Death of a Parent: Remembering My Father
Death of a Parent
Remembering My Father
My father was a larger than life man both literally and figuratively. My parents divorced when I was only two, so I never had any recollection of having lived with my father. I do recall struggling with the divorce as I grew up and began to think that perhaps my father was lonely. My sister and I visited him every other weekend, and he and I were very close. Over the years, my worry for him began to transform into guilt as I realized that there were times that I preferred the company of my teenage friends to weekend visitations. I rarely gave up the visits, but when I did, he took it in stride and accepted my need to grow up and discover who I was and what I wanted from life.
Eventually, I moved off to college and rarely saw him, though he wrote me letters and visited occasionally, making the four hour trip from Milwaukee to Bloomington, Illinois. He approved of all my friends and my boyfriend, whom I had followed to college and eventually married.
Even though we were living several hours apart, I had always taken for granted that he would always be there. Then came the devastating call during my sophomore year from my mother. “Your father had a heart attack,” she informed me. “He’s alive, but in intensive care.” He had been at the clinic across the street from the hospital having a stress test when he collapsed. A flurry of medical personnel worked on reviving him, using a defibrillator to jump-start his heart, and raced him across the street to the hospital. Had he not been in the right place at the right time, he would have been gone.
Over the next two years, he lived life at his usual breakneck speed, sleeping little, eating all the wrong things and smoking way too much.
When I was in my senior year of college I had my first and only experience with a psychic connection. At least that’s what I think it was. I’m not sure what else you would call it. I remember walking across campus toward the student union for lunch when a strange sensation washed over me. Out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, I started to wonder, “What would I do if something ever happened to my father?” I immediately felt a sense of crushing melancholy that I didn’t understand. It passed quickly as I kept on toward the cafeteria.
Later that evening I was in my dorm room when I received another call from my mother. This time dad had had a massive stroke and was clinging to life in a Milwaukee hospital. He was only 48 years old. I was devastated and panicked as I drove home, hoping that he would not die before I could get to him. He didn’t. The walk from my car to his room was the longest walk of my life. I had no idea what I would find there, but I sensed that life as he had known it was irrevocably altered, and I was right. I arrived to find him slightly slumped in his geri-chair, the entire right side of his body numb and lifeless. He could not speak.
“Daddy,” my voice dribbled out in a thin whisper. I had no idea what to say as I fell to my knees at the side of his chair. All he could do was use his one good arm to pat my back for comfort. I thought that I was crying as hard as I was capable of crying, until I returned home later that evening and fell into chest heaving sobs that sounded as if they were coming from someone or something else.
I graduated from college several months later and married the love of my life. We spent a year driving between our home in Madison and my father's home in Milwaukee, where his elderly mother looked after him. We visited on weekends, shopped for them and tried to provide some measure of a social life. I called my grandmother regularly to check on them both when I couldn’t be there. One night when I called, grandma couldn’t speak. The tone of her voice sounded chipper, but she was not formulating words. She was babbling and making no sense. My husband and I drove to Milwaukee immediately and took her to the emergency room. She had had a stroke. Now the caregiver needed care. Over the next year dad and grandma both spent time in convalescent homes and at home with live-in caregivers, but neither arrangement was ideal and they were not happy.
We moved them both to Madison and became their primary caretakers. My grandmother was not happy about this as it meant that we had to sell her home. She informed me that she would rather see me dead than let me sell her house, but I did what needed to be done at the time in order to care for them both.
I arranged for adult day care while I worked and then returned home to cook their meals, do their shopping, and set up their medications. I did their laundry, took care of their pets and made sure that they were bathed. It was a lot of responsibility for a young married couple, yet I never regretted it, but to put it bluntly, it was a burden. Don’t get me wrong, I’d do it again and I never resented it. It’s just that it was a lot of work. I was up and coming in my career and when my ten to twelve hour days ended, I returned home to cook, clean and entertain my ailing family members. I was exhausted. This went on for five years and then our first daughter was born. Now the level of work was even more intense, but the joy that our infant daughter brought to my dad and grandmother was amazing. I really believe that the quality of their lives was enhanced immeasurably after Kelsey was born. They adored her and the dynamic that existed between the three of them was incredible to behold. We were a happy family unit for two years and then dad suffered another stroke.
This time he was unable to live alone and he knew it. I was willing to try hiring additional help but he chose to enter a nursing home. I know he did that to spare me and my husband from having more work thrust upon us. It was a completely selfless decision, and it was his to make. A few weeks later, grandma joined him because without his help, she could no longer live alone.
I worked weekdays as a healthcare executive and then volunteered with my daughter on evenings and weekends at the nursing home so we could see my family. This went on for three years, during which time I gave birth to another daughter. When Ashleigh was only two months old, my father had another stroke. His third. This one was the most massive yet. His body was shutting down. He remained bed bound, unable to eat or drink. He had advance medical directives in place which expressed his desire to forego tube feeding or other heroic measures. Nine years after his first stroke and losing his ability to walk and speak, he was dying. I moved into his room with my infant daughter, trying in vain to nurse her, but the stress of my father’s impending death dried up my breast milk. I felt like I was failing my child yet for the first time I realized that I was a child too. His child. A child about to lose her parent. I remained at his bedside for six days. On the final day, his breathing changed. He began the death rattle. My daughter had been sleeping in her carrier, but for some inexplicable reason, she awoke at the start of the dying process, crying inconsolably, as if she sensed my pain and cried the tears that I couldn’t seem to find at that moment.
I wanted to let her cry, but my maternal instincts kicked in as I lifted her from her carrier and we sat together on the side of dad’s bed. I took his hand in my free hand and talked to him. My face was the last face he saw in this world. My voice was the last thing he heard. Ironically, despite the sadness of the situation, it was also a magical, blessing, to be the one that was there to usher him into the next realm. I told him that it was going to be okay. His parents and twin brother were waiting for him, but this time, his life with them would be full of joy and love, not angst and abuse. It was time to go, without fear. And so he went.
I sat for a few seconds, considering what to do next, before slowly shuffling to the nurses’ station to tell them that dad had passed.
On the surface, this story may seem tragic; a young man, living eleven years of his life in a disabled and dependent state. But it is really a story about how a father and daughter really came to know and appreciate one another. We hadn’t lived together since I was two years old, but his dependence on me altered the state of our relationship. We became friends. We spent quality time together on a daily basis that made up for years of being separated. He got to know and love my children and my husband. He was able to see first hand that I had grown into an independent, strong and resilient young woman that was going to be successful and happy in life even when my dad was gone. He was able to die knowing that he didn’t have to worry about me. And I was able to let him go, believing with all my heart that I had brought him joy and happiness throughout the last decade of his life. On his last night of life, I think we both knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we loved each other, and that is the greatest gift of all.
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