My heart is very heavy tonight. I am on the verge of tears and am very sad. I got news today that a college friend's dad passed away on Thanksgiving. Andy's dad had been fighting cancer for over 2 years and then in late March his father was told that there was nothing else that could be done for him. Comfort measures were taken and he was told to live his life. Andy was very diligent in trying to be there for his family. He visited his parents every weekend and watched the slow decline of his father. He shared some of the journey with me and I could tell that it was very difficult for him. He tried to be strong for his family, and I believe he succeeded. Now, eight months nearly to the day, his father is gone.
I understand that death is part of the life cycle, but it doesn't make it any easier. I had only met Andy's dad on one or two occasions back in the late 80s. There was no real relationship and I seriously doubt that he would have even remembered me. I don't think that my heavy heart and sadness is for him. I think it is for Andy.
Thinking about Andy's loss and the experience of losing a parent takes me back to the loss of my own father in 2007.
My dad and I had an on again / off again relationship over the years. My parents divorced when I was 12 years old and my dad was a parent of convenience for a lot of years. I was the only one that had any sort of relationship with him when I became an adult. Even that relationship was very sporadic and was always initiated by me. In 2000, one of his sisters brought him to our hometown for a cousins wedding. I didn't even know that my dad was going to be there. He was staying at a local hotel. I arranged for all of his grandchildren to go to the hotel to see him. This was the first time he had met some of the grandchildren. It was a nice time and we have some great pictures of the event. When I was in the hospital in 2001 in his current city, he came to visit me. I made sure that he carried my phone number in his wallet so that I could be contacted in an emergency. I did have to be called a time or two.
It was easier to stay away from dad than it was to be with him. Dad was a severe alcoholic and had lost two families, jobs, housing, and many relationships due to his drinking. When I would see him, it was always in the bar that he went to and I never know what kind of condition or mood I was going to find him in. Staying away just became easier. Once in a while I would receive a call from the agency that was in charge of his money, but other than that, there wasn't much contact for a lot of years.
In 2006, I received a call to ask if I would become my dad's medical power of attorney, along with his oldest sister. I agreed, signed all the papers, but never made contact with him. In early 2007, my aunt contacted me and said that we needed to talk about dad's condition and his housing. I made arrangements to go visit dad and talk to him about it.
On January 20, 2007, I went to visit my dad for the first time in a very long time. The visit was good. It was very obvious that his health was failing and that he needed some intervention. He lived in a room above the bar that he always frequented. There were many rooms rented and then everyone shared a living area and a bathroom. Dad was so weak, he could barely make it to the bathroom which was just across the hall from his room, and there was no way he could negotiate the stairs to get down to the bar. After lots of talking with Dad and the agency that took care of his money, Dad agreed to move into an assisted living home. We moved Dad into the home on February 1, 2007. Dad loved the place. He had a 1 bedroom apartment, not just a room. The assisted living place was brand new, so he was the first tenant. He called it his castle. Gary and I got him all moved in and settled in. We had planned to come down and visit him the following weekend. That visit did not take place as we had planned.
Less than one week after moving in, Dad fell in his kitchen area. He was taken to the hospital. Later we found out that he had broken his hip and needed surgery. My aunt and I met at the hospital to help make some decisions for dad. He was quite medicated and could not advocate for himself, so my aunt and I took over. We were concerned about the surgery because Dad's lungs were very weak and we did not think that he would be able to go under anesthesia very well. With an epidural and very little anesthesia, Dad was able to have his hip fixed.
I spent the next week driving back and forth between the hospital and home. My aunt stayed in a motel near the hospital. Dad was not coming around like he should have. He kept floating in and out of reality. Finally we were faced with the reality that dad was much worse off than we had first suspected and we knew that he was dying. Another reality was that he would not be able to return to his assisted living apartment. After lots of talking and trying to figure things out, we decided to move dad to a nursing home. On a Wednesday, I called the nursing home in the town that I live in. On Thursday they came to the hospital and assessed Dad and agreed to take him on Monday. My aunt had to get back to her home, so she left a soon as plans were made on that Thursday. The following day, another one of dad's sisters came to stay there with him until his move to the nursing home on Monday.
I was exhausted. I had been driving back and forth to the hospital every day (1 1/2 hours each way). I had decided that I was going to stay home for the weekend and then ride with the nursing home driver to pick my Dad up on Monday morning. I planned to keep phone contact with my aunt over the weekend. Dad did OK through the weekend. He still wasn't recovering like he should have and was still floating in and out of reality, but he seemed to be holding his own. I had made contact with my siblings over the weekend to let them know what was going on and they were making their own plans to come visit Dad once he got to the nursing home.
Monday morning arrived with an early morning phone call from my aunt. She told me that I needed to come quickly. I called the nursing home and put them on hold for picking up my dad. Then I took off for the hospital. When I got to the hospital, my aunt was hunched over my dad and was crying. I thought I had not made it on time and he had passed away. What was really happening was that Dad was having a moment of clarity and they were having a heart to heart conversation. My aunt later told me that she was sure that dad was going to die before I got there and she kept telling him to hang on. Once I got there and got to my Dad, he stayed pretty clear minded for a little bit. We were able to have some good conversations. Throughout the rest of the morning, he floated in and out of clarity. The moments that he was "with" us, he tried to talk about regrets. I wouldn't allow it. I told him the past was the past. We had some good conversations off and on that morning. I was just his daughter and he was just my dad - nothing else mattered.
At 1:20pm, as I held my dad on one side of his bed and my aunt on the other, we walked Dad right up to death's door and watched him cross the threshold.
At first I was angry. Why should anyone have to go through that? What a horrible thing to have to experience! Once the anger passed, I realized that I was given a gift. I was given the opportunity to spend the last month of my fathers life with him - - the chance to let bygones be bygones - - the opportunity to have my daddy again. I also realized that my father was given a gift too. Although his clarity was come and go, he knew I was there and that I would take care of him.
So, now, as I put into words my own experience of dealing with death and losing a parent, I feel better. I am still very sad for Andy, knowing and somewhat understanding some of the things he endured over the past eight months. I, like Andy, was the sibling chosen to be the one to be there through the whole process, the one who dealt with things, and the one who watched it happen. I know that death is not the end of the process. There is still so much to do and deal with. I know that time heals, but the memories don't fade. I recall my experience as if it just happened. I also know that each experience and healing process is different for each person. I hope that Andy finds peace in knowing that he helped his Dad and gave him a great gift by being there for him. RIP Dick Wichert and RIP Daddy.