Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Time for Dying

When my Dad told me in August that he was stopping chemo treatments, what we refer to as Deathwatch 2014 began. I didn't realize that he would be dead 3 weeks later.  He had been fighting Lymphoma for 3 years with radiation and chemo treatments putting him in and out of remission over that time. This summer it was obvious that the treatments were poisoning him and taking it's toll.  Even his doctors said it was his sheer will to live that  was keeping him alive because the treatments were only doing so much.

One night I was there helping him while my Mom was at work.  He was agitated because his balance was off and the muscles in his legs had weakened because of the chemo.  He didn't want me to help him, so he insisted on dragging himself down the hallway using his walker and then pretty much flinging himself into bed without my assistance.  I walked near him anyway and he said, "So you are determined to help, right?"  Yep. I pretty much got my stubborn gene from him so he really shouldn't have been surprised.

When I left that night I knew.  He didn't seem as resolved as he had before.  He had 5 more days to go before his next treatment and it didn't feel like he was gearing up like he had been for the past few months.

He told my mother later that night and the rest of us the next day that he was not going to do any more chemo.  We all understood and agreed he had put in more than a fair share of effort to fight.  We knew that he only did it for us to begin with, the past 3 years he survived for my mom and our family.  Now we had to let him do what he needed to.

So Deathwatch 2014 began.

In my mind it was going to take months for tumors to grow and death to happen.

But, in reality…it was fast.

The kids and I spent as much time as possible with him over the next couple of weeks.  My aunts and good friends of our family stayed with us over those next few weeks helping with everything from cooking meals to supporting us emotionally to even caring for my Dad when he would allow it.

His strength deteriorated rapidly, but still I was thinking there would be more months to go.

The last week of August he told me that he was going to live to the celebrate my sons' birthdays on Labor Day and then that was it.  He said he was at peace with it and not to be upset.

I was thinking oh ok Dad. Sounds like a plan.

Well…he made it to the birthday party on September 1st. Thanks to our good friends he was able to be transported with his wheelchair to the park where we celebrated.

Then he went home and slept.  And never really woke up fully conscious again after that.

Hospice started the next morning.  He stayed mostly asleep.  When he did wake up he wasn't really talking much.  But, he was still getting his point across that he didn't want help and would try walking on his own.  The nurses had a difficult time moving him because his strength was surprising despite all the weight he had lost. They expected him to be weak and frail but he was really like the hulk with his super human strength so they couldn't lift him.  Eventually we had to request all male nurses to help with lifting. Thankfully he ended up with 3 amazing men that were able to care for him and assist him so he was able to stay home to die in peace like he wanted.

The 10 days after the birthday party are a bit of a blur.  Mostly I stayed at my parent's house with my aunts and our friends that were helping out. Our support system was amazing! My good friends took turns staying with my children and getting them to school. My boss and coworkers were absolutely fantastic about covering my class and caring for my students and children so that I could be there for my Dad's last days.

SO we sat. and sat. and waited. We ate and talked and told stories. My Dad stayed mostly unconscious.

One friend suggested that this Deathwatch process was an "Italian Family Thing."  I am not sure about that because I have talked with other friends that have big families that had similar experiences.  But, in speaking to others I have realized, it is not a common practice.  It may even be a bit crazy.

But, I don't mind being crazy.  It was worth it to pause every aspect of life. Especially because he woke up one night and everyone was there visiting and he was clear minded and when he saw me he said, "awww I love you!"

Relatives showed up to say goodbye, friends from all eras of my Dad's life came to visit. Cousins we hadn't seen in months were there with food. It was like a family reunion.  People chatted and shared stories of their time with my Dad.  Nurses and physical therapists that had worked with him over the past 3 years stopped by to say goodbye.  Everyone had their own stories.

We sat around him while he peacefully slept and shared with each other how he touched our lives in so many ways.  And we ate. And we laughed.

Through it all I couldn't help thinking what am amazing tribute it was to the life he lived that friends didn't wait until he was dead to pay respects.  They had been there throughout his life, stood by him in the 3 years he fought to survive and in his dying days did not abandon him or our family.

It says a lot about how he lived.  I can think of a million stories of my Dad reaching out to others.  There was one Christmas he had a coworker down on her luck.  We went with him and waited in the car as he dropped off a tree, gifts and groceries to surprise that family.

Too many stories like that to count.  But, he loved helping others and his generosity was his greatest attribute.  It was obvious in the faces of the people that loved him that he meant a lot to their lives.

Even the nurses that met him during that last week were affected by him.  He was UNCONSCIOUS when they met him, but they each said what a gentle soul he had, what a good man he was.  They worked around the clock to ensure that he had a dignified and peaceful death.

One nurse, Bob, spent a few days with us. I felt like I knew him forever.  He told us that his shortest assignment had been a few hours and longest had been 6 days.  Hmmmm….considering it was Day 4 of Bob with us,  I was wishing my Mom hadn't asked that question.  When Bob said goodbye after that shift I knew he was not expecting to see my Dad alive again.

On the morning of September 11th, Dad's nurse Godwin showed up.  That is when my mother knew.  It would be that day.  It would be Dad's last day.  She had to run an errand. We stayed out only exactly long enough to do what needed to be done and then we took shifts all day being with my Dad. She didn't want him alone for a minute.  My aunts stayed and our good friends were there too.  The house was quiet all day.  The only sound was Dad's playlist of songs coming from his iPad.  It was background music of all his favorite songs.  We would be talking or doing something and Depserado would come on and all of a sudden we would all be in tears.

Around 3:30 my mom wanted to take a shower so it was my shift to be with Dad.  I had my laptop and I was looking at Facebook and listening to his music.  When I heard In My LIfe by the Beatles play off his iPad, I just lost it. It finally it me that it wasn't going to be months. It was within hours and he was no longer going to be alive.

And then the power went out.

I freaked out a little  bit.  His oxygen tank was beeping and I thought he was dead. I walked over and touched his arm and nearly jumped out of skin when he took a breath.

We realized a fuse had just blown out when my Mom plugged in her hair dryer. We all laughed.

A few minutes later, Godwin came in and told me he was going to get my Dad bathed and dressed. So I went to talk and watch TV with my aunts.

When Godwin came out to get me, I knew.  I walked back into my Dad's room and he was lying there so peacefully.  My Mom was holding his hand.  He was gone.

Those few minutes were quiet.  It settled in a little.

Then a flurry of action happened. Family and friends and hospice nurses and a social worker arrived.
We waited for my brother to get there so he could have some time too.

At 7 pm Bob showed up.  It would have been his 7th Day.  No one had called him. When he walked through the door, the look on his face broke my heart.

He made a joke and said that when he drove up to the house and saw all the cars he thought, "Who died?"   Then he looked at me and said, "too soon?"  No. It was perfect. My Dad would have gotten a kick out of it.  It broke the tension!

Dinner was made, funeral directors were called. The house was full of people, of love.

The next few days we made memorial arrangements and picture collages and told more stories and celebrated his life through services and moments together.

Then the next day I went back to work.  And life went on. and on.

The next thing I knew it was Thanksgiving. He wasn't there to cook. To laugh. To wash all the dishes.
And it hit me.  Death is forever.

But, it was just a moment on Thanksgiving.  We had family and friends and the kids around so I was distracted.  That wasn't the hardest part.

For me the difficulty is the rest of the time, not the holiday.  My Dad was a part of my daily life. I would go there after work with my kids for dinner 2-3 times a week and Sundays.  Always Sundays.  And he did my laundry. I would drop it off on Friday nights and pick it up on Sundays washed and ironed for the week. Even when he could barely walk he had a washer and dryer put into his bedroom and would still do my laundry.  When I told him he didn't have to. He would day, "I'm not dead yet!"

I called him for everything. EVERY THING.  He fixed my cars, replaced batteries in my smoke detectors, painted my kitchen, cleaned my house, babysat the kids, cooked meals,  and as my friend Meeghan loves to remind me - I called him to unclog toilets.

Sometimes I dream about him.  He always looks healthy and his hair has grown back and he is happy.  In my dream one time, he told me to buy new cordless phones and to make sure I buy Panasonic ones.

I know that there is a purpose for everything under Heaven. And there is a time to die. And everyone loses people they love. And everything happens for a reason. Etc. Etc. Etc.   But, seriously -  it sucks!