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.
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.