I have never seen strength and determination the way I had when I started taking care of my father in his last days. His struggle with Stage 4 stomach cancer was coming to an end. In November we were given the news that he had 3 to 6 months to live and he held out for every bit of those 6 months. He knew it was unfair to be given such little time on Earth and planned to get as much as time as he could.
At the start of May he was down to 100 pounds give or take and hadn’t eaten a bite of food in about 3 weeks. His voice was weak but his mind was strong. Hospice care was coming to the house about twice a week and the rest of his care was the responsibility of his family. I could get into the gaps in the Hospice care system but that is a post all on its own. This seemed too big of a challenge for family members to have to face, but there we were. My mother’s skills as an RN were in full affect and she would rely on me to stay with Dad when she needed to leave the house. Now we were not just testing my father’s strength, but mine too. He had a routine the last couple weeks when he was bed ridden that was simply to sit up every couple hours to have a sip of water. It was sort of his task for the day and gave him something to do with his time. This is where I was truly in awe of my father.
It is no secret that the man dedicated his life to hard work. He hammered work ethic into our brains as kids and always spoke about the importance of working hard in life. I can still hear him saying in his thick Italian accent with his finger pointed in the air “I don’t care if you’re a doctor, or a ditch digger. But if you’re a ditch digger, you better be the best.” (or was it the smartest, or the hardest working?….I don’t remember the exact words since no one in our family lets anyone finish a sentence, but either way we got the point). I saw him finish an entire basement by himself as a 60-year-old man. I remember as a kid seeing him come home from work on a hot day where he was a mason foreman and immediately go outside to care for the lawn and the garden, then come in and start dinner. He never knew how to sit still. If he wasn’t traveling (which he did well) he was working on something.
Working hard was who he was. But when he had no strength left, no energy, and knew that the only thing he could do for the day was sit up and drink some water I gained even more respect for the man. I didn’t even know that was possible. I could see him fighting with himself and bracing himself for the pain it would cause him just to scoot himself over an inch in the bed to sit up. He would refuse any help I would offer so my “care” for him was more just supervising. This man also refused pain medicine and marijuana (medically legal in Illinois) all the way through to his last hours. He didn’t like the way they made his head feel so he didn’t take them unless he absolutely needed to. So he lived through the pain and fought with whatever little strength he had left. I would get him back in bed and comfortable after a while where he would be good until the next time he wanted to sit up. I would stay bubbly and smiling as much as possible while I was in the room with him. Tell him how much I love him, and immediately break down the second I walked out of the room. How could he keep fighting like this? How long could this go on? This is so unfair.
We went on like this for several more days. I would have guessed that it was nearing the end but I also had been saying that for months already. He was so stubborn and so driven to keep going. So when the morning finally came I was caught off guard. I dropped my kids off at daycare and planned to come by the house after the gym as I had been recently every day. My mother called me and asked that I skip the gym and come right away. I had a million things going through my head but thought maybe now it’s time to take him to the hospital, we are nearing the end. As I walked up the stairs of my parents’ home and heard my mother’s cry I knew he was gone. After the initial reaction of crying out as most people do when they hear of a close loved one dying, I ran through so many emotions. I felt sad that my dad was gone and my mom lost her husband. I felt defeated. Two years of doctor visits, surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, suffering, pain and for what? I felt relieved that it was finally over. I felt exhausted, overwhelmed with what was to come.
My usual coping mechanism for anything is to keep busy. This is the same for my other 3 siblings and my mother as they all displayed well in the days to follow. The house had never been so clean, the funeral services were planned immediately and everything was organized. While I participated in a good portion of it all, I didn’t do the overboard-controlling-planner-busy bee routine I normally would. Instead I just went home and did nothing. My boss had told me to completely disconnect for the week. The girls were either at daycare during the day or eventually with their dad. So I just sat at home. I didn’t do laundry. I didn’t work out although I also had a bad case of strep throat I came down with conveniently two days before the services began. I tried to blog and just stared at the screen. I couldn’t keep busy. I just looked through old pictures and watched reruns of FRIENDS and Gilmore Girls. I couldn’t wrap my head around all that had happened in the last 2 years and this was the first chance I was getting to let the dust settle and reflect on it.
I would think about the man I was watching slip away from us for a long time and felt okay about it. It was over. The pain was over. He wasn’t suffering anymore. But then I would think about the man I knew as my father. The man in those pictures. That’s when I started to grieve. That’s the hard part. I had been preparing for his death for so long I forgot what I would be missing once he was gone. My brother happened to find a video he took of my father’s 60th birthday party. We surprised him by having all of us under one roof – which was rare – and invited his close friends for a party. The video displays his surprised and overjoyed face when he sees his children in his home. It is the best version of my dad. It is the best memory to hold on to. That is the man I am going to miss. When I start to think about how cheated we all were that he got sick and passed away at the young age of 68, I will remember that video. I will instead feel grateful that when things were good they were really good. He had a life full of love, laughter, enjoyment, and success. As an immigrant from Italy he was living the American dream. He had a wife and children who loved him. He had the respect of anyone who ever met him. He was known for enjoying life. So instead of being angry that he’s gone I have to celebrate all of that. I hope I can not only hold onto those memories but carry on the lessons he taught me on how to have a full life of my own. It is the best way to honor him.