Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the tag “hospital”

EMERGENCY 2009: A FATHER FALLS

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It’s getting close to dinner time and I’m in the kitchen, ingredients on the counter and a pan heating up. The phone rings. It’s my mother. It’s not a usual time for her to call, but I don’t think much of it.

“Cheryl, something terrible has happened.”

I have that strange feeling you get when you come home to a house that has been burglarized. Something is not right, but what is it? The evidence is in front of me, but it doesn’t add up to any conclusion. I am suddenly alert.

“What’s happened, Mom?”

“Your dad was out for a walk and didn’t come back. I called 911 to see if I could find him.” I think, “She’s so resourceful. It would take me longer to think of that. He’s only been gone an hour. “

“He’s at John Muir emergency. He fell.”

O.K., now my adrenaline kicks in. “Deb will pick you up. I’ll go right there.”

In the car, my mind races. Will Deb and I have to call off our anniversary trip? We’ve needed some time alone for a while. Is there any way we’ll still be able to go? Maybe it’s not that bad. Why am I thinking about that? I wonder, but then, just because I’m experienced in these things, the answer tumbles into my mind, “You are not ready to deal with what is happening. You are choosing something smaller.”

After they interrogate me about my relationship with the man back in the ICU, they let me in. Is this my father? I always knew he was a huge 6’4”, but he never felt that way. This body, still and empty, does not even remind me of him, the gentle, loving giant. This could be any big guy former football player, aged out of the game.

When Deb arrives, while my mom answers endless insurance questions, I whisper, “Are we sure this is my Dad?” I’m relieved that she isn’t sure either, but we look in the paper bag containing everything they cut off of him and there they are, his familiar clothes. My mother will later regret that they destroyed his favorite jacket.

When my mom comes in, they tell us they can’t tell us anything. HIPAA. Later, there will be too much information.

The connection between his brain and body are severed.

There is no hope of a return yet he is not brain dead.

He could remain in this state indefinitely, hooked up to machines that breath for him, tubes that feed him.

My mother will say, “He would not want this,” but be curiously unclear whether one of us will object to unplugging him.

We will have a family meeting where no one objects. There will be visits from my parents’ pastor and my best friend the chaplain. We will sing endless songs. There will be tears and sadness and acceptance. We will think of all he was, of all he gave to us and to this world. I will regret that I won’t get the chance to take care of him as he declines, while knowing he would have hated that. It is for me that I feel the loss.

The body, refusing to die right away, will take several hours after everything has been removed. I will be there with my wife and kids, and he will wait to die until I fall asleep with my head slumping over on his leg. Deb will wake me; “it’s happening” and I will see him take his last breath.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl 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.

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The Way Dad Died

DadOn 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.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl 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.

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