My Last Day With My Father
“You have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and intrusive thoughts –”
Well duh. That sounds about right, given I fall apart the second my therapist walks into the room. I’m here at the behest of my therapist aunt (who would also soon pass), because she was worried about me. My father dying was just one loss, my second major one. And I was getting worried about me. On the outside I seemed okay, if not overly chipper. I’m fine! Totally great! How are yooouuu?
Inside? Inside I was reeling, trying to process all that had happened to me. To my life. One minute I was young, in love, getting married. I owned a successful business and was happy. Truly happy. I had health issues but was dealing with them. I had no intention of letting them slow me down or stop me from living my life. My fiance had mentioned he didn’t deal well with illness but I was totally up front and honest about my health. Full disclosure. I’m sick. My dad is sick. If he wanted to run, he had ample opportunity. But he stayed.
My father had kidney cancer and had a kidney removed. I remember coming home to see him the day he got the “all clear” call from his doctor. I ran over and gave him a big hug, but had this awful feeling of,”Not yet. This isn’t over yet.” Those thoughts haunted me. I tried to push them out of my mind to focus on the positive things, like my upcoming nuptials, honeymoon in Hawaii, and living in the city (always my dream) with my new husband.
But with the wedding only one month away, I could see my father struggling. He looked thin, gaunt, awful. He was always this larger than life Irishman, so much fun to be around. Dragged down by the chemo he had lost his taste for beer. Beer! He seemed exhausted. I took him to what would be his last doctor appointment.
If ever in my life I wanted a “do over,” this day would be it. I came from the city to pick up my Dad on Long Island. I was all chatty, excited about getting married. I’m sure I was a total bore at this point but he always humored me. We walked into the doctor’s office; it was crowded so they took my Dad right in so he could sit and wait in a receptionists chair behind the counter. I waved at him from across the room and said, “I guess I’ll go get us some food and come back in a few, OK Dad?” He smiled and waved goodbye.
When I came back to the office not long after, he came out so fast he nearly fell down the steps. I grabbed his shoulders to steady him and he looked terrified. I’ll never, not ever forget the look in his eyes. He kept mumbling they said the chemo wasn’t working. Over and over again. I wasn’t hearing it. Couldn’t hear it. So I reminded him, “Don’t worry! You’ve had to try different chemos along the way, they’ll find another one that’ll work. Here, have a burger. They forgot the fries! Can you even believe they forgot the damn fries?”
We stood there in the parking lot for what felt like forever. And he stared at me in the strangest way. Now I understand that as a father, he knew I couldn’t hear what he was trying to say. I was the youngest. His baby. I adored him so so much. His mind was probably reeling not only with this devastating news, but also trying to figure out how to protect me from what I was clearly not ready to hear. So he took the burger and off we went, heading home. I dropped him off, told him a few funny stories, gave him a kiss and said, “I love you and I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Late that night I got a call from my mother. Dad was in a coma. She said to come quick to the hospital to say goodbye. I don’t even remember the drive out, but I’ll never forget seeing him. How fragile he looked. How his body wracked with every breath, lifting his chest off the bed towards the end. I just sat with him stunned with grief. He died a few hours later.
Three weeks before my wedding.
I was fairly stoic throughout and I don’t remember crying that much. I always felt like the glue, the comic relief in my family. My mother needed me now and I knew I couldn’t fall apart.
But what exactly did they say to him that last Doctor’s appointment?
For whatever reason I was fixated on that detail, so after the funeral I found the courage to call their office. After a very awkward delivery, I finally stammered out who I was and what I wanted from them. I just needed to know. It was all I thought about. Finally I was given an answer. The nurse cried as she told me, and I appreciate the humanity she showed, because she did not want to be having this conversation with me.
The doctor told my father he wasn’t responding to the chemo, and that he had sepsis. It wasn’t looking good and he needed to get his affairs in order. All my father cared about and asked was, “Will I be here for my daughters wedding in three weeks?”
They said no, they were so sorry.
That’s when he ran out of the room, down the stairs and into me. Me. Standing there holding fast food and smiling like an idiot. His mind must’ve been racing as he tried to tell me. But he didn’t.
The kindness he showed me that day when he realized I was not ready to listen has stayed with me all these years.
As difficult as that day and time was in my life, there is one good thing that came out of it. When it came to feelings and emotional conversations, I was one who would typically clam up. I’d avoid a funeral or wake afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing to the bereaved. I’d avoid a difficult phone call to a friend going through a tough time. Partly because I truly didn’t want to say something wrong or bring up bad feelings making people feel worse (which I now know is impossible, you don’t “forget” a recent death, divorce, etc.) but mostly I feel I was being selfish. Plain and simple. I didn’t like being uncomfortable so avoided it.
I learned — as cliche as this sounds — you only get one chance to say goodbye. When someone is sick and dying, I no longer avoid them. I go. I spend time with them. I know I’ll never get that chance again, and time is precious.
When a friend is going through a painful divorce, I sit and listen and help them move or call a lawyer. Whatever they need.
My fathers death — as tragic as it was for me — made me a better person. A person he would be proud of. A person I am finally proud to be.
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