I haven’t posted in a while. Life and death have turned me upside down and backwards. It will be a while before I can walk again, and as Anne Lamott says, even then, I will limp.
My dad died on August 26. It was quick, as he would have wanted. Much quicker than any of us had expected, even him, I think. On Saturday the 21st, I got a message from a good friend of his, saying, “You need to see your father as soon as possible.” I thought maybe she was exaggerating. I called my dad right then, asked how he was doing.
“I had a really bad night last night,” he told me. “Really bad.”
“Oh, I think it’s this pain medication I’ve been on. I had a really bad reaction to it. So I’m just not going to take that anymore. I have some less narcotic stuff I can take instead.”
“Is there anything I can do, Pop?”
I wrote back to his friend, and she insisted that I needed to go see him. “He’s not telling you the truth,” she wrote.
The next day, I called my “adopted sister” Cindy, a dear family friend. She said that Dad had been having hallucinations, but that like he’d told me, he assumed it was a side effect of the pain medication for the tumor on his pelvic bone. (I had only recently learned that there were tumors in places other than one of his lungs.) She and I also conjectured that he could be experiencing alcohol withdrawal, as he told the Hospice nurse who visited that his usual intake was 6 to 8 drinks a night.
By Monday, he wasn’t getting out of bed. By Tuesday, Cindy was answering his phone for him. Brian and I had already planned to go up that weekend. But on Wednesday morning, Cindy said she wanted me up there. I talked to the Hospice nurse as we left town. She said, “Sometimes people surprise me. This could go on for as long as a week.”
A week? Shit. “Do we need to fly up there, or do you think we’ll have enough time to drive. We live seven hours away.”
“No, that should be fine. Don’t rush. Be careful.”
We arrived at about 9 pm on Wednesday night. Jack squeezed his grandfather’s face. We could tell that Dad was trying to smile. He could hear us talking, and we even made him laugh a few times. I told him Jack was stubborn: “I wonder where he got that.” And we all saw his face respond.
His breathing was labored, and he moaned with each exhale. “That’s new,” said Cindy.
“Is he in pain?”
Cindy nodded. “You guys talk to him first. Then I’ll give him the morphine. It will knock him out.” She teared up. I hugged her, and she took Jack out to the living room.
We told him over and over again that it was OK, that we would be all right. Brian promised to take care of Jack and me. Later, after Brian and Jack were in bed, Dad had some agitation, where he tried to get out of bed. He told us to go away, but his words were slurred. I asked, “Do you want us to go away?” He nodded violently.
“Too bad. You’re not getting rid of us,” said Cindy.
She and our friend Terri, a nurse, rolled Dad on his side and inserted a suppository, per the night-call nurse’s instructions over the phone. By the time she arrived, around 1 am, he was out cold. She explained to us that it’s normal for some patients to go through what they call “terminal agitation,” and it’s caused by anxiety about death. (I later found a note Dad had written, saying he had never feared death, but that he was very frightened of the process of dying. “Make it quick!” he wrote.)
The next morning, he wasn’t responding to verbal questions at all: no nods, no moaning. His beard had grown out to a soft gray sandpaper on his jaw. We took turns sitting with him and watching Rachel Ray pet exotic animals on the television. He had another fit of agitation, and when the morphine and ativan didn’t calm him, Cindy and I rolled him over for another suppository. There should be a circle in hell where you have to give your father a suppository. And the ranks of heaven are filled with the friends who will help you roll him over to do it.
When we were finished, he mumbled something. Cindy said, “Awesome? Did you say awesome?” He smiled a tiny bit. I stripped the gloves off my hands and said, “Yes, we are!” That made him laugh.
That afternoon, around 3, before the nurse and doctor arrived, Terri called me back into his bedroom. “His breathing has slowed down a lot,” she said. We all sat and stood around him: Brian, Terri, Cindy, Jack, and me. Terri felt for a pulse and found none, but his face was still moving. He took another breath. Quieter. Slower. Quieter. Slower. I asked Cindy to turn off the TV – some court show with a snarky judge. Who would want to die to that? Then Cindy and Terri left with Jack.
I sat on the slipper chair beside his bed, my hands on his arms. Brian stood behind me, his hand on my shoulder. After a while, I said, “Daddy, thank you for everything, even the stuff I didn’t like.” Then we watched the pulse at his neck until it slowed and quieted and became still. And that was all.