On Losing My Dad

On the morning of February 5th, 2016, I woke up to my dad sitting at the kitchen table. This was unusual, as he was never awake before I left for school. He informed me that he was going into the hospital for a routine test and that my mother would drive him in after takng me to school. I shrugged it off, grabbed my backpack, and left without saying goodbye.

That evening I had to play at a basketball game with my pep band, so my friend and I decided to stay after and do homework in the band room. My mother showed up unexpectedly around 4:45 with dinner- a sub from my favorite local restaurant. She pulled me into a practice room and spoke the words that have played through my head every day since then: “Libby, your dad had a stroke. We don’t know a lot yet, but they think it’s minor and they’re going to do more tests. They had to put him on a breathing machine because he couldn’t breathe right yet.”

My entire body froze on the spot. I asked her if she needed me to go back to the hospital with her, but she vehemently insisted I stayed at the school. The dinner she brought me went cold and uneaten. The entire evening was spent in sheer, silent panic; I was a far cry from the loud, wisecracking piccolo player my friends were used to at such events. I didn’t sleep well that night. I didn’t sleep at all.

The next morning I had to get up early for a solo and ensemble competition. I begged my mother to allow me to stay home or go to the hospital with her, ut she refused. All three of my events got low ratings. My piano accompanist bought me sushi to go and dumped me at home- alone. That was the first time the tears hit, and I spent the next hour sobbing into the arm of my couch, utterly dejected and alone in my stress. My mother and sister came home two hours later and affirmed my largest fear: my dad’s stroke was severe, and there was essentially no chance for recovery.

My mother said we needed to go to the hospital that night, but I refused. I shut myself in my room and cried and cried for quite a long time. Finally I composed myself long enough to get into the car and ride to the hospital, where it was a long elevator ride up to the ward where they kept the stroke patients.

The man I saw laying in the bed was not my dad. He was pale and clammy and his face was somehow simultaneously swollen and sunken in. His glasses were no longer on his face and he writhed around on the bed like something that was not living, only alive. Only one side of his body could move, and the arm yanked unconsciously at the breathing mask the nurses had strapped to his face. Shortly after we arrived, a young-looking doctor appeared at the door and delivered us the ultimatum: keep him alive and hooked to the breathing machine and spend the rest of our lives taking care of a body whose mind had already departed, or allow the body to follow the mind into everlasting nothingness.

It seems an easy decision now, but back then it was the hardest thing my family had ever had to deal with. To my mom’s credit, she took both my sister and I’s opinions into account; we were 18 and 20 at the time, young but old enough to make adult decisions. I cried so hard I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want my dad to die, but I didn’t exactly want him to live either. Somehow I knew that this was the end even if I didn’t want it to be, and I didn’t want my ‘yes’ to be the one responsible for his passing.

We ultimately decided to take him off life-sustaining machines and let nature take its course. My aunt came to support us, as did my mom’s best friend and her daughter (coincidentally, the piano accomapnist from earlier). They helped the tears stop as we sat around chatting, not just about my dad finally being surrounded by girls but also about our lives and other people’s lives and the latest viral videos. Have you ever laughed while crying? There was a lot of that that night, too. And I suppose I should have felt guilty about it, but there was a deep peace to it all as we sat there in the hospital room listening to glowing machines buzz and beep in the space above our heads.

I fell asleep right in that chair by my dad’s side. In the wee hours on the 7th of February- Super Bowl Sunday- I woke just in time to watch the heart monitor fall slowly down to zero. I don’t know how or why, but it’s almost like I felt something blow by me toward the window. Some have told me it was my dad’s soul going into the wind, and some have told me it was just my mom and aunt saying that his heart had stopped that woke me. The staunch nonbeliever in me screams the latter, but it’s still something that haunts me to this day.

We left the hospital in tears, the nurses hugging us tightly as we stumbled toward the elevator. I gained a deep respect for nurses that day. They were the ones who sat by our sides, holding our hands while we watched the man we knew and loved fade away in his hospital bed. They were the ones who snuck us an endless supply of coffee and cookies and fruit even though it was far past after hours. They were the ones who didn’t lie to us or give us unreasonable expectations about the difficulties we would face after walking out the hospital doors.

My dad was never one to joke around, but when I was around thirteen or fourteen he made a joke about Smart cars being pregnant roller skates. This became a notorious dad-ism in my mind. As we pulled out of the parking garage that night, the street was utterly bare. I looked out the front window just in time to see a red Smart car drive away into the distance, away from us and everything.

I haven’t cried much since that night. I didn’t cry at my dad’s celebration of life- our answer to hating the dreariness of traditional funerals- or when I finally returned to class. I didn’t cry when he wasn’t in the audience at my high school graduation or on Father’s Day. For months I thought I was heartless freak, incapable of feeling normal human emotion. There were no seven stages of grief for me. There was only brief, crippling sadness followed by a haunting sense of normalcy.

In the nearly six months since my dad has passed, I’ve realized that I need to view the positive side of this situation in order to come to grips with the negative side. My father is no longer suffering from the illnesses that made him miserable for much of my life. He no longer feels the guilt of not being physically able to be there for my sister and I, as he did when he couldn’t attend my band’s senior night or my sister’s horseback riding competitons. His death has taught me not only about the fragility and abruptness of life, but also about the beauty in pain. Because although I may never be able to have my father walk me down the aisle at my wedding, losing him has made me love the people I still have with me all the more.

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