Being Present in Another Loss

It was my birthday and my father’s name popped up on my phone. I was on a zoom call with friends at the time we were all booking flights for a trip this summer to Tonga. I thought I would call him right back since we were almost done but when he called again a few minutes later I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach. I needed to take the call, so I did. Wrapping up the zoom call, the phone call with my father started out very normal, birthday wishes, him asking me about my day, etc. Then I asked him how he was, and he replied that it was my birthday, and he didn’t want to bring me down.

“Come on Dad, it is just a day, don’t make me call you first thing in the morning to find out what is really going on now, that would just be ridiculous. What is happening?”

To that he confessed that he didn’t think he had much time left in him. After 9 months on dialysis and a 2-month-old diagnosis of a very blocked heart, catching his breath was getting more and more difficult and being on 24-hour a day oxygen had made no difference. He could not bear the idea of not being able to drive himself to dialysis or walk in under his own power or take his wife out to dinner. His independence for him meant that he could continue to care for all the people that he cared for. He simply could not bear the thought of a day when that could not happen.

So, I asked, the question that we had discussed a month earlier, was it time to call hospice and transition from life extending care to life ending care. He said that he thought that it might be. He wanted to wait and see how he felt at his next dialysis appointment two days from now and talk to the renal doctor at the dialysis center.

Blog 73 - Being present in another loss

I told him I loved him and that I would support whatever decision that he made. The most important thing for me was that he did not suffer through this time however long we had. We had been talking about this inevitable time for the last year, we knew what the end of the movie would be, we just didn’t know the exact time or how the script would play out.

Two days later he woke me up with a 4 am phone call, I said “hello” and he said, “I am done.” That morning, he had barely managed to drive himself to dialysis but once he got there, he was so short of breath he had needed a wheelchair to get into the facility, that was his deal breaker. He asked the renal doctor to contact hospice, that was the last day he had dialysis knowing full well with no remaining kidney function that his death would be imminent. A few hours later, I was on a plane heading to Michigan, meeting my daughter on a layover on the way. She would be my support system on the ground for this initial part and then her brother would take over for her when she needed to return home.

The next morning the first words that my dad said to me were that I needed to grab some paper and a pen; he had a list of things for me to take care of. He was on a mission. He had a list of things that he wanted to do like getting their taxes done so his wife wouldn’t have to worry about that, making calls to all his closest friends, getting his car cleaned out and getting rid of it. He didn’t want us to deal with these things after his death, the things that he could do to shut down his own life he wanted to do with my assistance. Once he knew that he had me on board and in execution mode he relaxed and began to entertain the ever-present stream of friends and family that came to see him every day. If you didn’t know that he was in his final days, you would just have thought that there was a big party going on every day. Every day we fed 10-20 people, whoever happened to be in the house at mealtimes. My dad loved entertaining, he loved sitting with these people and telling stories, reminiscing about golf adventures, and joking about silly things that happened along the way. It was beautiful to watch.

It was only in those moments that people would leave that you would know that this time was different. This wasn’t just any goodbye; this was a final goodbye. Each time my dad would be in tears with emotion and so would everyone else in the room.

In those final days I was surrounded by gifts in ordinary things but witnessing how much my father was loved particularly for his selfless care and giving to others was beautiful to see. My dad was one of the most selfless people I know. His first thoughts in those final days weren’t of himself, they were of how he could care for those around him. Everything from having his granddaughter run and get flowers for the bank teller who had been so kind and taken care of him regularly over the years. Unexpectedly gifting a neighbor with some money to replace his motorcycle tires as a thank you for driving him places in the last few months when he wasn’t feeling up to it. Sending us out for a favorite food to be shared with a friend who loved it too.

It was also in these final days that together we met with the funeral home director and planned his celebration of life. He wanted input on every detail and wrote the attendance list himself. I reminded him that he couldn’t control everything, to which he just laughed and said that he planned to die trying, and he did.

For 7 days I watched him entertain and make sure that I finished the list of things to do. On that 7th day with the list done and the last of his friends having said goodbye he told me that he had better move into the room with the hospital bed that we had set up, he said he didn’t think he would be here in the morning. That night he made sure that he individually spent time with all of us saying his goodbyes to me, his grandkids, and his wife. He would wake us during the night for medications and assistance, but it was brief. That next morning, I walked to the bedroom door and looked at him lying there peacefully waiting to see if he was breathing. After a few seconds at the door he gasped for air. He wasn’t gone, I went to the bedside to wake him since I knew he would need some pain medication. He was sleeping so deeply that when he opened his eyes, he gave me the strangest look, like “what are you doing here.” I realized that he thought he had gone and took me with him, so I said “Dad, you didn’t go, you are still here.” His response, “well damn!”

That 8th day, he didn’t ask for much and really didn’t get up, he spent time with each of us but wasn’t very communicative, he slept mostly. He struggled to breathe, but the medication was at least keeping him comfortable. We could hear the fluid buildup in his lungs, but he did not appear to be suffering. Thankfully! Around dinner time that evening his wife had been sitting with him and when we took her out of the room to get dinner, my dad just said “Wait, let me sit up, I want to eat.”

I asked him what he wanted, and he said “Blueberry pancakes.” Given his respiratory situation I knew that solid food was not going to work. I told him that we probably needed to try something soft. I suggested yogurt, to which I got an emphatic, “I don’t want any damn yogurt.” I just said, “okay dad, does anything soft sound good.” He finally said, “fudgesicle.” The last food my father ever ate was a fudgesicle that my daughter fed to him because his hand was too shaky to hold it. Seeing the pure joy on his face of this small thing, him enjoying that fudgesicle like a small child and his granddaughter caring for him was just such a joy and will be forever in my heart.

Those were the last conscious moments with my father, when that fudgesicle was gone he asked to lay back down, exhausted he fell asleep and three hours later and barely into our 9th day, he gasped for the last time and his heart stopped. One of the biggest hearts, the most kind, selfless people I know, and my best example of unconditional love left this life. He will be missed every single day by me, my children, and the many people that he spent every moment of his life caring for.

Death has taught me once again about life and the value of being present in the here and now, being present for every moment in his final days was a gift that death in co-creation with my father, delivered.

Here are a few questions for you to take to your favorite journal, walk in nature or morning shower.

  • What is present for me right here, right now at this moment?
  • What gifts has life shown me today?
  • What am I not noticing? What am I not paying attention to?
  • How can I be more present today?

I blog because I love the process of pondering my experiences, questioning myself, uncovering new layers, identifying the lessons along the way even in the struggles and yes, even in the losses. If you want to question yourself, then subscribing to my email list will ensure you have an opportunity to do that. I blog about once a month, maybe twice a month so you will not receive a ton of emails from me, only what I hope to be the best questions that we can ask ourselves to be better tomorrow than we were today.

In love,

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