Sunday, January 4, 2009

My Dad died of cancer, and I didn't even get a lousy t-shirt

On January fourth four years ago, I was driving my old paint chipped Chevy Blazer down Interstate 88 to meet my Mom at the hospital. She had called me earlier that morning, frantic with worry over my Dad. Shortly after we hung up, I got on the road and began the forty mile trip to be with my family and my father was taken back to cancer care via ambulance. He had been fighting esophageal cancer since his diagnosis just six months earlier.

By some stroke of luck, my mother-in-law was in town - she had arranged an extended layover on her way home from my sister-in-law's family during New Year's so that Skippy and I could have a rare date night. Blessedly, I was able to leave my girls with her. Banana was two. Kbear had just turned one a few weeks earlier.

I called Skippy at work while I drove under a steel gray sky. I remember that I was shaking, with cold or with worry I don't know. I told him that things were pretty bad, worse then they had been when I had frantically rushed to the hospital just three days earlier. I told him to stay at work, that I would call when I had news.

While I drove, I thought about my Dad. The strong, tan, outspoken man that I loved, respected, and sometimes even feared was almost unrecognizable now. Chemotherapy, a subsequent allergic reaction, and various infections had sapped his strength in addition to the cancer he was trying to ward off. We had almost lost him in ICU shortly before the holidays, and our reprieve had been too brief.

I parked in the now-familiar lot on the back side of the hospital with an entrance to the cancer ward. I can remember turning off my radio, leaning my head against the steering wheel, and taking deep breath after deep breath. I wasn't sure what to expect, but experience over the last six months had taught me that it wouldn't be good.

The first thing I saw when the double glass doors slid open was my husband. He was standing near the front desk, talking to my sister. The husband I had told to stay at work. The husband who had beat me to the hospital, being closer to it than I had been. The husband who had been through this before with his own father. He was determined to be there for me. He loved my Dad too.

My mom looked tired. She was always tired then, but this time...she looked defeated. Assorted extended family joined us as the hours ticked by. We kept vigil. We laughed at old fishing stories, we went to eat in shifts, we held hands, and we supported each other while my Dad slipped further and further away from us.

No matter how long I am granted a life on this earth, I will never forget when the doctor came to confirm our worst fears. There was no hope. Dad was beyond the help of modern medicine. All they could do was make him comfortable, make him pain free, and allow him to slip away in peace, surrounded by his wife and children.

It didn't sink in right away, that there was absolutely no hope left. That my Dad was going to die. That we had to say good-bye. It was mid-afternoon on January fourth, and the doctors said that Dad probably wouldn't last the night.

Shortly after that unhappy revelation, our extended family filed out for a while, leaving my mother, my siblings, myself and my husband alone with my Dad. We held his hands and talked to him. I don't know for sure if he heard me, but I absolutely have to believe that he did or I might go crazy on some awful emotional level. I know that he knew how much we loved him. We tried to tell him that it was okay to let go, that we would be okay. It was the last thing we wanted, and the only thing we could say. My Mom told him that when he "got there," if he could please send her a sign and let her know, it would mean everything to her.

Later in the evening a priest from Mom and Dad's church came and administered last rites.

That night I sat alone in the dark and deserted lobby of cancer care and stared outside.

That night it snowed.

A thick blanket of white slowly and methodically covered our cars as they sat waiting in the parking lot. It was the first major storm of the season. That night, my entire universe revolved around the cancer ward. My world seemed to be holding it's breath. I felt like the storm was heralding a massive seemed to be sweeping my father out of my life.

In the morning, Dad was still alive. He was deep in a coma. My mother had not left his side, not to eat or drink, and not to sleep. My father had been a fearsome man during the pain of his cancer, and not easy to live with or care for, but she was determined to stay at his side with him until this life finally let him go. Nothing anyone said could move her.

I knew how she felt. After several hours of watching the snow fall, I parked myself firmly at Dad's side at dawn with my family and my husband. I can remember telling Skippy, "I don't want to miss him." When the last breath left his body, I needed to be there. To stop long enough to sleep or eat or even use the bathroom put me at risk to miss what was sure to be one of the most awful moments of my life, and I didn't dare leave the room.

As time went on, the pauses between my father's breaths would get longer. Sometimes we would all pause in our quiet conversations, waiting to see if he would take another one. To watch a life let go of a body is one of the most excruciating experiences I have ever been through - to pray and hope and cry and love and to wait some more....It is beyond humbling.

And on January fifth, sometime around noon - I don't remember anymore if it was a few minutes before or a few minutes after - my father let out a breath...and didn't take another.

One of our cancer care nurses (an angel on Earth) came quietly into the room, stethoscope in hand. She gently pushed past my family and listened to my father's chest. She listened again. The seconds ticked by. And she shook her head ever so slightly at my Mom.

There would be no more breaths. My father was gone.

In that moment, my entire world narrowed around that one inconceivable thought. In that moment, I felt myself pressed hard against Skippy's chest, as if he hoped he could some way shield me from what had just happened. In that moment, I understood what it was to grieve. A god-awful heart-wrenching "nononononono" came tearing out of me.

We had waited together for over 30 hours for this moment, and yet I couldn't believe it had finally found us.

I don't know how long we stood there, arms wrapped around each other, my aunts and cousins and mother and brother and sister and husband. I don't know when we pulled out of those first few awful shocking moments. I remember someone saying that my grandparents had arrived. I remember going out with my Aunt to tell them our awful news. I came back into the room and as my Mom moved towards the door to see to my Dad's parents, Skippy's hand gripped my arm and ever so quietly he said, "Ame, the window."

A pine tree stood just outside my Dad's hospital room. A big bushy snow covered pine tree, it's green boughs brilliant against their backdrop of white. And nestled in the branches, was the biggest fattest cardinal I had ever seen.

You have to understand some of the back story. Growing up, Mom always told us that seeing a cardinal was good luck. She had a fondness for them and as a result of her little home-grown-fable, we all liked the vibrant red birds. Being the state bird of Illinois, they were spotted often in our area, but nevertheless, to see one the morning after a raging snowstorm, inches from my Dad's hospital window, sitting calmly in the branches of a tree and watching us sad humans inside was a bit unusual. I rushed out to grab my Mom from the lobby - there was no way I could let her miss seeing it with her own eyes.

I shouldn't have worried about it. That dang bird sat there for close to a half hour - or more. We all saw him - he didn't fly away when we stepped closer to the glass. He just hung out, surveying the scene in the tiny room that had been a place of such sorrow.

And then in an instant, although no one saw him fly away, he was gone. But we all felt that seeing one of my Mom's favorite birds, her self-appointed feathered good luck charm, in the horrible moments following my father's death and in such unlikely conditions could really only mean one thing.

Dad was letting her know. He was letting her know that he had "gotten there" just fine.


Needless to say, in the months following Dad's death, we became a little bit fanatical about cardinals. You know how old ladies sometimes become "crazy cat ladies?" We've kind of become "crazy cardinal people." It's gotten better but whenever I see anything from a Christmas card to a dishtowel that has that bright red bird on it, I can't help but think of him.

It has been four years since my Dad died. We have all gone through tremendous changes on many levels, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, but parts of him will always be with us. It never really truly goes away.

This is the first Christmas that it didn't hurt quite so much. And the fact that it didn't hurt as much, hurt.

I think of him often. I still ask him for advice. And even though I have traded the cardinals of Illinois for the blue jays of Oregon, I know that he hears me.

Someday, I won't feel the need to talk about him around January fifth. I won't have to project my sorrow on my blog. Someday I'll be able to just look at the sky and say, "Dad, wherever you're fishing today, I hope the beer is cold and that you catch a whopper."

I'm not there yet. I still have a need to tell my stories, to share my father, to somehow make him REAL to people.

I talk to my girls about him often. My husband teases me when I say something that is straight out of Dad's mouth. My mom cautions me to live my life more, and to worry less - he hated that I was a worrier like him. I have let go of the bad stuff. Dad wasn't perfect. I say it every time. Sometimes when people die, we tend to put them up on a pedestal of clouds and forget that they ever had a sharp word for us. I haven't forgotten the bad stuff, I've just chosen to let only the good live in my heart. Death in and of itself is too much, too hard, and too sad to hang onto all the bad stuff.

So instead I'll just say this:

I love you Dad.

Wherever you are fishing today, I hope the beer is cold.

I hope you catch a whopper.


kat said...

~hugs~ hon. there are no words xx

Anonymous said...

Thinking of you today! Had to stop reading at work cause I was on the verge of bawling reading it.

Tracey said...

Oh Amy, that was beautiful {{hugs}} You made me cry with your eloquent words.
And I totally get what you mean about the cardinals. Since Val died we've become crazy turtle people. They actually played a big part in us buying this house! ;c) Take care in the days ahead.