It’s getting close to dinner time and I’m in the kitchen, ingredients on the counter and a pan heating up. The phone rings. It’s my mother. It’s not a usual time for her to call, but I don’t think much of it.
“Cheryl, something terrible has happened.”
I have that strange feeling you get when you come home to a house that has been burglarized. Something is not right, but what is it? The evidence is in front of me, but it doesn’t add up to any conclusion. I am suddenly alert.
“What’s happened, Mom?”
“Your dad was out for a walk and didn’t come back. I called 911 to see if I could find him.” I think, “She’s so resourceful. It would take me longer to think of that. He’s only been gone an hour. “
“He’s at John Muir emergency. He fell.”
O.K., now my adrenaline kicks in. “Deb will pick you up. I’ll go right there.”
In the car, my mind races. Will Deb and I have to call off our anniversary trip? We’ve needed some time alone for a while. Is there any way we’ll still be able to go? Maybe it’s not that bad. Why am I thinking about that? I wonder, but then, just because I’m experienced in these things, the answer tumbles into my mind, “You are not ready to deal with what is happening. You are choosing something smaller.”
After they interrogate me about my relationship with the man back in the ICU, they let me in. Is this my father? I always knew he was a huge 6’4”, but he never felt that way. This body, still and empty, does not even remind me of him, the gentle, loving giant. This could be any big guy former football player, aged out of the game.
When Deb arrives, while my mom answers endless insurance questions, I whisper, “Are we sure this is my Dad?” I’m relieved that she isn’t sure either, but we look in the paper bag containing everything they cut off of him and there they are, his familiar clothes. My mother will later regret that they destroyed his favorite jacket.
When my mom comes in, they tell us they can’t tell us anything. HIPAA. Later, there will be too much information.
The connection between his brain and body are severed.
There is no hope of a return yet he is not brain dead.
He could remain in this state indefinitely, hooked up to machines that breath for him, tubes that feed him.
My mother will say, “He would not want this,” but be curiously unclear whether one of us will object to unplugging him.
We will have a family meeting where no one objects. There will be visits from my parents’ pastor and my best friend the chaplain. We will sing endless songs. There will be tears and sadness and acceptance. We will think of all he was, of all he gave to us and to this world. I will regret that I won’t get the chance to take care of him as he declines, while knowing he would have hated that. It is for me that I feel the loss.
The body, refusing to die right away, will take several hours after everything has been removed. I will be there with my wife and kids, and he will wait to die until I fall asleep with my head slumping over on his leg. Deb will wake me; “it’s happening” and I will see him take his last breath.
I’m deeply touched. Thank you for this beautiful article, a tribute to your dad and all of you who loved him. I’m so glad you were with your mom and him and glad your family had the courage to remove life support. We’ll all be faced with this if we haven’t been already. Your open-hearted honesty helps us figure it out.
Elaine, thank you so much for your loving words. I have written about his death before, but this felt as if I was right back there! With my mom having died last September, I reflect a lot on the choices they made, not just at that moment but years before. They had the important conversations we all need to have.