Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dad's Last Day/ The Hardest Phone Call

For some reason Saturday after watching Restrepo I wandered through the other programs I had on the DVR. There was an episode of Deadliest Catch in the menu. I was puzzled trying to remember why I had decided to record it. Before I prematurely deleted the program I decided I might as well watch a few minutes of the episode, maybe it would jog my memory as to why I had saved it. As it turned out the episode was when Captain Phil died. The opening preview scene was Josh calling his younger brother letting him know their father had passed away. I turned off the DVR, the thirty second clip was enough to open an old wound, rewind my memory back to the early morning hours not too long ago when I had to make one of the hardest phone calls I have ever made.

November 22, 2010 It was exactly a week since Dad had been admitted to the hospice house. He woke up about six in the morning. Looking back I am not sure what it was, but something was different, I had a melancholy feeling I could not shake. Dad seemed different. I had sat by his side all night in the recliner. I spent most of the night writing in my journal serenaded by Frank Sinatra. Dad had not been able to speak for over a week. His voice long silenced by a lack of liquid being swallowed, moisturizing his vocal chords. No matter how many times I swapped his mouth with a moist sponge it never seem to help the irritation and dryness. His body was no longer able to tolerate the feeding tube. He had not received nutrients for almost two weeks. His need for food, his hunger was only being fed, masked by morphine.

Pain is watching someone you love slowly starve to death, watching cancer devour every ounce of them. Nurses, doctors everyone tried to comfort me with the explanation that with all the pain medicine Dad was on, he was feeling nothing. I am not sure if I ever truly believed them. The knowledge that Dad was not in pain was little comfort to what my heart was feeling. The guilt I was carrying.

Usually when Dad woke he would squeeze my hand. I would look at him, smile and tell him good morning. No matter how weak he was Dad always managed to greet me with a smile. My morning greeting was not met with a smile but rather tears. I asked him if he was in pain, he shook his head no. Dad could not speak but he could shake his head yes or no, occasionally he would shrug his shoulders. Our communication the last few days had been limited to questions that could be answered by a simple yes or no. I stood up, wiped Dad’s tears, adjusted his pillow. Asked him if there was anything I could do for him. He shrugged his shoulders. I kissed his forehead, then went to get a nurse so we could shift Dad to make him more comfortable. I knew he had been in the same position for several hours. I was well aware his skin was so thin and frail it would tear if he was not moved and shifted gently. After adjusting Dad, the nurse went to get another dose of morphine. Dad was once again crying and holding both hands up for me to take. It was awkward but by lowering the railing on his bed I was able to hold both his hands. I balanced myself on the edge of the bed trying not to fall off and trying not to lean too far forward and possibly fall on Dad. Twenty minutes after he received his medication he was once again sleeping.

After making coffee, greeting some of the other hospice patients in the dining area I settled back into my recliner. My brain was too tired to write, I tried to nap but was unsuccessful. I didn’t know why but Dad was restless. His arms were lifting and moving while he slept, once again I lowered the railing so I could hold both his hands. I felt his body relax when my fingers entwined with his. His breathing seemed awkward, fast then almost non existent. When Dad was at the hospital I learned he seemed to breath easier when I sang to him. I changed the play list and began to softy serenade Dad. For the next few hours I sat on the edge of Dad’s bed singing along with my iPod. Several times while I was singing to my father I could see out of the corner of my eye a couple of the hospice patients stop in their wheelchairs outside the door and listen. It took all the strength I had not to tear up when I noticed Bill was crying as he listened to my “concert” for my father.

Mom arrived a little after one in the afternoon. I had been up for almost thirty hours, I needed to head home, shower and take a nap. Before I left I told Dad I would be back shortly. The moment I stepped outside I had an uneasy feeling. I ran home, showered but could not sleep so I dressed and headed back to the hospice house. When I arrived Mom informed me since I left Dad had not moved. I looked at the clock 3:30 p.m.. I walked over to Dad’s side, “Afternoon Daddy. I am back like I promised?” He opened his eyes, smiled then closed them again. I sat next to Dad settled in playing sudoko.

Colonel Cuffey arrived from Fort Belvoir later in the afternoon to visit Dad. I learned there were two things that could wake Dad from the deepest of sleep, his great grandson Cole and/or a man or woman in uniform. When the Colonel entered the room I announced him to Dad. His eyes immediately opened and Dad tried to salute him. The Colonel graciously reached down, stopped Dad’s hand and said “No sir it is I who should be saluting you.”
The past two years my father, the old retired CW4 had formed a friendship with the young commanding officer at Fort Belvoir. Any time the Colonel was near Fort Meade he would stop in to visit and chat with my father. They had an unexplainable close bond. Mutual respect and admiration for each other. When Dad was in the hospital the Colonel made several trips to visit him. Now the Colonel drove to the hospice house to visit my father, in essence say good bye. The Colonel reached down and took my father’s hand, stood by his bedside and talked to him for well over an hour. During the course of the conversation he asked mom how she met my father. Mom explained dad was a “fill in” date. My mom had been asked to a dance by a friend of my Dad's. He got sick and asked my Dad to be his substitute so my mom would not be disappointed. Dad agreed, drove to pick up a girl he had never met or talked to and took her to the dance. Half way through the dance he asked mom how attached she was to his friend. When my Mom said not at all she hardly knew him, my dad told her good because he wanted to take her out again. My mom joked around if her original date had not been sick she would have never met my father. As mom was relaying the story of their chance encounter, I closed my eyes and remembered my own chance encounter twenty seven years earlier almost to the day. Colonel Cuffey talked for awhile longer before he said good bye to my father. He and his aide saluted Dad. Then Colonel said to Dad, “You need to rest now sir. You have been a good soldier.”

I looked at Dad and his eyes were tearing up. I immediately took his hand and told him it was okay. I was still with him I wasn’t going anywhere. Before Mom left at nine I went out to the kitchen and made myself a thermos of hot tea, prepare for the night ahead. At ten o’clock I turned on Hawaii Five-O. When I was little Dad and I would watch the original program together. I pulled my chair against Dad’s bed. I dropped the railing, lowered his bed, took his hand and put my feet up on the edge of the bed next to his feet. I laughed out loud when I saw Dad wiggle his toes. I laid my head on the side of his bed, he squeezed my hand. I looked over and he smiled. I could hear Dad’s breathing change as we watched McGarret and Danno catch the bad guys. When the show was over, the nurse came in to give Dad his medication for the night. I adjusted Dad’s pillows. Swabbed his mouth, it was then that he began to try to talk. I leaned in closer putting my ear close to his mouth hoping I could hear what he was saying. Several times I told him I could not understand what he was saying. Tears began to roll down his checks as he tried to talk. I apologized over and over for not being able to understand him. I took his glasses off, wiped his eyes, then said, “Daddy I am so sorry. I can’t understand you. I know you love me and you know I love you that is all that matters.”
He squeezed my hand. Tears continued to flow down his cheeks for a few more minutes. Finally he started to fall asleep so I turned off his light. I whispered in his ear, “I am not going anywhere Daddy I will always be with you.” I moved my recliner to the corner near a lamp. I pulled out my computer and began to write.

I decided I would write about my great great grandparents Henry Wilson and Amanda Jane Dent. As I wrote I softly sang along with the music that was echoing through the room. I was typing the last sentence when I felt this strange strong ripping pain pierce through my heart. For a moment I stood up, stretched my arms out, wondering was I having a heart attack from the lack of sleep and all the stress. I felt it again. Then it registered in my brain, I had felt that pain once before a very long time ago. I knew what had just happened. I took a deep breath afraid of the truth that awaited me. I closed my eyes for a moment then turned, I knew Dad had died and I did not want to look at him. I stared at my Dad for a minute tears streaming down my cheeks, not sure what to do.

Dad was gone, he was no longer with me. I looked around almost dazed, the halls were dark, there was a soft glow on my dad's face from my light. In that instant I have never felt so alone. I was an adult yet I felt like I was five years old and just orphaned. All I wanted to do was to crawl into someone’s arms. I needed someone to hold me tight and tell me I would be fine. But there was no one, I was alone. Not quite sure what to do, I walked down the hall to the nurse's station. I softly interrupted the nurses conversation and asked trying not to cry, “Can you check on my Dad because I think he died and I don’t know what to do.” The nurse looked at me on the verge of tears, smiled and tried to reassure me by saying, "It is okay."

She walked down the hall and into his room. I sat against the wall in the hall across from his door. She came back out after a few minutes and confirmed what I already knew, Dad was gone. I was told she had to call a doctor so he could come in and officially pronounce Dad dead. She told me if I wanted I could go in and sit with Dad until he arrived.

From the hall I could see the light from my computer softly glowing against the glass. I couldn’t go back in the room, Dad was no longer in there, only his body. The last time I had held his hand it was weak, but it was warm, he was still there. I was not alone then, now I was. I pulled my legs into my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I laid my head down on my knees as I waited for the doctor to arrive. The hospice house was quiet I could hear my iPod playing Frank Sinatra. I took a deep breath composed a list of what I needed to do in my head. First on the list call my mom and tell her Dad had passed away. I was trying to compose in my head the proper way to tell my mom the man she had been married to for 51 years, my father, had died. I called her, no answer. Called again, no answer. Called again, no answer. In a way it was a strange blessing when my mom did not answer the phone, I was annoyed. Annoyed was much easier to handle than sorrow. Feeling annoyed stopped me from crying. Finally the fifth or sixth time I called my mom finally answered. After I spoke to my mom, I hung up and called my sister. Then I had to prepare myself for the hardest phone call of all, I needed to call my daughter.

Kathryn was Grandpa’s little girl. Her father walked out on her when she was three and a half years old. I never married, never dated anyone while she was growing up, so Dad was her father figure. Every father daughter function Dad took Kathryn. My sister and I would laugh when Kathryn was younger talking about how our parent's had changed once the grandchildren arrived. We remembered when we were little Mom and Dad never went to any of our games, saw any of our plays, they went to an occasional concert but that was a rarity. With Kathryn, Dad was at almost every game she cheered at, saw every play, every concert. I lost track of the number of times Dad took Kathryn and her friends shopping or to the movies. He even suffered through Barbie on Ice on his birthday because that is what Kathryn wanted to do. If Kathryn needed something and I could not afford it, Dad would buy it for her. She did not want for anything, especially love. On senior night in high school it was Grandpa (Dad) that walked Kathryn across the football field. I would not have it any other way. She hung the moon in Dad's eyes. Kathryn was his pride and joy. He was a constant in her life. Kathryn could have grown up bitter not trusting men but she did not. She was constantly surrounded by love. She knew because of her Grandpa there are good men in the world.

I sat in the hallway, began to dial Kathryn when I realized I was making a huge mistake. I understood, one of the hardest things for Dad about dying was going to be leaving Kathryn behind. I knew I had to do what was right. I stood up, squeezed my fists, told myself I could do it and walked into the room where my Dad laid. I moved my chair back next to my Dad’s bed, lowered the railing, sat down and took his hand. I knew he would want to be with me as I called Kathryn. I had to tell my daughter the man she adored, the man she loved with all her heart, the man who loved her more than any man ever would, was gone. At 2:48 a.m on November 23, 2010 I had to make the hardest phone call of my life. I held back my tears as I told my daughter her grandpa had passed away.

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