People had feared this one. My parents have six children, twelve grandchildren, and nieces and nephews, and all of us knew the end was coming for my Dad. On the last day of the first month of the year, he’d had a massive heart attack, which he survived. But that event had finally given us all the map to what was going on inside him: a series of small strokes (doctors traced the first to about 2009; I’d put that one at least a year before), progressive dementia, and now the thing with his heart.
Dad struggled to understand it himself. Months later, we would find handwritten notes he’d made. “Hart attack,” says one, dated February 17. “Thank them for the gifts,” it adds. “Flowers and fruit.”
As his children recognized the enormity of what had happened (was happening) with Dad, we planned the annual family gathering with more attention than usual. It was understood that no one would make the mistake of sitting this one out. No one, that is, except Dad.
He just never spoke about it. August. San Diego. My mother would talk to him about these things, but he never really responded. To Dad, it was as if they did not exist.
Of course he was right. That event simply wouldn’t happen for Dad. We didn’t want to hear anyone say this, but it was true.
Dad’s last illness started around the same time Baby Jack reached his first birthday. Mom noticed that Dad wasn’t eating; on a day they’d spent (as they spent many others) walking in the Arboretum, Mom got concerned enough to call my Dad’s doctor. They told her to bring him to the hospital. From there, things moved quickly.
The clothes he was wearing for that day’s trip to the Arboretum went into a bag, pushed onto a shelf in his hospital room, forgotten for days. This was the same room he’d occupied six months before, when he was moved from ICU to the ward: 218.
Day after day, Mom kept telling us that he was coming home the next day. (Did she ask my Dad? Because he’d have disagreed.) He kept having to stay: another day, another. Finally one of my siblings spoke directly to a doctor, and that’s how we learned what was really going on.
My siblings all arrived to see my Dad on the same day. Jim and I drove down from San Francisco, getting in late that afternoon, in a retracing of the trip we’d taken Thanksgiving weekend the year before. When I arrived, Dad was awake. Really, really awake.
“Oh, here’s Annie,” he said. He looked delighted.
There isn’t much I can say about that day and night. It passed. I didn’t read any of the books I’d brought. For the most part, I watched my Dad’s face, listened to him breathe.
And remembered the day in that same room six months before, when we learned he’d be discharged, and I started helping Dad dress for the trip home even before the nurses took out his IV and everything. I was taking my Dad home! So excited.
I knew that would not happen, this time. So did he. In all the time I was with him, Dad never asked me when we were going home. He knew he wasn’t.
From the hospital we moved Dad to hospice. Dad’s next bed was by a window in a two-bed room whose TV he never watched, whose lights he never asked us to operate, whose other resident he never acknowledged. I don’t think Dad knew that Robert, the foulmouth in the next bed, was even there.
(One day my sister overheard one of the nurses asking Robert what had happened to him. “I fell,” he told her. “How did you fall?” she asked. “I don’t know,” he mused. “I just fucking fell.”)
Dad had always been an active guy. His body was where he lived — walking, juggling a soccer ball, gardening, riding bikes — and for the most part it had treated him well. A bed is not an ideal location for a guy like my Dad to spend any part of his life. He was aware of this, at first: shifting, moving his legs and feet. Much as we tried to make him comfortable, it was often impossible.
But the day came when Dad wasn’t moving his feet anymore. I had been reading to him in the days before, even playing music, and I understood at last that he was no longer interested. He was still there, though; I’d called the staff to lower the rail on his bed the day before, so that Dad could use what strength he had left to embrace my Mom.
To the end, Mom was all my Dad wanted. That woman was his life. If you have any chance to see this kind of love happen, or take part in it, don’t miss it.
By July 11, something had changed. Dad’s legs lay quiet. Still, when he was awake I could look into his eyes and see the light that was my Dad: banked, waiting. In the afternoon of that last day I began again, telling Dad about his grandchildren.
Dad’s breathing evened out. He listened, as I named the kids and told Dad who they were, how old, what they loved, how they spent their time, things they said. On the sheets between us, Dad moved his hand into mine.
Night fell, and the seven of us — siblings, and my husband — took my Mom to a Pasadena restaurant we remembered from childhood. There was some kind of karaoke night happening, and at one point, a singer did one of Frank Sinatra’s standards. My mother put down her fork and started to cry.
We stayed through dessert, but Mom wasn’t really eating. She told us finally that she wanted to get back to hospice, to “say good night to Dad.” So that’s where we went. On the drive over, my sister told the story of a queasy car trip her in-laws had taken with a girl their other son was dating, once. It’s a great story, and Ellen nails the telling of it every time. We were all laughing when we piled out of the car.
Dad was asleep when we walked in. Mom said good night, kissed him, and then told us to take the photos and books from his bedside and bring them home. We were a bit surprised by this, but she was right, it was getting cluttered in there, and besides, Dad couldn’t turn to see them anymore.
We’d been home for about a half hour when Jim, writing a piece about my Dad for his blog, asked Ellen to recite The Soccer Prayer so that he could include it.
She paused. Looked to her left. Crying a little, she said it.
About ten minutes later the phone rang. It was hospice; Dad was gone.
The eldest of four in his own family, the boy who’d watched war come to London, who’d run telegrams to and from young American soldiers, who buried his mother and left his father while still a boy, who sailed for Africa in his twenties, who married the only blonde in town almost 50 years ago, who raised six children on two continents and coached countless more, who danced at all six of his children’s weddings, who celebrated the 21st century by becoming a citizen of the United States, was gone.
In birth and in death, it’s amazing how completely the person arrives, and goes. In the absence my Dad left, we worked: packing up his clothes, so many of them, for Goodwill. My husband opened that bag from Dad’s hospital room, reached into the pocket of the last pair of trousers Dad had worn, and pulled out something wrapped in tissues. He looked at what he’d found, then handed it to my brother: a folded stack of $20 bills, more than a thousand dollars’ worth.
Months, maybe even years before, Dad used to run his little car to the store: buying bananas, buying milk. He’d tell my Mom he was going, she’d hand him a twenty, and off he’d go. But at some point, money went from being something Dad needed to something he carried. Like his body. Like his life.
It’s not that money didn’t matter. Dad’s college degree was in Economics; he knew it did. It’s that he was headed someplace where it would be profoundly beside the point.
I miss my Dad. I’m sure I always will. But there was a dignity in the time he had, together with Mom in those last months, to watch his own sunset approaching, to measure his days, to love his wife. To say goodbye. There are parts of my father’s life I would not wish on anyone.
The end is not one of them.