Fifty-two days ago, my father was alive. When he got sick with pneumonia in March, we thought he would be okay even though the changes of the last years were evident.
At 92, his intellectual curiosity continued unabated. He actively monitored political events via the New York Times and MSNBC. In the final month of his life he railed against Dick Cheney, calling him “a son-of-a-bitch.” Playing bridge continued to be an integral part of his schedule, although he expressed concern about memory issues.
A hair-raising trip to the hospital, via ambulance, led to a week of intensive treatment with antibiotics. Our family was told that it would be best for him to follow up with several weeks in “rehabilitation,” where he would get therapy to restore the body strength he had lost while being sedentary. The facility had an excellent staff, but it felt too much like the model familiar to me from ten years of visiting my grandmother in a nursing home. The aides were attentive, but there was no way around the image of residents sitting in the hallway in a line to nowhere. Although my father was older than most of the people there, the staff immediately recognized that he was on the ball. During his stay he would see, if not acknowledge, the woman who was always parked by the nurse’s station with a large stuffed dog on her lap. From his room, it was impossible not to hear the screaming three doors down imploring, “Help me, help me!” One day as I passed by, I backed up and in response to her pleas inquired, “Can I help you?” She was totally befuddled. She slowly responded, “I forgot what I wanted.”
Along with my sister and brother, we set up a schedule to bring my father every evening meal so that he could eat it in the large, upstairs solarium. The dining room was small and depressing.
One night, after his dinner, we sat and talked about the day’s events. He got very quiet. As if saying “no” silently, he shook his head slowly from side to side. “What is it Dad?” I asked him. “Nothing,” he said. I pressed him. “Tell me Dad. What is it?” He looked at me and said evenly, “I want to go home and die in my chair.”
I swallowed hard. It wasn’t the first time he had spoken about having lived long enough. He had witnessed and been formed by major events of 20th Century American history – the Great Depression and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He served as a Major with the Flying Tigers during World War II. My father achieved substantial success in business, was involved in local politics, and participated in his religious community. He had despaired throughout George W. Bush’s administration, and rejoiced in the election of Barack Obama.
“Don’t you want to see Philip graduate from high school?” I asked him. Knowing of his devotion to my son, who would be turning 15 in August, I thought that would strike a chord. I had used a similar tactic when I challenged him to be around for the Bar Mitzvah. Now I was pulling the “grandson” card out of my hat again, the way a magician resorts to the proverbial white rabbit.
“Philip has his whole life ahead of him,” my father said. Then he added, “I’ve spent enough time with my family.” I wasn’t sure if I should take that personally.
After our conversation, I panicked that something might happen to him while he was “in there.”
It didn’t. He came home four days later, and being in his own environment made a tremendous difference. But it didn’t last long. In little over ninety-six hours, he was back in the emergency room.
As a result of the intensive doses of antibiotics that had been administered, he now had Clostridium difficile. I would read about it soon after in the Times Science section. My experience consisted of gloves and gowns, and an “isolation” room at the end of the floor. It was far more visceral than the stats in the article.
It was the beginning of the end. My gratitude that my father had been able to rally the first time we rushed him to New York Presbyterian, just blocks away, turned into horror at what the subsequent scenarios would bring. I rationalized that it was a chance for his children to give back to him, as he had always given to us. We were never going to be able to take care of him financially. He had the handle on that. But we were able to give to him in a way that he probably could not have accepted when he was well.
Returning home to his apartment for the second time, he was exhausted. We had no idea of what to expect. We gave a definitive “no” to going back to rehab. He needed 24/7 attention. We hired two shifts of wonderful caregivers, and did the rest ourselves. He made it through Passover and my Mother’s birthday. Then one Saturday night after eating, he decided he didn’t want to sit in the living room anymore. He retired to his bed, permanently.
The meds his physician had been prescribing were making him sick. On Monday, the doctor agreed that hospice would be the best solution – as my Father was “actively dying.” We all had a chance to have private time with him before he lost consciousness late Wednesday morning. He died the following day at 2:48 p.m.
The funeral and week of mourning gave way to a crazy month of packing and dismantling the home he had made for himself in the after my Mother died. Thirty days and 12 hours from the date of his death, his sole surviving sister died. In a “déjà vu all over again” flash, I went down to Maryland for her funeral.
Now it’s June, and the work of closing down his life is over. I have space to wonder why I feel so disoriented, evaluate my status as an orphan, and try to figure out the nuances of my relationship with my father.
This will be my first Father’s Day without my father. I’ll have plenty of time to think about it.