Thursday, July 27, 2017

Farewell, Dad

Probably the one thing most of us think about, more than anything else - whether we realize it or not - is the impending death of our parents. It's the one topic that we probably put the most amount of thought into, and it's certainly the thought we think about for the longest period of time.  When we are children, our first question about death is the one that can never really be answered: What.  What is death?  What does it mean?  And then once we grasp that our parents' death is imminent and guaranteed, we follow up What? with Why?, then How?, and then finally the one constant thought we will ponder perhaps more than any other thing in our lifetimes: When will my parents die?

The one thing about the "when" question is that there is no good answer to it.   We certainly don't want to lose our parents when we are children.  And the older we grow, the thought of losing our parents, even when we are in our 40s, 50s and older, is still terrifying. And the odd and funny and sad truth about asking When? is that despite it being the question we will ask perhaps more than any other question - despite the amount of time we think about this question and the amount of time we spend preparing ourselves for the answer - we are never truly ready When? it happens.

Dad was diagnosed with dementia in May 2013.  Last Saturday morning, July 22nd, Dad passed away after a 5+-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.  He had turned 78 last month.

His and Mom's fight with this gut-wrenching disease has been well-documented in this blog.  I call it THEIR struggle because despite Dad being the one with the disease, Mom was with him every step of the way - from the undated beginnings of Dad asking strange questions and making odd statements, to his forgetting simple tasks and getting confused as to where he was, to his becoming incontinent and unable to dress himself, to finally being admitted to the nursing home in September 2014 where he remained until last weekend.  Eventually he became mostly non-communicative, couldn't eat solid food, and became bed-ridden, weighing less than 120 pounds.  Alzheimer's ravaged Dad; it simply didn't care.

Through it all, though, Dad remained sweet, loving, and cooperative.  There were times in the beginning when he would argue with Mom because he was confused and forgetful.  But he came to completely depend on her for his care - to bathe him, feed him, change him, and to be his advocate and fight for him when she felt he wasn't getting the care he deserved, or at least the care that she wanted him to have.  My Mom visited my Dad in the nursing home every day from 10:30a-1:00p, and then again from 4:00p-8:00p, feeding him lunch and dinner every day.  And when I say "every day", it is not hyperbole.  For just shy of 3 years, she essentially gave up everything in order to sit with him and just be with him.  It was impressive to us, but normal for her.  She wanted no praise for doing what she wanted to do - spend time with her husband regardless.

Last week while dressing him for the day, the nurses saw a Kennedy Tumor Ulcer on Dad, which signified his body was beginning to shut down.  There would be no feeding tube and no rehabilitation.  The amazing nursing staff at Frostburg Village would work to keep him as comfortable as possible as his organs began to fail and his breathing would become labored.

Last Friday night, Mom called me and told me I should come home.  She explained Dad's situation and told me not to rush because the final moments could actually last weeks.  I hung up the phone and packed just about everything I own into 2 suitcases, a backpack, a suit bag, and a canvas bag - preparing for any eventuality for an unknown amount of time.  And despite it being past 9:00p in Chicago, I loaded up the car with Kevin's help and started driving the usually 9.5-hour trip to my parents' house.  I felt that I just had to leave right then and not wait to start in the morning.  About 4 hours later, just as I had crossed the Indiana/Ohio border on the turnpike, my phone rang at 1:00a - and I knew.  I pulled over and Mom gave me the news.  We hung up and I sat for a few minutes, stuck someplace between sorrow and relief.  It had been a difficult place to live for 3 years: outwardly wishing for life, but silently praying for death.  On more than one occasion, I pleaded with the universe to simply take him.  And now it had happened.  And despite knowing this day would come, and feeling I was prepared for it, I simply wasn't.  The When? happens when it happens.

My father did not deserve the death he had, but through it all he handled himself with humor, grace, and kindness.  And up until his last breath, he expressed love for us as best he could.  Everyone was in to see him in those last few hours.  But he waited until everyone had gone home, a little past midnight, to leave this world.  It was as if he wanted to spare us all the pain of watching him go.

My last interaction with Dad was back in June during my final visit with him.  As I stood to leave, I leaned over to give him several kisses on his forehead and I always had done.  This time, though, Dad grabbed my forearm.  When our eyes met, I saw an intensity in him that I had not experienced before.  I smiled and asked him what's up?  He moved his mouth as if he wanted to tell me something, but no sound and certainly no words came forth.  His stare was intense and it was obvious he was trying to get a message to me.  At the time, I simply smiled back at him and patted his hand and kissed the top of his head a few more times, telling him to behave himself and that I would see him again in a few weeks.  But I now know that Dad was telling me goodbye, that he somehow knew that this was the last time we would see each other.  I know he knew.  I know it.

It's been difficult to mourn him because to do so, quite simply, seems selfish.  I cannot feel sorry for him because he is now no longer in any pain, and his new world is once again clear, pleasant, and relaxing.  I cannot feel sorry for myself because this is not the life I wanted for him and I am relieved he is no longer trapped inside a body with a disease that's robbed him of all the joy in his life.  I do, however, feel sorry for Mom because of her obvious loss, but moreso because she is lost herself, now.  She has to reconfigure what she does every day from 10:30a-1:00p, and then again from 4:00p-8:00p.  Hopefully sooner than later, she will no longer get the panicked feeling that she needs to be someplace or that Dad needs her.  It's as if she's just been released from prison and she has to learn how to navigate life and think only of herself - something she probably has never done before in her entire life.  But Mom is conducting herself just like Dad had done, with grace, kindness, and even humor when she can.

And so I bid farewell to my Dad.  My reasons for why I will always love him are obvious and trite.  But more than tell me, he showed me how to be a good man, how to treat people, and how to appreciate the love of your life.  I wish him Godspeed and I believe that all of his memories have come back to him and that he is now reunited with Granny, Judy, Uncle Bill, Dad's parents, and his beloved grandmother.

And how on earth can I feel sorry about that?

I love you, Dad.  I'll be seeing you.