheek. I hugged him the best I could, kissed him and said good night.
Five o’clock the next morning (the day before Christmas Eve) my brother called me. Dad was being transported from the nursing facility to the hospital across the street. Pneumonia had set in. He picked up my mother and we met at the hospital. We spent the day with him though he was sleeping. We could see his condition worsening. At the end of the evening, we went home to rest. The phone range again at somewhere around five o’clock and my mother told me the hospital had called … it was time. She and my brother and his family would meet me at the hospital. I called my daughter so she could meet me there as well. My husband at the time actually drove me to the hospital – and asked me if I wanted him to wait though he had refused to visit my dad up to that point – I told him no. In truth, I didn’t want him there, but that’s another story.
We gathered in my dad’s room – my mother, brother, sister-in-law, daughter, niece and nephew and me. The doctor told us it could be any time – a few minutes, hours 0r even days. We stepped out of the room to make phone calls to the Southern California brothers. Upon returning to his room, knowing that it was time, we each kissed him, and said our good-byes. As I bent over him, I told him if he was tired and wanted to go, it was ok. As I stepped back, his eyes opened, he looked around at us (through blank, empty eyes), then closed his eyes and he was gone.
I don’t know if giving him those two little bites is what caused the pneumonia. I don’t know if it was setting in already. Did my giving in signal my acceptance that he was dying to him? I was his only and baby girl. Even at 49, I was his daddy’s girl. I still am.
I have wrestled with this question many times over the last thirteen years. I suppose I always will to some extent. In the end, I know he was adamantly more concerned with quality of life than quantity. He never wanted to simply exist – to linger.
Namaste – I honor you, Daddy. And I honor anyone who has had the privilege of sharing end of life with their loved ones.