On the day my father began his full speed run towards death, he left the condo as usual for his daily walk. He headed down towards the spit, past the house boats, to gaze on one of the things that still gave him pleasure despite nearly constant pain, an unobstructed view of the San Francisco bay.
My mother, who never went with him because she preferred swimming, began a large pot of spaghetti as a surprise. My father would have eaten spaghetti every night if my mother hadn’t been intent on feeding him gourmet meals, still enjoying experiments in cuisine at almost 80.
We’ll never know for sure what happened, but a neighbor later told my mother that she saw him walking back home, looking bad. She was almost crying, telling my mother, “I don’t know why I didn’t stop,” and my mother could not understand why the woman told her, since there was no difference for it to make at that point.
My father never came home.
A few hours later, the phone rang. I was in our kitchen cooking dinner myself, enjoying the flurry I created at dinner time, enjoying a regular, quiet, family day.
“Something terrible has happened,” she said, sounding pinched and almost suffocated. She continued, struggling to get the words out. “Your dad has fallen on the street and he’s in the Emergency Room at John Muir.” The body is slow to register information like that, but a moment later springs to action. “Deb will pick you up. I’ll go straight there.”
When I entered Emergency, guided to his little corner of a back room, divided by curtains and impossibly crowded, all I saw was a large man. I could not honestly tell if this was my father. I asked Deb whether we were in the right place and she couldn’t tell for sure either. I guess I took in, right then, that although the frame I had known for my whole life was lying there, the father I loved was gone. I looked in the paper bag where the EMTs had put his destroyed leisure suit jacket and blue jeans. That was when I believed it was him; I knew the clothes. My mother later regretted they had cut off his favorite jacket and she had to take it home in ruins.
It would be a few days of testing to confirm what my instincts told me; we would have to let him go. Of course, they didn’t tell us that. They told us there was no hope, that his brain stem had disconnected from his body and could no longer tell it what to do. As long as he lived, and on life support there was no reason to think his body wouldn’t survive for quite a while, he would be in a vegetative state. My mother, after making sure none of us would be mad at her, told them we wanted to remove the life support. I was stunned that they seemed surprised, maybe even relieved. They had expected a fight and a long process towards accepting the truth. I couldn’t imagine really wanting my father, or wife, or child, or grandfather or anyone I loved to stay alive like this. The stunned “o.k.” of the medical staff told me that our family was a little unusual, that it’s often very hard for people to accept right away when there is no hope.
But we all agreed (my mother insisted we reach consensus, which took under 5 minutes) that he would not want to survive this, and so we sang to him, we stroked his hands, we surrounded him with love in the slightly less crowded ICU room they’d moved him to, then the medical team pulled the plug.
I recently finished reading Katy Butler’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about her own father’s protracted death and the medical establishment’s inability to let him die. It was the first time I felt lucky about the way my father died. Until that point, his 2 day hurtle into death was purely a loss. In my wife’s ten years of dying, I savored caring for her. It affected my grief positively to have been able to do for her (with many helpers) the things she needed. I had, however strange it may seem, looked forward to tending to my father in just the same way. I felt robbed of the chance to sit with him while he slept, or sing him a song or read him a book, as he slipped away, gradually. Now, reading how that had really been for Katy Butler’s father and for her family, I was forced to face how truly nightmarish that would have been for my dad. Generally speaking, he hated being tended, feeling himself a burden no matter what anyone said to him about it. And even more, he was not someone who savored attention, even though his brilliant mind and kind heart often brought it to him anyway. He always got out of the limelight as quickly as he could, diverting the spotlight to the people around him. Still, I only had the words before; “he probably preferred dying like this, even if we all hated it.” After reading Katy’s book, I felt the truth of it, deep down.
Thank you, Katy Butler, for helping me to take another step in absorbing this loss! Or maybe just absorbing how it came. The loss itself was, I well knew all along, inevitable. The blessing is simply in all the years I had him.
Cheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.