My wedding picture illustrates my relationship with my Dad best. The photographer took a picture of Josh and me with my whole family. Everyone, including myself, was looking at the camera with huge smiles on our faces; everyone except my Dad. My Dad was looking at me.
The death of my father was one of the hardest pieces of my adult life. No one loved me like my Dad. He smiled the widest when he looked at me and he laughed the hardest at all my jokes. He was always there. He could always find me even when I didn’t know I was lost and I certainly didn’t want to be found. From the car shop I sat in as a teenager with no money having my car fixed to unhealthy relationships I had gotten myself in. My Dad was always there to help me get up, dust myself off and try again.
He was a pretty simple guy. And by the world’s standards he was probably just an average guy. He didn’t talk much but when he did people listened. I wish I could say that that he told me some profound truth about life and living. But he didn’t. He just loved me. I made mistakes. And he loved me. And I made another. And he loved me. He almost always had a smile for me whenever we were together. Somehow he gave me what I needed just by the joy and smile he had when he saw me. He loved me and he changed my life just doing that.
My Dad had a stroke in May of 2001 a week before I delivered my daughter, Elizabeth. So, in May, I gave birth to my first born child and my father. My Dad could no longer care for himself. His needs became increasingly harder to meet. His mental abilities diminished before my very eyes. I struggled to celebrate my daughter’s first year of life while watching my Dad’s life as he once knew it slowly slip away before my eyes.
Elizabeth and I spent hours with my Dad in 2 hospitals, 2 nursing homes, and 2 adult care homes over the course of 2 and a half years. I pushed my Dad in front of me in his wheelchair as I pulled Elizabeth in her stroller behind me. Their needs were the same in many ways and yet I found myself continually conflicted and choosing between them. Minute by minute the clock continued to tick losing time I could never get back with either of them, the beginning of Elizabeth’s life and the end of my Dad’s.
I remember my Dad’s first day in the nursing home he would eventually die in. I was busying myself, setting him up for dinner with all the other residents. In the background you could hear residents calling out for help. I tried to make the pureed food in front of him look as appetizing as I could in spite of the smell of feces permeating the room. “Dad, I began, “I have to go but look you have your dinner all set. I will be back in the morning”. I had prolonged leaving long enough. My husband and daughter had been waiting patiently for me to go. They had finally left frustrated to go down to the car and wait. They were hungry. But my Dad was hungry, too. And I suppose I was hungry, but I don’t think I knew it at the time.
“Dad,” I continued. Elizabeth and I will be back tomorrow morning. Do you want me to sneak anything in for you?” I used to sneak all kinds of goodies in for him, from chocolates to suckers to fried egg sandwiches, all his favorites.
And then came the moment I will never forget. As I leaned to kiss him goodbye he gently grabbed a hold of my arm. Quietly, he whispered in my ear, “I can’t live like this.” Tears streamed down my face. Quietly, again, he said, “Honey I can’t live like this.” I was sobbing at this point and I replied, “Dad what do you want me to do?” And recognizing this moment of lucidity as they were so few and far between he looked at me with his big blue eyes and said, “just leave some pills by my bed.” I went home and cried myself to sleep. Josh and Elizabeth ate alone.
Elizabeth was 2 and we were planning our annual trip to Myrtle Beach. The evening we were to leave Elizabeth and I went to the nursing home to see my Dad. We got off the elevator on the 5th floor to find my Dad propelling himself by his feet down the hall. I stopped for a moment to watch him. He would go a few feet and stop as he intently sucked on the lollipops we had left for the nurses to give him. He looked at the signs on the wall as if he were reading them. My mind wandered back to the nights as a teenager I would come home to his apartment as he sat in his favorite chair reading. He loved autobiographies and current events. I wondered if he missed those times too or if his mind was now content with reading the names on the doors that lined the halls like unopened books on a bookshelf. I wondered if his imagination formed his own stories for those names as he studied them so carefully making his way down the long hall.
“Hi Dad”, I said and he turned to look at me. It was a good day. I could tell by the smile that greeted me. He quickly took the sucker out of his mouth and looked past me at Elizabeth. “And how’s my little Geraldine?” he asked.
“Geraldine?” I replied. To that we both burst into laughter. He knew he had said the wrong name again. He had called her this before and I often wondered why. As far as I knew he never knew a Geraldine.
He quickly corrected himself and said, “I mean Queen Elizabeth!”
We had a laugh at this as he ooed and ahhed over Elizabeth as he usually did. Elizabeth loved to try to push his wheelchair and hand him different items she would find. He seemed to take much delight in this.
We took out my cell phone and called my sister Jackie. He talked with her and told her he loved her. She was also leaving for Myrtle Beach. Soon Cindy stopped in and all of us were talking as Pam came in. Pam was going to Myrtle Beach with us and she had been tanning at the tanning booth. Dad took one look at Pam, tanned as could be in preparation for the beach, and she gave him a gleaming smile. He looked at her and then looked at me and said, “Why are her teeth so white?”
We all had a good laugh and great visit. When it was time to go I wheeled him to the dinner room. Everyone had been brought in and a nurse was sitting next to his place at the table feeding another resident. I pushed him up to the table, dreading the goodbye. The nurse said, “John, who’s this?” as she looked at the 2 of us. I will never forget the last words he said. He looked at her with a smile and look of pride that could light up the night sky and replied, “That’s my daughter, I have 6 of them you know!” Oh how I cherished those moments that proved he knew me. I kissed him goodbye and told him I loved him. He told me he loved me too and to be good. Those were the last words he said to me.
The trip to Myrtle Beach was long. We left that night when I got home from the nursing home. Josh had the van packed. We went to breakfast in the morning when we arrived in South Carolina. I had left my cell phone in the car. There were over 30 missed calls on it when we went out to the van to leave. My heart stopped. What could it be? As I was trying to listen to voicemails my sister called the phone. Through her crying she managed to say that Dad had another stroke and it wasn’t good. I called my sister Cindy who was with him. She told me that this stroke had left his whole body paralyzed and he was unable to speak. The doctors had said that if he did not regain use of his body in the next 24 hours, he would never regain it. I felt as if someone had taken the air out of my lungs. I couldn’t breathe and I could barely speak. Tears streamed down my face as I found the words to ask her to put the phone up to my Dad’s ear. I was sobbing as I told him everything would be okay. I was on my way. Cindy told me that a tear streamed down his face as I spoke to him. I knew he had heard me.
The drive home from Myrtle Beach seemed like an eternity even though Josh made record time. Elizabeth was approaching her 24th hour in the car over the course of 2 days. I have never cried so long and so hard in my whole life. I would pull myself together for a moment or two only to burst uncontrollably into tears again.
We pulled into the nursing home at about 11pm. I went immediately up to the 6th floor. I dried my tears as best I could. I needed to be the strong one this time. I went in and I was greeted by the big blue eyes that I had known my entire life. He laid there in the bed unable to move his hands or his feet or his legs. His whole body was paralyzed. He couldn’t even swallow. The only part of him he could move or use to communicate were his eyes. It was in that moment, when I saw his pale blue eyes, tired and helpless looking directly at me that I knew it was time. He had given the good fight and it was time to let him go. I knew this in my head. But it didn’t get to my heart for 8 days.
Day after day went by. People came and went. My sister Jackie and I stayed. We basically moved in the room. We slept in chairs and we laid on his bed next to him day and night. I remember singing, “Let there be Peace on Earth” and “Here I am Lord” to him hundreds of times. I remember vividly when my daughter Elizabeth came in to say goodbye. Her life had been turned upside down. Mommy was never home. Uncle Larry and Aunt Jackie had temporarily moved in with us. She was with many different babysitters. There was always commotion. Mommy was always crying. She stood by the side of his bed and the nurse rolled him to his side. She looked at him eye to eye and said, “Papa, my head is spinning around and around and around!” Just that one simple statement and my Dad let out this small noise as if to laugh. She kissed him and said “I love you Papa” and went home with Josh.
The nurses kept telling us it wouldn’t be much longer. He hadn’t had any food or water in over a week. We all knew what his wishes would be and as painful as it was, tried to carry them out. He just kept holding on. He was such a fighter all his life. Everyone came, his brother Vincent and his sisters. All 8 of us kids had said our goodbyes. My Mom had said goodbye. But he just held on.
I will never forget the eighth night. The nurses told us that his systems were shutting down and that it wouldn’t be much longer. We had all heard this before. Jackie and I were exhausted. Neither of us had really slept more than a few hours at a clip. Everyone went home except the 2 of us- the oldest and the youngest- the “bookends” as they called us. Jackie was on his right and I was on his left. We tried all over again saying it’s okay Dad. We’ll be ok. You can let go. We tried to pray with him. We told him that his Mom was waiting for him. Just let go. He didn’t. Jackie asked him if he wanted to be alone. Maybe that was the problem. We wanted to be there but maybe he wanted to be alone. A tear streamed down his face and we knew he didn’t want to be alone.
We finally decided that I should try to step out of the room. Maybe he just couldn’t leave me. He had spent his whole life taking care of me. I was the youngest, his baby. So I stepped out. I was exhausted and drained. I felt ready to explode when I left the room. I went into the meal room. It was a glass rectangular room full of tables overlooking the Chemung River. This was the very room where my Dad had told me 3 years earlier to please leave some pills by his bed. I had to let him go. In that moment, I dropped to my knees in front of the window and I sobbed. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I prayed. And I prayed. And I prayed. I repeated over and over the same thing out loud. “Please God. Please take him. Please God. Just take him. Fucking take him.”
I dried my eyes, and went back into the room. I quietly walked over to the bed and put my head on his chest. And I cried. I told him how much I loved him but it was time to go now. Jackie did the same. Within minutes he was gone.
After a moment I stopped crying. It was done. He was gone. He had been there and now he was gone. The energy in the room had changed. Up to that point the room seemed stifling. Even though it was just Jackie and I, I remember feeling crowded and overwhelmed with emotion and energy. When he died it just all vanished. The room immediately felt empty and cold and I suddenly felt this intense urge to get out. My brothers and sisters came after he had passed. I don’t think they ever understood why I wasn’t crying and why I was in such a rush to leave. I don’t know if I fully understand. I felt defeated. I felt alone. I felt empty. I felt lost. He was there. And then he wasn’t. I needed to go home.
Jackie and I drove home silent. We came in the house and both of our husbands met us in the kitchen and we both fell apart. I got myself together and went to bed only to cry myself to sleep again. This was the first of many nights of crying myself to sleep.