I remember when I signed the legal papers with my dad. We were sitting side by side in the lawyer’s office. The afternoon sun streamed in through the windows. They both seemed to watch me, waiting as I signed the dotted line with an unsteady hand and a heavy heart.
Really, it’s come to this? I remember thinking that. It did not seem possible, that there could come a time when I’d have to honor his wishes to die, rather than live with no real quality ~ perhaps in a coma ~ or suffering from some other god-forsaken disease.
He made this choice later in life. Once Momma was gone, taking his booming laugh and zest for life with her. He’d dwindled down to nothing over the next seven years. His arms and legs became sticks and he was showing signs of dementia.
“Let’s get this unpleasant part of dying taken care of, before I can’t think straight anymore.”
Yeah, the stuff dreams are made of.
We did not talk about those papers afterwards. I took them home, hiding them in a drawer of my nightstand. Dad made it clear ~ he did not want to live through any heroic measures. I made it clear ~ he’d die with as much dignity and peace as possible.
And, so, I became a healthcare proxy.
Months flew by, three more seasons. There were weekly visits from New York to Massachusetts. I’d come to the nursing home with cigarettes, fresh fruits and updates on my life. We’d visit in the landscaped courtyard. That’s where he spent most of his days now.
He’d light up his one-a-day-Kent, eat fresh berries and watermelon, drink a hot cup of coffee while chatting about my latest photography project, or how my kids and sisters were doing.
He’d tell me about the rest home activities, lingering over puppy visits and how he burst into tears whenever they licked his face. It made him think of happier times. It made him remember the dogs he’d petted and loved as a youngster.
There was a piano there. Sometimes, in the early days of his stay, I’d walk in to the sound of lilting music. I’d watch my dad, seated on the piano stool. His eyes were always closed, while he played a haunting melody.
It always made my eyes well up. I knew he was in a different place when the music left his fingers, and I was just as certain momma must be somewhere beside him. I imagined they were dancing together under the stars like they’d done in their early days together.
So, the time came. They thought he had pneumonia. Then double pneumonia. But, no, finally they told me they were rushing him to the hospital, could they intubate him?
Over the phone I asked if this is a heroic measure. ” Yes. ”
I’m going to be sick.
“No. My father signed paperwork. No heroic measures.” I don’t know how I drove myself to the emergency room. I remember leaving New York. I remember arriving at the hospital, four hours and so many miles away.
It was Congestive Heart Failure. WHAT? Huh?
He was in ICU. And everything they wanted to do, every single thing that would keep my father alive, was a heroic measure. I finally stopped saying “no” to everything they suggested. I would just shake my head. I’d show them his papers, in his writing.
nonono. What didn’t they understand? How many times did they have to turn the knife in my gut, making me repeat his wishes, the ones he’d made when he was well enough to?
My dad. A man that was tough while we were growing up, now much gentler in his twilight years. He’d made us laugh and cry, believed we could do anything sometimes and nothing other times.
Dad. He’d brought up five daughters. Loved our mother like there was no tomorrow. Worked his ass off to provide for us. Had his own business with no schooling. Enjoyed being a sailor and pilot. Had his good points. His bad points.
I felt like I was making a list, bullet-points of his life, then presenting it to hospital staff that didn’t know him from a hole in the wall.
He was my dad. And he was dying. Right now.
How could I help him do this? How could I possibly give them permission to let him go? When I wanted him to stay?
They let me go in to see him. I held his hand as his eyes searched for me. ” I’m here, daddy. ” I said.
He was hooked up to a few things, monitors and oxygen. Nothing against his wishes. Some drug to make him comfortable. How the hell did we end up here?
My heart was breaking.
” Thanks for being here, Resa. ” he said. ” Thank you for not leaving me alone. ” The words came out like a whisper. I had to lean close to hear them. We cried together. It had not been said yet, but he knew what was coming.
When he fell asleep, a few hours later, I left the room to call sisters that lived all over the country, catching them up on what was going on.
I was sitting down in a corner of the long hallway, crying my heart out. I knew the next meeting would be with the heart doctor. Dread.
I heard her before I saw her. It was hard to lift my head to listen to her words. We talked about his Diagnosis. I told her that they thought he had pneumonia, that this new was startling. How did it go from THAT to THIS in just a few hours ?
She shook her head. He did not have pneumonia.
She asked if anyone was with me, to help make the decision. I told her no. I showed her my Father’s wishes, written down on paper that’s wrinkled from the tight hold I’ve had on it.
I sobbed the words. ” I feel like I’m killing him. I don’t think I can do this, take the life of my dad, give you permission to unhook everything that could keep him alive. ”
Man, talk about uncontrollable, heaving sobs. I didn’t care. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t do this, dammit-all.
But, then I did.
She told me one more thing, hugging me with her words. ” We are doctors here. It’s our job to save your dad. You are his daughter. You’re doing the most loving thing one could do for a parent. That’s why he trusted you with this one last wish. ”
Back in my father’s room, they’ve taken off the monitors. Someone has washed him up and combed his hair. He looked at me.
” I’m dying, aren’t I ? ”
I couldn’t talk. Or breathe. I nodded my head and we cried together.
I slept next to his bed, on a cot. I listened to his breathing, could it get anymore shallow? When would it stop? Would I be there when it happened?
They told me in the morning that it could be a few days or a few weeks. It wasn’t imminent.
My sister Laurie was on her way up from Florida with her husband and she was able to spend a few days with him.
I’d already said everything I needed to. My dad knew how I felt, that I loved him. I knew how he felt and how much he loved me.
I remember being glad that my little sister, the youngest, could say what she needed to, as well. My sister Karen talked to him on the phone from Arizona. I held the phone up to his ear. It was their last conversation and it was bursting with love. That’s all that was left ~ love.
They transported him back to the nursing home on a Monday, early in the morning. They needed his bed at the hospital. Laurie was going to spend a few more days with him, to give me a break. I’d go back to New York, work for a few days and return on Thursday, when she left for Florida.
“We’ll keep him comfortable. We’ll call you if anything changes. Try to rest.” There was no rest. I went home, but couldn’t sleep, could barely work. I called several times a day to check in and talk to him, shoot the shit. I told him often, that I loved him and would see him soon.
Wednesday morning came. It was still dark when the phone rang. ” It’s time. Things changed through the night. ” the nurse said. ” It’s imminent now. “
” How long? Will I make it down before he dies? ” I told her I was four hours away.
” I’m not sure, honey, but I don’t think so. ” She paused. ” I’m going to go tell him you’re on your way, maybe he can hang on for you. He adores your visits. “
” No. Don’t. ” I told her. “I want you to go tell him I called to check up on him. Tell him I called to check up on you. ” We laughed. For a second. ” Don’t tell him I’m coming. I mean it. He’d wait and he’s suffered enough. I want him to go. ”
And, that was that. Dad died when I was 20 minutes away from the nursing home. On my youngest son’s birthday. My sister Laurie was there at his side, for which I am grateful. There were no words left unsaid between myself and my dad.
I like to think that his last gift to me was sparing the sight and sound of his last breath. I like to think that he wanted to spare me this, as a ‘thank you’ for being there all those other days.
Our father/daughter relationship had seen it’s good and bad times, for sure, but in the end years we’d grown closer. There was more compassion and understanding for each other. More laughter and reminiscing over the past. We talked more and forgave more, which was a comforting thing.
My dad and I were at peace.
I know he wanted to be with momma again. A year later, in the warm September sunshine, I spread their ashes. I followed a list of places they had jotted down together, where they wanted to be remembered.
Happy places ~ mostly by the water they had loved so much. I took friends with me. I felt better. They let me cry and made me laugh. We watched shooting stars over the tides of Galilee, Rhode Island, as the wind took the very essence of my parents out to sea. Under darkness, they were together once more.
Love you mom, love you dad, miss you, much.