Monday, August 10, 2009

The Story

I've never written publically or shared much about my dad's death. With anyone. Well, except those who were immediately involved with it. It was just so painful - and so freaking traumatic that I had to tuck it away until I was ready to face it.

It's been four years since that awful week - and for some reason I feel compelled to write about it now. To take the journey back to that time in 2004/2005 when life as I knew it turned upside down.

Forgive me, faithful readers (all two of you) if this isn't a fun post to read. But it's something I need to get out - to purge somehow - and, to document for Anna - so she can someday see the impact she had on her grandfather and know how much he adored her.

So to begin, we really need to go back to the late fall of 2004. I think I had finally begun to adjust to my new and most important role as Anna’s mother, when my dad called me the week before Thanksgiving. Anna was not even two months old. I knew as soon as I answered the phone that something was terribly wrong. There were tears in his voice.

To make a really long story short, and to condense the battery of medical tests that occurred over the next two weeks, my daddy was diagnosed with optic melanoma (a cancerous tumor of the eye) and colon cancer. The diagnosis was not good, the cancer had spread to his liver, his lungs, and his kidney. He immediately began chemotherapy, and his doctor planned to attack it very aggressively.

I think I knew in my heart that this was the beginning of the end, but none of us wanted to allow ourselves to think that way. Nobody wanted to even go there – so to speak – down the path of ‘is this it?’ I kick myself now for not going home to Seattle to be with him for his last Christmas. How magical would that have been to have him spend his last Christmas holiday with my daughter as she celebrated her first Christmas?

We finally made a trip out to see him and my stepmom in February. We spent a long weekend, and he got to meet Anna. He was charmed by her smiles. She had him wrapped around her little finger within minutes of meeting him. It melted my heart.

How little did I know then – how could I have known, really – that it would be the last time I saw my father as he was. How could I have known that it would be the last time I’d feel his arms around me in that big-daddy hug? How could I have known that it was the last time I’d see his blue eyes, and see them twinkle and sparkle as we laughed and he held my daughter.

So we left, we had to – we had lives and jobs and friends and things to tend to back in South Carolina. I can ask myself now – what was so freaking important that we didn’t stay. Jobs? Are our jobs so important that we couldn’t leave them, to get new ones in Seattle? So that we could have spent as much time as possible with my dad? So that he could get to know Anna – to see her smile – to see her grow – so that she could get to know him?

This is the guilt that plagues me now.

So we fast forward through the summer. August came, and things began to progress rapidly for my father. I say progress, but decline is the better word. It started on the Friday before the 12th - what day was that?? - I guess the 5th?? I got a call from my stepmom that Dad was in the hospital again - this time for another blood clot in his leg. Things were okay at that point, I called my Dad Friday evening, told him I loved him, and that I would talk to him in the morning (because I always called him in the mornings and evenings when he was hospitalized.) How little did I know then that it would be the last time I talked to him - the last time I heard his voice...

We left right after I got off the phone for a dinner party with friends from church. How crazy it is to know now that as I was enjoying myself with friends - my dad was spending down his final cognitive moments...

Later that night he started having severe pains in his abdomen, a CAT scan revealed that he had air in his abdomen that wasn't supposed to be there, so they did emergency surgery to remove part of his bowel. When he came out of surgery, he was intubated, and in ICU. His poor body just couldn't survive the surgery - the massive doses of chemo that he had been on since November took their toll... anyway, fast foward through the weekend, when we all thought he would recover - just that he was in really bad shape.

My stepmom was an angel with calling me to give me updates, but I just couldn't stay away. She asked the surgeon and oncologist doctors who were working with him if I should make the trip out there - because no one wanted to believe that it would be so very horrible - and they finally suggested that I come.

So, Deonne and I found a last minute and insanely expensive ticket to come out with Anna the following Wednesday. My brother also traveled up over from Spokane and he picked me up from the airport. Mom met us as well - she took Deonne and Anna to a hotel near the hospital, and my brother took me to see Dad - and tried to prepare me for what I would see.

It was the most horrible thing I think I could imagine. Seeing my daddy hooked up to so many tubes, so many IVs, with the tube down his throat, was pitiful. I lost it as soon as I saw him. But, we all stayed with him, and spend most of Wed. there, and all of Thursday. Friday morning I woke up really early, and went ahead on to the hospital at 6am. It was so peaceful there, just Dad and I. We watched the sun come up together.

Later that morning, the surgeon came in, and went through some things with Dad - and he seemed to think that Dad was progressing along and making improvements... so we (my brother and I) started thinking things were great as could be expected, and that he would start to recover.

That afternoon his oncologist came in, and asked to see my stepmom, my brother, and I in a little conference room. I thought that we were getting a prognosis report - of when Dad would come off of the ventilator. Nothing could have prepared me for what I heard.

I'll never forget that little conference room - the cold gray carpet and walls, the hard chairs we sat on, the half-empty cups of coffee left on the table (presumably from last family that had been in there to receive news of their loved one). The institutional smell of the air conditioner.

The oncologist very kindly, and very sincerely explained to use that Dad was critically ill. Not only was the cancer not improving with all of the chemo, but with the blood clots he had recently, with the pnemonia that he had developed, and with the dead bowel, it was very very unlikely that he would recover. He explained that he couldn't be on the respirator for much longer with the tube down his throat, and in a few days they would need to do a trach. and he would breathe through a tube in his throat. He said that if, and it was a big if, he was able to recover from all of the ailments, he would not be a candidate for any further chemo - because he just couldn't tolerate it - and he would have three to six months left to live before the cancer killed him. He said that the quality of life would be horrible.

We had to make the heart wrenching decision, right then and there, for the doctors to remove the breathing tube and turn off all the machines. We had to decide that Friday August 12th was my Dad's day to die. It was horrible. I can't even begin to tell you how horrible it was. No one should ever be asked to make that decision on behalf of another - let alone your parent.

My brother, my big brother, fell apart. He cried like I'd not seen him cry before. Ever. My stepmom seemed to look relieved - she'd been living the nightmare for so long - I think having an end in sight (no matter the consequences) was a relief on some level.

I remember being quiet - unusually quiet - not talking - not crying - not breathing. I remember holding my breath and waiting for the nightmare to be over. To wake up, warm in my bed, and to have this whole ordeal be a sick figment of my imagination.

Sadly, that was not the case.

We talked - and I don't know which one of us finally said -okay - but the decision was made.

And just like that, the doctor left. Shortly after that the nurses removed all of the machines that were keeping him alive, and we waited for him to take his last breath.

I had originally told my stepmom that I would be with him to the end - but I couldn't take it. It was horrific listening to him gasp. She told me it was okay to leave and when I told her I felt bad about going, she told me she would stay to the end.

I kissed him on the head, told him I loved him loved him loved him, and walked out the door.

That was the last time I saw my dad.

My brother followed, and then left the hospital altogether. He couldn't take it.

I waited around outside the nurses station, and watched on the monitors for his heartbeat to slow, and then finally fade, and then stop. It was the longest and most horrible and yet strangely peaceful six hours of my life.

I remember sitting huddled in the corner of the ICU waiting room. I had found a ratty looking hospital blanket and was wrapped up in that. Staring at the wall. A very nice nurse came in and said "Kristen? You daddy just passed away."

And then it was over.

It was cold. I remember feeling chilled - even though I was told it was a warm (unually warm) August night in Seattle.

I called Deonne at the hotel to come and get me (he'd gone back to the hotel to help get Anna settled with my mom - there was no sense in him sitting around an ICU waiting room/nurses station waiting for my dad to die.) We returned to the hotel room, mom was there waiting for us - and she held me as I finally cried. I cried and sobbed like a baby.

They had a memorial service for him on the Monday following, then following his wishes, he was cremated. We traveled across the state to Eastern WA to the town where I grew up, to scatter his ashes, also per his request, at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

When the time finally came to return home, I was ready to go, but not ready to leave. I felt like I was leaving a part of myself behind. How was it right to leave my father’s home – to leave my stepmom – who would help her get through this? How would I get through it?

We returned home, and I felt like a zombie going through the motions. I had just been through the most emotional ordeal of my 31 years, and I had no idea of how to cope with it. I was plagued with guilt – I couldn’t get past the day of August 12. I couldn’t get past our decisions to turn off the life-support. I felt like I had somehow had a hand in my father’s death, that in some way I had helped kill him. I kept reliving that day, over and over in my mind, and kept asking myself ‘what if we’d waited one more day – what if he’d been able to recover – miracles happen every day, right?’

If it weren’t for Deonne and Anna, I don’t think I could have made it out of bed in the morning. There were many mornings when I just wanted to bury my head under my pillow, and just let the world pass me by. I think I could have been perfectly content doing just that – but I didn’t want my daughter to see me wallowing. I didn’t want her to have any memories of her mommy going off the deep end.

So on I went, and did what was required of me, as a mother, as a wife. We celebrated Anna’s first birthday just a month after his death with a big party. I look at the pictures and see me smiling as she eats her birthday cake, but I also see the vacant look in my eyes, and the dark circles under them. I know that behind the fa├žade, is a woman who wanted to scream and cry over the unfairness of it all – of the loss of life.

I wanted to know how I’d ever explain to Anna just how much her grandfather loved her, even though he only knew her for a short amount of time. I wanted to know how I’d ever share with her the lifetime of memories I had of my dad. I wanted her to experience my dad’s smile, his laugh, his love for life first hand, and not just through stories she’d hear.

We went through the holidays, again, going through the motions. Again I see the vacant look in my eyes when I look at pictures. I see the smiles, but I also know the pain.

And on we went, and day by day, the guilt started to go away. Somewhere along the way, I began to accept my dad’s death as inevitable, and was able to let go of the guilt that I somehow had killed him. I began to realize that really, we loved him so much, that we let him go.

I'm still plagued by his death - and I think a part of me will always be haunted by it. I'm still extremely saddened by the loss, especially now that I have three children - one who thinks she remembers him by the stories and pictures she's seen of her as a baby with dad - and two who never knew him at all.

I wish he could be here to play with his grandsons, to take them boating and fishing. To teach them all about music - to play piano - to love 'concerts, overtures, and encores' - to instill in them his love of good food and entertaining.

But he's not - and it's up to me to provide those things for them.

I miss you so much daddy.

I love you.

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