Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. – Mother Teresa
This was one of the quotes given at My father’s Memorial recently. Losing him was surprising, fast, and something I never expected. Having lived on the opposite ends of the country for the last 18 years, we didn’t see each other as much as we would have liked, but it was enough. He was one of those people that understood your life and dreams didn’t have to coincide with being a part of each other’s world.
I had the opportunity to spend more time in the last six months with my family of origin than I usually did. Having turned 40 this year, it brought about and unique mix of experiences that I lovingly like to refer to as my mid-life crisis. Before he passed, I had been focusing significantly on that the fact that I had just turned 40 and I had nothing to show for it (Mind you this is what my brain told me, not necessarily reality). I had a low paying job at a call center, I had very few friends (at least not the kind I did anything with regularly), and there was nothing I wanted to aspire too. I didn’t care. Mind you this all sounds very depressing when putting into words- but In reality, it was more of just a meh moment.
My family made the trip to Florida at the end of February to visit my parents and enjoy theme parks in the area. Unfortunately, my Dad was feeling a little under the weather, so he joined us minimally. Shortly after we got back home, we received the news that the hospital diagnosed him with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was aggressive cancer, but very treatable. My father had always said he was going to live until 80, and he was usually right. While I was worried, I did not doubt he would beat this. He started Chemo in March and did well with his first treatment. My sister and I wanted to plan another visit to hang out while he was still feeling pretty good (and before the chemo hit him too much.) He protested and wanted us to wait until July when his treatments were complete, and we could have more fun. Fortunately, he is not the only stubborn one in our family.
We made our trip back to Florida early April (My Sister flew in from NH and me from WA) It was one of those trips that held moments that I would never forget. Its difficult to put into words, the feelings of just being with that family you grew up with- minus the teenage angst, the stress of having to parent, the worry of paying bills, passing high school, or any of that day to day stuff that seems to get in the way of just being.
My sister went back to NH the day before me, early. I drove her to the airport that morning. My Dad insisted he go along, “he could nap later.”
It was early, and the sun had not risen yet. I can remember the fog around us that wouldn’t seem to go away. The windows of the SUV would not clear. I also remember both of us wiping a tear or two when we dropped Jamie off at the airport (neither my Dad or I have never particularly enjoyed crying in front of others) It was as if we both knew it was the end of a magical moment that may not ever come around again.
The next day I went home too. We had Mexican food on the way to the airport. My parents dropped me off, I gave one last hug and said see you in July (I planned on taking the kids out to see him then) This was the last time I ever saw him awake.
My Sister and I had planned on spacing out some visits to keep his spirits up (and it was an excellent excuse to get out there.) She was going in May, and I would get June, and again with my kids once his chemo was officially over.
Life doesn’t always go as you plan. We got a call from my Mom towards the end of May. She needed us there. My Mother never asks for anything- so we were both out in a heartbeat (well, a 6-hour flight).
Dad was not doing well. He had developed pneumonia, and when we arrived, he had been on a ventilator and a dialysis machine for about a week. The next few days were such a roller coaster of emotions. Doctors do not like to leave patients on a ventilator for more than ten days due to other complications. However, the machines were the only thing keeping him alive while he fought his infection. There were times when we thought he was going to improve other times when they instructed us to “be prepared.” Finally, it was time to let go. He was not going to get better. The medical community called it “compassionate withdrawal of care.”
I hope you never have to make this choice, and if you have, all I can say is I feel for you. It was not a hard decision, that was the more natural part. If we had chosen not to remove care- The Doctor would have needed to perform a tracheotomy. There was likely severe brain damage, and he would need care for the rest of his life. Assuming he could fight the infection, and then cancer after that. Making the call to remove care was comfortable in that aspect. My Dad had never been one to live for the sake of being alive. He lived every day experiencing life. The hard part was having to say goodbye. There would be no return trip to see him this time, no see you next year. My Dad was a role model in my life, a rock of stability. I hope he knew this. I couldn’t remember if I told him this back in April.
The hardest part of the process after we decided to let him go was waiting. So much waiting. Everyone in my family was raw. First, we needed to sit with the doctor so he could clearly explain our medical choices. Next, we had to sit with the hospice nurse to go over what happens in different scenarios of compassionate withdrawal of care, and of course, sign paperwork. I remember being so angry with this hospice woman. Her phone would go off every couple of minutes like clockwork. I wanted to shake her and say are there this many people dying at this moment. Finally, it was just waiting for the medical staff to remove all the machines. (We chose to remain elsewhere during this process.) It was probably the longest 90 minutes I have ever had to sit through.
When all was complete, we were able to return to his side. He passed quietly and peacefully. I think he wanted to go. At this point, I was in a surreal place, as if I was outside of myself. I do not remember much of the drive home. I know I drove so my Mother didn’t have to. We ate some frozen mac n cheese and my sister, and I walked the dog.