This day brings back memories of today nine years ago, this month nine years ago, and this season nine years ago. Nine being my number of frequent coincidence, it seems fitting to think about today more in-depth than usual. I normally just take mental note of this day each year, maybe a Facebook share and let my mom know our minds are in the same place. I tell her I’m thinking of her and sometimes ask if she’d like to do lunch. I don’t know what rituals other people have on death anniversaries but it’s what we do. There’s not much else I can think to do unless I want to break down. If I’m OK with enveloping myself in grief for a day, I’ll break out old home videos. Nothing gets the waterworks going like seeing and hearing someone you haven’t seen in nearly a decade. Or you could do what I did today and share the whole experience with the Internet realm. To each their own.
In February of 2007, I was sixteen and in my third month of a year and a half hiatus from home “working on myself” (more specifically in-patient treatment). Not totally by choice, but by acknowledging that there was some truth to the worries of the stakeholders in my life. Needless to say, I wasn’t at home or going to my regular school or seeing my friends. I did get to see my parents every couple of weeks and I eventually obtained home visits. Things had the potential to get better, but before that, they had to get worse.
I got to see my parents February 4th-5th. About 5 days later I got a phone call from my mom that my dad had had a heart attack while shoveling snow and was in the hospital (had been for a few days) and wasn’t doing too well. I remember crying and I remember being upset that my mom had waited to tell me. I think my initial feelings were of anger that she’d lied to me about something so severe. I swear I had talked to her a night or two before and she made no mention of my dad. My mom and uncle came to get me a couple hours after that to take me to the hospital. My brother was already there—he’d flown in the day he heard. Dad had been transported to Methodist in Des Moines from Mary Greeley because his condition required a team of heart specialists for a good outcome. Before I saw him, I guess it was necessary that I be briefed on his condition—what I would see, what the monitors were for, etc. While having the best of intentions, I felt this “chat” was maybe too juvenile and more of a distraction keeping me from my dad. I just wanted to see him—I had to see to believe.
No offense to the nursing staff but I don’t think any amount of information, explanation, or briefing could’ve prepared me for what I saw those couple of days. No one is mentally equipped to see a loved one fighting for his or her life. By the time I was informed of my dad’s condition, he’d been in a drug-induced coma for two days, was on a ventilator, had undergone open-heart surgery, and was relying on blood dialysis to work as his heart. I’d never seen so many machines functioning in lieu of organs on one person at one time. I was especially moved by what I perceived as his fight to survive; they’d put his legs in braces because he’d found a way to remove his catheter, he jerked his hands a lot, and his eye were always aflutter. It was a very scary time—to wonder if he was already gone and being kept alive against the pull of nature or if he was still in there, somewhere, fighting to wake up.
Over the course of two days, I watched all hope in my mom’s eyes diminish. I remember leaving after the first day in the elevator ride down telling my mom, “What are we going to do? We can’t give up.” To which my mom said, “I know, we won’t.” The next day brought disheartening news. They had gone back in to figure out why his heart wasn’t cycling oxygen the way it should and found there to be two holes in his heart. One that he was born with that wouldn’t have ever caused him any problems aside from a heart attack (or other heart ailments that throw off the pressure in the heart). The other had damaged his heart tissue so much that they couldn’t properly close it with stitches. Following that explorative surgery, they ran a few tests to check for brain function. Those results weren’t good. They performed a dilation test with us in the room by shining a light in my dad’s eyes and there was nothing there. After that, the question came down to the same one our family had four years before with his sister (my aunt)—do we fight to keep a body alive when the person has left? Are our motivations selfish? Can we accept this fate and let him go? We came to the same consensus we did years earlier—the fight had been fought. To hold on would be to drag out the inevitable.
I opted not to be in the room when they took my dad off of life support. I kissed him goodbye and didn’t have a single thought in my head of what to say. I was thinking a million things per second—I couldn’t grasp anything rational. Then I sat alone in the waiting room. I called a few friends on my mom’s cell phone and told them what was happening and it was only then—saying the words out loud—that it really set in. My brother stayed ‘til the very end and he told me years later how he hasn’t forgotten the face our dad made when his body was unable to take a breath. I am glad I didn’t stay. I returned a half hour or so later, after they’d removed all the tubes and machines and “cleaned him up”. It was eerie seeing the chest that had been rising and falling for my whole lifetime—just an hour earlier—was now still. I will never forget that sobering image.
The whole process of death, when you are close to that person, is a blur. I don’t think I cried at the visitation or funeral. I struggled with eating for months after, nothing appealed to me (which I hear is quite normal). I threw up during each visit home for months and I’m not sure I ever knew exactly why (I hardly ate). Going home for home visits was strange. I felt bad for my mom. I had a hard enough time being there with the quiet a couple times a month—I couldn’t imagine it every day. I don’t think I’d gotten used to it until I was home for good more than a year later.
Grief is a strange phenomenon. There is no right or wrong way to do it. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven myself for not being there when my dad had his heart attack. Or being there for the whole day he stubbornly put off going to the ER. I sometimes wonder if this would’ve all just been a minor blip in his life if he had gone to seek treatment right away. That’s another thing about grief, there are going to be those regrets. Grief is fleeting—it comes and goes. Sometimes in waves, other times in a sort of loving, encompassing warmth like a hot bath. One evening, I was driving, going about my business, and I saw a car just like his, rust and all (there aren’t many 80’s Mercury Tracer hatchbacks still around). I had to stop at the nearest parking lot to gather myself. Another time, I was shopping at Target and I saw a man of similar stature and walking mannerisms. Thankfully, his back was to me, walking away or he’d have seen my staring. I thought about approaching the man to hug him and thank him for reminding me of the little things I miss about my dad. I decided to save myself the torment of breaking down in the arms of a complete stranger. I paid for the things in my cart, too distracted to remember anything else. I cannot shovel heavy snow without thinking of my father. I cannot feel winter without correlating the smell of hospitals. Morosely, sometimes, when it’s dark and quiet, I can still hear the persisting sound of the ventilator.