When the phone rang at 1035pm, the caller ID read FAIRVIEW SOUTHDALE HOSPITAL. I listened as the caller spoke to my mom, who was awakened out of a deep sleep and a bit out of it. The nurse was trying to tell mom that Dad wasn’t doing well and did she want to come to the hospital? When I spoke up from the other line, the nurse said what I thought was the reality. My dad has passed away 10 minutes earlier.
From that point on, life took on a certain level of surreal.
He’d been in a rehab facility for awhile, following a partial hip replacement. So, for tracking purposes, my dad had: 1 and 1/3 lungs, 1/3 of his stomach, congestive heart failure and very poor heart function (maybe 25% of normal), a pacemaker, and a foot of intestine removed. So when I say that we were lucky to have him the last 12 years or so, you see why.
At this stage, rehab wasn’t going to bring him any increased quality of life. As he got older, and had more setbacks, his quality of life ceiling lowered. Meaning that he was never going to get the level of healthy back what he had before.
The rehab place wasn’t doing him any good. It was on the degrading side, which is the side where most health-related issues reside when you’re in that condition. I just tried to look past it all and see the man laying there. Just connect with him and bring any amount of comfort possible. I’d have gladly given him part of my lung at that point, because that’s what his world revolved around, trying to catch his breath. The slightest effort created gasping like he’d just finished sprinting. I wasn’t expecting conversation about how things were at work.
I was a bit relieved one day when Mom told me they’d taken him to the ER because his breathing was bad. No one really expected him to come home. We figured he‘d be in some sort of nursing home, so until then, at least he was comfortable at a place that treated him with more respect. Rehab places aren’t in the business of nursing ailments other than what causes you to be there. They get you back on your feet and functioning. Hospitals are for whatever ails you.
There’s no need for play-by-play. As much as the body that held our dad in place was crumbling, the tenant in that structure was same gregarious Irishman we all adored.
He got better in a day or so. He flirted with nurses, winked at grandkids, held hands with whomever was closest, and made a bit of conversation. He wasn’t ‘out of it’, but was still 84, a bit disoriented from being bounced from facility to facility, and certainly not as mentally sharp as his heyday. However, he knew who were and what our stories were. So when he stared straight ahead at the person not there and asked us, “Who’s limping?“, it registered.
Having a couple of siblings in the medical profession helped when, the next day, he was having an issue for which the doctor recommended a test. We were all in agreement, mom included. No more tests. No more procedures. His systems where what they were and no test would change that. We weren’t given up on him, but we weren’t going to put him through any more discomfort. If your car has a bad engine, mentions of a new muffler fall on deaf ears. Dad’s engine couldn’t be fixed. Once that message was relayed to the doctor, she advised me that they’d be moving him out of intensive care to another room.
He went from a room with lots of machines to one with hardly more than a TV. He was comfortable, quiet, and wasn’t speaking much because of a dry throat from lack of fluids. We went to our respective homes, and mom asked if I wanted to go back later. I said yes, since we were so close by. We’d stop by to tuck him in for the night, then go to dinner.
I talked to my sister a little while later and she asked that I call her oldest son in a few days. He’d just gotten back from his honeymoon to South Africa, and whether he’d be lucid enough to understand, he wanted to tell Grandpa all about it. When a 34 year old man still thinks of his grandpa as his go-to guy to tell a cool story to, like he did when he was six, you make sure it happens.
So when we got back to his floor a few hours later, there was more activity. Groups of people hanging out in visitor areas, and I’m pretty sure I smelled pizza.
Dad was sitting more elevated, at least a 45 degree angle. His condition changed. His breath rattled like a fan touching metal. His eyes were focusing, just not on us. He was looking at something I didn’t see. Like he was watching an action movie on a big screen. Normally, he’d hold someone’s hand, now he was busy, like he was moving things out of the way, brushing things aside and picking things up. He heard us and responded though. This is when that little voice kicked in.
We all hear it. The one whispers for you to do something. “Call Pat now because there might not be a tomorrow.” So I called that first grandson, told him what was going on…that grandpa isn’t going to sound too good, but he can definitely hear you. Holding the phone to my dad’s ear. Tough stuff. Whatever he was telling my dad, the oldest grandchild was saying goodbye. Grandpa absolutely knew who was talking, I could tell the voice in his ear got his attention.
Before we left we chatted with his nurse a bit, mom gave Dad a kiss and made her way to the door. I leaned in, kissed his cheek and whispered something in his ear. His body sighed.
So they called at 1030p to tell us he'd passed. Mom and I went to the hospital and Mom asked how he passed. The nurse looked at me and said, "I don't know what you said to him, but I’ve never quite seen anything like it...you whispered something in his ear and I saw his whole body calming. He just relaxed and I had a feeling it might not be long.”
He was still in his room, so we went to see him. I was honored to be there with my mom as she comforted her husband of 60 years. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but to some degree it’ll always haunt me. No one wants to see a loved one deceased in a hospital bed. It’s not a funeral home open casket. Honor, sadness, pride, pity, love.
Heading towards the elevator, looking around, I saw where we were. This wing was for terminal patients. Rules were broken here. Visiting hours were whatever you wanted them to be. Families shared pizza in a room with a cancer patient. People congregated anywhere they could, perhaps rotating visits in and out of their person’s room.
I always wondered how I’d find out. Living out of state, someone would call me. I guessed my brother-in-law. My sister would get the call first and she’d be too out of sorts to make the actual call. It made sense. It could happen other ways too, but not 1% of me thought I’d make the call telling my siblings that our father died.
I never imagined I’d be the last family member to speak to our dad either. We knew his time was short, but we didn’t think it was just hours. We’d have had that pizza party. Instead, that voice whispered something in me that night, so I whispered in his ear for the entire family.
“You’re a great dad.”