Anyone who knew my dad should not read this. Seriously. If you loved him, then I love you, and I need to write this – out loud – on the off chance that someone else will read it and feel…better? Not alone? Like someone else went through what they’re going through the same thing? Something. I know posting publicly something that is off limits to a certain faction of the people I care about is utterly ridiculous, but so am I. I promise I’m not going to write anything inappropriate or anything he wouldn’t want shared, but it will be honest. And painful. So, please. If you knew him, if you loved him: Stop.
DENIAL: NOT JUST A RIVER IN EGYPT
I know I spoiled the ending in my last piece – dad dies. In fact, as I write this very sentence, my dad will have died two years ago in precisely 3 hours and 30 minutes. I know this because I was in the hospital from February 12th – February 15th at about 1:30 AM. He died at 12:05 PST (I like to pretend he waited until February 15th so it wouldn’t taint Valentine’s Day for me) but I didn’t leave until the funeral home came and got him. But I’m getting ahead of myself. And, as they say, it’s not the destination that matters but the journey.
In July we – me and my husband (I have one those) – visited dad. The third week in August on Whidbey is, I believe, the most beautiful week of the year in one of the nation’s most beautiful places. But July was a perfect time to go so I could segue between a job in Colorado Springs and a new – and fairly sizeable – promotion of sorts to a job in Denver. So we visited under the guise of having some summer fun during fishing season. And, oh, did we fish.
He was weak and thinner than the last time I’d seen him because of his chemo regimen. He told me the nurses in the chemo area at the hospital called him “The Ghost” because he would come in, get hooked up to the chemo, and then go back out to his truck to listen to his radio and read (and smoke, I’m sure) while he got dosed. He didn’t like to be around all the “sick people.” And he likes – liked – being outside. In fact, he would sit on the deck – a beautiful thing with a ramp all built and installed by the Lions Club – to feel the air and get a tan on his poor bald head. He even lost his eyebrows. But somehow his goatee – a fashion statement accumulated sometime in the 7 years between our estrangement, my time in Iraq, and my first visit home afterwards – remained intact. Go figure.
It was hard to see him not be able to enjoy food, but it didn’t stop him from breaking into a heart-melting, mischievous grin one evening when I was going to the store for dinner and asked him if I could bring anything back. He wanted a Marie Calendar Lemon Meringue Pie. I would have bought him 100 if he could have eaten them and kept that smile on his face. It’s a smile that he has in some of his childhood pictures, and it really does just melt my heart. My dad wasn’t always happy. I think that’s why he did so much self medicating. But that smile made me think that the man I believed him to be – the man I saw through my eyes – was in there somewhere.
We fished, we cruised, we visited Friday Harbor, we got tattoos (Victor and I, that is. My dad would never do – have done – that.), and we enjoyed being together. And the day came when we had to leave, and I hugged him tight for the last time. I was still in denial, thinking he was such a fighter and that he would just never let this thing conquer him. So I hugged him, only vaguely thinking it could be the last time but not believing it, and I said I loved him and we’d talk soon. And, once again, I walked away – head high, back straight, emotions repressed.
SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW
My life after this trip got a bit taxing. I was driving 1 1/2 hours one way to work (and back!) 5 days a week, cleaning up after a mess that was left for me in my new position, recovering from having my house broken into and demolished, being on call, and trying to live a life. I sang a lot in the car going back and forth from Colorado Springs to Denver. (I do that. A lot.) And sometimes I sang to him, event though he wasn’t there to hear it. One song in particular always made me think of him in the most convoluted way. It’s the song “Somewhere Only We Know.” It was used in the recent adaptation of a Winnie the Pooh movie. It reminded me of him because when I was a teenager my dad took me and some of my girlfriends for dinner and there was a musician playing the guitar. Dad knew the guy and his band, and he requested he play the Kenny Loggins song about Christopher Robin, Pooh’s best friend. (See? Convoluted. But this is how my mind works.) My dad and I always had kind of a special connection I can’t totally understand, even today. We weren’t always great to each other, including but not limited to the period of about three years where we didn’t speak. But he was my dad, and I guess blood and genes and having the same nose mean something sometimes. I’m told he felt I was his greatest treasure. He never said it to me, but he said it to other people, and that makes me believe it’s true. And who can resist being loved that much?
I had a few conversations with my dad throughout the months and we chatted about all kinds of different things. Eventually there were a few times when he didn’t pick up the phone, and the calls became less frequent – mostly my fault, and then I got the one call I’d dreaded my whole life: the call from my Aunt telling me to get to the island because my dad was in the hospital in Anacortes. My plan was to go, evaluate, join my mom in Arizona to help her move my other grandmother from Yuma to California, and then either return to the island or go home.
This is where the story gets really unclear for me. We left people behind to tell us when things got bad. And they didn’t. They didn’t call until it was way, way, way more than bad. They called when my dad was so incapacitated that he couldn’t fight them to stop them from calling us. Or putting him in the hospital. I don’t know the series of events leading up to that with any degree of confidence.
I was fortunate in a sense because I had two employees at work who had lost loved ones – a father and a wife – to cancer. I remember telling them on evening, tearfully I’m ashamed to admit, that I didn’t know how to have the goodbye conversation. And neither of them really knew either, but they told me I’d know when I knew. One of them, Nathan, took me out the night before I left for a quick happy hour. Totally casual, but looking back I think he was trying to be there for me. I don’t really know what that looks like in people who aren’t really close to me. But he’s a noble guy, and he does stuff like that. He’s a pretty steadfast dude that way. He doesn’t work for me anymore, because I’m a huge pain in the ass to work for, but we still connect from time to time.
I called my dad at the hospital the night before I left. His nurse, Laura (who was the kindest person I’d ever spoken to, and turned out to be a total babe – which is why my dad loved her, I’m sure) was thrilled to hear from me and said dad had been waiting for my call. He picked up in his room and was a little gorked out on meds, but he was able to converse with me. I told him I was coming for a visit, and he said he wished I wouldn’t. He wanted to wait until he was out of the hospital so we could have some time, just the two of us. And the song “Somewhere Only We Know” popped into my head.
That’s what he kept saying – time with just the two of us. I promised him I’d make sure we had some time together, and that I’d come back again when he was at home. I said I loved him and I’d see him tomorrow.
YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN
The trip to the hospital was both stressful and invigorating. I was going home – yay! To see my dad – yay again! Who was sick on the hospital – booooo.
But any time I go to the island, though I haven’t lived there or visited regularly in nearly fifteen years and don’t really know anyone there anymore, my heart rejoices and I feel like a piece of my soul I forgot was missing is being reattached to the rest. I can’t live there, but I love it. It’s home in a way nothing else can be.
I landed under predictably overcast skies and rented a car. It was supposed to be a little economy car with luggage space, but there was a free upgrade – to a white Dodge Charger. Oh. Baby.
I love to drive fast to loud music, I love the freedom and feeling of controlling your own destiny that comes with the growl of powerful engine wrapped in muscle and metal. What could possibly go wrong?
I had to keep it under control, but I won’t say I never tested the limits of the speedometer.
The drive helped me relax, and the joy of being home and close to the people and places I love lifted my heart, but arriving at the hospital put the weight back on me. I ran upstairs, heart pounding in my ears – a woman on a mission – and damn near bowled over my dad’s best friend, Pat. The look on his face when he recognized me was enough to tell me that I was about to see all my worst nightmares realized. I hugged him, asked how bad it was – stupid, I know, but I like to be prepared – and thanked him.
And then I crept into my dad hospital room feeling like an voyeur intruding into his worst moment. He was a skeleton slumped in a hospital bed, high on morphine – thank God and all those kooky opium farmers – and barely able to articulate. I was afraid to hug him, to look directly at him. But my Aunt encouraged me and I kissed him and said hello. We talked for a while with someone telling us about hospice home care – soooo not an option, but we listened and planned anyway. And after a while it was just us.
Most of the time was a fog – I only remember a few key moments. I remember sitting facing my dad while we tried to have a conversation. I don’t even really remember what all we talked about. He asked about my husband (by the wrong name, but I got the point), he asked about work and school (I had just achieved my BS – insert all the obvious jokes here), and because I work in non-profit we somehow got onto the topic of helping people. The one thing I remember vividly is him telling me he wished he had a lot of money so he could help everyone he wanted to, because it must feel so good to do be able to help people. And once again, just like his mischievous smile, I felt like I was seeing into his true heart, into the man only a few people knew or believed he was.
I remember him being in so much pain he couldn’t cope with not being more or less sedated on morphine and whatever other cocktail they hooked him up to. I remember him screaming and moaning in pain. I remember him getting to a point where he wasn’t awake anymore, and he stopped drinking and couldn’t take oral meds. I remember my Aunt nearly coming unglued when some other nurse, not our lovely Laura, who we dubbed “Nurse Ratchet” came in during the night to try and force him to take oral medication, disturbing his rest and ultimately getting him to the point where it took hours and many doses of medication to make him comfortable again.
I remember being alone for a moment in the room with him and holding his warm, calloused hand, looking at him, and telling him that I was happy, and tough, and successful, and loved, and that I was going to be okay if he had to go, that I’d be able to take care of myself and be just fine so he didn’t have anything to worry about.
I wiped my tears away with his hand.
And kept waiting.
WILD HORSES AND A BLUE VELVET RIDE
Laura came in on the last night. She shifted dad in the bed – we all left because we knew it would hurt him horribly, but he needed to be moved to avoid bed sores and stuff – and it rousted him. They got him comfortable again, but he was having a hard time breathing. He was snoring horribly – the man always snored, so we mostly ignored it, but eventually it was clear he had some kind of stuff in his throat, and I just couldn’t get it out on my own. So Laura offered to suction just at the back of his mouth to avoid being to invasive and putting him in pain again.
For two days he’d been snoring with his mouth wide open, but the second she tried to give him a hand and suction his mouth, he’s jaws snapped shut like a steel trap. We all laughed so hard we probably disturbed the whole ward.
We continued to take turns – my Aunt, my Gram, and me – sitting in the rocker or a folding chair or resting on the little couch under the window. A time lapse of those three or so days would look a lot like a game of musical chairs. We read some of my Gram’s newspaper columns she wrote when my dad and Aunt were just kids (Guess it runs in the family). His breathing came harder over the hours. His whole body started heaving with every breath. And then it came easier. And then it came not at all.
And at 12:05 PST on February, 15th, 2012, he left the room.
A big part of me waited for him to start breathing again. I thought I’d be so afraid to be in a room with a dead body, but I couldn’t stop being near him. We all stood there, crying quietly. And me – the “emotional one” on this side of the family – took as many quiet breaths as I could trying to stay composed as I sat perched at on the edge of the foot of the bed with my hands on his legs, staring hungrily at his face, knowing I’d never see it again after this night.
And then I couldn’t stay composed anymore.
I laid flat out on his lap and sobbed, keening like a wounded animal, and I told him it wasn’t fair. That his life shouldn’t have been so hard and he didn’t deserve to have it end like this. It wasn’t fair! I wasn’t fucking fair!! No one deserves this. What kind of God or universe allows this brand of suffering???
Then the nurses came in to do what they do, and I pulled myself together and sat in the chair across from my dad, tears still streaming silently down my face, feeling empty. Gram and Aunt Vicky eventually left the room, presumably doing things like notifying the funeral home and grieving in their own way. Laura and the other nurse kept telling me I could go, that they’d make sure my dad was taken care of, but this was my last act. My last show of love and devotion, and I wasn’t leaving. I’d failed so many other times, and by God I was not failing again. A herd of stampeding wild horses couldn’t have dragged me from that room.
So they went about the business of removing the needles and tubes and catheters and other medical things. I sent a text, “He’s gone, mom.” And I waited, still and quiet, trying to memorize every line of my father’s face. And trying to convince myself to forget it, and remember him in jeans and flannel shirts, carrying two full sheets of drywall alone with his bare hands instead.
But I like to punish myself, so I just stared until Joe came in.
Joe’s the funeral home guy. A kind, brown-skinned, round-faced sweetheart of a man, whose soft, assured personality suits itself perfectly for dealing with hysterical, grieving women. He introduced himself, shook my hand, consoled me, somehow knew better than to hug me (I’m actually a big hugger, just not when I’m in pain – I get a little wild), and told me what he would do with my dad. He showed up with a gurney draped in a snazzy, royal blue velvet thing, so we all had a good chuckle about dad’s Blue Velvet Ride.
So I agreed to let him take my dad.
I squeezed dad’s clammy hand, and kissed his now-cool forehead, and – again, and for the last time – I walked away. Head not-so-high, back not-so-straight, emotions completely drained and soaking my dusty-purple shirt and my dad’s hospital bed.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
I drove us home in the dark in my amazing white Charger (that would now cost me about $1000 instead of the $120 because I’d be in town for two weeks and not four days – so much for that free upgrade). I wanted to let my Gram and Aunt hop out at home and just keep driving, all the way to the beach, walk into the freezing Pacific water, and let the cold and the salt scrub away the grief. I wanted to stare at the stars, and I wanted slice my flesh open. I wanted someone there, and I wanted no one there. I wanted to be held, and I wanted to beat the crap out of something until my knuckles bled, and I was too tired to hold my arms up. I wanted to get stupid, raging, make-bad-decisions-and-wreak-havoc drunk, and I wanted hold on because I know just how bad it goes when I let me lose myself.
Instead, I went inside, curled up on the overstuffed chair, and zoned out until someone – my uncle? (he’d been there all along doing all the stuff in the background that made the next few days a helluva lot easier)- told me to go to bed. I slept in my dad’s bed. It took forever to sleep, but I finally did, and I woke up the next morning to find my face smashed into a pillow wet with tears. The next night I woke up long before dawn to the smell of cigarette smoke, like when my dad would light up in the living room while he watched the fire. At first I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to keep myself asleep enough to keep the smell strong because I had to be dreaming, and then I sat bolt upright and breathed the air in deep (I work in disaster, so I figured I oughtta make sure it wasn’t an actual fire). It was smoky. And there was no fire, no crackling. It didn’t fade. So I waited…for something…
All I could see was my own silhouette in the mirror over the dresser. I looked into the darkness.
And then the smoke was gone.
And I was alone again.