Saturday, April 7, 2012

What’s Next?

I think that, like I do, my mom and my sisters are glad that we were with Dad when he left this world.  (I’m not sure we feel LUCKY about that; LUCKY would have been if he didn’t have to go at all!)  We have all, though, really struggled with flashback images of those last days, hours, and minutes.  I think all in all, though, I haven’t wrestled as much with our his final moments as much I did with the WHY or HOW of so many things, from how such a health-conscious person got such an aggressive cancer to why we had to fight for the many of the services that Dad got while he was sick when they should have been at-the-ready.  

I think the majority of people in my family believe that we will connect with Dad again in some way on some level at some point.  My mom, my siblings, and I have each sensed my dad's presence at different points and in different ways over the past fifteen months, and it comforts us in our grief and keep us going to feel that the potential for more of that exists.  

I realize that some people, even those who believe in heaven, don't believe or aren't sure if there are windows or links between those who are there and those who are here.  

For those who don’t believe that people who have gone on ahead can break through and connect with us, though, here's a story that may change your mind, and I've got another one that's on a more personal level coming up

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Part 50 - Saying Goodbye

Continued from Part 49

The time our family had while my dad was on hospice was intimate and special.  We’d spent what time we could together and had taken every opportunity possible to hoard all of the good memories we could while he was sick, and having those last few days to care for him in the peace of my parents’ house and to be with him just a little longer was something for which I will be forever grateful.

Dad was the leader of our family, and he led us through this too, showing us the way.  We kept vigil, waiting for what we knew was coming but what we so didn't want.  Dad waited too. Maybe he was ready to die, but more likely I think he was just ready to be done with the suffering.  By all accounts, he waited as long as he could for us to be ready.  I’ve heard it said that sometimes people who are dying can control the exact time that they go; I believe with everything that I am that this was true for Dad, yet another display of just how strong he was, of just how much he was willing to sacrifice for his family, and of just how much he loved us.

As the sun came up on the morning of January 5, 2011, my sister Nancy, Mom, and I sat around Dad’s bed, taking turns holding his hand and talking softly to him.  I knew in my heart that he was holding on with every bit of determination he could muster.  It was obvious to us that he was waiting for something.  As the sunlight poured into the window, my mom, realizing the date, told my dad, “You made it, Bill!  You’ve made it to January 5th.”  Five was Dad’s lucky number, as anyone who knew him well knew, and we thought it would comfort him to let him know that it was the fifth.  I knew that as much as it must have hurt Mom to give him the permission that we knew he needed to go, she did it because she knew he needed to hear it and because she loved him so much.  I told Dad that my middle sister Jennifer was on her way and that she would be there late that afternoon.  He didn’t respond, but I knew he heard us, and I knew he felt he needed to wait.

Over the course of the next few hours, his extremities began to get cold to the touch and, by late morning that day, his heart rate was up, his breathing was raspy, and his skin color was changing.  We knew he was not going to be able to hold on much longer, but, as well as we knew him, we knew that he would do everything he could to wait for Jennifer.  

As you would expect, there was a lot of crying that day.  We weren’t just crying in anticipation of the loss we knew was coming soon; we were crying for the loss of things that Dad had experienced in the ten weeks since his diagnosis, for the pain and anger in our hearts, and mostly for the time in the future that we would miss spending with him.  My aunt and uncle came over and brought food for us; my uncle said a meaningful prayer over Dad and then they said their goodbyes.  Mom, Nancy, and I each spent time alone with Dad, lying with him and talking to him, each of us promising him that we would take care of the others because we knew that’s what he was most worried about.

My other aunt picked up Jennifer at the airport and delivered her to my parents’ house as promised late that afternoon.  We had about five hours together after she got here.  We each had time to lie in the bed with him and talk to him. He fought right until the end, and saying goodbye was the most difficult thing any of us had ever done.

During the time I spent alone with Dad that day, I thought back to the dreams that he’d had while he was in the hospital, dreams he later told us about and in which he was so scared because he thought he would be lost and we wouldn’t be able to find him.  I so did not want him to be scared or to worry like he had in the hospital; I told him repeatedly that day that it was ok to let go and that he did not have to be afraid because we would know exactly where to find him and we would always have him with us in our hearts.  I believe he needed to hear those words, and I believe that he heard me.

When we realized that his breathing had changed, we knew it was time.  Our cries rose like sacred smoke, mournful and sad, with each of us doing our best to support him by telling him that he had finished the race and could go on ahead while knowing in our hearts that we would give anything – except requiring him to live in misery – to keep him with us. The moment we were waiting for had finally come, and Dad was released from us.  Into the stunned silence, Jennifer said, “Is that it?” and the hospice nurse nodded her head as we cried and tried to convince ourselves of the reality of what had happened.  After about a minute, Dad gasped one last time, fighting to the end.  We kissed him and tearfully told him we loved him as his body quieted.  It was, by far, the most emotional moment in my life.  My dad was the most vibrant person I had ever known, and I knew I was so lucky to have had him as such an influence in my life, but, in that moment, there was only sadness, and emptiness, and a sense of utter purposelessness and loss.

What I have known for sure from that moment on is that no matter how many days, weeks or months you are aware of an illness, no matter what the doctors have said, and without regard to the changes you have seen the illness cause in your loved one, you are never truly ready to say goodbye.  I realized even in that moment that I was going to have to work harder than I ever had before to gain perspective that would hopefully keep me afloat and eventually pull me through and, ironically, I knew that my dad was the one who throughout my life had given me that perspective.

Pictures that were on the wall in my parents' bedroom
After we had made the necessary phone calls and things had settled down, we took turns sitting in the bedroom with my dad while we waited for the head hospice nurse and then later the people from the funeral home to arrive.  As I sat in the room, I – a person who considers myself to be relatively unafraid and someone who  is able to witness most any medical procedure or gruesome detail – struggled mightily to hold myself together.  I found that it was so difficult for me to look at his body, so small and pale in the bed, but I didn’t want to leave him in the room alone.  I sat on the edge of the bed and looked only at the photos of him that hung on the wall.  I made my voice tell my mom that I thought Dad should be dressed in jeans and a running shirt and running shoes.  He had always looked so handsome in a suit, but that wasn’t really him.  Of course, none of this seemed like it was really him or me in my mind, and the only way I was keeping from completely losing it was to let myself think that none of it was really happening at all.  I desperately wanted to find a way to reach back in time and pull him back, all the way back to before whenever it was that the first cancer cell had started to grow.  But I knew that I couldn’t.  I was sick to my stomach, and I was engulfed by sorrow.  After awhile, I went upstairs and, for the hundredth time since the diagnosis came on October 23, I called my husband and cried so hard that I thought the phone would short out with him on the other line. 

We knew that Dad would no longer be where he was after that night but that he would always be wherever we were.  He wasn’t going to be lost; we would know just where to find him, and that would be in our hearts.  That belief, and the thought that Dad wasn’t having to endure anymore, was the only thing keeping me from coming completely undone.

We called my aunt, and she came over with a bottle of wine; none of us knew what to do or how we were going to get through the night, through the days ahead, or through the future without Dad.  While the hospice nurses were in the bedroom with Dad, we sat in the den and had a surreal conversation about funeral plans.  (I kept hearing “This isn't really happening” in my head, and I’m pretty sure there was some screaming going on in there, too.)  For as long as I could remember (WAY before he got sick), Dad had said that he wanted to be cremated and that he wanted a celebratory memorial service to be held after he died.  He had brought these topics up in conversation many times over so many years that we had just accepted them as not really being morbid or sad; we just looked at those wishes as being a part of Dad’s personality.  For as much as he loved winning a race and dancing center-stage at each of our weddings, he was very modest and didn’t like being “gawked at,” at he put it, and therefore an open casket or a big funeral service was not what he wanted.  And with his positive attitude and fun-loving personality, it was no surprise that he had stated his preference was for a celebration of life instead of a more traditional funeral.  Again, we followed his lead, and the plans were put in motion.
When the people from the funeral home came, Nancy and I sat upstairs; we could hear what was going on downstairs but we couldn't see it.  I knew I would not be able to bear seeing his body taken from the house.  There were more tears, and paperwork my mom had to sign, and then more tears when that was done and my aunt and then the hospice nurses told us goodbye.  

So much had happened over the course of that day and night; the shock and sadness of it all was almost crushing.  When I think about how my mom and my sisters and I went to sleep that night, I am sure the only way we did it was out of shock and sheer exhaustion, and mostly the former.  I remember that I was bone-tired, but I had trouble sleeping.  I somehow simultaneously felt like I had no energy but I also had restless, unfocused energy since I was not physically tending to Dad any longer.  I felt helpless and hopeless, and so much more; mostly, though, I felt lost.

After a few hours of sleep, we woke up and made phone calls as we drank coffee.  Mom called the funeral home and was told to come in that morning to make the arrangements.  We quickly got dressed and got into the car.  As we drove along the winding road, the same road that I had driven on with Dad when I was taking him to Sonic and listening to him sing Christmas songs just a few weeks before, I found myself getting angry at the obligations that I felt were pressing down on my family that day and in the days to come.  I thought about how odd it is that family members are expected to plan an important event (“to make arrangements”) when we are at our most vulnerable, in shock.  It seemed ridiculous, yet here we were, on our way to doing what was expected, mostly because we didn’t know what else to do.  

When we got to the funeral home, the funeral director (salesman) started things off by telling us that we couldn’t have a graveside service until after that weekend (even though it was only Wednesday) because they were backed up from the holidays and wouldn’t be able to complete the cremation process right away. As I sat there processing that information. Jennifer said angrily, “I am so sick of the ‘holiday’ excuse!  We couldn’t get our dad what he wanted to eat on Thanksgiving Day because it was a holiday, he didn’t get the medical care he needed in the hospital because of the holidays, and now this??”  The director apologized, but, just like the other things that couldn’t happen due to the other holidays we’d had while we were coping with Dad’s illness, it was what it was.  The funeral director said they needed to have the information for the obituary right away so that it could run in the newspaper the next day, which we felt was important so that notice about the memorial celebration we were planning on the following day could be included.  We started off trying to dictate our thoughts to the guy, but after a few minutes of watching him struggle to keep up with the many thoughts and emotions in the room, we convinced him that it would be better if we used his computer and just wrote it ourselves.  With that done, we finished up with the “arrangements” (a term I was growing to detest more by the second), and then we drove back to my parents’ house, exhausted again.

Sitting on the couch in my parents’ den that afternoon, I could see his car keys still on the dresser by the back door, and I felt like I might suffocate from the sadness.  His bike was in the garage, ready to be ridden; his shoes were piled in his closet, ready to be worn; his to-do list was on his desk in his office upstairs with items still to be crossed off … but he wasn’t there.  The anguish in my heart was palpable.

My brother arrived from out of state that afternoon, and my husband and my daughters got in just after that. Together, we made it through that night, and then we got up the next day and waited for the rest of our family to arrive.  Just before my sister’s husband and her children got to my parents’ house, a beautiful rainbow appeared in the sky, a comforting sight that made me smile through the stream of tears I had going. My cousin, who owns a restaurant in Nashville, coordinated the memorial service, which was to be held at her restaurant, and she and I texted back and forth to iron out the details. That evening, my brother-in-law set about creating a digital slideshow of photos to show during the memorial celebration, with contributions and suggestions from the rest of us about which pictures to include and what music to use for the show.   We took turns holding it together and, well, not holding it together, and, as it had been while Dad was sick, somehow it worked as a group effort.  

Mom and I decided to sleep in the master bedroom with the kids that night.  The slideshow creation and the supportive “togetherness” (Dad would’ve called it “binding”) continued after we had turned in for the night; in fact, as I discovered the next morning, because Kevin was the only male in the family with a full head of hair, the late night activities even included shaving his head in tribute to Dad and so that if Mom needed anything during the memorial service she could scan the crowd and look for a bald head.

From left:  my BIL David, my newly bald husband, my BIL Peter, and my brother Lee on the day of the memorial
Somehow we made it to the memorial service on time; we had asked my aunt to bring boxes of tissues in case those were needed, but we’d forgotten to get a guest book for people at the service to sign.  My sister-in-law dashed out at the last minute and bought one, just one of many things that seemed oddly important that day as we went through the motions like we were in a dream.  

The memorial service was a great tribute; we were touched by those who attended and by the words of love, respect, and gratitude we heard from so many people that day.  Did it matter how we handled the memorial service? I thought.  Did it matter what I wore or who came?  Really, nothing mattered, except that I was together with my family, but it helped a little bit to have others who cared about my dad and about me and my family surrounding us.  Did I understand why some people whom I felt would come to the service didn’t?  No.  Really, I didn’t understand anything that was going on or that had transpired over the past ten weeks.  I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t want to.  I just wanted to cry, and maybe even to crumble.  But I couldn’t, and I didn’t. 

This is what someone said to me at the service:  “The highest tribute you can give is not grief but gratitude.”  I appreciated the message, and I understood that the meaning was that I could best pay tribute to the man I loved so very much by being strong and by moving forward.  What I didn’t understand at the time was just how tough grief is, and what I didn’t know was how profoundly it would change me.

This is the end of the Behind the Scenes Story; however, it is not the end of the story.