77 days. That’s how long it’s been since my dad died.
Losing a parent is hard. Really hard. This is why I’m surprised at how difficult the past couple of months have been for me. You see, my dad and I weren’t close. You could say we were “estranged,” but not by choice.
After my parents divorced in late 1996, when I was 16 years old, he lost his way. Well, he had lost his way way before that, hence their divorce. In and out of rehab in the months and years that followed, due to drug abuse, alcoholism and mental health issues, we lost touch. I graduated from high school and moved to the East Coast soon after, eager to leave a lot of that behind.
If my memory serves me right, I can probably count on one hand how many times I saw him in the 20 years since my parents’ divorce.
- At the Salvation Army rehabilitation center in Austin, where I was able to visit with him for 30 minutes on Thanksgiving Day in 1999, and he met my now-husband for the first time.
- At Maura’s baptism in 2007.
- At my grandfather’s funeral in 2010.
- Crossing the street in downtown Austin in the summer of 2011, when my sister and I stopped him to say hello.
- At my sister’s wedding in 2014.
Every time I saw him I’d write down my address and phone number on a piece of paper, and place it in his hand. Each and every time. He never wrote, and called maybe once or twice, thanks to my aunt encouraging him. He never showed up unannounced at my door, which is what I secretly hoped for – that he would one day get his act together and come visit me, like a normal dad. We’d go sightseeing around Washington, DC, a city he loved so much, and he’d play with his granddaughters. This never happened.
My father suffered a heart attack on Sunday, May 1st. It happened at around 3:15 that afternoon, in someone’s backyard in East Austin. We don’t know any more than that because the person that called 911 declined to be identified. According to EMS, his heart stopped beating for several minutes but he was able to be revived on-site with a portable defibrillator.
My initial reaction was of great sympathy for my dad, but also indifference, if that even makes sense. I felt terrible, but wanted nothing to do with the situation. My sister and I asked my uncle (my dad’s younger brother) to be the surrogate decision-maker when it came to his medical care. Not only was I 1500 miles away, but I also felt that I didn’t know him.
When I was notified of what happened, he was already in the ICU, in an induced coma and undergoing therapeutic hypothermia, a procedure where his body was cooled in order to reduce further damage to his brain and organs. His body was flushed with cold fluids and covered with ice packs. It would be a couple more days before he was re-warmed and we would know the extent of the damage. If it had been my mom in this situation, I would have been on the first plane to Texas. Thinking about this made me feel incredibly guilty, so I took back the decision-making responsibilities and made travel arrangements. He was my dad, after all, and the little girl in me still loved him.
After a few days of “wait and see,” my sister and I flew to Austin that Friday morning. I missed my connecting flight by a couple of minutes (don’t even get me started on that, American Airlines!) so I didn’t arrive until that evening. I was at my dad’s bedside by 7:30pm and not prepared for what I saw… he was sweating, yet cold to the touch, gagging on his feeding tube, having trouble breathing, and his eyes were open but glazed over and not fixed on anything, almost like he was looking right past me. It was awful.
The neurological team did all the tests – MRIs, EEGs, CT scans – to evaluate his brain function and offer a prognosis. My heart sunk when we were told that more than 10% of his brain was irreparably damaged… the “thinking” part. It was highly unlikely that he’d ever wake up, and if he did, he’d be in a vegetative state; perhaps able to move his arms and legs, but nothing else, and he couldn’t swallow so he would never be able to eat on his own.
I was stunned by the news, but knew that I wanted him off life support immediately. He had suffered enough in his 62 years. After talking it over with my sister, that night we decided that we’d wait for my mom to arrive before beginning the process of letting him go. She was in Mexico for a wedding and flew in the next day.
His feed tube was removed first. It just looked so uncomfortable and maybe even painful, plus he didn’t really have a need for food at that point. It wasn’t adding anything to his quality of life. Then we took him off the breathing machine once my mom arrived. He could breathe on his own, but it was labored at times. His doctors told us “it could be hours, or it could be days…”
I met with Hospice and signed all the papers to get him a bed at a nearby Hospice facility, but there were no beds available, so he would stay at the hospital in the meantime. He did get moved to another floor, though, out of the ICU. This meant that more family could be in the room with him. At one point we had 9 chairs in there!
That Sunday, Mother’s Day, we decided that it was best that I stay with him overnight; my sister had a baby with her and my mom hadn’t even been home yet, since she got off the plane and went straight to the hospital the day before. We just didn’t want to leave him alone.
By 9pm, everyone had left, and it was just me and my dad. Nothing had changed… he was stable, receiving pain medicine every few hours to keep him comfortable. I noticed how much more relaxed he seemed. His breathing was shallow but consistent and his beautiful brown eyes looked more clear than the first day I saw him. I sat down next to him, held his hand, and he was looking right at me. I jokingly told him that he couldn’t leave us on Mother’s Day… that it would make it a sad holiday from then on, and that it wouldn’t be fair to my mom. In my mind, he would have laughed at that.
Did he hear me? I’d like to think so.
I had a cot set up next to his bed, and was awoken by a quiet knock on the door around 3:30am. It was the nurse coming in to check on my dad, to give him another dose of pain medication and reposition him in the bed. He called a clinical assistant in to help. “My dad is a big guy,” I laughed. Looking back, I think the nurse noticed something at that point. When he was walking out the door a few minutes later, he stopped and looked back at my dad, then at me, and asked me if I needed anything. “Are you sure you don’t need anything?” he asked a second time. I thanked him, assured him I was fine, and he smiled and left. The clinical assistant stuck around, though. He took out the trash and tidied up around the sink while making small talk with me. The staff at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin was wonderful.
Later on it hit me that he had no reason to take out the trash at 3am. It’s not like it was overflowing. I think they knew what was coming and didn’t want to leave me alone, and I’m so grateful for that. After taking out the trash, the clinical assistant asked if he could say a prayer for my dad. He sat next to him, we both held his hands, and he said a beautiful prayer that went on at least 10 minutes, then we talked for a while, not just about my dad, but about me, about the new hospital across the street… just random things. He left and I went to the bathroom.
At this point it was almost 4:30. I decided I’d try to get a little more sleep, so I sat down on the cot once more and glanced at my phone to see if I had any notifications. This is when I noticed my dad’s breathing had changed. He had begun breathing really fast, his entire chest moving up and down with each breath. I stood up to reach over and hit the nurse call button, when all of a sudden, his breathing just stopped. He took one big breath, exhaled quickly, and that was it. I froze… I think I was holding my breath, waiting (and hoping) for him to start breathing again. I saw a tear going down his cheek and put my right hand on his chest. Nothing. His heart had stopped. I wiped the tear from his cheek as they began to stream down mine. I’m not sure how long I stood there before hitting the nurse call button, but I finally did. My voice cracking, I told the nurse “My dad, he’s gone…”
He passed just a few hours after Mother’s Day. He listened.
The rest of that morning is a blur… several nurses rushed into the room. I called my mom, my aunt and uncle, and texted a few others. My mom was there within minutes, followed by my aunt and uncle. We were told we had some time to say good bye before he was taken away.
I remember signing a bunch of papers. I called Hospice to tell them we wouldn’t be needing their services anymore. I talked to the organ donation coordinator. My mom and I gathered all his belongings and waited for the medical examiner to come. He was finally wheeled out of the room around 7 in the morning, covered by a blanket. I remember noticing how soft the blanket looked. I wanted to reach out and touch it… touch him… but I didn’t. I just stood there next to my mom, crying quietly as he was taken down the hall and around the corner.
I didn’t think it would happen so fast. Part of me hoped he would recover, even though I knew the odds were slim to none. Part of me was relieved that I would be able to go home soon. I flew to Texas with a one-way ticket, not knowing how long I’d be at my dad’s bedside, and I missed my girls and my husband desperately.
When someone dies, there’s so much to do. My sister and I were responsible for it all. I didn’t know what my dad’s wishes were. No one did. When my mom and I went home around 8am, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. Other than having a list 7 pages long of local funeral homes, I wasn’t prepared. I went through the list, one by one, crossing off places that just didn’t feel right, either because their prices were too high or their Yelp reviews too low. I felt sick to my stomach that whole day, and my hands trembled over my keyboard. It was tough.
The medical examiner called later that morning and asked me questions for the death certificate. Then an organ donation specialist called, and that process took almost an hour. So many questions! I thought I didn’t know much about my dad, but I actually knew quite a bit. My sister and I decided to donate his corneas and tissue – dermal, bone, and connective. His eyes could potentially give sight to two people, and his tissue could provide skin for mastectomies and bone grafts for burn victims.
By Monday afternoon, funeral arrangements were made, and by the next morning, contracts were signed. I stayed up late, looking through old photo albums, scanning photos and creating a slideshow to show at the funeral, which was scheduled for Thursday. I didn’t sleep much that week.
Here we are almost three months later, and the sadness hasn’t gone away. Maybe it’s the sight of his urn on my mantel, or the fact that his birthday is coming up soon, but I think about my dad every day.
I’ve received letters thanking me for “the generous gift of sight”. I’ve had to arrange his burial not once, but twice. Being a veteran, I had hoped that he could be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, but unfortunately I didn’t know that there’s a difference between being “honorably discharged” and “discharged under honorable conditions”. Lesson learned. My dad will finally be laid to rest at Alexandria National Cemetery in August.
I sometimes wonder to myself why I’m so sad about his death. Like I should just get over it, you know? I went years without speaking to him… this is just more permanent, right? But you see, all the good memories came rushing back when I saw him laying in that hospital bed. While I didn’t have a relationship with him as an adult, him dying was like losing part of my childhood. I always wanted a second chance with him and I lost it. Permanently.