I held my dad’s hand as he died. His passing was peaceful, and, except for my mother, who held the other hand and kept sobbing the words I love you, it was quiet.
The breathing machine kept inflating his lungs, and it was difficult to believe he was dead, but the cardiac monitor above the bed had registered his last heartbeat. I had watched the peaks get farther apart until they stopped. It was then that I answered my mom, who was asking when we would know that he was gone.
“We know now, Mom. His heart has stopped.”
He was only sixty-three years old, and he never knew I later went to medical school.
Dad was admitted to the hospital four days before his death for ‘low back pain.’ He had been in pain for months, but as far as we knew, he never sought a doctor’s help. They had diagnosed his lung cancer some time before, but he did not tell us. It was terminal at the time of diagnosis. They planned nothing medical, except regular check-ups.
He had lived a hard life. He smoked a lot and drank even more. He flew fighters for the Navy and was a test pilot in his heart even after he flew a desk. He gave up alcohol with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous twelve years before he died, and he often left the house to meet with someone who called for help with drinking.
The strange thing about his last year was his response to our concern when we would see him grimace in pain. He would refuse to see a doctor.
“I’ll let you know when it’s time to go,” he would reply.
We all knew something was wrong, and he knew too.
One day he was unable to move. “It’s time to go,” he stated.
During his first day in the hospital, he instructed me about his estate papers and told me where to find his insurance and official documents. It seemed silly. The doctors disclosed very little, and an autopsy was against Dad’s wishes.
The last few days with my father were a mixture of surprise and amazement. He would awaken from vivid dreams about flying and tell me about them. Present-day astronauts had been his wingmen in squadrons past. He was reliving his best adventures with them. The peace on his face, as he told of the dreams, was confused by my presence at an older age. In his mind, I should have been younger or somewhere else.
They moved him to intensive care, and he fought to stay alive so the family could say goodbye. It was a real battle, and one evening his heart stopped.
“Don’t do again – hurt!” read his note, after shocking him back to life.
“Please let me go. It’s OK,” he scribbled. He was intubated and could not speak.
We all admitted that the end was near.
Unobserved, I baptized him. I laid my hand on his head and made him welcome in heaven. He had never been a religious man, but I discovered later that he had learned to pray.
I kissed him. I did that for me as we had never kissed. I had wanted to kiss and hug him, but that task, for his three children, was delegated to our mom. Dad died as he had lived – strong and without emotion.
As his heart slowed, his eyes rolled back, and we closed his eyelids. His hands were cold, and the monitor recorded the last heartbeat. A full minute passed as I fought back the tears.
His eyes opened, pupils contracted, and he looked over at my mom.
I watched their eyes meet and hold for what seemed like an eternity but was only a few seconds. Then they closed again. It was clear to my mom what had happened. He had made one last monumental effort to say, “I hear you, and I love you too. Goodbye.”
He taught me much as a child, but he taught me more with his passing. I suddenly knew that death was an inevitable part of life. It was not necessarily difficult or painful to die, and an overwhelming peace follows monumental suffering.
These lessons help me now with patient care and family coping issues. They give me a better perspective on life. I learned that death was in the future for all, and it helped distinguish the important from the trivial.
I saw the power of the mind in Dad’s farewell glance. I learned, with certainty, that there was a soul. It lived on, somewhere outside the body left behind.
Thanks, Dad, for these final lessons that you never intended to teach me.
And guess what? I’m a doctor now. You’d be proud.
The North Carolina Medical Journal published this chapter in my new book when I was a medical student. “Swords and Saints – a Doctor’s Journey” www.swordsandsaints.com