The Day I Invited Death Into My Home To Take My Father
When I was a child, Death existed in a removed periphery. He seemed to come in and affect our lives quickly, inconveniently and of course, sadly, but nothing a little shifting of our usual routine wasn’t able to handle. His visits were like having to give the new kid who lived down the street a ride to school that one year before he moved again, because his mother worked outside of the home and mine didn’t.
Death would stop by occasionally, like when my paternal grandmother died relatively peacefully in her home of what could be wrapped up neatly with a bow by calling it “old age.” It was, of course, the result of a smattering of undramatic health issues which were just too much, when coupled with her advanced age.
In my recollection of events during what were my early teenage years, both of my maternal grandparents died of congestive heart failure. My grandmother was in a rehab facility recovering from something when she fell. In the subsequent and ordinarily non-life-threatening aftermath, she died. End of story. My grandfather, famous for his tales of having felt funny so he would “pound on his chest” and would go about his business of treasure hunting in neighborhood refuse piles and aluminum can collecting for cash, (which he did for fun and so he could sneak his grandchildren twenty dollar bills at random times) died in his bed at home after one such outing, his homeopathic methods of staying alive having failed him.
My parents had been keeping daily, if semi-remote tabs on both sets of grandparents as they managed their own young family. When a grandparent died, my mom or my dad would be absent from our routine for the amount of time it took to get their respective parent’s affairs in order. It was usually a few hours here, a few hours there. My mom spent one night–or maybe two–with my grandmother once my grandfather had died. I was 16 and it was the first time my mom had ever slept away. I got my first period while she was gone, almost as though life was ushering me into adulthood in one fell swoop.
Death seemed to gently graze my life as a mere fact of it, until he laid a pipe bomb on my doorstep when I was 21. One of my closest and oldest friends died in a freak accident when she was helping out on a horse ranch. I had returned home to Colorado from school in Minnesota; we were both on our college winter breaks. We were planning on getting together later in the week for a movie “or something,” as we always said (it was almost always a movie). A soul which I personally treasured was ripped from my heart, long before it was anything that could have been construed as “her time,” snagging the very fabric of my conception of the world and of life as how I believed it was supposed to go.
I ugly-cried at her funeral while I stood in some back room of the overflowing chapel, with other mourners who’d come in droves to honor her young, beautiful spirit. We stood packed in like sardines. I remember my mother awkwardly patting my heaving back. Always and naturally being the best one to comfort me, no matter the circumstance, my mom was ill-prepared for what to do to comfort her daughter in the loss of a friend, whom she, herself, had taken underneath her wing like a daughter on occasion, throughout the many years of play-dates and field trips.
Death was suddenly incontrovertibly mean. There was no room for interpretation, or for differing perceptions of how much of a “blessing” Death brought to the shared table. There was no blessing to be found, as there often is when an elderly person with compounding ill health passes away; there was only a vacuum of darkness, where once there was light and promise.
I next saw Death when we invited him into our childhood home.
He’d already been lurking, hanging from the eaves and hovering in the shadows cast by the trees and bushes in my parents’ vast yard that my older brother and I had danced around, darted in-between, and climbed up on as kids. My father had become gravely ill from a sudden onset of end-stage kidney failure, brought about by two decades’-worth of relative sedentariness as he managed his probable, if under-researched and relatively mysterious neurological condition of Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia, while he carried on with being a loving, engaged father to his children and wife as best as he could, between bouts of pain, fumbling and falling.
Death whispered in our ears throughout the 4 years my dad forged onward with thrice-weekly hemodialysis treatments. We knew his 80 year-old body was reflecting a net loss, even though each session would yield a temporary gain in his spirits and aptitude for carrying out his daily activities and routine.
Death began to pop out of the shadows and collectively sucker-punch us over the course of my dad’s last year, when he was twice spilled from his wheelchair onto the floor of the medical public transport when the driver “stopped short” at a stoplight, its sole purpose to get its riders safely from their homes to their doctor’s appointments and medical treatments, breaking his leg on each occasion. He bounced back the first time, within a few months’ time. He didn’t recover as easily the second time, when he became ill with aspiration pneumonia while in the hospital recovering from the fracture.
My dad danced with pneumonia for the subsequent few weeks, all-the-while being carted into and out of hemodialysis because he had no other choice if he wanted to try and stay alive. As his health continued to deteriorate, we began to offer him the option of stopping dialysis, which we knew, and he knew, meant certain death.
My dad was a chemist for the mineral research and development industry for most of his life. He was a man of faith. He believed in free will, and he believed that any progress and advancements achieved by man to further science and overall health and longevity were gifts from God. He believed that pursuing science and its benefits was a moral imperative. I believe that he felt that to decline medical intervention if it allowed him to remain living and to be with us, would be to commit suicide and would reflect an utter disregard for the gift of life, no matter how compromised his life had become.
But we also knew he wanted to die at home.
Every time my now-81 year-old father went back in for another dialysis treatment those last few weeks as he struggled with a broken leg and pneumonia, my brother would receive a report about my dad’s blood pressure sinking too low. It was finally strongly suggested that sending my dad back in for more dialysis would be the equivalent of sending him off to die on the dialysis table. They could not keep bringing him back, no matter how resistant he was to giving up the treatment.
We knew he wanted to die at home.
The closest my dad ever came to admitting defeat was whispering “no,”when my brother asked him if he was okay. He was a Norwegian. He was always stubbornly “fine” or “alright” for basically our entire lives, until he stopped talking altogether in the days preceding this last utterance… only for it to be, “no”. No, he was not “fine”. No, he was not “alright”.
We opened the door and invited Death into our home.
I had my two young children with me at my parents’ house, the weekend my brother and I sat with my parents and made the decision that my father would not be attending dialysis ever again. I remember picking up my one year-old daughter to take her out to the car to load her up for our two hour drive home. I knew my father would never see her again; my father probably knew he would never see her again. My daughter, who was just learning to wave, picked up her hand and very distinctly waved “goodbye” to my dad. I did my best to ignore the gravity of the situation through a screen of tears as my dad, who had quit moving for all intents and purposes, picked up an arm and waved a feeble farewell to my daughter, both frozen in time to each other at their respective bookends of life.
I walked out with my daughter, and brushed shoulders with Death on his way in.
I returned a day and a half later, once I’d gotten things squared away with my job, to sit with my dad and ride out however long it took for him to die. He was drifting in and out of consciousness by then, but mostly out. I considered it bonus time, being under the impression that we’d have maybe a day or two beyond when he should have been in for another dialysis treatment.
Even with my previous experiences of losing friends and other family, I didn’t really know Death.
I didn’t know Death until the clock that I’d grown up hearing chime as we sat in a cozy circle to open Christmas gifts, or as we played board games on New Year’s Day, or as we sat at the kitchen table getting help on our homework, began chiming to mark each last hour of my father’s life.
I didn’t know Death until I looked over at my father just in time to see him suddenly wake and make a concerted effort to look over at my mother, whom he’d been married to for 48 years. They’d shared what was practically an entire, different lifetime that included local adventures, travel, job evolutions, and miscarriages all before their life really began as I knew it, when I was born to my mother of 38 years, and my father of 45. They had wanted six children, as my mother would tell me; they got two.
Remnants of their previous lives were threaded throughout our small, bucolic existence–my parents would take out their recorders and play from the music they’d used as members of a touring recorder group. My mother taught me how to make the “hospital corners” from her days as a Registered Nurse when it came time for an otherwise average lesson in bed-making. They’d take us to the mountain cabin they’d purchased together with my dad’s sister and brother-in-law in the early 1970s, many memories having already been made there, as evidenced by old, black-and-white photos taken at the cabin of my non-smoker father reclining with a pipe.
My brother and I became the bulk of their lives once my mother began staying at home full-time when my older brother was two years old, and they threw themselves into being our parents and crafting our traditional, if bordering-on-escapist, nest from which many of our dreams had already come true. Now, I was witnessing what I know was my dad’s recognition of the last time he’d ever see my mom on this Earth. She was the one he’d chosen to spend his life with; and Death was there, showing me what that means.
I didn’t know Death until he sat with the four of us in our tiny living room where my dad now lay dying in a rented hospital-grade bed, while we ate take-out fast food while we waited. Once a homemaker whose talents would have rivaled Martha Stewart’s and Julia Child’s combined, my mother no longer cooked, or knit, or crocheted, or sewed her exquisitely-executed home décor and custom-tailored clothing; her mind largely overtaken by dementia.
Once upon a time, and for years throughout the course of my childhood, bringing home fast food was a relaxed, Sunday lunch treat. We’d rotate whose turn it was to choose the restaurant every Sunday after church. My mother would set out the TV trays while my dad went to go pick up the food. Now, the three of us ate silently in the same living room where my brother and I used to compare which toy we’d gotten in our kid’s meal, though we were still four. Death sat in the corner, making a mockery of our Sunday afternoon tradition.
I didn’t know Death, until I took my mother to sit on the porch for air and for a break from the helpless watch. Death was there, too, enclosing us in a blanket of our individual and differing grief as we gently rocked back and forth on the glider where I’d spent many moonlit summer evenings as a teenager, reading by porch light to the sounds of suburban crickets with a cup of hot tea. This day in May, we both sat. We glided. We waited, again in silence, while my father laid dying inside, the fresh air thick with heartbreak.
I didn’t know Death until when, four days into the experience of waiting for someone to die, I knew that I could totally disregard my dad’s medically-induced regimen of trying to spoon-feed thickened adult nutritional shake and I opted for spoon-feeding him a few teaspoons of strong, black, Starbucks drip-brewed coffee exactly how I know he’d order it. Scandinavian to the core, “Having Coffee” was a “thing” for us. It was a ritual, a consecration. After a lifetime of coffee after holiday desserts, afternoon coffee and morning coffee he’d take with him into his wood shop, it was my dad’s and my last cup of coffee together. It was our final communion.
Death became louder with my parents’ pastor’s recitation of the Lutheran last rites as my mother and I huddled together. It had been a long time since my mother had let go of my hand as her little girl so I could grow into the woman I’ve become, and now we sat with our hands clenched together in fear and grief over our invited, though unwelcome, house guest.
I came to know Death when my dad’s attending nurse asked me to fetch a change of clothes for him, and I knew I’d chosen the last clothes he’d ever wear. My children being so young, I was coming fresh from having chosen the first clothes they ever wore to begin their lives.
For my dad, I chose a shirt emblazoned with fishing scene and “Dad” scrawled across in loopy, greeting card-style font. It had been a Father’s Day gift–a prepubescent and probably hastily chosen token gesture to express deeper feeling than my brother or I probably ever properly conveyed. It was now his uniform to display one lovingly cultivated part of his identity stamped onto him forever, as he journeyed onward.
Death and I grew closer as I sat and pondered the finality of my dad having eaten his last birthday pork ribs, and as I thought about how he’d taken his last look at our family garden, and about how the last time he’d dug his fingers into the Earth’s soil was actually his last time and about whether he could have known, and about how he probably didn’t.
I sat, as I “adult colored” to have something else to focus on besides the fact that I was sitting in the living room letting my dad die, and I focused instead (as I colored away) on a running list of all of my dad’s Lasts, as though I was going to put them in a book–a book like the one in which I’d just begun recording all of my babies’ Firsts.
I knew Death once my father had died, and I looked into the bathroom mirror. I’d only been able to really look into, and ponder my dad’s eyes once I was sitting next to his body in which his eyes remained open, as we waited for the coroner. I thought of what he must be seeing in what I believe is the next realm. When I looked into the mirror afterwards, my eyes reflected back to me the very hue and shape of my father’s eyes and there, suddenly and unexpectedly, and for the first time, I recognized my dad in me.
Death departed alongside the hearse as we sat outside and watched it carry my father away from the house I’d been brought home to from the hospital as a newborn, just as surely as I’d watch him drive down our winding driveway in his Volkswagon Beetle to go to work every morning when I was a little girl. He wasn’t coming back this time.
Walking back into the sudden coolness of our small brick home, the fever of dying had broken. I had literally never known 36 years’-worth of life without my dad being a part of it. I’d never had a day that I wasn’t looking through the lens, and walking with the privilege, of someone with a father, whom I could ring up and talk to at any time, in any circumstance. The core of his Being seemed to have vaporized before our very eyes. What remained after Death had come, stayed, and finally left was, simply, the dregs of faith.
I’m more confused now, than I have ever been about human existence and about Death’s ever-changing countenance. But I do know that a man or a woman that dies without faith in something greater than our Earthly vitality when they’ve reached the end of it, dies with nothing. Maybe this common filament of faith, which is woven throughout the fabric of our common consciousness, and appears blatantly amidst the teachings of every religious practice world-wide, can be a beginning to class, race, familial and global accord and stasis; rather than being relegated so obviously, and noticed too late, at the end, left in the dregs of faith as revealed by Death.
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