Dying is Just Not That Pretty

Death is one of those uncomfortable topics. We are all going to die. Some of us fear it, some of us don’t.

My dad was obsessed with death for many, many years. He was convinced that every day was his last and he would tell that to anyone who would listen.

“How are you today, Dad?”

“Lousy. Today’s the day.”

We were always dismissive of that answer. We were just plain sick of hearing it from this man who was so strong and so healthy.

This went on for years.

Then he took a bad fall. He had two broken clavicles.

“Are you in pain, Dad?’

“Nope.”

Of course not. This was my dad. The man wasn’t tall but he was solid. Strong as an ox (stubborn as one too!).

He picked up a blood infection while in the hospital, and had another bad fall while there, which resulted in a broken hip and months of rehab. He needed a walker to get around. The doctors said that he would never walk on his own again. He was bedridden for so long that they said he would never be without a catheter again either.

Great.

Considering that he was depressed before the life altering fall, and was convinced that he was going to die on any given day, we didn’t have high hopes that he would be able to carry on for long, given his new restrictions.

We were wrong.

In the next two years, his depression worsened. He didn’t have an epiphany that suddenly gave him the will to fight. He continued to believe that every day was his last. But he did, indeed, walk again on his own- enough to get around the house, and in and out of the car safely on those occasions that he’d let us bring him somewhere. This man was strong…like an ox.

Now if we could just get rid of that stupid catheter.

That would take some convincing. It involved more surgery and there was no guarantee that it would work. He hated being poked and prodded, and after all, today was his last day, so why did he need to put himself through this?

He finally consented, and it worked. No more UTI’s!

The next thing that came up was a basal cell carcinoma that he had to have removed from his shin. “Jesus Christ! (my dad’s favorite phrase) What’s next?” He had it removed at the hospital and came bounding into the house 3 hours later. My husband asked if they had given him an anesthetic or if they just gave him a piece of leather to bite down on. He was that strong.

He was told to stop going downstairs to the basement TV room. We could set up a TV in the living room for him. But the basement was HIS room with HIS chair. He was stubborn…as an ox.

It was just a matter of time before he fell down the stairs. That last fall knocked the wind out of him for good. Bump on the back of the head. Bleeding on the brain. No more walking for Dad.

“Are you in pain, Dad?”

The answer was always the same.

“Nope.”

During the following 700+ “last days,” he never complained of pain. Why would he? He’s strong…as an ox.

In the final 6 months of his life, he was in and out of congestive heart failure. He was miserable. It became harder and harder to redirect him when he’d say “today’s the day.” We started to wonder if that was coming soon.

He had cheated death so many times. Could his death really be imminent?

After I returned from a trip to Florida, I visited with him. He asked about his grandson, who was the light of his life. He made me promise that I wouldn’t let him play football because there are too many head injuries. There was a public funeral on TV for two fallen Boston firefighters and Dad was watching it.

“What a shame,” I said.

“That’s going to be me soon,” he said.

And then I answered with something other than “STOP IT!”

I asked him how he felt about that. Was he scared? And this strong man, who was now a bony shell of his former self, said that yes, he was scared. I didn’t know what to say. I just told him it would be alright. I didn’t know if it would be alright, honestly. I didn’t know what was in store for all of us.

Two days later, my mother called in hysterics. My dad was highly agitated and hallucinating and she had placed a call to the hospice nurse. I ran to their house. My sister and brother were already there. He had calmed down by the time I arrived.

He looked at me with terror in his eyes and he said, and I’ll never forget this as long as I live:

“Have you come to say goodbye to Daddy?”

I swallowed hard. Be strong. Big breath.

“Yes, Dad. I’ve come to say goodbye. It’s time to let go. Today’s the day. You’re tired. It’s time to rest. You were a good Daddy. We love you and we’re going to take care of Mom. Drew (my son) loves you so much. Just let go.”

Now, I had heard about this scenario from many people. We were going to be able to say our goodbyes and tell him to let go, and he’d tell us that he loved us and would peacefully drift off in a morphine induced sleep.

That did not happen. There was nothing peaceful about it. Turns out, that day wasn’t THE day. He would linger for another 36 hours.

36 hours of agitation, writhing, moaning, groaning, labored breathing. It was awful.

Where was the peaceful passing? Where was my Oprah moment? My dad was supposed to tell me that I was “a good girl” one more time. He was supposed to tell me that he loved me. Before he reached the point of being unable to speak, I tried to create that moment. I was desperately trying to cajole him into saying those words. Seems I only added to his agitation because he looked at me and mustered up all the breathless ire he could, and said:

“Jesus Christ, Pamela, I’m GOING and that’s all there is to it. Stop trying to turn this into some nice…..”

Those were his last words to me. I hear them in my head and they make me laugh. Seems odd, but they do make me laugh because that was my dad. He was a grouchy, cantankerous……Albanian ox. And he loved me. I never doubted that. I had a way of aggravating him like no one else could, but he loved me.

And I loved him.

To watch this strong man struggle for two days was horrible. He talked about death almost every day for at least 15 years. He seemed to invite death to take him and yet, it turns out, he was really afraid of it. It didn’t seem fair. Why didn’t the drugs do the trick? Why did he have to suffer in his last hours? Why did we?

My sister was with him on that last night. She decided to finally take a rest and shortly after she left his room, he left this earth.

Turns out, April 7th, 2014, at 1:30 am was THE day.

I wish I could say that it was peaceful. More than anything else, I wanted that for him and for our family.

I just read this post to my boy. He dissolved into tears and I followed. He misses his Papa. We didn’t let him see my Dad on that last weekend. That would have been too cruel for both of them.

What I’ve come to realize is that my Dad didn’t fear death, per se. He feared the dying process and his worst fears came true.

I never want to see another person I love struggle to die like that. Never.

I, myself, want a Hollywood death where I am in bed with a peignoir on. My hair is perfectly arranged on the pillow. My deep red, lipsticked mouth saying something brilliant and loving — something my family will always remember.

And then I take a last, dignified breath and close my eyes…

No. Dying is just not that pretty in real life.

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