My son started a new day camp this week and we arrived a little early the first day. We had to wait about 20 minutes to check him in, so I began doing what I frequently do when I’m stuck waiting somewhere unexpectedly: I began to scroll through my Facebook feed.
I wasn’t prepared for it at all when it came up. Like a punch in the gut, there was a picture of my father, exactly one year ago to the day, looking happy, healthy and relaxed, holding a glass of wine. We were out to dinner last August.
“Share your memories!” Facebook urged me. And while I know Facebook really doesn’t mean any harm, I wished it could have at least been a bit more sensitive or gentle with the suggestion considering my dad died in May.
I did exactly what the program wanted me to do. I hit “share.” I noted how I missed him. I moved on with the day. But it occurred to me later that by sharing that memory I didn’t really do his memory, or mine, much justice. And in that realization, it also occurred to me I’ve never really written down the events of the day my father passed. Considering how there is increasingly less and less about my father that I will remember as time goes on, I decided it is time to do so now.
My dad was 88 when he died. He had a number of health issues in his later years, but was not acutely ill with anything leading up to the thing that ultimately did him in: a fall. Falls tend to lead to the demise of many elderly folks. I knew there was a chance my dad would be no different, and my sister and I had urged him for several years to consider modifying his very independent lifestyle to include some interventions that would help prevent falls – or, God forbid – an incident where he was alone and fell ill in his home without anyone there to help, or call 911.
He lived alone and liked it that way. He had a girlfriend in the years after my mother passed whom he would visit with several times a week. He also went to dialysis three times weekly after an open-heart surgery had left him with permanent kidney disease. But, regardless, he was happy on his own and rebuffed our efforts many times to hire an aide or to explore assisted living.
He’d fallen once in the winter already, which lead to a bad gash on the head and stitches. But when he fell a second time on his way out of dialysis in April, although his injuries weren’t severe, he never really recovered, and went downhill from there.
In short term, and then long term rehab, he declined slowly but steadily as we all watched and looked for answers. Confined to a bed or a wheelchair most of each day, instead of healing, he fell more ill, ultimately bringing him back into the hospital where he was mostly asleep during the last week of his life. Doctors told us he had stopped swallowing and we would have to decide if he should have a feeding tube.
We kept a near constant vigil at his bedside. Things looked dire. We weren’t really sure exactly what the problem was – an infection, perhaps, doctors said.
On the final day, Dad was suddenly alert and aware of what was going on. My brother had traveled from out of state to see him and he woke up to acknowledge it. He also seemed interested in where everyone was going. If I’d go to leave the room to use the bathroom or get a drink, he would call out “Where are you going?” I told him I loved him several times that day. He said he loved me, too. I will cling to that forever now.
We thought his sudden alertness meant he was coming out of the fog he’d been in for many days; perhaps an infection was clearing. We weren’t sure. But we were pleased and thought this meant he was turning a corner. I left the hospital that night with plans to bring my children in to see their Grandpa the next day.
Around 9:30, my sister called. She is the person in charge of my father’s health care proxy and dealt with the doctors and nurses most of the time. I could hear her sobbing before she spoke.
“What?!!” I yelled, knowing exactly what was wrong before she even told me.
“He’s gone,” she choked. “His heart went a few minutes ago. They just called me.”
I don’t remember the next few minutes but I know I screamed and swore and cursed myself for having left the hospital – and having left him alone during his last hours. I know my daughter, a nightowl, was still awake and watching TV with my husband and she began crying too. I’m sure my reaction terrified her.
I got in the car to go up and see him in his hospital room. The nurses said they would leave him there for us to visit one final time. The entire drive is a blur.
“I’m so sorry, Dad. I’m so sorry we left,” I sobbed to him when I got there.
My sister and her husband came in and we sat with Dad’s body for about an hour, told him again how much we loved him, and how much we would miss him, and then did the only thing left that we could do; we went home.
I crawled into bed when I got back. My husband was waiting for me, worried. I told him there was no way I would be able to sleep, but I was going to try and lay down for a while.
I felt a cold, hollow sensation radiate throughout my whole torso, like something was missing inside, because it was. My mother had died 11 years earlier, unexpectedly, and the pain I felt at that time was like nothing I had ever felt before.
“I didn’t think anything could hurt as much as when my mom died. But it does,” I told my husband. I felt him nod, lying next to me in the darkness.
I asked him to squeeze my hand as hard as he could.
“Don’t let go,” I kept telling him for the next hour as we began to drift into sleep. “Don’t let go.”
I woke around 6am, surprised I had fallen asleep at all.
My son was awake, sitting in a chair in the living room.
“Grampa Joe is gone,” I said.
“I heard,” he said quietly.
I got him some breakfast, sat down with my laptop and began the inevitable business of letting friends and relatives know the news. As I sent off the first message, I landed in that strange place we all inhabit in the days after we lose people we love. A place where we sometimes forget that person is gone, but where all we have left now are the memories.