In a manner of speaking, politics is to blame for this. Not specifically for my Dad's death, which happened these last few years gone by, but in forcing me to face that experience and rethink it and then to wonder how it might have played out differently today. I don't like to think of my father's passing simply because reexamining loss is never what you would call a pleasant experience. Seeing the national discussion taking place and watching those who treat the end of your lifes journey and then couching it as a political statement; I find that revolting. The idiots that appear to oppose anything that looks and sounds like it may be of benefit to those who haven't had things go their way, they have defined it in those terms. Dad's passing was something of a rite of passage for me, not one that anyone is ever really ready to make, yet so many of us have it thrust upon them unprepared. There is no "right" time for this personal test, if you care to be trite, you could call it a "pop quiz" on life itself.
Dad had been declining, at first gradually, and then more markedly as the time and chemo treatments slipped away. He was an athlete, he was charismatic, my Dad was a person who made an impression on people. He was not a saint. Sometimes he was more caring about his personal pride than about the example he was setting, he said that appearances mattered. In the latter years, when alcohol would mask his anger at how things had come to pass and how his own choices had dissappointed himself, and our choices and how life had turned out to be for his sons. despite that, he did his best to enjoy life and pull what he could from the curve balls that life threw at him. He started out as a poor little miners kid, never expected to be much, one of six. He was not the eldest or the best looking or even exceptionally talented but he was a grinder, he worked hard and knew the value and ethics of hard work. Passed that along to me and my brother. Aim high, plan low, by that he meant that we should strive to be our best selves and be ready for the worst repurcussions.
He didn't understand my dreams, but never sought to change them. Just wanted to make sure that I had a plan for taking care of me and my own. Wanted me to be happy. Wanted my brother to be happy. He had discovered that happy damn near trumped everything else. If you were happy, want of income wasn't that big a deal. Still, he had that pride thing, he was happy with what he had managed to accomplish, and as such, that sin of pride was mortally embarrassing when his health failed him. Maybe it was the drinking, but more than likely it was the smokes. He accepted that verdict begrudgingly, tried to deal with it in the best way possible, setting aside some term life for me and my brother. making sure his second wife, Doris, was set up in such a fashion to ensure that she could live out her remaining years without want.
The big C bested him on it's return engagement. You see, he had beat it back once already, but he never bought into the idea that once bested it wouldn't be back. If anything it released him to enjoy and savor the smaller things even more, grandchildren, pets, family. He did his best to not dwell on the past, revisiting transgressions wasn't on his agenda when new and better memories could be made. He had made plans in advance to settle accounts financially as best he could when round 2 started. He gamely signed up for the new bout of radiation and chemo despite how it had racked him before. He started to diminish though, people could see but wouldn't say and still he knew it. His mind though was as sharp as ever. When needed, he could still pull off those paternal looks that caused you to rethink what you had just said. Yet as he was still savoring what he could from everyday he knew that time was running out.
I got there with my family over a Thanksgiving holiday. We spent time together, good times, watching sports, playing cards. He held his latest grandson in his lap and marvelled about life all over again. he laughed watching my eldest run slightly amok with his dog throughout the house; the barking and playing noises seemed like a comfort rather than a bother. In the past we might have been chided for our lack of parental discipline, but not now, he was simply happy to be there in the moment, his family by his side.
We spent a good week there. Not really touching upon the unspoken truth, how close he was to the end, how we understood that this time was different. We clung to that last thread of hope, knowing the truth but afraid to say anything but in muted whispers to each other. Still holding out for the possibility for a reprieve. He had changed from the man I knew and grew up with. The docs he was seeing had to treat/hurt him in this fashion in order to burn all of the disease out of him. He spoke of how life was slowly losing it's pleasure for him. He couldn't even pee without help. Of all things, he was upset at his loss of virility, as if somehow that made him less of a man. He told me how he and Doris had planned on hospice care in case this latest round of chemo was unsuccessful and that if this didn't work how he didn't want to die in a cold clinical hospital bed.
We left after the holiday. I was sobered but hopeful. My brother came in a few days after me and from the best that I can tell, the same performance was repeated with his family. A good family visit. Saying goodbye in the best way that my Dad knew how.
A few days before Christmas the call came. He'd collapsed in the bathroom, the chemo had weakened him to the point where his wife, Doris, couldn't even help him, to help himself. He was embarrassed again for having had it come to this point, she said. He wanted to do this one thing, to go to the bathroom, on his own. He hated having to rely on something or anyone for this small part of our everyday lives that was so simple yet had become so humbling. That night he was taken to the hospital. Doris called and said that based on what the tests showed and the doctors had advised, he didn't have long to go. He wanted us, his boys, to be by his side and could I come?
I don't even remember the plane ride, I remembered asking my boss if I could go, I remember my wife encouraging me to go, she would handle the holidays with the kids and not to worry, I obviously had married well and thanked her for being her. I got into Dallas and was soon at his bedside. He was a shell of the person that I grew up with. The same person who had inspired various amounts of fear, respect, adoration and laughter was leaving us. He had been a constant in my life, he would always let you know if what you had done was the right thing to do. Praise was not given freely but was earned, which made it all the more special when it came from my Dad.
The pain was clearly racking his body and the doctors had informed Doris that at this point there was nothing that they could do but keep him doped up to deal with the pain. This meant that most of the time he was silent, his breathing rattled, no longer any hope of a hospice room or even his own room to provide some small comfort over these last few steps before his final release. Not being able to be in his own clothes, surrounded by the things in life that he had earned for his departure like a pillow that fit just right, no tubes, no music to soothe him. None of the smells and sounds of home. Just the beeping and hum of machinery and the antiseptic smell of bleach and medicine that provided a backdrop of clinical indifference. The staff were fine, some of them understood and accepted the personal side of our grief and despair. Others were more clinically detached for their own reasons, for either caring too much or having been hardened by watching this rite of passage all too often.
During those last hours, Dad would occasionally reach a level of lucidity that was like a transcendance through the drugs and through the pain he to be able to acknowledge the fact that I was there. It took a special effort to get there, but that was my Dad, he was never really afraid of the hard work that was required to get the job done. He was able to let me know that he was proud of the person that I had become and wanted me to live and enjoy my life; as much as he had found pleasure in having me in his. What can a son say to his father after that? The only words that came to mind were "I love you". So I said those words. I could see that they had found him and I could see the joy in his eyes. Those words weren't shared nearly often enough between us. We were men after all and those kinds of emotions are usually implied instead of spoken. But those words had found him and with that, he closed his eyes and was able to rest a bit easier.
The time was fast approaching where the struggle, his struggle with the betrayal of his own body against his mind was coming to an end. There was a brief moment when it appeared that he had found a way to come back to us one more time, I grasped his hand and told him that he didn't have to fight any longer. He had nothing left to prove. He had the love of his sons and of his wife and that we understood and that he could let go. I left the room to allow Doris to say her goodbyes in private. Then we sat in an awkward vigil and watched him slip past. It was quiet, we were stoic as well as we could be before the tears came. We cried. We cried for our loss, we cried because he no longer had to be in pain. We cried because we hurt, because we were embarrassed that we couldn't allow him to go the way that he wanted. We cried because we were helpless and we cried because we cared and loved him so much.
After an hour or so, we had to move on. They needed to move the body. They had to clean the room, the plans had to be made for the "after". Phone calls had to be made, to family, to the paper, to home. There were more tears to be shed, memories to be reviewed and replayed. It remains a farewell that remains with me throughout my life, because it changes you and stays with you for all of your days.