What do you do the day you watch your father die?
In the days leading up to August 25th, that was one scenario I forgot to play out. We’d been doing a lot of “rehearsing,” my brother Ben shared with us the clinical term for asking a lot of questions about what to expect, and going through every detail. This helped us prepare. And since the diagnosis that the cancer had returned, I’d been doing a lot of rehearsing on my own. I acknowledged that my Dad may not be there to walk me down the aisle, that my kids wouldn’t get to be spoiled and taught by their Grandpa, that the next time something breaks in my house I won’t just be able to call Dad. I’d drawn attention to those possible realities and it truly did help. Addressing the worst case made every moment we were able to have together much more meaningful. And it served as a reality check. Dad always remained hopeful and positive, and addressing worst-case scenarios didn’t take away from that. Hope for the best but plan for the worst became a consistent mantra.
After watching Dad slowly slip away during the week, and with all the times we’d been told what to expect and that he could pass any day, Saturday still came as a surprise. Mom had stayed Friday night in the hospital, as she’d done most of the week, and she was the one to watch him fade away forever. After his friends, Ben and I left for the night Friday, Dad drifted off to sleep and just never woke up. His body was still there, doing all it could to keep breathing, but Dad’s presence was gone.
It was to this news that I arrived back at the hospital Saturday morning. Mom was teary-eyed as she told me, then we both broke down in sobs. I observed Dad’s worsened levels on the monitors, confirming that his time was soon. Ben and his partner, Meredith, arrived shortly after myself among a few other family members and friends.
I felt as if we were getting in position. Mom was on one side of Dad’s bed, I was on the other, each holding one of his limp hands. Everyone else was sitting or standing in a U-shape around the bed. The doctor came in and with increased compassion and a gentleness, told us one more time what to expect and informed us that it was time. He turned off the monitors and administered the medication to insure no pain or anxiety, and we waited. It was only a matter of minutes. We’d been told it could take hours for his body to give up, but Dad was ready.
We were mid-conversation. My aunt was the first to notice. She got up quickly to check for a pulse. Her face, and her tears, answered the question the room was all thinking.
It was crushing. Maybe it was the feeling people describe when they say their heart is breaking. I sobbed as my brother held me, my aunt holding Mom. I honestly couldn’t tell you how long we sat in that moment. Then my mom asked my aunts to sing Amazing Grace. That song, and singing, has always been significant to that side of the family and it was so special. The words now hold an entirely new meaning for me. I listened to each line with reverence and had my wits about me enough to actually record the audio. I haven’t played it back yet but I know, someday, I’ll be glad I have it.
It’s at this part of the television show that the scene would end and likely cut to sometime in the future. No one shows you what this part is like … the post-dying part. It was after the singing and the heavy crying had subsided, all I could come up with to say, with no hint of humor, was “So that’s what that’s like.” We now all shared this experience. We’d all watched someone die, together. Someone we all loved and appreciated in different ways, but who was significant to each of us.
I kept holding his hand, looking at every scar, memorizing the details. Those hands, which picked my up as a baby, held mine as I learned life’s lessons, and clapped for me at every accomplishment, were still. The same hands who mastered sudoku, built our home and crafted the life around us, held no more life of their own. I didn’t want to let go. I now understand why it’s so hard to leave the body – it’s what you have left to hold on to. All we have now are memories. And pictures. And the things he touched in our lives. But not him. We’ll never again have HIM to hold.
I felt anxious about what to do next. “Sooooo wanna grab some lunch??” seemed way too normal and mundane. Everything did. My Dad just died…shouldn’t there be something meaningful we’re supposed to do next?
The answer? No. There is no “right” thing to do next. Like we’d done all week, we did what FELT right. And for us, that was inviting those close friends and family we’d just shared this experience with over to the house for pizza. So we took food orders, divided up errands and people started to file out of the room my father was still lying in. That still weirds me out. We were standing around, talking about pizza, alongside a dead body. Not weird in a disrespectful way, more in the way we all just naturally progressed from sobbing to ordering pizza. It may all sound strange if you haven’t been through a similar experience, I think it would to me if I hadn’t lived through it. Mom answered the nurse’s questions about organ donation and connected them with the funeral home. We gathered up the excessive amount of things that had collected in Dad’s room throughout the week and all that was left to do was leave.
Mom looked at me and said, “I’ll catch up with you.” That moment hit me in a totally different way. My beautiful, amazing, strong mother was about to say goodbye to her husband. Yes, I was saying goodbye to my father, but Mom had built her LIFE with a partner. A frustrating, stubborn, caring and supportive partner. Her other half was gone. I held my sobs back until I walked out of the room and was scooped up into a hug by one of our friends. Then another wave hit me: that was the last time I’d ever see my Dad.
I waited in the parking lot for Mom to come down. She came down composed, but tearful, and shared what I’d been feeling: the resistance to leaving the hospital because that came with it an element of finality. With another hug, we got in our cars and drove away.
It was on that drive home that another scenario hit me. In all my rehearsing I’d never thought about that moment from here on out when someone asks me about my Dad. My response will have to include the words “he passed…” or “we lost him…” Forever, my answer will express that I don’t have him anymore, which hit me like a ton of bricks. Despite the fact I had actually watched him die, reality was still not fully sinking in. And writing this weeks later, I can tell you it still hasn’t.
The rest of Saturday was full of beautiful moments. Everyone sitting around on the back porch, just like Dad loved, telling stories and just being together. Good friends who had heard the news just dropped by. More food was delivered. My 10-year high school reunion was that same day so even more old friends who knew Dad were in town and came over. It turned into a good day, which is so incredibly WEIRD. How can that be possible? But it was. People showed up for us. We followed our emotions to what felt right. I drank a lot of beers and ate a whole bar of Hershey’s chocolate. I laughed. I cried. My friends just let me talk.
Again, there is no “right” thing to do. Or say. Or feel. Trauma and grief are their own beasts and look completely different from one person to the next. And for us, that day, what transpired was exactly what we needed.