What It Was LikeThis is thing I remember about my dad's last day. I wrote it in April 2002. Pop, I miss you.
Can I talk about this? It's a little grizzly, a little scary. Turn back now if you like. It's about what happened when my dad died last Tuesday morning (4.9.02).
Over the weekend, he had been very ill in the ICU with an infection — septis — which is a poisoning of the blood. It's rough. Very hard to come back from. Dire.
It makes your body shake and shiver. So my very tall, once very athletic, handsome dad, looked like a very skinny shivering rabbit, his frail paws clutching the sheets, tubes and needles and IV's and lines jammed into him everywhere. The nurses and the doctors were doing everything they could, but my dad looked more like their science experiment than a person. It was a heartbreaker.
We were there many hours, as time would melt and pool, sometimes flying by, sometimes leaden, always sad and surreal. By early Monday morning, we'd summoned all the siblings who lived out of town to make sure they could get there if they wanted to see him one last time. The doctors were still trying to keep him going, but he wasn't responding to 4 days worth of their efforts with antibiotics and everything else they could come up with. His blood pressure was something dreadful like 60/40, a number I'd never seen.
My dad, now 83, had never wanted to be on life support and we had it in writing from a time in his 70's when he was sharp as a tack. He had a "Do Not Resuscitate" order on his chart. Still, we thought we would have to tell the doctors to just give it up and let him go.
It was wrenching. It was like being forced to kill someone. My sister and I were prepared to tell the doctors Monday morning, but in fact, the doctors told us they thought there really was no hope and had we considered "comfort care" — which means letting him die naturally. They did us a favor by suggesting it and supporting our decision to do that. They let us off the hook. You can't make a decision like that without thinking, did I let him go or did I kill him?
By noon, all my family had decided together in a dingy little waiting room, decorated with someone else's lung xrays, that we should let him go. They remove all the tubes, IV's, catheters, everything. At last, he was free of all the apparatus. They gave him more than enough morphine to be very comfortable.
It was a little like inducing labor for a pregnant woman. You know what will happen, you just don't know WHEN. But as joyous as the birth of a baby can be, this waiting turned us all to stone, but we knew we had to stick by him.
We all stayed until late, but finally I was just too exhausted, so I went home around 6:00pm to take care of my son and husband. I felt like a rat doing it, but I knew I had to.
I actually slept that night — not well, but better than I expected to. I woke like a shot at 4:45am Tuesday morning. I got dressed, out the door and to the hospital by 5:45am. Per usual procedure, I had to call into the ICU to get permission to see him, but ask first if he'd made it through the night. The nurse said he'd made it through the night comfortably, whatever the hell that meant.
I went in. I was the only one there with him. He was breathing with difficulty, sucking each breathe, as if his last — which of course they were. I talked to him, held his hand, prayed. The nurse saw him stir and told me he knew I was there. At about 6:30am, his breathing slowed, and since I'd been with my mom when she died, I knew what was coming. I was just quiet with him. I told him mom really missed him, it was all right to go.
Do you wonder if there is a soul? I don't. You can feel it fly out of the room. I did with my mom. And I did with my dad. It's beyond religious. It's primal and basic. It's a lively vital force of nature that has gone out of the body it once animated. I knew when he went. I was happy for him.
The young nurse came in in a bit of a fluster. She seemed to require scientific proof. I said, "It's okay, I know he's gone." She rushed out and got a stethoscope to check his heart. I thought she was so stupid, anyone could see he was gone. It's as if we are hardwired to see death, know it and then turn away from it — tend to the babies and children with their great silly liveliness.
She nodded yes and said, "I'll get the doctor." I sat down in a chair like a lump. I was alone with him. Why me, Dad? Why was I the only one there? I suppose it was an honor, perhaps I could handle it best? I don't know. I sat quietly until the doctor came. He was kind. I was crying. He asked me to step out in the waiting room while they tended to my dad — "tended to the body", no, they didn't say that, thank goodness A nurse let me use the phone to call my husband who was getting my son ready for school and then, I called my sisters.
In the waiting room, there was a funeral on CNN, by satellite from London, the Queen Mother had died. It was great to hear them talk about how much fun she'd had, how she loved to dance — very similar to my Dad. It was a wonderful thing to watch. I watched it for an hour, glued to it, me and Christiane Amanpour, watching the lovely hearse. I was waiting for my other sisters and their husbands to come over to the hospital. They arrived and I was glad not be alone anymore.
My dad did not want to die at home, but appreciated being in the hospital. My mom was quite the opposite and glad to be at home in her final days. I'm glad they were both able to find the comfort of the passing they wanted. And also that we could be there.