Wednesday night while I sat at the airport, waiting for my sister to pick me up and take me to the hospital where my father lay dying, my father’s heart stopped for the very last time.
My timing is often off, but this is a new level of inept, even for me.
My father and I had our differences, though I think he was unaware of them. Okay, so I had my issues. The last time we talked on the phone he’d called me, which was unusual because he usually waited for me to call so he could complain about how long it’d been since he’d heard from me. But he needed to talk, and I heard from him a deeper level of sadness than I’d heard before. He was tired, he was sick, he had outlived his siblings, and he was, as far as I could tell, just waiting.
He’d been waiting for years. He didn’t expect to live to the age of 83, so when he did, he didn’t know what to do with himself. Around thirty years ago I was told I’d better get home for Christmas that year, because he wasn’t expected to live much longer. His heart was going. He’d had a stroke, a heart attack, lost a kidney, and he was, according to his doctors, a walking time bomb.
So I traveled from Europe to be there for Christmas, and can you believe it? He kept on living. I didn’t mind so much. It was a relief to have him still around.
We expect our parents to just keep going, to always be there because they always have been, and then suddenly they’re not, and it’s as if they’ve abandoned us. This is because they have abandoned us. The nerve of them.
During our last phone conversation I let him talk, as I always did, because he did love to talk. Mostly about himself of course – his world had become so small that all he really knew about was himself, and so he talked and he talked and he talked, and I’d interject the appropriate comments when needed. He was insistent on staying in his own apartment, though it wasn’t feasible. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t take care of himself, but he didn’t want to go in a facility, and he didn’t want to pay anyone to take care of him. I told him we just wanted what was best for him, because we only wanted what was best for him. My sister was at his beck and call for years, and he counted on her to keep him in his own place for . . . ever.
Last week he went into the hospital. He had an infection, he wasn’t well, and they talked of sending him home in a few days, but not home, to a rehab facility, perhaps assisted living after that, but he kept getting worse instead of better, and suddenly decisions had to be made. He never wanted to talk about his wishes, just that he was going to die in his own apartment, thank you very much, though he never shared with us how he saw that happening. Perhaps he would go to sleep one night and not wake up. Perhaps he kept finding himself alive each morning and wondered “what the . . . ?”
He thought about what would happen afterwards, and he prepaid for his cremation. When his wife died, suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive heart attack (she who thought she was going to outlive him and had planned her life for after dad), he had no money, and we, his four kids, paid for what needed to be paid for. We were glad to do it, and one of us was her child too. He didn’t want that to happen again, and so he made sure it wouldn’t. But he didn’t plan for up to that point because how could he? How can you plan for something when it can happen so many different ways?
Maybe he would die quietly one night, his once frail heart giving up, the ticking time bomb finally going off. Perhaps he would die in a car accident. Maybe he’d be stricken with an illness and go slowly. Who knew?
Years ago he had cancer. This was long after his heart attack and his stroke and the loss of his kidney. Or was it two heart attacks? Two strokes or one? No matter. After his wife died he lived alone, and then, one day, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He went into the hospital, they removed his bladder, and he had a long and difficult recovery. But he recovered, cancer free, and after recovery he was moved into an apartment close to my sister.
I was there when we packed up his old apartment, up at Big Bear where he’d lived for years. His move to this apartment had left with fewer possessions, and this next move would leave him fewer still. He didn’t much.
But it seemed like no matter what happened to try to kill him, he’d just slough it off and keep going. And then he has the nerve to not even wait an extra hour for me to get from the airport to the hospital. Can you believe that? I got here as fast as I could. I made plane reservations, packed, got to the airport, made it through security in record time, even trying out the new scanner thingy, made it to my gate when they were doing last call, and got on the plane. Gosh darn it, I was going to be there to be with him!
I’m good with dying people. I’m good at sitting with them and holding a hand, or listening to them if they can or want to talk, and I’m good at being a calming influence. I can sit for hours next to their bed, just in case they need me. I can tell them what they need to hear, and I can reassure them. I can make sure they’re not alone. (It’s the living I have a problem with. The dying are easy.) He had no appreciation for any of my other talents, but this was one that I could use, and then he dies before I can swing into action.
Possibly the only thing I could have ever given him, other than the annual slippers he liked for Christmas, and he leaves before I can be useful. I could have been a better daughter, but I wasn’t, and there’s no going back. But that’s okay. We only do what we can when we’re doing it, and there aren’t any do-overs. If there were, so many of us would be doing over we’d never get anywhere at all. Besides, it took me a long time to accept myself the way I am, and damned if I’ll feel guilty now.
He was my dad, and I’ll always remember how hard he tried to take care of us when he was on his own, between wives, a single dad who kept us fed and clothed and secure, and how he gave me some fabulous siblings who I love very much. He produced some awesome human beings (not me, but the others), so he deserves a lot of credit for that. He was stubborn, often difficult, self-centered, and not very imaginative. But so what? I wanted so much to help him – I didn’t want him to suffer, or be in pain, or be sad and alone. And at the end, he had my sister, as he had for years, and she and my brothers, were there for him, and with him. And three out of four ain’t bad, is it? But he knew I was coming, they told him so, and so I expect he knew we all wanted the best for him, whatever form it took. I like to think he was happy at the end. Let’s go with that theory, since there’s no way to know for sure.