My father is having seizures in his hospital bed. The white sheet is drawn up to his mid-chest, his tongue is hanging out the side of his mouth, and his hands and arms are twitching violently atop the sheet. He looks like he might be connected to an electrical current, but the electrical current is coming from inside his body.
I’m not expecting to see him like this. The last time I saw him, Saturday, five days before, he was heavily sedated and his body had been placed into a state of hypothermia. When I touched him then, he felt as cold as the last dead person I touched, his own mother who died eleven years earlier. But he wasn’t dead. The doctors had artificially lowered his body temperature in an effort to reduce the brain damage he suffered when he collapsed at the dinner table. When they brought him out of hypothermia, though, there was no brain function, only the violent twitching and writhing that was the byproduct of his current state.
My husband and children trail behind me into the hospital room. I realize that I’ve just bulldozed my way into the ICU to see my dad. I realize this is not a good thing for kids to witness. This is not a good thing for anyone to witness. I am starting to do my own sort of convulsing: my breath becomes hyperventilation and my shoulders shudder. A male nurse leads my family out of the hospital room, then comes back for me. When we are safely in the hallway, he explains what’s going on. I watch another nurse draw the curtain around my father’s bed.
My father’s brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, is the only part that’s functional, the nurse explains. Ironically, I’ve been taking a graduate course on brain-based learning, so I understand what he’s saying in a way that I might not have a month earlier. I start thinking of parts of the brain and how his frontal cortex will never again help him solve problems, or how his amygdala will never process emotion anymore (not that it did a great job of it while he was conscious). Not surprisingly, I will have trouble getting through the class, and only through a Herculean test of will do I actually finish the stupid papers required over the next couple of weeks. I spend most of my time thinking about how these brain functions relate to my father’s cold, dead brain, and it makes it very difficult to get any work done. My professor will be incredibly sympathetic, and I will feel guilty even asking for extensions, because that’s the way my father raised me.
My father’s brain stem is the part of him that’s responsible for the twitching, the uncontrollable spasms, the nurse explains. He tells me that they’ll be sedating him soon, so that by the time my brother and his family arrive with my mother, we can feel comfortable that he won’t be in any pain when it’s time to take him off the ventilator.
Because it’s come to that. It’s come to the time when there’s no hope, no way my father can function at all without life support. He’ll be a vegetable, twitching and flopping around in a bed, if we can’t do the humane thing and let him go. I think about the cat I put to sleep months after my own grandmother died. Roscoe was my baby before I ever had babies, and when he died, I felt the breath escape from him as I held him and the vet gave the injection. I never thought I’d get over his death. I spent the next day at work in a stupor. Nobody understood how I could get so worked up over a cat. The people at work weren’t cat people. But everyone’s a dad person. People would understand how I’d get worked up over losing my dad.
I think about how sad it is that I’m putting my dad down like a cat.
My dad really died on June 3, though the death certificate says June 9. June 3 was the day my dad collapsed at the dinner table. He was eating a baked potato, and we don’t know whether he choked, had a heart attack, or whatever. We didn’t order an autopsy. My mom felt like he’d been through enough.
My mom told me that when the EMS workers left, she tried putting the baked potato back together again. She said the two halves fit together perfectly, as if he hadn’t even taken a bite.
June 3 was also the day I got a new job. I interviewed with the principal and the superintendent, and they offered me a job teaching English to ninth graders. I posted something on Facebook about it. My dad apparently saw it and was proud of me, even though I didn’t get to talk to him about it at all.
Not surprisingly, later I am ambivalent about this job. I try not to think about the fact that I got it on the day my dad left us. I am also ambivalent about the job because a lot of the kids are just out of control. One of the freshmen told an aide that there was a rumor about him having sex in the bathroom with a senior, and he claimed it’s just not true. The aide later found out that he really did have sex in the bathroom with a senior. This is the same student who got an out-of-school suspension when he left school during a pep rally to smoke pot in the woods. I try to be fair to this kid. His house flooded in August, and two of his friends died along the train tracks in October. This kid has problems, too. But when he tells a girl in my class that she has a huge bush, it’s the last straw. I write him up and he serves a detention. He whines about Ms. K. giving him detention for nothing.
I think about how much I’d like to tell my dad about these kids.
My dad got kicked off Facebook for chatting with one too many strangers, so he used my mother’s account to talk to me.
HI AMY. The chat box popped up at the most inopportune times. While I was writing a paper, working on a deadline, helping kids with homework. I’d have to drop everything for Dad.
He’d ask me crazy questions, things that made me wonder if he was losing his grip on reality. My mother told me that he’d watch Teletubbies on TV as if it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist, and it made her wonder the same thing. EVERYTHING HE WROTE WAS IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
Eventually, I had to go offline every time he went online.
Then I got a message.
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? I’VE MISSED YOU ON FACEBOOK.
My dad did several things online. He pop chatted me. He talked to people he knew from the small town in Indiana where he grew up. He did genealogy research. He looked at pornography.
The day after my dad died, my mother asked me to clear the porn from my dad’s computer. I should have waited until my husband came back for the funeral, but I held my nose and wiped out every JPG file from his computer. I couldn’t look at it; too upsetting. Nobody wants to know that about their dad. After I was done, I needed a glass of wine like I’d never needed one before, but my parents don’t drink, so there was no booze in their house. Instead, I took my kids and my mom out to the movies. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 and I cleared my head, Teletubbies-style.
Every day I go to work is a day that my dad is not a part of this world anymore.
Oh, the irony of the potato. My dad sure loved to eat. He was a big man, over 300 pounds, even though he was only five foot ten in his stocking feet.
After he died, I found out that he had a Twitter account. I was afraid to look at it, because of the pornography and all. But when I was finally brave enough to peek, I discovered it was a diary of a man who was just waiting for his meals to arrive.
waiting for my wife to come home so we can eat supper
I’m supposed to be in bed but I’m making breakfast coffee
breakfast turned out pretty good especially the coffee tee hee
just killing time till lunch
I’ve Had Lunch Now I’m Waiting For Supper
two hours till supper, yeah
I seem to be a little one-sided all i do is wait for meals.
I have to wear a gown in the hospital room when I watch my father die because they are afraid of us contracting MRSA, which my mother will contract anyway, despite the gown. They won’t let us stay in the room when they take all the tubes out, but by the time we finally see him, he’s breathing heavily and I think my dad is going to be dead in a few minutes. My mother is holding my father’s hand. It’s bruised and mottled from all the needle jabs, and it’s swollen and disfigured. She’s crying, and I feel guilty for feeling so sad for myself. My mother has been married to the same man for forty-four years and now he’s dying. I think about how my grandparents, his parents, were married for forty-four years when my grandfather died.
My mother lost her own father when she was nineteen years old. I’ve had my dad for forty-three years. I’m being such a baby about this whole thing.
My dad was forty-three when his dad died, too. My grandpa died quietly, just pulled over in his car at the side of the road after a chemo treatment, had a heart attack, and died. I never saw my dad cry over him.
My brother is with us in the hospital room, too. His name is John, my father’s middle name, the name my father uses instead of his actual first name. My brother is forty and when he was younger, his high forehead reminded me a little of Leonardo DiCaprio, but now he’s gained weight too, and he looks like a younger version of Dad. He smokes like a chimney but tries to deny it to my mother. I worry about my brother constantly. I think about his two little girls, and hope that he can stop chain smoking before he keels over.
My husband, my brother’s wife, and my dad’s five grandchildren are all in the waiting room. I am in my dad’s room for a long time with the hospital chaplain, a cloyingly sweet woman who keeps prattling on about how great it will be when my dad meets God. How great it will be for my grandmother, because she’s missed him so much in Heaven, all these years without her only child. I don’t believe in God, but I say nothing because it’s not the time. The chaplain offers my mother one of the prayer blankets crocheted by the Mennonite ladies who volunteer at the hospital. Mom has her choice of colors, so she picks the combination she thinks Dad would like the best, a brown and blue number that reminds me of our den circa 1981.
Mom puts the prayer blanket on Dad to keep him warm. She keeps fussing with it. It’s the four of us: Dad, Mom, me, and John, just like when I was a kid. I think of all the trips we took together to Disney World and bowling conventions and a cabin in Wisconsin, and I’m in disbelief that this visit to a crappy hospital room in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, is the last trip we’ll ever take together. It’s the worst trip of my life.
We’ve been watching my father die for over two hours. His breathing is becoming slower, but he is still breathing. Mom, John, and I are frozen in our places around the hospital bed. My husband comes into the room.
“The kids are hungry, and I have to go soon,” he says. “Maybe we should go get dinner.”
I look at him like he’s grown another head. “What if he dies while we’re eating?”
I imagine him saying the words, “Then he dies while we’re eating,” but what he really says is, “Everyone is hungry. It’d be good for you to take a break, too.”
I look at my mother. She looks exhausted. “Maybe we should,” she agrees.
We go to a diner down the street from the hospital. The entire time we’re there, I’m convinced he’s going to die before we get back. I’m a fucking wreck. It takes every bit of strength that I can summon to keep from running back to the hospital. I order a sandwich that I can barely eat.
When we return to the room, he’s breathing more slowly still, but he’s still breathing. I feel as though I’ve dodged a bullet.
The night nurse is a woman named May. She looks a lot like a friend of mine, and I immediately feel comforted by her. She even sounds like my friend, and as she talks to me, it’s familiar and soothing. It’s clear that my father is not going easily. Although his breathing is still slowing, somehow it feels like he’ll never stop breathing. I think he’s being stubborn. The nurses on the afternoon shift said it could happen quickly. It’s been hours, though. My husband already left with my oldest to go home so he could get back to work on a deadline, and my other two kids are in the waiting room with their cousins and aunt. My brother is taking us to my mom’s house, and he has to go soon. I have kids to think of. They can’t hang out in the hospital all night.
I’m realizing my dad’s going to die alone.
I think about asking to stay, but that’s selfish. I can’t stay and send my mom home with my kids. She says she wants to go home, anyway. She’s never looked older in her life.
I can’t bear this. I want to stay. I look at my dad, his big chest slowly rising and falling underneath the prayer blanket. I want to hide in the broom closet and have everyone leave, then sit here all night with my daddy.
May comes into the room. “You should go home,” she says.
“What if he dies?”
“I’ll call you. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of him. He won’t be alone.”
I take a deep breath. Without me is alone, but nonetheless, I have to go. Everyone is waiting for me in the lobby. I give May my cell phone number and ask her to call me if he passes away. I think that maybe he won’t leave that night, maybe he’ll wait for me to come back, but another part of me thinks that maybe this is one thing he has to do on his own. He’s waiting for me to leave before he can die, so I have no choice but to let him go.
I sleep in the room that I slept in as a teenager, my cell phone under my pillow. I have my son and daughter in bed with me, and it’s a tight squeeze. I wake up every now and then, and I’m not sure I was ever asleep. I feel a vibration under my pillow and my heart stops. I look at the phone number on the display. It’s the hospital. It’s 2 a.m.
“It’s May. Your father passed about a half an hour ago.”
This is the spot where I get hung up writing. I have trouble getting through. I can jump past it, though, to the kids I taught, to de-porning my dad’s computer, to the life I have now, so similar yet so different, almost nine years on. I return over and over to this piece of writing, yet I can’t write about this moment. It’s as if there are literally no words for the moment when I find out that I am fatherless.
Without my father, there is a man-sized hole. I see something silly on TV, and I think about how much he’d like that. I hear 10cc or George Harrison songs and I think about the mixtapes he made for me when I was a little girl. I look at my husband and my own children, and I think I will never let any of you die.
But of course, that’s unreasonable. We will all die. We will have heart attacks and strokes and freak accidents. We will twitch uncontrollably in our own hospital beds. We will pass silently in the night. We will all struggle with our lives in our own particular ways, and when we die, there will be another struggle, or not.
This is the bitch about getting older, of course. The funerals, the way you miss people, the longing and regret. I’ll take every gray hair and wrinkle I can get, but spare my people, please.
But of course, no one will be spared. The sun will blaze and the earth will continue to move on its axis, and we will all have our endings, noticed and unnoticed. If I think about it too much, it makes me want to curl into a fetal position and stay in bed all day, but I wake up every morning, put on my clothes, brew a cup of coffee, and do all the things we do while we are still here to do them. I wash clothes, I buy groceries, I write. I talk to my mom on the phone. I take pictures of things and people and cats that I love and post them on Instagram. I bemoan my addiction to social media by posting about it on social media. I read a book to feel better, or worse. I hug my children when they cry. I split a bottle of wine with my husband and continue to be amazed that we’ve been on this ride so long together. I crawl into bed and appreciate the small things, the smooth feeling of sheets on my body, the way I fit into the crook of my husband’s arm, the small noises that he makes when he is dreaming.
This is all there is: the little moments, the sadness, the happiness, the unbearable feeling of pain when a loved one dies, the hole that remains.
This is all that matters.