I stood somewhere between guilt and paralysis
On July 27, 2014, at 3:34 a.m. I got out of bed to check on my dad. From where I slept every night — in the room where my mom kept an old doll collection — the moon’s light made it easy to walk into where Dad now lay motionless in a hospice-prescribed hospital bed. He was in the same room where he’d spill his morning coffee for the last four months.
The only sound was a hum from the oxygen machine.
Ever since Dad’s diet consisted of me squirting morphine into his mouth, he had no need for his dentures, which were now on the dresser in the master where Mom was asleep. Dad’s lips caved into his gums. He was in the same position as when I said goodnight. For that matter, he appeared no different than the full day before while the family held one-sided hopeful conversations.
“Dad, it’s me,” I said in the dark. “Doing okay?”
I repeated my words, but I knew. I felt his hand, noticeably not warm. I turned on a lamp, which is when I really knew.
“Ahhh . . . Dad? I love you, Dad.”
I brushed the back of my hand against his neck. I pressed harder, hoping and wondering and second-guessing.
He was gone.
As much as I knew and loved my dad, I just stood there somewhere between guilt and paralysis. My dad died on my watch, after all. But on the other hand — I would rationalize later — dying seemed like the most vulnerable thing we can do; who wouldn’t want to die alone?
More important, Dad didn’t owe anything to the living — not me or my three brothers and two sisters or even his wife of 62 years. Robert O’Brien gave all his life. He gave and gave and gave some more and now his body was done.
How a person simply expires from one moment to the next, warrants eloquence and poetry but I had none then just like I have none now. I knew he was at peace, but my thoughts were deficient. Death felt dark and foreign. We enter the world, we cry, we take, we dream, we laugh, we give, we work, we share, we love, we deal, we overcome, we celebrate, we reflect, we love some more, we die.
The other sadness I felt was for my sister Mary, who boarded the first possible flight from SFO but then got convinced to spend the night at our sister Shelly’s house with every intention to see Dad first thing in the morning.
There was also the simple-not-simple task of waking Dad’s true love — my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother.
I turned off the oxygen and pulled out the plastic tubing from his nose. I sent a group-text to the family but what could I possibly say? It didn’t matter. I kept it short: “Sorry. Dad is in heaven, all peaceful. Consoling Mom now. Love.”
I knew Mary would be crushed, but I also knew she wouldn’t be surprised. It wasn’t even 4 a.m. and she replied right away, saying she and Shelly would leave asap punctuated with a couple heartfelt emoji hearts.
Whatever the form heaven takes, there was solace in it. There was no way all that grace and personality and well-lived life can disappear into nowhere.
I loved my dad, very much. And as much of a cliché this is, I can’t overstate it: it would be really difficult for anyone not to like being around my dad. He was kind and warm and solid without any overdone pride. He was ballast and armor. He could make his opinion known — which wasn’t too often — in the best of ways. He was a real man without needing a sledgehammer.
I can’t think of a single time when his point of view wasn’t in my best interest.
I’d been living with my parents for nearly a year. My de facto caregiving role was something I backed into after what was unraveling around me: At one end, I needed to escape one very fucked up relationship. On the other, Mary had made an observation from 600 miles away, which sounded like this: “You guys: Mom and Dad need help.”
Within six months of me moving into a spare room filled with white wicker furniture and the doll case, Dad had fallen a dozen times. If I was at work 45 minutes away and Mom called me with panic and confusion, I would try to calm her or call 9–1–1, or both, but I’d rush home either way.
I was 51 the first and only time I yelled at my dad. It was a Saturday morning. After getting him dressed, fed, and into his easy chair, I sat for a bowl of shredded wheat and blueberries because . . . well, because I had my own old-man tendencies. With my head down on my breakfast fiber, my dad apparently got to his feet and then tumbled over.
“What are you doing?” I shouted it, a verbal lashing.
He was bunched in a corner below the TV. He smiled up at me like a two-year-old.
You sort of get used to it. With every fall, there would be blood. I’d get excited if I saw self-adhering flex wrap on sale. Nurses complimented me on my handiwork.
If a fall involved a hit to the head, it meant an automatic ride to the E.R. — not necessarily out of concern, but to be compliant with first-responder protocol. Clear rules meant paramedics wouldn’t have to debate World World II veterans.
A crew of five or six emergency professionals from the Tualatin Valley Fire Department would show up so often, Dad started referring to them as “the boys at the station.” What’s funny is that these same group of guys — all built like power forwards — knew they’d been elevated to the top of Dad’s call-for-help list. By the time I arrived, they’d be trying to lecture and stern-talk Dad on safety tips, while Dad grinned, nodded, and changed the subject. Dad had a way of making the boys at the station scratch their heads, smile, and laugh. Just like he did for the rest of us.
Being aware of your last months or weeks or days — not knowing yet knowing — has to mess with your head. On one hand — for me, anyway — I’d simply want to go head first. Death, that is. I remember thinking my life ought to be done as soon as I could no longer wipe my own ass. I figured I could tell my daughter Ellie one day, “smother me with affection — I mean, a pillow.” But I also knew enough to know that our perspectives change throughout the arc of life. Living has a way of reminding ourselves that it’s always a great time to be alive.
In case it’s not already obvious: death never felt more certain than standing over my dad’s body on his death bed.
Meanwhile, my mom no longer had the capacity to make new memories. She spent her days looking out the window at a big Douglas fir on the practice tee beyond the back patio. She had a series of go-to phrases she’d say over and over, using their rhetorical quality as a small comfort. From a chair near where my dad would eventually lay so still, she’d point to the tree and say, “Would you look at that tree? It’s really grown, hasn’t it?” And then “I can’t believe how much that tree has grown.” And she’d say each again and again, creating a loop of conversation that kept us tethered. There was a child-like quality to it. Over time, we learned to fill the voids by pulling from a grab bag of favorites:
“Time really flies, doesn’t it?”
“We can’t really control the weather, can we?”
“Look at those clouds.”
“What would we do without the rain?”
If all else fails, reach for one of her hands and describe how unbelievably soft it is.
If Mom had an episode where, for instance, she’d ask when her father — Daddy — was dropping by, it never felt quite right to explain that he died in 1955. I would simply say I wasn’t sure, but would you look at how big that tree is getting?
You can’t argue someone else’s point of view just like you can’t compare pain.
Long-term memories were no problem for my mom. We could talk about the people from her childhood: her grandfather with the big house and beautiful rose garden on Cranbrook Road outside Detroit. There was also Mother May, her maternal grandmother who lived with Mom as a child. The sweet irony is that these two people died long before I was even born. It’s through my mom’s changing mind that I’d become acquainted.
I thought I knew a thing or two about patience and living in the moment, but her limitations helped me be truly present. But maybe that’s what all great parents do without even knowing it.
For all the years before Mom’s dementia, she was sweet and even-tempered and clear-minded as can be. And ever since the Alzheimer’s took hold, she remains sweet and mellow with some added OCD for good measure. It seems routine and familiar faces and surroundings are all she has to make sense of not knowing what day it is.
She tries to hide her confusion, but will occasionally confide with a heavy sigh, full of exasperation: “I just don’t remember,” she’d say as if I’d never noticed.
When I think of the way a parent with Alzheimer’s makes me feel, I wonder if there is a word for when you need to cry, but laugh instead.
Back to that lonesome and quiet pre-dawn to let my mom know her husband since 1951 was no longer alive: just me, my deceased dad, and my sound-asleep mom. I’m not much for drama, but the moment I sat at her side and touched her on the shoulder, she awoke in tears.
“Mom, Dad is in heaven.”
I anticipated only questions and confusion, but she just sobbed into her pillow. It’s still a mystery to me; I have no idea how she could react so clearly. This is the same woman who months ago put the cordless phone in the trash bin under the kitchen sink.
Her tears brought me to tears.
“Come on,” I suggested.
“Okay,” she said, just like that. I helped her with her robe and she grabbed my hand to see Dad. We walked out of her room without a word.
Just how lucid was she?
The moment she saw him, she couldn’t get close enough to him — cradling his face in her arms, talking through sobs.
“My Bobby. My Bobby . . . ” If she could’ve crawled up onto the gurney, she would have. “You were such a wonderful man and husband and friend. I love you, my dear Bobby.” She kissed him on the forehead and on the cheek.
Aside from handing her a Kleenex, it was as if I weren’t even there, which made me feel grateful.
I remember thinking how I wished my brothers and sisters could’ve been there to see such raw emotion. It was all privilege. Who in the world was I to witness — be present for — that particular moment? I stood speechless, a jumble of inconsolable voyeur. Three minutes passed or ten? After she wiped away her tears from Dad’s forehead, she looked up at me to say, as a matter of fact, we needed to go back to bed.
There is no arguing with an Alzheimer’s patient.
“Ok,” I said and walked over to hug her.
“Will you cuddle with me?” she said.
I can do this, I thought, because when your 83-year-old mother asks to cuddle and takes you by the hand, you’re grateful. We got into bed — she still insisting — and then me keeping awkwardly still as my mind raced between being in the moment and wondering where to find the number for the 24-hour hospice hotline.
As soon as she fell asleep, I was up and on the phone.
Mary and Shelly arrived a little while later.
By 10 a.m. or so, my sisters went in to help Mom get dressed. The weather outside was much like it is today: sunny and perfectly warm.
As Mary and Shelly walked Mom out of her bedroom, the family — Mike, Chris, Rob, and most of the next generation — stood in silence. It was obvious to me: Mom’s memory of the tears and farewell six hours earlier was lost. She was experiencing for the first time that her beloved Bobby — my beautiful father who lived with such joy and grace — had passed away into the morning.