My father died on Father’s Day 2007. He had been in apparent good health until the night he was admitted to the hospital. That day, he went through his usual routines-swam a mile at the Y, did some errands, sat on the patio with my mother in the late afternoon.
By 11 p.m. he was in the ER, in such critical condition that the staff didn’t think he would survive the night. At 6 a.m. the following morning, he was stable enough to transport to the ICU. Each of the next 10 days brought new challenges as his condition worsened and became increasingly complex.
My brother flew in from 1500 miles away. Confused and in shock, we existed on a roller coaster of hope and despair. Like dominoes, one system after another failed.
Dad became increasingly unresponsive. When my phone rang at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, I knew it would be the ICU. As the designated family spokesperson, I had requested that I be called no matter what time if there was any change. The doctor who called was a man I had come to respect.
We discussed the fact that I hadn’t sensed my father’s presence for a few days, and I agreed to talk to my mother and brother about ceasing aggressive life-sustaining treatment and allowing my father to die. The doctor hesitated after I thanked him for calling, cleared his throat, and said, “It’s Father’s Day. We could keep going until tomorrow if you’d like.”
Keeping vigil in the ICU is an isolating and disorienting experience. I had lost track of time. Father’s Day in my family had always been cause for celebration, a time to gather, laugh, rejoice, and eat. As my sons became fathers, the day took on even greater significance. For the past several years, we had 4 generations present.
My father was the social glue of our family, and he cherished family gatherings. After the phone call ended, I was unable to go back to sleep. I spent the rest of the night in agony, thinking and meditating, and at daybreak I drove over to my parents’ house, where my brother and sister-in-law were staying with our mother.
By then, I believed my father was suffering. I believed that several times he had tried to do what seasoned ICU nurses refer to as “declare himself”; that is, to tell us it was time to let go.
This year there would be no taking my father to a rowdy family brunch with his great-grandchildren. There would be no glasses of champagne raised in the evening with me, no long-distance phone calls from my brother. My father, a vibrant, active man who totally engaged in and loved life until the moment he was intubated in the emergency room, deserved better than to be maintained on machines.
And so I talked to my mother and brother, and that Sunday afternoon we reluctantly came to the painful decision to grant my father peace. His final exhale left his body at 5 p.m. that evening.
Now I am caught in the middle. A daddy’s girl whose father is dead, a mother to 2 sons who are fathers, and a bereaved grandmother whose youngest son’s first daughter died during delivery. My father was also a bereaved father — my sister, who was my son’s godmother, died at the age of 32. My father was a role model to his grandson in many ways, but especially in showing him that it is possible to survive the death of a child.
Father’s Day is bittersweet, and different. I struggle to remain upbeat and happy for my sons, while at the same time mourning and missing my father. I celebrate the fact that I see the person my father was reflected in the fathers my sons have become. I engage in mindful charitable contributions.
My father taught me how to read, he filled our house with books and words, so I make a donation to our local library. Well-meaning friends attempted to comfort me when my father died with statements about how he lived a full, long life. Indeed he did, but no matter how many years, they will never be enough. I will always wish there had been more. I love you, Daddy.
Nina Bennett 2011