In which things get real…

Bless me Father, I have slacked…
It’s been five months since my last post.

Yes, when I last posted, it was summer. Things were good, the weather was lovely and I was on the upswing of training for a huge race. Then, in mid-August all that came to a screeching halt.

As some might say, shit got real.

My father died on August 15. And if it hadn’t been for the random thought to take an impromptu day trip over to Ohio, I would have never seen him alive one last time.

When Mom called on that Wednesday, she said that they’d been to the oncologist, and he had determined Dad had lost too much weight to carry on with chemo treatments. She said that “home hospice” was going to be arranged. To me, “hospice” anything meant bad news, but in my optimistic denial, I figured hospice at home must not be as dire. Talk of a hospice facility would have been much, much worse. Mom mentioned that my dad’s sisters — Patty and Barb — were coming to visit the following day, staying until Friday. After taking all this new information in, I decided to take Friday as a PTO day, and have myself a day trip to Ohio. It was going to be a busy weekend, taking our daughter Kate back to Purdue on Saturday, and I figured we would end up with something going on Sunday. Besides, if I went Friday, I would get to see my aunts as well.

When I arrived at my parent’s house, the hospice nurse was there. I walked in to find my aunts near tears. This wasn’t good. Dad’s condition had deteriorated much more than I had been told, or would let myself believe. Mom couldn’t handle the 24/7 care Dad needed, and they were all rallying to get the hospice nurse to get Dad admitted to the hospice less than a mile from their house. I knew his condition — a combination of cancer and Parkinson’s Disease — had required a lot of my mom… but things had now escalated far beyond her ability and emotional capacity. As the conversations happened around the kitchen table for the next 45 minutes or so, I had to not only allow the gravity of the situation sink into my brain, but I had to push it in. I had to make myself understand and accept what I had been trying to keep far in the future: that this was it: he was nearing the end. The nurse came into the room, still on her cell phone with her supervisor and gave us a thumbs-up. She had gotten the OK to have him admitted. Within 20 minutes, there was a transport ambulance backing into the driveway, and two medics came in to help Dad onto the stretcher. Shortly after, we were outside — Mom, Aunt Patty, Aunt Barb and myself — as the medics wheeled Dad to the ambulance. He looked so small and frail, not at all like the Dad I’d always known, who was healthy, strong… full of life and laughter. Dad was facing the house, and I did my best to face him and put on a cheerful expression — one that I hoped would be reassuring to him. Suddenly, I saw his face and realized what he was probably thinking: “This is the last time I’m going to see this house. The last time I’ll leave it.” Tears sprang to my eyes, and I had to turn away. I couldn’t let him see me cry. Crying in front of him would mean I was giving up, that I had no hope for him. And the last thing I would ever want is for Dad to think I was giving up on him.

Mom and I jumped into her car, and we followed the ambulance out of their neighborhood and down the street, barely a mile, to the facility. We walked up to the entrance just as the medics were taking the stretcher out of the ambulance. I felt a slight breeze on my face, and again found myself plagued with the thought of my father realizing that this was the last time he’d feel a breeze on his face. The last time he’d ever smell the sweet summer air, hear birds or the rustle of leaves in the trees. I blinked away the tears, and we followed him inside. In a whirlwind of activity they got Dad to his room and situated in bed. I now find myself struggling to recall the details of what went on after that. Has my mind blocked them out as a coping mechanism? Was there just so much to take in and comprehend that my brain was simply too overloaded to retain everything? I remember nurses coming in and talking to him. They all seemed to revert to a very loud, slow form of baby-talk, which infuriated me. This was my father they were talking to, not a deaf toddler. I wanted to say something, but I thought I’d better just keep my mouth shut.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur of running back to my parent’s house to see my aunts off on their trip back home, waiting for my brother and his daughters to arrive… and thinking. Even though Dad had fought both the cancer and Parkinson’s for a long time, and we knew this time would come sooner rather than later, I found myself in a panic, not knowing what to do. Later, back at the hospice, I had some time alone with Dad. I sat next to him as we watched The Food Network, which had become his preferred way to pass the time — watching food be prepared, even though he was barely eating anything himself. I thought I should say something, talk to him about what was in my heart. Tell him how much I loved him and that I was going to miss him terribly. Later, I thought. I knew I couldn’t do it without breaking down into tears, and I didn’t want him to have to feel like he had to comfort me. I was supposed to be trying to comfort him.

Mom stayed with him that night, and when I walked over from their house in the morning, Dad was sleeping. So I thought. In reality, he was in another form of consciousness — not asleep, not awake. Unresponsive. He was already beginning the active stages of dying. Mom left to go back to the house and eat, shower, regroup. I took my spot in the chair next to the bed and held Dad’s hand. His breathing was more of a raspy rattle in, and a vocal exhale. I wouldn’t exactly call it a moan; more like an attempt to clear his throat that lasted longer then normal. I couldn’t hold back any longer, and spent the first hour with him with my head down on the bed’s side rail, sobbing uncontrollably. I was heartbroken — my dad was dying and I’d missed my chance to tell him how much I loved him, and what was in my heart for him. For an hour, I cried listening to the rhythmic pattern of his labored breathing. Rattle inhale, vocal exhale… rattle inhale, vocal exhale… When I could finally pull myself together enough to form the words, I raised my head, leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“I love you, Dad.”

I sat back down, a fresh batch of hot tears running down my cheeks. And then I heard it. A break in the pattern of his breathing as he exhaled. Instead of the steady, vocal groan I’d been listening to, I heard him say “I love you.” Granted, it came out more like “uhhh luhhh yuhhh,” but I heard it. Suddenly I began second-guessing what I’d heard. Had he heard me tell him I loved him? Was he really answering me? The odds of there being a change in his breathing pattern like that,… especially after hearing the same inhale/exhale for an hour, well… I wanted to believe so much that Dad told me he loved me that I didn’t even mention it to anyone. I didn’t want some nurse telling me, “Oh, that’s common for a patient to move his tongue or mouth and make arbitrary noises.” No. I didn’t want anyone to dismiss the idea that Dad had talked to me (to the best of his ability) with some clinical explanation. In the three months since his death, I haven’t spoken or written about it once until just now, just to preserve the validity of that moment.

The day wore on, with me, Mom, my brother Ray, my husband Jeff and our youngest son Bobby all in and out of Dad’s room. He never woke up, except for one moment, when a nurse came in and was readjusting him, placing pillows at his sides for his arms to rest on. I was sitting near the end of the bed, and as she moved him, he opened his eyes and looked right at me. He kind of had a surprised look on his face, like “Oh, hey… you’re all here and I’ve been sleeping all this time…?” I was so relieved he was awake, and gave him an enthusiastic, heartfelt, “Well, hi there!” I told him Mom had just stepped out into the hallway and that I’d go get her. I knew she would be beyond thrilled to talk to him for a bit. I took two steps outside the doorway and got Mom,… but by the time we came back in, he was out. He never woke up again.

Later that evening, with Ray, Jeff and Bobby in the nearby lounge area, Mom and I sat talking. I still had Dad’s hand in mine as she and I talked about bed sheets. Bed sheets of all things. Mom looked past me for a moment and got a worried look on her face.
“I think he stopped breathing,” she said. I looked over and his chest was still, but then he drew in another breath. I remember telling Mom, “If you want to go get the nurse, maybe she can check on him.” I now regret not getting up myself and doing that, because when Mom left, I looked over at Dad and told him one more time that I loved him. It was then he took his last breath. I feel like Mom should have been there for that, and I feel awful that I suggested she leave the room, even for the few seconds it took her to call in the nurse.

The following six days were filled with decisions that had to be made, traveling and the surreal feeling of accepting that my father had died. The best way to describe it, for myself anyway, is that the death of someone so close to you is so huge and monumental, you simply cannot fathom that it’s happened. You go through the motions, picking out his clothing, choosing a casket, making final plans… and yet there’s still some shred of belief that he isn’t really gone. But then there are moments when reality crashes over you like a wave in the ocean, and you are all, “Oh my God, I’m never going to see him again,” and the grief is so profound and unbearable. More than a week later, I began having mini anxiety attacks, where I would realize this all over again, as my raced and I couldn’t catch my breath. It only lasted a few minutes, and I felt like I could get myself calmed down fairly quickly. It wasn’t until a little over two months later that I would discover six to seven weeks is as long as I can hold my shit together before completely breaking down. Good to know.

So, that happened.

I did end up running the Fort4Fitness at the end of September, but only successfully completed two of the three races: the 10k and half-marathon. I logged 19-some miles before running out of time, not completing the 4-mile course, so technically I completed a Double Play, rather than the Triple Crown. To say I was disappointed put it mildly, and I haven’t run for almost two months. This is partly due to a severely strained ligament in my foot, which took me out of any activity for the first two of the past eight weeks. The other six? Pure apathy. And a little depression. I had no motivation to want to run, write or do anything. However, some of my clothing is now a bit more snug than two months ago because HALLOWEEN CANDY. And the no running thing. Yeah, this is prompting me to want to lace up the running shoes again and get out for a few miles each day. As for the writing? Well, I’ve had to come back to that in my own time, I suppose.

And, so, here I am.

I feel like although it’s been a little over three months since Dad died, I hit my mourning stride late and I’m just coming out of it now. I do find myself tearing up, if not downright weepy, a few times each day, but these episodes pass quickly and I try to move forward. When I look at the big picture of who my dad was, I remember him laughing and making people laugh most of all. The sooner I can help myself heal and get on with living, loving and laughing, the more honor I’ll bring to his memory.

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5 thoughts on “In which things get real…

  1. Thank you for sharing something so difficult. My father – Uncle Ed past suddenly and it was shocking. I watched my father in law pass with family gathered in the hospital room. That was by far much harder. Grieving has no time limit. The first year is the hardest. Hugs to you!

  2. You have already brought incredible honor to him. He clearly wanna wonderful man and now even more people know how he impacted part of the world. Healing to you, my friend.

  3. Thank you Rebecca for sharing Ed’s final hours. I couldn’t bear to ask your mother about this. As Barb and I left Hospice knowing we were saying goodbye for the last time to our beloved brother I thought I was dying myself. For 70 years he was God’s greatest gift to me, always there for me. I miss him terribly, he brought so much joy and laughter to our family. Much love to you as always…

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