Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Looking Back

I mentioned a couple of posts back that my dad died this past fall. Most of the people who read this blog never met Dad. The people who have read this blog since its inception, or who went back to see what they missed in the early days of this blog, met Dad through this post. I can't really describe Dad any better now than I did then.

My dad fought and, for the most part, beat prostate cancer for the last two decades. He fought, but in the end lost to, multiple myeloma for the last five years. Given his age--he was 81 when he died--that his battle lasted five years is noteworthy. When the end came, it came somewhat suddenly. Early in his second round of chemotherapy (the first one had bought him another two years), he developed abdominal pain severe enough that he was sent from his doctor's office straight to the ICU. A few days later, my stepmother's report was that it didn't look good. I flew to Florida two days after that, planning to stay for five days. My brother was able to get time off from his job; he and his wife arrived in Orlando the same morning I did. Dad's sister had arrived the day before.

Our first full day there, Dad wanted to make sure my brother and I knew all the details of his estate, the location of the obituary he'd written, and the things he'd done to try to make the logistics of his death easier for our stepmother. He also wanted to talk about our childhood, how he worried that he had been absent for too many important moments in our lives after he and our mother divorced and his work took him to another city. We shared our side of that story with him, that while he had certainly missed some things, he had been there for the ones that counted most. High school graduation. Weddings. His grandsons. We laughed a bit together, and we cried a bit together.

The second full day, Dad asked for time alone with my brother's wife. He also made the decision to stop all treatments which were, his doctor admitted, only buying him time. The pain that caused his ICU admission had been traced to a clot that was blocking any blood flow between his kidneys and his liver. Dad said that the time he'd been bought had let him see his kids and his sister, and that he was done fighting. I can't say that I blamed him. The treatment buying him time was heparin, which required that his blood be tested every four hours. The night before, it had taken 11 needle sticks to find a vein from which enough blood could be drawn. They moved Dad from the ICU to a private room and began arrangements to admit him to a hospice the next day, the day before my and my brother's flights to our respective homes. Thanks to a relatively low-pressure, part-time job and a wonderful boss, I was able to cancel my flight and stay on. My heart almost broke watching my brother say good-bye to Dad. I felt a bit bad that I was able to stay when he had to go. Two days later, my aunt returned to her home in Nebraska.

Dad was in the hospice for six days before he died. He and I had several more talks from the heart. Among other things, he told me how proud he'd been that I had insisted on keeping my maiden name in addition to the husband's surname and using both though without a connecting hyphen. He also told me, not for the first time, how much he appreciated the decision the husband and I had made to have me stay at home with the sons when they were little. I was able to tell him how much that support had meant to me. Dad had always loved Frank Sinatra. I had my Mac along and set iTunes to shuffle through the four Frank Sinatra CDs I'd stored. Sometimes Dad and I just sat there holding hands and mouthing the words along with Old Blue Eyes. We needed no words of our own. My stepmother and I made sure Dad always had someone there, and we gave each other private time with him.

Dad was pretty much out of it the two days before he died, but we took turns sitting with him, talking with him, and just being there. The hospice nurses and aides were absolutely incredible. I cannot praise them enough for the care they gave Dad and for the care they gave my stepmother and me. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I knew of hospice in only general terms before all this. It was just amazing.

I put in my Christmas letter that as deaths go, Dad's was a good one. It was. He could have been hit by a truck or had a heart attack and gone without warning, with no chance for the goodbyes my brother and I got to share with him. I might not have been able to read him the e-mails I got from the sons, each sharing the memories of him that they will cherish. He went out on his own terms, with dignity, sharing one last lesson, setting one last example for me.

Finally, I must admit that my father was an atheist of long standing. The only times I ever saw Dad in church were during my appearances in Sunday School Christmas pageants, one reason that this year's Christmas Eve service left me in tears when the candles were passed, and at my wedding. A hospital chaplain visited Dad after he had left the ICU and was in the private hospital room for one night. They evidently had quite the discussion of faith or lack thereof. Dad told me after he'd moved to the hospice that he hoped the chaplain might come visit him so that they could continue their discussion; he said the chaplain had told him that he was the first atheist he'd met who clearly articulated why he chose not to believe. The chaplain did visit Dad in the hospice, but not until Dad was basically continually sedated. He confirmed Dad's account of their initial conversation and said he, too, had looked forward to continuing their discussion.

My post of two years ago referenced above alludes to Dad's somewhat daring nature, his willingness to bluff his way through certain situations. He was a lucky fellow when it came right down to it. And even at the end, Lady Luck smiled on him. Atheist though Dad was, one of his tennis buddies was a retired Catholic priest. I'm blanking on his name as I write this, but I'll call him Father Mike. Father Mike and some of Dad's other tennis buddies came to visit during the time near the end, when Dad was out of it. As they were getting ready to leave, Father Mike asked if he could offer a prayer. I told him that I thought that would be nice. I told Father Mike that my aunt is Catholic and Dad's atheism was very painful for her, and that I knew it would give her comfort to know that a priest had offered a prayer for Dad near the end. Father Mike pulled out his pocket prayer guide, we all bowed our heads, and he read what essentially amounted to an absolution of all Dad's sins. I'm more "spiritual" these days than I am into any organized church faith, but I figure that Dad left this world with all his bases covered. If he was right, and there's no God and nothing to come after death, cool. If he was wrong, well, he certainly didn't have the chance to commit any sins after all his previous ones were absolved.

For Dad's 80th birthday, in 2009, I gave him a copy of Showing up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime by Bill Gates, Sr. In one of those last talks with Dad, when he apologized for missing so much of my childhood, I reminded him of the inscription I'd written in that book. "It wasn't always easy for you to show up, but you always managed to be there when it mattered most. Love, Jean"

He was always there when it mattered most, and I wouldn't be who I am today without that. I miss you, Dad, and always will.


Kitty Cat said...

your Dad sounds like a lovely lovely man.
He lives on in you and your family.
and now, in me too.
thanks for the beautiful post.
happy new year, Kitty Cat

Debi said...

I'm not sure I can even type through the tears. But it's not they're all sad tears, though some are because it hurts so much to miss someone. But there's a healthy dose of happy tears, too. I hate that I never met your Dad. Because he sounds so unbelievably incredible. And as you said, he's a bit of the reason you are who you are. And who you are is just amazing. I love you, Jean. Thank you for sharing your Dad in this beautiful way. *hugs*

Rich said...

I am sorry I never got to meet him. We did exchange an email after my dad died. It's nice that you got to say goodbye, reminisce, and listen to some Frank together.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jean, for sharing this piece with us. My thoughts and prayers are with you and yours as you prepare to go to Florida to celebrate your Dad's life. - Jayne