Three Simple Wishes
My younger sister, Joyce, had frantically called me and left a voice message on my cell phone; listening to the message shortly thereafter, I heard the panic in her voice during her attempt to describe what had just happened to our father, coupled with the frustration that she couldn’t find his DNR paperwork. I knew this was not good. My sister was in Florida and I was in Hawaii. I called her back and told her to just go to the hospital, where the ambulance had already taken our dad, and deal with his written wishes later. If he was hooked up to life support when she got there, he clearly expressed that he would expect his family to take him off; the paperwork was somewhere in our father’s house.
I knew what my dad wanted for himself when his time came. We spoke almost every day for the four year period after he found himself alone when my mother, his wife of fifty-eight years, had died. My youngest daughter had committed suicide on my deceased mother’s birthday ten months after my mother’s death, and my father’s own mother, in her nineties, had just recently died at my sister Jean’s house, in Pennsylvania, the home state of both my father and mother.
The family went through its share of hard times. My father had even outlived his own identical twin brother, by eleven years, both having survived triple bypass surgery, which lengthened both their lives. Our family had a death every year for four straight years. I started to feel like one of the Kennedys. I wondered how anyone could take that kind of relentless grief, death after death after death, no matter what your last name was.
My father began to have great difficulty with life’s otherwise simple things, which increased his agitation, which caused him to shake more. He was showing very aggressive signs of end-stage Parkinson’s, a diagnosis which my dad hadn’t shared with anyone and was falling after having episodes of irregular heart beats and roller coaster blood pressure and blood glucose readings. My sister, who was not medically trained, had her hands full but had been doing a fine job in managing his health and finances. Florida is a State known for scamming the elderly and my father fell victim countless times, which seems to be what the baby boomers are now facing, parenting their parents while working and still raising their own children, or in some cases, even raising grandchildren.
From the moment my sister’s moving truck pulled into my dad’s driveway, she was reporting significant health episodes involving our father, who never complained, held tight to his independence, and never wanted to be a burden. It became a question as to how in the heck my father ran a household, complete with chores, shopping, cooking, ironing, bill paying, and even driving (scary). There were warning signs, like when I could hear the fire trucks and then the knock on my dad’s door while talking with him by phone. He had a habit of forgetting things on the stove and his alarm system promptly notified the fire station. My dad had that portion of the security system removed after the fireman had begun addressing him by name, which had me extremely worried, hence the urgency for my sister to relocate.
Another frantic call my sister made to me was to report that our father had fallen in his shoe closet while she was out running errands and that he laid there for over an hour, unable to get up, even calling out for help, and it was at that point I became saddened and concerned. I wanted to cry each time I thought of him so rigid with Parkinson’s that the once buff and strong father I knew lie helpless and unable to get up on his own now. I took a month off from my job as a drug addiction and recovery nurse with The Salvation Army (not an easy task to do, but they are all about family, which was lucky for me as I didn’t know how much time I would need for mine), for a man who was the most important one in my life. He needed me and I needed to be there for him.
I had originally put my condo in Hawaii up for sale in a bucket full of holes market, and a year later pulled the plug on my own attempt to return to Florida to care for my father. It became apparent that it was not my journey to take, but rather my sister’s, and she became quickly skilled in what signs to look for and what to do when things went wrong; and they did. My dad would have episodes where his eyes would get glassy, then roll backwards into his head just prior to him losing balance and the ability to remain upright. My sister was literally catching him to keep him from hurting himself, and he was no small man. Joyce knew that the situation was critical and had called me to let me know the crazy stuff that was happening. I phoned our dad to tell him that I knew he had stopped taking his medication and vitamins, but would he at least take the one for his blood pressure, as the family had four funerals in four years and he didn’t need to join that club just yet; besides, financially, it would set me back. I told my dad that I needed to build up my bank account again before making another journey through the death and dying tunnel that seemed endless for my family. My father and I joked around a lot and spoke candidly about everything, something I will forever love about that guy.
Fearful that my father would not head my warning, I told him of something that I had kept to myself for two years, but could no longer do. I told him I knew how sick he was and that if he didn’t take his medication, he could have a stroke. It had been predicted by a well known island (Oahu) psychic that he’d have two strokes, the first leaving left-sided weakness. The first stroke wouldn’t kill him, but a second one would disable him long enough to watch himself die.
My father, who believed in UFO’s but not necessarily psychics, replied, “I don’t care, I’m not afraid of dying,” and that is when I told him I wasn’t ready for another funeral, that he’d have to wait until next year, I joked. Two days later, my father had the first stroke and I bought a one way airline ticket to fly six thousand miles to be with him. After the 911 call, and ambulance transport to the hospital, I was sure this was it, as the two years were up and I was running on my own clairvoyance; the famous psychic simply validated my own premonitions.
When I got to the hospice room, meant to be a half-way point so my sister could be trained to care for him in his home, there he was, sitting up in bed like nothing was wrong. I was confused. How could I have been that far off target? “Janet, you made it!” he said. “Of course I made it, dad, why wouldn’t I?” I replied. Then I helped him take a sip of his bedside water and he choked. My stomach sank and I was overcome by the feeling of dread. A Registered Nurse myself, and having had a year of Florida Hospice training, I said, “Get the doctor in here to check dad’s lungs.” “Dad has aspirated and ¾ of his lungs are full.” When asked how long he had been doing that, both my sisters replied “all week in the hospital while we were trying to feed him.” My father was losing the ability to swallow and things suddenly got serious for me and it looked as if he was indeed on that journey we both spoke about earlier in the week. The hospice doctor, Dr. John, verified that my father had about ¼ of his lung function. I asked that he speak with my father about pain management as I was afraid he’d have the second stroke before making his wishes clear about the pain associated with death and dying.
My father had a full life and was ready to go at the age of eighty-one. Born an identical twin to a single mother during the depression couldn’t have been an easy start, and the rest of his life he spent working just as hard. Not even hanging around for his High School Graduation, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy (his twin enlisted in the U. S. Army) and worked as an electronics technician on the aircraft carriers that went out to sea. My father was separated from his new bride and first born son by two years while stationed in Japan; he made a lot of personal sacrifices for his Country and his family. I saw a man who had dignity, respect, and honor, a genuinely nice guy who deserved to be taken care of now as he approached the gates of another journey, and within twenty-four hours, he had the second and final stroke. My heart broke to watch four staff members transfer him (for the last time) from a recliner to a hospital bed. His knees were bent at a ninety degree angle and the tops of his feet were dragging along the carpet. It reminded me of something out of biblical times. I cried.
I was always in the wings for my father, but needed him to acknowledge and accept that things got too difficult for him to handle, that he needed help, out of respect and dignity. Alone in his eighties, he was in a three bedroom home with a pool, a front and back yard, and an association, so things had to be done by a certain time, whether he could do them or not. He hired a landscaper, who replaced the love he used to have in caring for that which he so proudly worked for in much younger days. My dad hunted, planted gardens, kept everything up with his home in Pennsylvania as well, except for the roof, a time when his family had to step in after he failed his treadmill stress test and was told that he would need triple bypass surgery. He was told had he been up on the roof, he’d surely have died. My father outlived his twin brother, who also required a triple bypass. We either had early death in our family or relatives lived to be in their nineties.
My dad never complained nor asked anyone for help and there were a lot of companies that took advantage of him in his more fragile years, with both short term memory loss, and an open checkbook. I tried talking him into calling the “Do Not Call Registry” just so he’d stop buying everything the person on the other end was selling (or stealing). A local car dealer had charged my father ten thousand dollars over the blue book value on an SUV he bought saying “We had to make a profit!”
My family flew, or drove to Florida to see this great man for the last time. It was a sad and heart wrenching eight day journey for me watching my father die a little at a time, unable to speak or move, but able to hear each of our voices. He received the last rites six times. He was such a strong and faithful Catholic who attended mass everyday up until the final weeks when he’d begun to lose the ability to control his bladder or his bowels. He couldn’t move fast enough, and at one point, he fell off the curb in front of his beloved church. This was the man I flew to hold watch with until he was safely on the other side; he was my buddy and I loved him very much. He was a kind and loving man. He truly was a devout, honest, and real man. It was time to take care of his needs now, even if that meant stroking his hair or telling him how much he was loved, and that we’d all be okay, that it was okay to take the great journey to a place where he had no pain and his body wasn’t rigid.
What I will forever remember is that upon my entrance into his hospice room, he asked to speak with me. I needed to pee. I used the bathroom in his hospice room and in that little time, he’d forgotten what he had wanted to tell me, which made me giggle. I said, “That’s okay, pop, it’ll come to you.” And it did; he asked three simple wishes of me. 1) Let him “go” when his time came, 2) Don’t leave him alone, and 3) “Don’t shut off all the lights at night.” “Done,” I said.
I kept all three promises. I not only granted his wishes, but I remained at his side until his difficult and labored breathing turned into the death rattle which has an unmistakable sound and ending. It became difficult to see him try to cough up what must have been secretions in a throat which no longer responded to neurological and automatic commands from the brain. My father was dying before my very eyes and it was painful for him and those in the room with him to watch. I didn’t shower, eat, or leave the room much, if at all, as I wanted to keep my promise to him of not leaving him alone. For as big and strong as my father was during my life, his wishes were those of a person venturing into the unknown; it was scary and he didn’t care who knew it. We were all scared. Death was near.
My dad had the love of his family, his brother’s (hence his own) family, his neighbors, his friends, and his church with him as he struggled with the final days of life. The night he passed, I had both felt and seen a willowy, floating presence pacing outside his door, and I believe it was a loved one awaiting his death so that his next journey could begin. My father struggled and appeared to fight death off; I whispered in his ear that it was okay for him to leave us and go collect all the seeds he had sown in life. His time had come to reap the benefits of being a wonderful father, an honorable man, a good son and great brother, a fun loving grandfather, a loving uncle to his brother’s children, and a great friend and neighbor. The world lost something valuable on September 21, 2009, but the heavens gained one heck of a new guy. My father’s last breath that evening was taken in the midst of a family talking story about the good old days, and he left with more love than his arms could carry; thank you, dad.