There’s no doubt that death sucks and depending on the circumstances, it can be debilitating.
Three years ago today, my dad passed away. Some of my worst memories were from that week, but, also, some of the most heart warming.
I haven’t talked much about the death of my dad. I always thought that it was because it’s private. He’s dead. End of story. But now I realize that it was to protect myself from the pain of loss. I’d gotten into the habit of shutting away those emotions right from the start and opening up to discuss things would open the floodgates of emotions I’d been suppressing for the past 3 years and I wasn’t certain if I was able to deal with them – especially since I’m still somewhat alcohol and drug free and now that I don’t have those coping mechanisms, I didn’t know how I’d deal with them. BAD coping mechanisms, but coping mechanisms just the same.
It’s been no real secret, my dad had struggled with health issues quite a bit of his life – or at least most of my life. I think I was in Grade 7 when he got diagnosed with diabetes. He’d struggled with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, which were compounded by his mostly non-active lifestyle. I always perceived that he did the minimum amount required to get his health issues below the “If you don’t lose weight, you’re going to die” ultimatum from his doctor… but since I haven’t lived at home for the past 23+ years, I’m sure that’s not accurate.
I can’t remember when it was, but my parents ended up winning the lottery. Not an obscene amount, but enough that, for hubby and me, at least, would set us up nicely. Knowing there was nothing my parents needed, the first question I asked them was “where are you going?”
They were planning on going to the UK for 5-6 weeks. They still had all of their stuff from the last time they had gone… 35+ years ago!!! They had a mad and had their driving routes plotted in different colors and each color was for a different day. Their current planning involved a map and a circle which indicated the maximum km’s they would want to travel. My parents were insanely organized that way. They cross referenced their last trip as there were places they wanted to go back to. They still had postcards from places they enjoyed!
I was excited for them. They’ve never lived lavishly. They rarely went on vacation, and they were very organized when they did. I was super excited for them.
It was a good thing they went on this vacation when they did, because as soon as they got back, that’s when my dad’s health started going down hill.
Shortly after they got back, they were planning on visiting my nana – my mom’s mom – and I wanted to give them a card to give to her as it would be around her birthday. As soon as I walked in the house – this being the first time I saw them after they got home – I knew something was wrong.
My dad had had a stroke.
Or so I thought… and my mom. As I was trying to figure out how to get my mom alone, she was doing the same. When we finally got a few minutes to ourselves, she asked me to watch him and tell her if we thought there was anything wrong. There was no need – I immediately saw how he was holding his left arm, half his face seemed to droop, poor motor skills… I was convinced he had a stroke.
As soon as we left, I called my brother in tears. I told him what I thought and asked him to be the meanie. My mom had been trying to get him to go to the hospital but he didn’t want to. I think he knew it was something serious and he didn’t want their trip to visit Nana to be disrupted. I asked my brother to go to the house and force my dad to go to the hospital. It never actually came to that as he voluntarily went when things got too bad to ignore.
As it turned out, he HADN’T had a stroke. He was bleeding in the brain.
He needed brain surgery to go in and fix it.
Unfortunately, it seemed like that was the start of years of constant medical issues. My parents rarely had more than 6 months of no stress. After the bleeding of the brain, they found his carotid arteries were something like 95-98% blocked which was causing mini strokes. They also found something wrong with his heart. But the heart guy wouldn’t operate until the vein guy fixed the arteries, but he wouldn’t operate until the swelling/fluids on the brain from surgery subsided. When all that finally got sorted out, they discovered cancer. Melanoma. They’d remove the tumor, test it, cancerous. a few months later he’d go in for a PET scan, all clear, a few months after that, another PET scan, more cancerous cells. He’d have them removed, they’d be tested, cancerous. He’d go in for a PET scan, clear, a few months later, cancer.
This went on for a couple of years… and yet, through all this, my dad kept his sense of humor.
And then we received the news no one wants to hear:
The cancer is in the brain.
For me, that was a death sentence. There was no coming back from that. Even though they decided to go with radiation/chemo, it might extend his life by 1-2 years… without it, 6 months.
We were told in January 2016 of the cancer in the brain. Even with chemo, he only survived until 22 May 2016. The chemo almost killed him – and he said that if he could do it again, he would not have done it and just let nature take its course.
I feel like a bad daughter – that I should have gone and visited more than I did. To spend more time with him while he was still somewhat functioning. But I didn’t. I don’t even have an excuse other than (maybe) not wanting to subject myself to the ravishes to cancer.
The first week of May 2016 my mom called me asking when I can come and visit. Technically, I wasn’t allowed to leave the area as I was on duty and could be called in at any time. She insisted I come ASAP as dad “was changing”. I spoke with my Captain (as it was the start of the weekend) and he said to go, and if I got paged to let him know and he’d take care of it.
When I got to their place, as soon as I walked in, my mom threw herself in my arms and broke down… I thought I was too late, but it was just the stress of everything and my dad was worse than I expected. He was pretty much bedridden and though my mom could normally get him out of bed, that day was not one of them. I went into the bedroom and he seemed so frail and old… but from what my mom said, he was so happy to see me. He must have been happy to see me cause when I asked him if he was going to come eat lunch with us, he made it, with my assistance, to the dining room table.
One of the saddest moments of this whole thing was after lunch – he was tired and was going to go back to bed. Mom helped him to the bathroom (as, at this point, he required round the clock care) and a phone call came in from a nurse. I offered to take dad from the bathroom to the bedroom so she could take the call. After about 10 steps, he had to stop and take a rest. He looked at me and he didn’t know who I was. I could tell. It killed me – to have him look at me and knowing in the pit of my stomach that he didn’t know who I was.
I went to work the next day and when my Captain asked how it went, I broke down. He asked me what I wanted to do (after he retreated and I calmed down, I went to see him) and I told him that waiting for the weekend was too long so he arranged to give me the Wednesday off. Home Care comes in and they kick my mom out so she can do something normal. So when Wednesday comes around, where do we go? The cemetery.
Mom and Dad had started end of life planning in the late fall but dad had gone downhill so fast, it hadn’t been completed… so mom and I went to finish everything and it was while we were there that the Home Care head nurse called us to advise us that an ambulance has been called and dad was being moved to the hospital. He was fine (as fine as he could be) but they determined that my mom was no longer able to care for him to the extent he needed – which I completely understand and agreed with, as hard as it was to deal. Having him be that sick seemed to be an admission to the end of his life was coming, and even though it was inevitable, we didn’t want to say it.
When we got to the hospital (we finished everything at the cemetery as they assured us that everything was okay – all things considered) dad was in a private room in emergency as comfortable as he could be. He didn’t like the oxygen mask and kept trying to remove it, so we sat there and held his hands.
At some point, a doctor with a couple guys came in and asked if they would be able to come in a little later to examine my dad. The two guys were from 442 Sqn in Comox – the Search and Rescue – and they go into hospitals to shadow doctors and do routine assessments to keep up on their training. A little unsure, we said yes – we simply didn’t know what to say. As we sat there, dad’s eyes were shut and he didn’t speak. He was holding onto my mom’s hand and was feeling it – the fingers and the palm, her wrist – and he kept pulling her closer to him. We looked at each other across the bed, not sure what was going on. He continued to slowly pull my mom’s hand closer to him and when it dawned on me what he was trying to do, I almost let out a wail, sobbing.
My dad brought my mom’s hand up to his mouth to kiss the back of her hand… but he couldn’t because of the oxygen mask. Not wanting my mom to see, I left the room, found a spare bit of wall, and sank to the floor, sobbing into my knees. It was simply too much to witness. A doctor came over to make sure I was okay – and I asked him how he could handle all the death and grief… I don’t recall if he answered me.
After I pulled myself together, I tracked down the doctor with the two guys from 442 Sqn and requested privacy. My dad was at his end of life and we wanted to be left alone. They weren’t aware why he was in there, only that he was, and had they known, they wouldn’t have asked.
My brother eventually showed up and though I can’t really remember what we talked about, I think we discussed the directions to give the doctors – no resuscitation, no life support. Just make him comfortable. I think he was fighting an infection and they wanted to know to what extent to treat him. I called my Captain with an update and I told him that I didn’t expect my dad to make it through the weekend and he told me to stay and that he’d take care of the paperwork. When I spoke to my husband, I asked him to stay in town as he was supposed to be going to Bella Coola for his grandmother’s celebration of life as she had passed away in February; I figured I’d need him before he was due to come back.
Mom and I went to bed pretty early as we were both exhausted. As about 930pm the phone rang. Once…. twice… why isn’t mom answering… three times, I look and it’s the hospital… I think I might have a heart attack. I answer. They were just calling to let us know that a bed was open in palliative care and my dad was being moved – they didn’t want us to show up the next day and not be able to find him.
It took over an hour to get my heart rate back down. That call stressed me out SO bad!
The next morning mom said she didn’t hear a thing – I can’t imagine how exhausted she had been. We planned on going to palliative care later in the morning. We didn’t know what to expect… but it certainly wasn’t what we walked in on.
Dad was sitting up, eating, engaged with the nurses. We were able to chat, though he was pretty medicated. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember sneaking him cookies from the kitchen. Volunteers would bring in treats for the family members visiting relatives. My dad, like me, has a huge sweet tooth… so screw the apple sauce and salad – or whatever they were feeding him – if these were his last days, I was going to get him cookies or whatever bars the gals brought in!
We wouldn’t stay too long – maybe an hour or so. Dad was still tired and slept a lot. When we went back that evening with my brother and his wife, he didn’t seem as alert, but was still able to communicate. We had some good laughs. At one point he said to me “well, we had some rough patches, but you turned into a pretty good son“… to which I told my brother that after all this time, he had a brother, not a sister. He also said my mom was mean… I think because she wouldn’t let him eat cookies, but I don’t know at what time frame he was talking about.
That night I got the worst text ever. “Guess who’s in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder?“…. my husband, because he was no longer going to Bella Coola, said yes to playing a soccer game where he slipped and fell, and he dislocated the shoulder when he tried to catch himself.
Not what I wanted to hear.
The worst part was I had the truck, so he was on his motorcycle at the soccer game. He found a couple – complete strangers – where the husband had his motorcycle license. They drove him to the hospital, then they drove the motorcycle to the house and left everything – gear, helmet, keys – in the back yard. After he was done at the hospital, his mom picked him up and drove him home. Bike was home. Gear was home. Keys were home. Home was not broken into.
Needless to say, I was torn between being a good daughter and being a good wife.
Sorry, Hunny, daughter won out.
The next morning, I told my mom what had happened. We planned that when my brother got off work, we’d trade places – he’s be at palliative care with my mom and I’d go home and spend the night then ride my motorcycle back to my mom’s on the Saturday morning so hubby could drive – thankfully we had an automatic and not the standard we have now!
I also had an idea… to try playing music for my dad. He didn’t seem to be communicating terribly well and I’d heard that music deals with a different part of the brain. I can’t remember what song I had initially thought of… I think it was “A daisy a day” by Hank Snow as I remember dad mentioning that song. Mom suggested “Little Arrows” by Leapy Lee as – if I remember correctly it was the song playing during their first date.
When we got to palliative care, he was awake, but less communicative. I decided to try playing the song. I wish I could have recorded his reaction. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to. His face lit up and he made gestures and sounds in anticipation of the song.
I wish I had waited until my brother and his wife was there to have witnessed it. My dad’s health was deteriorating and he slept much of the time we were there after that morning. By Saturday, he was, essentially in a coma. He wasn’t in pain and that was the important part.
Sunday, 22 May 2016
Mom and I kept our regular schedule. We got to palliative care about 1030am. We took our time. There was no rush. Dad was still sleeping, though his breathing seemed a little labored. I excused myself – to go find the washroom. When I got back to the room, I walked into this sight. I quietly snapped a pic and left so my mom could have some privacy.
I waited in the common room. When mom came out, it was my turn.
I had been waiting and waiting to say something… my good byes. I didn’t want to because saying good bye would be an admission of the fact that he’s never coming home and I simply could not bare that. So I waited and waited… until I couldn’t ignore it. It was now or never.
And I said good bye. I told him that we didn’t see eye to eye, not because we were too different, but because we were too similar – no matter how adamant I was that we weren’t. I hoped that I had made him proud. And I told him we’d take care of mom – that it was okay, that he could go.
After said what I needed, I went to where my mom was talking to one of the nurses and I cried. I sobbed into my mom’s shoulder and just cried.
That was the only time I expressed my grief to my mom.
The nurse ran off, thinking he had stopped breathing, but he was still breathing.
After I had calmed down, we talked about what we wanted to do. Should we leave and go out for lunch? I said no – that I thought we should stay a little longer. We went to one of the tables and continued putting together a puzzle someone else had started. Mom was saying that when she was talking to the nurse, she had assured mom that even though dad was non-responsive, he could still hear what we were saying. She decided to ask the nurse if the phone in the room could call out long distance. One of my dad’s childhood buddies wanted to speak to dad, but we thought we had lost the chance since he was now unconscious. She figured if she could get him on the phone, his friend could say what he wanted to and we could hold the phone up to dad’s ear – so mom went to talk to the nurse.
I continued putting together the puzzle… and the next time I saw my mom, her eyes were red and filled with tears.
“He’s not breathing”
I grabbed my stuff and ran to the room.
Dad was gone. Less than 30 minutes after I said my good bye.
We cried. We clung to each other and cried.
I called my brother, who was at work. “You and Grace have to come to the hospital”
“I can’t leave the store, I’m the only one here, we’ll come after work”
“You can’t. He’s gone” as I choked on a wail.
We decided I’d go and pick up Grace at work. He’d call and talk to her manager and arrange for her to leave. I calmed down as best I could and hopped into the car. That was the slowest drive of my life. I tried not to run through the mall to where my sister in law worked. As soon as I walked in, we both started sobbing, hugging each other – earlier, when she realized it was my brother on the phone, she knew what it was about. I vaguely recall hearing her manager explaining to a customer that “their dad just passed away”. My sister in law grabbed her things, we went to see my brother as they worked in the same mall, and he assured us that he would be there as soon as he could.
I ended up staying with my mom for about 2 weeks. I’d drive her to various bank appointments, insurance, lawyers… the list went on and on. I think there was one day we didn’t do anything related to dealing with the estate/will.
Why am I telling you this? Because I have to. I need to remember those details I’ve tried so hard to forget. I need to cry and sob and start the recovery process; no drugs, no alcohol, no numbing. I open my heart open so I can start putting the pieces back together. I’ve avoided it for too long.
Because I don’t want these to be the memories I focus on, but, since I haven’t addressed them, they’re the memories I remember.
My dad was a wonderful man. I don’t remember a time where he wasn’t laughing or smiling. He always – ALWAYS – had time for me and my brother and doing things as a family. He worked a rough job – grave yard, 6 days a week, every day except Christmas day and New Year day. That never stopped us from piling into the car to spend the day in Victoria – he would often be a passenger to he could get some sleep. He never used “I’m tired” as an excuse.
My parents were married for 47 years when he passed away. 47 YEARS!!! Can you imagine? I certainly can’t imagine the void in my mom’s life – but, thankfully, she had a friend base of other ladies in the condo complex, so that was reassuring – and my brother and his wife lived in the same condo complex – so my mom wouldn’t, truly, be alone.
When my dad was cremated, they asked if we wanted to keep any of his remains. My mom said no, but my sister in law and I both said yes. And this year, I commissioned a memorial piece for my mom:
The white “stars” (as I call them) are created from some of my dad’s ashes being added into the glass during the firing process. I was concerned that she would be upset as she didn’t want any of his remains.
She loved it.
I just wish I could have given it to her myself. I also had a couple of beads made for myself and my sister in law – they also contain ashes.
But death shouldn’t overshadow their life.
This is me, remembering my dad’s death so I can focus on his life.
On a side note, my friend, Lacey Lee Elliott, who is the first Dharma contribution, is a brain tumor survivor. When she sent me the link to support her in the Vancouver Brain Tumor walk, I didn’t hesitate and I donated because, as far as I’m concerned, brain cancer killed my dad. Even though my dad started with melanoma, it only killed him when it got in his brain. I saw the devastating effects a brain injury – whether bleeding on the brain causing pressure on areas of the brain, affecting motor skills, personality, etc, or the cancer itself. It’s horrible and I hope you, my readers, never experience it with a loved one. If you are able, please support my friend in her walk as a survivor. Team Phoenix.