His skin was white and thin, barely covering his bones. It stretched, almost transparent, over his face. His eyes were lost and sunken into his skull. My father looked like a walking corpse.
Barely able to walk and too weak to climb the stairs, his stubborn persistence put us all at bay. He refused to move his bed to house’s lower level.
He struggled to get out of his favorite chair. He hovered there for what seemed like eternity, until he gathered enough strength to walk to the bathroom, then finally up the stairs to bed.
The nurses offered him a wheelchair to transport him through the facility for his first radiation treatment. He refused and walked on his own. After the procedure, he came to me and said, “I’ll have that wheelchair, now.” It was then I knew he was going to die.
I helped him into the wheelchair and joked around, making his ride an adventure to keep his mind off his vulnerability. I didn’t let him see the tears I was trying to hide.
This man was my life. He was my constant companion, my best friend.
I was luckier than my sisters. I got to see more of Dad when I was growing up. My sisters barely knew him when they were at home because he worked two jobs.
As young as I can remember, Dad and I did everything together. He took me along when he ran errands every Saturday, which included a trip to the grocery store and to the Handy Bakery. There, he bought me a gingerbread man cookie. We always ended up at the Legion to meet up with his friends. The waitress brought me a cola with her rounds. We would be home in time for supper and to catch the Bugs Bunny Show, which preceded Hockey Night in Canada.
Dad liked to take day trips. Sometimes he’d have a destination in mind to visit friends in St. Paul or relatives in Lethbridge. Most of the time, he’d just point the car in a direction to see where it took us. He taught me how to appreciate the simple things. He stopped the car to marvel at the ducks gliding on a slough or find a creek to soak his feet in.
As I grew older, we stayed in more and spent our time watching sports. We also attended some of the local hockey and football games. He’d make sure each of us had a large tube of popcorn to get through the event. I was a rabid sports fanatic and put my dad in many uncomfortable situations with some of my arguments with the people around us.
Donned in Calgary Stampeder attire enroute to the Edmonton stadium, someone came up to me and said, “I don’t like your red and white.” I could see in the corner of Dad’s eyes that he was thinking, oh no, here we go. Instead, I just turned to the perpetrator and said, “Well, I don’t like your green and gold.” We carried on without incident.
When I moved out of the city, we’d call each other to recap highlights of football or baseball games, sometimes while the game was still on. Those are my fondest memories.
I think I knew he was ill before I was finally told about the lung cancer. I remember crying for no reason and having the need to dig up old photos. My family wasn’t going to tell me. He was in the hospital, and they still hadn’t told me. But I knew something was up. I went through many tears in preparation, so when the diagnosis was confirmed, I wasn’t surprised.
When I came to visit him in September, he looked like a Holocaust survivor. He refused to eat. While my sister and my mother denied it, I knew he was trying to hurry the process. It was too much for him to be dependent on others. His actions landed him in the hospital again, where he was force fed intravenously. He tried hard to pretend he was okay, at least to me. But something happened in that hospital room as we watched our last football game together: the Dolphins and the Broncos on Sunday Night Football. He admitted he tried to starve himself but it was too painful. So he might as well go through the process until it was over, and let everyone make him as comfortable as possible. It was the first time he showed me he was vulnerable.
My sister and her husband tended to his care during his illness. I knew they were resentful that I lived out of town and couldn’t contribute. I understood their feelings. It was a difficult time for them. They maintained two households, cleaning, buying groceries, and doing the yard work for both.
At the time, I believed it was my sister’s turn to be with Dad. When she was a girl, he was gone in the morning when she woke up for school and wouldn’t get home until she was already in bed. Perhaps I felt guilty because I was the one who grew up with him. By then, she had already moved out. The problem with her being the caregiver was she had to work pretty hard for his attention. I knew the stress had to be incredible.
Meanwhile, I didn’t realize it, but I was also a mess. At the start of the New Year, I was seriously impoverished because of some bad job situations. I only worked part time and faced an eviction from my apartment. Unable to afford to make it home for Christmas, I knew it would have been the last one I could spend with my dad. He was disappointed but didn’t complain. When I discovered he hadn’t watched the bowl games on New Year’s Day, I knew time was running out. I did call to talk to him and Mom, but it wasn’t the same as being there.
I was seriously depressed. My forehead felt like it was too tight for my skull. Despair took over my body. I could barely eat. I thought about suicide daily, even hourly. My situation appeared to get worse, and I didn’t know why. With all that was happening to Dad, I didn’t want anyone to know. So, I didn’t tell.
When I called home, Mom sounded tired. Dad sounded worse. He had trouble talking and was pissed off at all the medical attention he was getting. He still wanted his independence.
My doctor told me I was depressed and that I had likely been that way for some time. She prescribed antidepressants, which seemed to make me feel worse. Meanwhile, my job situation improved, but it didn’t stop my thoughts of giving up. I still had no appetite. The upside was that my doctor’s opinion validated my struggle.
On Thursday, February 10, I came home to a message my sister left on the answering machine. She said if I wanted to say goodbye to Dad, I’d better get there soon. I spoke to Mom and said I wasn’t sure I could stand to see Dad like this. She agreed that he may not want me to see him that way either. The last time I talked to him on the phone, I knew he was saying goodbye. It was the first time in my life I ever heard the words “I love you.”
Mom said he was completely bedridden, drugged, and out of it most of the time. He had a hospital bed set up in front of the living room window. There was 24-hour home support, paid for by Department of Veterans Affairs. My sister and her husband administered the medication and attended to his personal needs.
I called again on Monday, February 14 and spoke to both my sister and her husband. They took a leave of absence from work to care for Dad around the clock. He received morphine every four hours. They sounded upset and said things were tough because they were alone. In my state of mind, it seemed like a swipe to the side of my head. My sister put Dad on the phone when he learned it was me. She said he needed to talk to me, that it would be good for both of us. Her husband indicated they had enough medication until Friday, but likely wouldn’t need it that long.
After Dad told me not to cry, and I let him know I missed him and loved him, my friend’s wife convinced me to go and see him. That maybe he was waiting for me to come and get this over with.
As I arrived on the 15th, Dad was throwing up medicine that didn’t agree with him. He was in so much pain. I’m sure the vomiting didn’t help with his fragile state. He, at least, seemed glad to see me. That first night, my sister and I had to clear the air. She felt like I came there to take over. I didn’t feel welcome. Her husband mediated us into solving our problems, and we soon regained a bond.
The family kept a vigil, watching Dad’s every move. On Wednesday, February 16, we were losing him, so we all stood by his bedside. The doctor postponed attending his daughter’s school function to come over. The vomiting put a strain on Dad. He could go at any time. The doctor warned us there might be one or two episodes before he finally passed. As it turned out, there wasn’t.
Dad slept peacefully through the night under our watchful gaze. We tried to sleep in turns but there was too much weight on our minds. Nobody could eat. We took shifts on Thursday morning, holding Dad’s hand, never taking our hand away until another was there to replace it.
He was frail and unable to move on his own. My brother-in-law had to shift his body when he rolled into a position that caused his lungs to fill with fluid. An intravenous needle had been inserted in his upper chest where morphine was injected. This only seemed to help slightly with the pain. An oxygen tube drew from a large machine, which stretched from the wall to the bedside. You had to be careful not to trip over it and pull it from my father’s face. His skin was so tender that the oxygen tube and his glasses left lesions. In giving Dad as much dignity as possible, my brother-in-law cleared the room when it was time for more personal care. How humiliating it must have been for Dad to succumb to others to help him with bodily functions.
I was the last to take shift when I noticed his color change to grey. His heart was strong, but it was clear it was over. We called my niece and nephew. My brother-in-law had to leave to pick one of them up. His absence felt like an eternity. We were so afraid he wouldn’t get back in time. Like Dad, I found such trust in him that I couldn’t bear it without him there. It was like Dad was only safe when he was around.
Dad was dying but he waited until everyone was there. We all stood at his bedside. Then there was a knock at the door. It was my other nephew, the one my parents hadn’t seen for at least eight years. I can’t imagine how he felt coming to visit at the very time his grandfather was about to pass.
My niece read a poem she wrote for him just as he was expiring. The sounds of World Wrestling Federation filled the background in lieu of his favorite sport: baseball. I held his hand and could feel his pulse, while my brother-in-law listened to his heart. I held on so tight. Inside my head, I pleaded that he take me with him. I tried to pull him back to life.
At 12:46 PM, my brother-in-law announced he was dead. I wailed, no! I didn’t feel his pulse stop. He didn’t convulse. It was just over. I didn’t want to let go of his hand. I wanted to stay with him, and even felt betrayed that I was still alive.
Then a moment later, I felt different. I could feel the weight lift from my chest, that it was up to me to get the rest through this. My sister fell to pieces. My mother was exhausted. When I looked at the corpse, I didn’t see Dad. He was no longer in that body. I still felt his presence was strong, like he enveloped my spirit.
The Last Post
After the body was removed, a funny thing happened. We all ate like pigs. It was as if there wasn’t enough food to fill us. After dinner, we began the process of calling family and friends to let them know. Meanwhile, Mom brought out some old photo albums, which everyone reminisced through. She wanted to find a picture suitable for the service. I remembered one that was in the upstairs bedroom of Dad in the service and brought it to her. The others thought it was also appropriate. She took one look at it and said, “He was drunk in that picture!”
“Well, then,” I replied. “It’s perfect.” And that was the picture we used. Knowing the circumstances of the photo helped us get through the service. It was hard not to smile when we saw it.
It upset a lot of people to see Dad. He kept his illness from everyone. They were shocked to see the skeletal figure that had replaced him.
The sounds of birds filled the room from a tape, perfect for the man who loved their song. Before the coffin was closed, I took off the poppy I wore and pinned it on his lapel. It was my only time alone with him. Still, I was thankful when the pallbearers rescued me before it grew too long. A fellow searched his pocket and gave me another poppy. The ceremony was complete with The Last Post.
That night I slept in Dad’s old bedroom, which was mine when I was a girl. I never knew a better sleep. It seemed I could feel his presence and he held my hand all night. The others tossed and turned.
My life would never be the same. Future visits to the family made me feel like an outsider. Still, I felt a load lift off my shoulders and was no longer depressed. I went out into the world with more confidence and started to look younger in my years. It was like I was given a new life. It felt so freeing. Not only was God watching over me, so was my father.
I am so incredibly grateful for having experienced Dad’s death. It’s an honorable thing to be part of such an intimate moment. It was like being one with God. Ill miss him always, but I have so many memories to keep him alive.