It’s been a year since my father passed away. I continued to make blog posts for a while after that, though the truth was, my heart just wasn’t in it. Same for last Christmas.
Lacking any yuletide spirit, I went down to Tampa and rented a condo for a month. No tree, no presents, no dad. But he wouldn’t want me to continue to mourn, so I’m back in the saddle again.
Each of us are assigned one mother and one father. That’s it. And when they’re gone, they’re gone. I consider myself very lucky to have had both of mine for more years than most. But it’s tough letting go. Little things constantly bring back his memory, along with the pain of losing him.
For instance, the other day I saw his cane by the back door. It has been there since he went to the hospital for the last time, but somehow I can’t bring myself to move it. Though he’s gone and I know he’ll never need it again, somehow putting it away seems so final. Funny thing is: he hated using a cane. Canes were for old people, which, even at 90, he never considered himself to be.
When he was finally forced to accept that he needed a cane, he was adamant that he wasn’t going to use one of those standard, plain wooden candy-cane shaped ones. No, he wanted a cool one. So my wife, Dee Dee, went online and found an assortment of handle designs, ranging from alligator heads, to eagles … and finally, a panther head. Jackpot!
When my dad was in the Navy, a number of his buddies were getting tattoos. He decided it would be neat to have a black panther on the side of one leg.
After preparing himself, which I believe involved copious amounts of whiskey, he and his buddies entered the tattoo parlor. A few minutes later, his disdain for shots (and needles in general) had him on his way back out. But this memory influenced his choice in canes; he wanted the one with the panther’s head.
When a routine doctor visit culminated in him being sent to the hospital as a precautionary measure, he walked in by himself using only his panther-head cane. This was the beginning of a roller coaster ride, as he was in and out of ICU over the next two weeks. The strain of all this left him so very, very weak.
Death should come peacefully. Death should leave us with our dignity. Death should give us some voice in how it takes us. But of course it doesn’t.
I was feeding him Ensure and wiping his mouth when I recalled him frequently saying that if you live long enough, you eventually end up going full circle, at some point probably being cared for like a baby. I dreaded the looming possibility that in a few days, he might finish the circle and be gone.
One morning in late November, I had planned to get up early to watch the lunar eclipse. Though I did get up early, it wasn’t for that reason.
The hospital called to advise me that my dad had been moved into the intensive care unit, and they wanted my permission to intubate him. After giving them my consent, I threw on my clothes and went to be with him.
As I drove to the hospital in the wee hours, the song, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” was playing on the radio. I hoped it wasn’t a premonition.
Ironically, as I entered the hospital, a lullaby was playing throughout the building, their way of announcing a new birth. But death seemed to fill the air of the ICU where Dad lay fighting for his life. I wondered how many people had entered, never to leave this room alive.
The rhythmic sound of the breathing machine pump, the hiss of oxygen, and the steady hum of electronics filled his otherwise quiet ICU room. They took off his wedding ring for the first time in nearly 70 years. Though my mother had passed away some 8 years earlier, he faithfully continued wearing his ring, just as he had faithfully visited her in the nursing home every day for 5 years, long after she ceased to recognize him or to acknowledge his presence.
At 5:15 am, I took his clothes and cane to my car, and then made my way to the top of the parking garage. Pain burned through me as I stood in the dark. I felt empty inside.
With the eclipse well underway, the moon was almost totally obscured. I heard one of the medical staff who was up there to see the eclipse say, “It’s almost done,” not realizing the double meaning the statement held for me. But with the moon in the earth’s shadow, I knew my tears were hardly visible.
I felt the end was near. He had bounced back from so many other close calls, but this one felt different. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that he wouldn’t be leaving on the same two feet which had brought him in. I could feel death lurking nearby.
I returned to his room and sat at the foot of his bed, where he lay connected to a tangled array of tubes and wires. That old man lying in the bed with a machine doing his breathing wasn’t my dad. No, my dad was a rock. He was all-man, John-Wayne tough.
I had assumed that when the time neared, I would know, and we would have plenty of time to say all those final things I felt needed to be said. But it wasn’t happening that way. It was sudden. Too sudden. One minute he was his old self and the next he was fighting for his life.
I know my dad knew that I loved him, but I wanted to tell him one last time. To make sure that he understood. This felt so final, so very, very final. He might soon be gone, and would never be coming back. With him and my mother gone, as an only child, I would be alone, save my own wife and children.
I prayed to God to give me another chance, even one more minute to say all those things I wanted him to hear one last time … and God answered my prayers.
My dad survived being extubated and was released to a regular hospital room. I not only had another chance to talk to him, but several more days to tell him I loved him and what a great father he’d been. DeeDee, the kids (Brittany, Michael, and Chris), and I all got to visit with him several times over the next few weeks, as did our closest friends, and by the time he passed, none of us felt that we had left anything unsaid. For this, we will always be grateful.
He fought off the vestiges of age better than most anyone I know. And he continued to fight for the next six weeks with the same gritty determination he had shown throughout his life. But the weight of the congestive heart failure, failing kidneys, anemia, blood sugar issues, and a host of other maladies finally proved to be too much.
On the one hand I never wanted him to die. But on the other, I had dreaded seeing him linger for years with no quality of life, like my mother did. That would kill me. Even seeing his condition for those last few days was horrible.
I know at the end he would have liked to smell fresh cut grass one last time. He’d like to have smelled the salt air, catch one last fish, and see a squall make its way across the open ocean. He’d like to have heard his grandchild laugh, see a bird feed its young, an osprey soar. He’d like to have just one last kiss.
But he lived a long and full life. And as all things, his end had finally come. I miss him.
Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.
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