So That I Not Forget

A dear friend of mine who holds down a spot for me in Jerusalem gave me this advice today: write down your memories of your last years, months, days and hours with your dad, because these memories fade quickly, and you don’t want to lose them.

I moved from Jerusalem to my parents’ property in 2011, in order to ride herd on the situation with my dad.  He had had several bad falls already by then, and flying back and forth from Israel every time he got a concussion was eating up my savings and causing me way too much stress.  So I packed up and moved here.

Dad was still pretty lucid then, but showing signs of dementia, and his physical body was falling apart piece by piece because of the same degenerative joint disease and degenerative disc disease that he passed on to me (thanks, Dad).  It was getting so that he couldn’t do much for himself anymore, between the cognitive decline and the physical disability.

We have always had what I can only call a platonic love relationship; certainly a father-and-daughter love relationship, but something more–a collegiality, a mutual admiration, and a non-sexual transcendent enduring love free of any vestige of pettiness or jealousy.

In the years since I have been here, our relationship was forged even stronger thanks to my mother’s need to have time on her own, a healthy thing that provided my dad and I with ten or so uninterrupted hours every week to review the events of our lives and our life together, to share our meaningful and downright fun times, and our regrets at not having spent more time together.

We also had the blessed chance to talk about how we felt about each other, the feelings and the hurts and the wishes.

As he moved toward his death, we moved deeper into the dark side of his relationship with my mother, who has always had a short temper, no patience, and no particular respect for much of anything.  He had always kept her under control by means of fear–whenever she (or, rarely, I) got out of control he would seem to triple in size, and bear-like, roar his displeasure.  My mother was terrified of these “Hulk” episodes, and the fear of provoking one kept her screaming fits in check, most of the time.

But as he became incapable of terrorizing her, she pulled out all the stops and reveled in her newfound power over him.  I won’t go into detail, since this is an essay about him and not her, but I mention it only to say that he often poured out his anger and feelings of helplessness during our ten hours a week.

During his various stints in the nursing home in his last months, I sat with him many hours a day.  Often, we just held hands, since his brain was further damaged by head injuries sustained in various falls.  And until he lost the faculty of speech, in the last weeks, we processed things that we cherished, things we wished we had done while we had the chance, and things we had done or experienced that we wished hadn’t happened.

We held hands and kissed our dry pecks said “I love you” a million times.  I am so glad we did that.  It’s bitter-sweet now, and perhaps will always be, but at least I have the comfort of knowing that we did not hold back out of artificial formality.

Two nights before he died I was restless, could not sleep until four in the morning, when I fell into a dark slumber from which I awoke with a feeling of urgency.  I dressed quickly and drove to the nursing home.  He was lying in the “quiet room” where they put people who are about to die.

The previous day, he hadn’t known me.  Even though I knew this would likely happen at some point, it hit me like a cannon ball in the gut.  I lost it.  Hot tears choked me, I fell off my feet into a wardrobe which came close to falling on me, and I didn’t care.  I slid to the floor sobbing.  My mother wanted me to get control of myself.  I ignored her.  After some time I sobbed myself out, and asked her to go get me a latte, which gave me some time to just look at my father, who was now asleep, and remind myself that it wouldn’t be long.

It wasn’t.

The following evening I packed up my “24 hour kit” with my jammies, toothbrush, meds, and what-all, drove to the nursing home, and took over the other bed in his room.  He had his eyes open, and they seemed to be clear and not hazed over like they had been the last few days.

“Hi Dad,” I said tenuously.  I didn’t know what I would do if he didn’t recognize me this time.

“Hi Laur,” he said weakly.  I breathed out.

“I love you, Dad,” I wept.

“I love you, too, Laur.  I really, really, really love you.”  He had hold of both my hands, and I stood there, physically hurting from the odd position but with heart full of love.  I stood there till his hands relaxed and his eyelids drooped, exhausted.  I extricated my hands and, taking only minimal meds so that I could wake at any sound, lay down on the spare hospital bed to rest.

His breathing became more difficult, and he began to cough.  The coughing was followed by the gurgle of fluid.  I called the hospice nurse, and she ordered a cocktail of morphine, atropine (to dry up secretions), and Ativan.  This helped a lot.  It was ordered for every two hours as needed, and we needed it.

I must have fallen asleep, because at 4 am I was awakened by a high-pitched, primal, animal scream.  I rushed to his bed and found him unconscious, breathing deeply for four or five breaths, followed by 25 seconds of no breathing at all.  Cheyne-Stokes respiration: the breathing pattern that precedes death.  I called the hospice nurse again.

She arrived fifteen minutes later.  Yes, she said: death was imminent.  It could be minutes, hours, even days–but it would be here soon.  I cried, but she did not offer a hug.

Half an hour later, his breathing pattern changed to a regular rhythm, but very rapid.  The nurse took his pulse oximetry: 78.  Normal is in the high 90’s.  We knew it wouldn’t be long.  I called my mother, and she appeared in record time.  She must have flown over the mountain roads.

The moment before he left, his face contorted as if making a huge effort.  It seemed to me as if he had to consciously make that leap into the unknown.  And two shuddering breaths later, he breathed his last.

“His spirit is already gone,” mused my mother, doubtless trying to placate me–knowing how strongly I feel about keeping the Jewish burial practices, and not desecrating the body by burning it–“no more suffering, my love, no more suffering,” addressed to the lifeless shell on the nursing home bed.

Yes, he did suffer, mightily.  And as always, he was my teacher, my guru, in teaching me how to suffer.  He taught me how to live, how to suffer, how to die.

Tzeitcha be’shalom, Dad.  Have a safe journey.

Leave a comment

12 Comments

  1. i think it was good advice your friend gave you. i think this essay is a good start. i think it will help you mourn him, and your loss, and your love, to write a journal with everything you did with him, everything you remember, everything you said. not just from now, but from the start. and i think it will be a beautiful memory journal for those times later on when you find yourself still missing him or missing him again.

    take care, you are loved.

    Reply
  2. John Beckerman

     /  October 7, 2014

    I’m glad you and your father were able to tell each other how you felt. Truth is, there’s no good death and no good way to lose a parent. It’s no consolation, but it could have been much much worse. My mother, who is 95 1/2, has been dying by millimeters for three years. She had dementia but her mentation fell off a cliff after general anesthesia from which she never recovered for a partial hip transplant when she fell and broke the ball off the top of her femur. She is stone deaf, vision impaired, has lost almost all language, hasn’t known us for two years, and no longer knows the difference between kissing my hand and trying to bite me. I still visit her once or twice a week, as does my wife, but usually she doesn’t know anyone is there, much less us, even if we hold her hand or massage her neck. She sleeps most of the time and never would have wanted to live this way. There was no information from the anesthesiologist when I consented to the operation to fix her hip that loss of mentation was even a remote possibility. At least we have her in a facility that treats her with kindness and respect. But the condition in which she is trapped is almost exquisitely horrible. I wouldn’t wish her gradual death on anyone, and at the risk of sounding self indulgent, wouldn’t wish on anyone having to be responsible or a caregiver for a parent in my mother’s situation.

    Reply
  3. The Grundlands

     /  October 7, 2014

    Oh Liebe, the tears streaming down my face are a testament to your holy dad and you his most precious daughter. You’re a magnificent writer and a loyal, steadfast, sturdy support to so many…how lucky your dad is having you by his side. I love you sweet friend. Take care of you now…

    Reply
  4. savemefrombpd

     /  October 8, 2014

    Tears fill my eyes,
    of the feelings that rise.

    May your father rest in piece,
    And that will never cease.

    Reply
  5. Somehow, in some ways, it is as if time stops, and we are left feeling relieved, empty, exhausted, and sorrowful, all at once. I was with my mother when she passed, and I experienced some very similar stages of her passing. I wrote it about it right after, but in a very vague and cryptic way. I think your friend gave you very good advice, and I believe you will be grateful that you can return to this after some time has passed. Remembering is good. I hope your memories stay with you for a very long time.

    Reply
  6. Thank you Laura. I have just experienced the same feelings, but with my own daughter, not my Dad. Peace be with us all.

    Reply
    • Oh my, I am so sorry! Even though I mourn the loss of my father, it was according to the natural succession of things that he got old, had many good years, and then died. But to have to mourn a child is not in the natural order! Please accept my deepest condolences. I am crying as I write this, because I have a son and I know that if I lost him I would never get over it. Peace to you, and I hope that Time will help to dull the pain.

      Reply
  7. This is just so right, and ensures that his memory will be a blessing.
    I love you, Dear.

    Reply
  8. That is great advice from your friend.
    Hugs to you.

    Reply
  9. I just came to know that he passed away. God rest his soul in peace and I am sure he will now be in a better place. My heart felt condolence to you and do have this faith that wherever he is, you will continue to receive his love and blessings and so shall he.

    Love and Hugzz
    Ashu

    Reply
    • Thank you, dear Ashu. Interestingly, for the three days following his departure I no longer felt spiritual connection that we have always had together, and I felt shocked and lost. Now, I feel him clearly, and I feel wrapped once again in his love, and I am much comforted.

      Reply
  10. :-)) :-))

    Reply

What's your take?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: