About three months, I sent my only child to college for her freshmen year and I experienced a tremendous loss that took me completely by surprise. I figured I would be a little sad but for the most part happy about this new chapter in both of our lives. After all, this is what I had been working so hard for all this time. I wanted her to grow into a beautiful, secure, smart young woman with all the advantages that I missed out on. Attending a great college after high school was one of those advantages. I cried for two weeks after she left and even months later, at times I find myself still sad at losing the little girl that once needed me for everything. Changing the nature of your relationship with anyone you love can be very painful and I have learned, takes time to adjust to. In my mind, the day I sent my daughter off to school was the hardest loss I had ever faced and I was grateful for each day that got easier and easier.
About three days ago, my phone rang at 2:00 am. It was my father’s nursing home informing me that he had passed away a short time ago and that they were “sorry for my loss”. I was in Dallas, Texas with friends for a weekend of fun and football. Standing alone in my hotel room, I realized that at that moment, listening to the calm voice on other end of the phone line was the worst loss of my life. My dad was only 71 years old, fairly young by todays’ standards. Everyone asks, “what happened?” People want an explanation, was it cancer, a heart attack, stroke. We want to know that “something” came along and ripped that person from you, and helps it all makes sense. I don’t have a good answer. It doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t think there is ever an answer that is good enough.
About a year ago there was a decision made to put Dad into a nursing home because he was sick and the caregiver he was with at that time no longer felt she could take care of him in her home. Dad hated being in the nursing home, and I knew it. Early on when I would visit, I could see how he disliked his surroundings and he wanted to go “home”. Part of me feels, he died not just because of his physical ailments but because emotionally he was unable to come to terms with his new environment and eventually he stopped trying. Medically, I know all the problems he had and the doctors have told me what happened, but in my heart I believe he gave up. During this year, at one point, I even gave up. I took a break from visiting my father. To be honest, it was because it was so hard. I had my mother living with me who is experiencing some aging challenges and I was wiped out. Every visit at the nursing home, became harder and harder. I would drive away in tears feeling angry that I could do nothing to make him happy and overwhelmed at what both my parents were experiencing. I had to take a break, to keep my sanity.
About four months ago Dad stopped eating regularly and he was taken to the hospital. A month later he was re-admitted again – dehydration. This time he was referred to the Palliative Care Unit, and a wonderful nurse was able to get through to him and he asked her to call me. He wanted me to make any of his final health decisions in case he could not. We got his wishes in what they call an Advanced Directive as to whether or not he wanted to be resuscitated should he stop breathing. During that week in the hospital, I stayed by my fathers’ side every day. I held his hand when he went for tests and treatments and signed whatever I had to see if we could make him better. Some days he seemed better and other days he froze me out and wouldn’t speak or even look at me. I never knew what would happen each day when I walked in, but I knew I didn’t have a choice anymore whether or not I could be there. He wanted me and I was there. When he was released from the hospital and returned to the nursing home, I promised him, I would be there every day and that I wouldn’t let him ever be alone anymore. I told him how sorry I was that I had stopped coming. I told myself every night after coming home, that it wasn’t my fault and not to beat myself up, but to be honest, that’s not an argument I won most nights.
About two weeks ago, I walked into my dad’s room at the nursing home for my visit and he was having a good day. As we sat in the room, he motioned that he was cold. It was one of those unseasonably warm October days that we get in New England so the A/C had kicked on in his room. Speaking was almost impossible for him at this point because of the problems he had with this esophagus. Communications between us took the form of him pointing, me guessing and him head nodding. I grabbed a lightweight jacket out of his closet and in the pocket I found two lottery tickets, a book of matches and a pack of Newport cigarettes. I immediately thought to myself, oh no, I should have taken this out before he noticed them. But notice them he did, and my dad got what I can only describe as a Herculean burst of energy. You have to understand that my Dad weighed less than 90 lbs at this time and moving at all was a challenge for him. He was motioning so fast and so much that I finally had to get one of the aides to come in and help me because I couldn’t tell what he wanted. We finally determined he wanted to be in his wheelchair and wanted his sneakers on. Once we got that accomplished he wanted to go to the lobby. As I started to push him out, he signaled me to take my purse and backpack. I thought he just wanted them to be safe. By the time we got to the lobby I started to understand that he wanted to leave the building, he wanted to go for a ride! Being uncertain if he could leave or not, I checked with the staff but all along, I was thinking, I have back to back teleconferences for work which start in 15 minutes. I had only planned to be there for a lunch hour visit. I stood at the front desk waiting for an answer and I turned back to see my dad patiently sitting with his jacket and shoes by the front door, I knew that I had to take him. I also knew secretly, that it was those damn Newport cigarettes that had gotten me into this situation. When we got the green light from the staff, they helped me get him in my car. I put our seat belts on and started to drive, not knowing where we were going or what we were going to do. Somehow in the next 4 hours I managed to take the conference calls, drive my dad around town, show him the house I had bought which he had never seen, and do things that I thought he wanted to do. Our first stop was him signaling for fried chicken. I pulled into Popeyes and after some guessing and head nodding, we got his order of chicken and sweet tea and we pulled over and he ate like I had not seen him eat in months. I took him by my house and snuck him a few sips of beer, which I could only imagine had been years since he had last tasted.
Next, I knew he wanted that damn cigarette. He had been fumbling with the packet and rolling one of those cigarettes around in his hand as soon as we got into the car. While he ate, he had put it behind his ear, something I remember him doing in his younger, healthier days. After driving around for awhile I asked him if for dessert he wanted his favorite – a milkshake. He said yes. I knew the perfect place. One of my best friends, Laura, owns an icecream shop downtown and besides making the creamiest Strawberry milkshake on the planet, she also happens to be a strikingly beautiful southern belle. My dad’s eyes lit up when Laura knelt by his side, smiled and talked with him at the car door. She told him how glad she was to meet him and helped him sip his favorite shake. With my okay, she helped him take a few puffs of that cigarette he had been holding onto all trip long. When our ride was over, “Thelma and Louise” headed back to the nursing home and I got dad ready for bed. He looked at me and patted his chest and pointed at me. I thought for a minute he was having a heart attack because of all the excitement we had been through – perhaps my gorgeous girlfriend had been too much! I asked, are you okay!? He shook his head yes. Again, he rapidly patted his chest, this time I could tell it was directly over his heart and he jabbed his finger at me. A lightbulb went off and I said, “Oh, are you telling me that you love me?” He shook his head vigorously, up and down – yes. I looked at him and very matter of factly said, “Oh Dad I know that. Of all the things I know in my life, I have always, always known that you love me. I have never doubted and never will doubt your love for me.” He smiled, I fought back tears and I thought maybe he is going to be better because he just needed to tell me that and get out of this room for awhile. Maybe I have a second chance to do it better this time.
About five days ago, (two weeks after our Thelma and Louise ride), I kneeled at my dad’s bed to tell him that I was going to Dallas for the weekend with my friends. It was Friday night, I told him I would be gone for just 2 days and that I would be right back on Monday night. I told him I wasn’t leaving him that I would be right back and I would bring him a cool gift back from the stadium. I had been reminding him for a while about my trip because I didn’t want him to wonder where I was at. I wanted to make sure he knew I was there for him and that I would never abandon him. I kept telling him, I will be right back, I promise.
Every day over the last three days, someone new says to me, “I’m so sorry for your loss”. I don’t know how to respond. Every time it gets quiet and I am alone, my heart aches and I go through every possible emotion you can imagine. I wish for so many different endings.
I guess the best one I can imagine is that one day, I will be able to post the next chapter which I hope will go something like this…. About a year ago, I lost my father and I’m here to tell you, it gets better.