First day of school today. For me, this day will be forever linked with my Dad.
The call came at the office. This was strange for two reasons: one, I didn’t know my Dad even knew my office number, and two, my Dad never called me. Ever. I was the one who made the calls.
My adrenaline surged as I took the call.
“Hi, Dad. Is everything alright?”
“Well, your mother’s a little off her feed.” My mother had been suffering with early-onset dementia for the last several years and my father was her sole caretaker.
“Dad, what do you mean? Is everything alright? Do you need me to come over?”
“Yeah, that might be good.”
Alarms flash. Never in all of my 35 years had my Dad ever asked me to come visit him. And never, ever, had he asked me for help. I stopped what I was doing, made arrangements for my kids and was on the road within the hour. I spent the two and a half hour drive worrying about what I would walk into at my childhood home.
When I arrived, things didn’t seem that out of the ordinary. My dad was sitting in his usual spot in the den, legs crossed, tv going. My mom was excited to see me, but soon fell into her pattern of nervously moving about the house with no obvious goal.
“Oh, honey! It’s so good to see you.” I bent to kiss my dad’s cheek and his next words were: “I think I’d better go.”
Before I could answer “to where?”, he struggled to get to his feet. He made his way to the old phone hanging on the kitchen wall and called the ambulance. He told them he “needed to go”, but he didn’t want any lights or sirens. “Just pull up out front”.
I was stunned. I didn’t even know my dad was ill and now he was marching out the front door waiting for his ride. I told him to give me a minute, of course I would take him! But he shooed me away and told me to take care of Mom. I then realized the truth: he didn’t ask me to come to help him. He wanted someone to come take care of my mother. He knew what he had to do and he could not wait any longer.
As the ambulance drove away, I wondered if my dad would ever return. Caring for and watching the woman he loved for over 40 years deteriorate before his eyes had taken its toll. And if I was going to be totally honest, I would admit that my dad was a functional alcoholic. Add these facts together and the shock of his downfall was not really so shocking.
I alerted my sister and three brothers of the situation and they all made plans to get the hospital. My father was examined and admitted. He was given something for his pain and he rested. The doctor told me he was coughing blood and was severely dehydrated. They would run some tests. I listened, but I knew what was really happening; my father had hung in there for as long as he could. He would never have voluntarily gone to the hospital unless he was sure. My father was done. He was finished with this life.
The hours passed and the next day came. My father started to physically react to the fact that there was no longer alcohol flowing through his system. His body started to shut down and he fell into a coma. The medical staff still held out some hope, but I understood what was happening.
My siblings all seemed to have the same sense. We gathered around my father’s bed and the hope we held was that my brother, who lived thousands of miles away, would make it in time to say goodbye. Another night passed and my father’s condition stayed the same: totally unresponsive. My brother finally arrived and we were all relieved. He was able to touch his dad and say goodbye.
And then we all waited.
We soon found out that in the absence of serious trauma, the body will take its time to die. It is a machine systematically shutting down all the gears. The five of us were all used to watching the dramatic deaths of afternoon soap operas or reruns of M*A*S*H. The reality was that this was kinda taking a tad longer than any of us thought it would.
After several days of the hospital bedside vigil, we discussed the possibility of hospice care.
The next day we moved my father to his own bed at home. It was such a relief to be comfortably in the house where we all grew up and have our father resting peacefully in his room. In the last several years, my father seemed to be preparing for just this moment. He had collected photographs from all stages of his life and had them elaborately framed and put on the walls. He even had a photo taken of himself leaning on his waiting gravestone, dark clouds threatening in the background. This masterpiece he had blown up to a ridiculous size and was hanging over his head in bed. He called his room “The Shrine” and he had appropriately returned to spend his final hours here.
My brothers took turns sleeping on the floor beside my father. The hours ticked by. Another morning came and my father continued to breathe his slow, shallow breaths. I had been away from my husband and three small boys for almost a week and it was feeling like too long. My life was moving along back home and the captain of the ship was needed. I could hear the strain in my husband’s voice when I called. He was doing his best to hold things together while running his busy practice, but my boys wanted Mommy. This was the very end of the summer and my oldest son would be starting first grade in a few days. He was excited and was anxious for me to be home.
Any parent will tell you, in the small world of a 6-year-old, starting school is a very big deal. And to be truthful, even with a beloved parent on his deathbed, it is a big deal for Mommy as well. My baby was growing up and this was an important milestone for all of us. I had to be with my son for his first day.
I had to return to my life. I had to make a choice.
When it was my turn to sit with my Dad, I explained what was going on. I held his hand and kissed his face, feeling the familiar scratch of his beard for the last time. I knew that my Dad was tired and that he was ready to leave. He had worked hard all of his life and deserved to be at rest. I loved my father and would miss him terribly, but I knew in my heart that he wanted to go. It felt like his time, and if he was ready, I was ready.
I explained to him that Luke was going to the first grade and would be entering the “big school”. I told him about the lovely ceremony they have to welcome the first graders. The school houses grades one through eight in the same century-old brick building. The graduating eighth grade class presents each incoming first grader with a flower. At the end of the school year in another ceremony, each first grader will present the eighth graders with a parting rose. In our little corner of the world, these ceremonies hold significant importance. I knew in my heart that my father would understand. He had raised five beautiful children. He knew.
I was the fourth in line of those five children, yet I was the first to have children of my own. My siblings struggled with my decision to leave my fathers side. My sister stared at me incredulously. How could I possibly even consider leaving at a time like this? What kind of person was I?
I spent the ride home pondering that question, letting my grief and guilt wash through me. As I pulled into my driveway, my kids stormed the car, literally jumping with joy at my return. I knew at that moment that I had made the right decision. I was not a daughter any longer. I was a mother.
The next day at my childhood home, my siblings were growing weary. Someone had been at my father’s side every moment for over a week. Everyone needed a break. My younger brother asked his girlfriend to sit with my Dad for just a bit while everyone took some time to get some air. She agreed.
At the same time, my 6-year old was being handed a flower by a 14-year old who whispered “Welcome to our school” in his ear. Luke beamed with pride as he marched with his class out of the school auditorium, his kindergarten teachers standing with wooden-handled brass bells in their white-gloved hands.
As the children were leaving, the sound of those bells rang in unison to create an exquisite song, their rich tones touching the deepest part of me. At that moment, I knew my father was with me. I felt it. I cried openly then. I wept for the loss of my father and the loss of my daughterhood. I wept for the bittersweet joy of my son growing up, and in gratitude for the beautiful community that held my family and honored even this seemingly small transition in a child’s life.
Minutes after we walked into the house after the ceremony, my phone rang. It was my sister-in-law calling to tell me that my father had passed. When my father was finally left alone without family, he turned to my brother’s girlfriend and opened his eyes. She calmly said, “It’s okay, Tony, you can go.” He closed his eyes and took his last breath.
He heard those bells. I know he heard those bells.
“Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass,
of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”