This is the second part in a short series on the end of my dad's life. For part one, click here.
Late January, 2004
My dad's room is dim. The light that diffuses in from the hallway mixes with the glow from the various machines that are connected to his emaciated body. One wall is complete glass. There is no privacy in the ICU. I'm wearing a crinkly paper gown and a mask that captures my humid breath. When I put it on I felt silly - in the 'is this really necessary' kind of way. Like when they ask you to shower before getting in a public pool.
My mom walks out of the room, for what would likely be just a few minutes, but I am nervous to see her go. I don't want to be left alone with my dad. I don't know how to assuage his pain; how to prevent his moans. I don't know which nurse to find if he needs something. I don't know what to say to him - should I be upbeat? Should I try humor? Should I tell him how important he is? Can I get away with a platitude? No - he's way too smart for bullshit.
My dad is melted into the mattress. I can't differentiate between his body and the bed, except for the mountainous bulge of his stomach and the little hills of his feet. His face is pale, thin and hopeless. He strains to get his body more comfortable, a Sisyphean task, and in doing so, his sheet slips and I see his balls. I think, "Oh, this should be embarrassing with a small dose of funny." Instead, it is just...nothing. I don't even blush. Before me is his dying body, and even the private body parts (that you would rather not see on your parents) are just dying body parts. I know in every part of my being that my dad is dying, but I never say it aloud. I don't even explicitly think it. When you grow up with a chronically ill family member, this fear of death is written into your bones. I am coded to expect the worst. But now that it is right in front of me, I am both dumbfounded that this is reality, and nodding along in agreement. Yes, of course, this wretched death is his destiny.
I don't bother hoping for my dad to get better. It just doesn't seem possible. I grew up in fear of the future. All of us who love people with life-threatening illnesses are scared of the future. I never imagined my wedding, I didn't picture my dad as a grandfather. I couldn't see my family crowding around me at my graduation. Whenever a 'cool' high school teacher asked us to write letters to our future selves, I'd get a pit in my stomach. "Will I be writing to a fatherless me?" I'd wonder. I didn't envision the future because I could never place my dad there. So while I absolutely did not want him to die, I was also hoping that the end would come, and quickly, because this was torture. That winter my family was impossibly stuck. We were dreading and hoping for the same conclusion.
My dad moans again, and either finds comfort or gives up trying, and rests. My mom comes back to get me. We are going home to eat and sleep. To reunite with my eleven-year-old brother who spends most of his time in the care of a babysitter. I am relieved. I feel so helpless and uncomfortable that I just want out. I want to rip the mask from my face and go back to school where I am sidetracked by never-ending dining hall desserts and a boy I have a crush on. I feel guilty. I feel lost. As I kiss my dad on his scruffy cheek he says, “goodbye, Love.” These are the last words I ever hear him say.
That winter I experimented a lot with the digital camera I was gifted for Christmas. At night, while my dad was moving closer towards death in the hospital, I was alone in the basement taking selfies with cats.
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