My Father Is Dying

People are calling.

They ask, “How are you holding up?”

But I’m not sure they believe me when I say “I’m ok”

It’s true, though. At least, for now it is. I am ok.

For the most part, anyway.

If you had asked me a week ago, the answer would have been “No.” Last week was hard. All the constant changing of units, the ups and downs of his condition. We knew where it was likely headed so I can’t claim to have been completely blindsided. And yet, days after the final prognosis, when I was awakened from my bedside chair as the doctors made their morning rounds, I overheard in my groggy state my father described as end stage, and the pure shock that ripped through my body was unlike anything I’d felt before. I could barely catch my breath. For a moment, it felt like my own heart had stopped. Last week, I was not ok.

I’m thinking that if you ask me next month, maybe even next week, I probably won’t be ok then, either. In fact, I’m pretty much counting on that to be the case. There’s still just so much happening that I know I have yet to properly process and deal with. With my father, things had been…well, complicated. I still loved him. But the honest truth is that lately, there had also been immense strain between us. He was still in the lives of both me and my children but that fracture had been life-changing. I am still working through that hurt and to date have not progressed much in that area at all. Just because he’s now leaving me, that doesn’t mean that everything about that situation is going to simply just dissolve; I fear, actually, that it may now prove even more difficult to process. It may be tomorrow, it may be 5 years from now, but at some point I will have to face down that pain. When that day comes, I already know that I won’t be ok.

In this moment, though…I am ok. I’m not suppressing my true emotions or thinking that I have to be “the strong one.” I’m blessed to have an amazing net of support, both near and far. I could fall completely apart right now if that’s truly what I was feeling, and there would be the many strong and loving hands of my husband, family, and friends to uplift me and see me through. But I’m not falling apart. I am sad, but that’s actually just not the overwhelming sentiment that I’m feeling. What I’m feeling even more than being sad is…happy? It sounds crazy, I know. It feels crazy even to type. All I can do is try to explain…

When I was 17 years old, I sat vigil by my Grandmother’s bedside over the better part of a week as she transitioned. It was a heavy and somber time, but I’ve never forgotten how I came out of that experience feeling like the moment had also been a beautiful one. We were all in and out of her room that entire week and to this day I still have no idea what force managed to draw us all in at the very same time, but within moments of us all gathering, she drew her last breath and expired. I got to stroke her hand as she went, and even through my tears, I knew there was nowhere else that I would have rather been. All I can say is, that’s much the same feeling that I’m feeling now, except probably times ten.

The day my father’s prognosis became definite, after numerous nights of restless dozing in that bedside hospital chair, I decided to stay at the hotel to finally get some better rest. But that night, I entered the hotel room… and immediately walked back out. Even now I can’t describe the feeling that came over me. I just needed, wanted, to go back to him. So I did. And though I had a bothersome feeling that this might be the night I lost him, the only thing that made me even more afraid was the thought of him being alone. I just wanted to be there.

The ten minutes that it took me to return to the hospital were the heaviest, most dreadful moments I had since felt. But as soon as I walked back in that room, there was just the biggest weight released from my shoulders. I stayed with him that night. Alone. And yet not alone, as there wasn’t a family member or friend that entire long night that didn’t answer the phone when I called. And called I did, talking and crying and showing them pictures and Facetimes of my Daddy, and admittedly probably horrifying them as I did! But as I adjusted his covers, rubbed his arms, touched his hands, and stroked his forehead and cheeks, I wasn’t seeing the sick man that they likely saw. Even now, I don’t see a pale, sunken face. I don’t see a gaunt, withering body. I just see my Dad.

That night I sat and stared for what felt like hours at the rise and fall of his breathing. And when it seemed there was a lull, I would place my palm on his chest until l I was convinced that I felt him move. I was transported back to those first nights after bringing my newborns home, the countless minutes that I’d spend peering obsessively over their bassinet, sticking my finger or a mirror under their tiny noses until I felt the heat of their breath on my hand, saw it’s steam spread over the surface glass. It’s said that at this stage in life, it will be as if children and parents switch places, as the aging adult is returned to the infantile state from which we all begin. It is true. It has been sobering to see my strong, able-bodied, all-powerful father now just a shell of his former self, shriveled and helpless in this bed. I want nothing more than to pick him up like I do my little ones, to repeatedly kiss his forehead, and to hold and rock him gently in my lap. My heart is flooding with a fierce and overwhelming urge to love and to protect. In this moment, I just want to take care of and keep my baby safe.

I spent that night with bated breath, filled with anxiety that this was it and yet, feeling oddly ok about it as well. If this is it, I thought, if this is how it goes, with just me here alone with my daddy, I will be ok with it. I won’t even wake my mother. Let her get one more night of rest and I’ll just tell her when she wakes. For now, I would just hold his hand in mine and sleep by his side. And though I still anxiously watched his every breath, it was also the most peaceful and assured I had felt inside since this had all began.

We made it through the night, and in the morning, I felt even more at peace. All mornng and afternoon, I sat in the chair by his side. Though he was not verbal, he was alert and aware. We watched TV all day. An episode of Good Times came on with JJ and three friends decked full out in 70’s garb. My dad’s eyes never wavered from the screen. I felt a warmth inside as I wondered if he was fondly harkening back the days of he and his three brothers, if he was envisioning them back in their prime, in all their afros and bellbottoms glory. I talked to him between shows. I asked if he was comfortable. I told him I was running downstairs for coffee and would be right back. He couldn’t speak but each time he affirmatively nodded “ok”. He looked in my eyes and tracked me as I walked the room. Every so often, I would take his hand in mine and squeeze. And every so often, I would feel a slight squeeze back.

I could have stayed all day. I was surprised when I discovered how much of the day had passed. Hours had flown by and I hadn’t even noticed. All that time, it literally felt like I was chilling, just hanging out with my dad. And I knew then that this is what I had been missing. Just sitting with him, relaxing, talking intermittently about something that we had read or seen, the tv casually on in the background. My God I had missed this! And to have it now, even in this limited and morbid state, it still just felt so good.

When I returned the next day, already his condition had changed. And so it has been with each day since, sometimes within the course of the same day, as he continues to grow less alert and more in pain. We don’t want that for him, so we’re giving him meds to put him at ease. The unfortunate side effect, though, is that they make him sleepy, so now he’s even less alert. But he’s also visibly and clearly resting more comfortably, and that in turn comforts me as well.

I try to explain all this to others. My sentences start with “I’m happy” or “I’m glad.” And so I stop. Because Happy. Glad. Joy can’t be right. I try to dismiss these, to think of words more fitting, more in line with what I think others are expecting me to say. But Happy. Glad. Joy. These words keep floating back. And so I think, maybe the reason that they keep coming back, that I just can’t think of any better word, is because these are the right words. And when putting in perspective the realities of our current world, these words are all that come to mind.

Covid-19 has changed everything. My father is in hospice and we can’t even all gather to be with him. We are having to rotate turns as only two of us are allowed to be in with him at any time. My brother is struggling with this. He is compelled to plead with the nurses for an exception, can’t you see our father is dying? Well, yes…they are hospice nurses after all. I can feel their compassion; they don’t want to deny us. But it is out of their hands. They have a job to do, rules to follow. But their quiet, gentle no’s frustrate and anger my brother. My heart breaks for him. But what can we do? A week ago only one visitor had been allowed; the weeks before that, none. There are so many that had to leave this world during the height of the quarantine and didn’t get to have anyone by their side. I simply can’t imagine how horrible that must have been, for both the departing and for those they left behind. So, I have to be grateful. Grateful that none of this was sudden; that I was fortunate to know it was coming and so had the chance to say my goodbyes and I love you’s. Covid or otherwise, so many people don’t ever get the opportunity to do what we have. I have to be grateful for this. And I am.

My father’s eyes have closed. He won’t likely open them again. But in the past few days when he was still alert and responsive, he had the chance to lay eyes on his wife, children, and grandchildren and know that he is surrounded with love. Because he has seen us and knows, it is my hope that he is letting go of any hurt, guilt, or shame that he may have been holding within. I don’t want him to leave feeling broken and tortured. I want him to go with dignity and love, with family at his side. I don’t want him to be afraid.

He is sleeping now. Has been all day. He hasn’t moved at all. His breathing is even and calm. He is not agitated, he is not in pain. He seems simply like he’s just having the best sleep of his life. He seems…peaceful.

I hope that he is.

That would make me happy.

That would make me ok.

**********

Thirty minutes later, my father passed away peacefully in his sleep. We held his hands as he took his last breaths, my mother, brother and I by his side, my sister and husband on the phone. We were with him to the end.

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