The loss of a parent is something that is inevitable. Sooner or later most of us lose one or both to old age or illness. While we might have a bit of experience with death starting at an early age with a family pet or even perhaps a family member or friend, nothing prepared me for the loss of a parent. As my parents aged and developed specific medical conditions that required more care and frequent doctor and hospital visits, I realized that at some point they would eventually pass away. But that was far off. Or so I thought! Even though they were in their nineties, they were in amazing health overall. My dad's plans to reach 100 years old and my mom's plans to keep him company seemed attainable... until last summer!
My last year with dad started in July of 2017 when a trip to the store resulted in a fall backwards as the wheels on his walker caught on the ledge of the exit. Trying unsuccessfully to prevent the fall, the momentum won and we both fell causing him to fracture his back (not seriously) but enough to require a back brace and heavy pain meds. After six hospitalizations in a month, and huge issues with reactions to pain meds, I moved my dad into my den "temporarily." And so began my new norm.
For ten months, my dad lived in my den, where with the help of a team of dedicated medical professionals and several incredible caretakers, my dad recovered not only from his back injury but from a bout with pneumonia and several minor issues. For ten amazing months, this daddy's girl had the honor and privilege of caring for and developing unforgettable memories. Watching game shows during breakfast, celebrating his winning lottery tickets, trash talking the Los Angeles Dodgers and late night movie marathons over bowls of chocolate ice cream occurred daily. Caring for dad's needs at first was very hard for both of us as it required some very personal interactions. As time went by and we developed a system, our lives fell into a routine and all was good.
Until my dad "graduated from Hospice" about 6 weeks before his passing. For those of you who like me thought hospice is for people who were at the very end of their lives, there is also a hospice program that cares for elderly who need a bit of help but are not quite at the end. Some hospice patients can remain on the program for two or even three years. My dad's goal was five years until he reached 100 and then he would ask for an extension!
My dad, who did not have a major illness but required additional assistance from nurses and assorted medical staff and equipment had been on hospice for the previous 9 months. Since my dad was just "old" at almost 95 and in relative good health overall after his bout with and recovery from pneumonia, the Hospice program decided to graduated him. None of us felt this would cause any issues as he was healthy and in great shape (his vitals and blood tests were better than mine) and graduating from hospice was a huge accomplishment. His continued desire to make it to 100 years old seemed possible upon his graduation and celebrating his 100th birthday was the ongoing joke with his "girls".
However for dad, the news was like a bucket of cold water and he began a rapid downward spiral. He started questioning how long he was going to last without his "medical team." No amount of winning lottery tickets, visits from grand kids and great grandkids or favorite activities seems to cheer him up. His mood darkened, his appetite diminished and his overall state of mind was not positive.
Ten days before he passed my dad suffered a minor stroke and that was the beginning of the end. I knew it, my mom knew it and close family members knew it but none of us accepted it. We continued to pretend and hope he would recover from the stroke like he had time and again from the other medical issues. With my husband and one of his primary caretakers both out of town and the medical team no longer stopping by for daily visits, it was up to me to care for dad 24/7. To say it was hard is an understatement. Physically he was no longer cooperating in his care, mentally he was in and out, sometimes alert and clear and other times, not so much. Emotionally it was the most difficult thing I have ever done. Seeing my dad sleeping for hours on end and out of it was difficult but when the small stroke affected his speech and he became confused it was devastating. And the terror that gripped me when I dared to think he might die while I was alone with him kept me awake for 6 days straight.
For hours on end, I sat in the den lounger just watching dad sleep or keeping him company and making sure he was breathing and "comfortable." Trying to feed him unsuccessfully and watching him struggle caused a lot of guilt in that if I fed him he could choke and if I didn't he would die, and caused the hours and days to blur into a kind of nightmare. Knowing but refusing to fully accept dad nearing the end, I contacted the hospice team and reinstate him into the program.
24 hours before his final breath, I called his favorite lead nurse and asked her to stop by and evaluate dad as he was having breathing and swallowing issues. Upon her exam it was determined that dad was at the end of his life and measures to make him comfortable began. However she did not give me a specific time-frame and I again chose to block out the obvious and believe we still had time!
At this point even when I signed paperwork for 24 hour nursing care and administration of specific meds, I continued to fight the idea that my dad was dying!
I contacted my siblings, said and did all the right things to get ready, but inside my head I was making deals with God and waving that imaginary magic wand Dad said I had that allowed me to accomplish the impossible. I promised God any and everything I could think of if my daddy would just recover and wake up. Staying up most of that last night with the nurse, we cared for dad during a bout of fever which lasted most of the long night and when the morning light broke through, I spent an hour in the office dealing with paperwork and getting "ready" but I was still still fighting the inevitable.
At noon, I set up a chair by dad's bedside and spent the next few hours talking to him and letting him know I was there. His struggle to breath and his inability to see or hear me was causing my heart to continue breaking, but on the outside, I was strong and tough and in denial even with the arrival of my mom and older brother and sister in law. The look on their faces, the tears and the heartbreak I saw in their eyes finally broke through the fog and confirmed what I refused to accept. Dad was really dying. My brother asked the head nurse what I did not have the courage to...how long did he have. Her response was perhaps that night or the next day at the latest. Upon hearing her words I became very angry. His 95th birthday was 10 days away. I absolutely refused to accept the fact he would not make it to 95. He had to! It didn't matter that the stroke had affected his speech or that it had him semi conscious or that his body was tired or it was his time. None of that mattered, just the fact that he would not make it to his birthday. I realize now that my anger was misdirected so as not to focus on the obvious as I sat there holding his hand.
Fifteen minutes after the nurse shared her projected time frame, my mom came over and whispered into dad's ear and went outside. The second the door closed, dad's breathing became worse and after taking 3 ragged breaths each one with a longer pause, my dad passed away at 3:26 pm on that warm summer day of July 21st.
At that moment my world exploded along with my heart. I was frozen and in shock. This was not supposed to happen. Dad was supposed to live until he was 100. That was our deal. How dare he die on me. I could not breath or even think! All I could do was sit there and hold his hand and silently scream at him and God. I repeatedly asked them both... WHY? why? WHY? I remember watching the nurses check for a heartbeat, seeing my husband come over and double check to see if he was really dead and my brother and sister in law grieving. I remember telling my husband to contact my kids and talking to the nurses, but honestly I don't remember what I said or what was said to me. Inside I was numb and angry and heartbroken....my daddy was gone.
For two hours, I sat at his side and continued to pretend it was all a bad dream - a trial run and not real until the arrival of the funeral personnel. If watching my dad take his final breath was terrible, watching strangers place him into a body bag was horrific! I walked away, I walked back over to make sure they didn't "hurt" him, I silently screamed at him to Wake up and I forgot to breath! And just like that my dad's body was taken away never to be seen again.
As I share my thoughts with tears pouring down my face I recognize he was tired and deserved to rest. He lived an amazing and incredible long life and left behind a legacy with his family - a wife of 73 years, 3 grown kids, 6 grand kids, 9 great grand kids and 3 great great grand kids as well as extended family and friends who loved him.
But I will never recover from the loss of my dad! For now all I can do is keep busy, move forward and make him proud! My mentor, my hero, my best friend, my confidant and my biggest cheerleader is gone!