Dad’s Denouement Part 5: The Blessings of Goodbye
On a Saturday, I flew into Atlanta to spend time with my sick father and help my parents move out of the house they were selling. I started this series assuming I would write it over his final months. But as it turns out, that was his last Saturday on this earth.
I’ve never felt so incredibly blessed as I did that week.
I don’t say that a lot because it’s hard to understand the blessing. It sounds like either he was in a lot of pain or I’m glad he was spared further suffering. Neither of those things are true. He wasn’t feeling great, but he was nowhere near the pain many others experience in death. And I think he would have happily traded some suffering to spend some more time with us (especially his grandchildren, whom he adored).
No, the blessing was specifically to me. There were a lot of hard things that needed doing in the time I spent and I had the opportunity to do them.
I came to spend time with Dad and I got that. We got to be normal and hang out one last time. I got to watch one last movie with him (“What About Bob?”… which is particularly tender to me since my that was Dad’s name). We joked and poked fun at each other. We ate together.
When Dad went to the ICU, I got to take care of my mom and hold Dad’s hand when he was scared. I got to help them sell the house when my Dad couldn’t make it to the house signing. I got to help plan the funeral. I got to be there with my siblings as we all figured out that this was the end.
My employer was amazingly kind to me, allowing me to move around sick days, stray holidays, and bereavement leave so that I could spend all this time taking care of things for my parents. I’ve never worked for a company this generous and I happen to work for them when I really needed that generosity.
I’m the oldest son of 6 kids, but I’ve also been away from home (Atlanta) for most of my adult life. That had created a disconnect, like I’m a distant part of the family and not a close, intimate part of it. But being physically there while all of this played out, being with Mom every day, being able to take over some of the winding down of Dad’s finances, this really brought everyone back together and it created the expectation that I wouldn’t let things fall through the cracks. I think this was a blessing for everyone.
We had the opportunity to know when Dad was dying, so I was able to fly my family out so he could see his grandchildren one last time. As he died that week, that was the only thing he wanted and we were blessed enough to have the money and ability to give that to him.
My kids got to say goodbye to Grandpa. He could hardly speak by then, but he had been saving his strength all day while they flew across the country and he sat up when they came in. They held his hand, he blew them kisses. My second daughter was terrified and didn’t want to talk to him, didn’t want to touch him. This was hard for me to see b/c she was always the one to tackle Grandpa and snuggle him. She was always his little darling. I wanted Dad to have a last hug from her. But he understood better than I did. In the room with my family, that was the last smile I saw from him.
Dad didn’t die scared, which was a blessing. His best friend from high school had died suddenly a few years ago. A blood vessel burst in his throat and he died in the night, panicked, choking on blood. Dad told me this when it happened and I could see how frightening that was. That’s not how he wanted to go and we were blessed that he didn’t.
Dad died with his family around him, which was a blessing for him and for us.
All of the siblings gathered together the last day. They turned off the pressors that kept his blood pressure up while we surrounded him. We were told that he would die minutes later.
He… did not.
We were solemn and quiet for about an hour. Then we took turns casting glances at his vitals screen because his blood pressure had stabilized higher than when he was on the pressors. Eventually I broke silence.
“I’m going to go get some coffee, does anyone want anything?”
No one did. I think we were all still trying to be serious about this.
But we slowly started reverting back to our normal family dynamic of sarcasm and jokes. There’s something really good about normal when death is so near. It feels more natural, less frightening. We spent as much time as we could with him and then we started doing shifts as we went back and forth to our kids to grab dinner.
I came back to Dad around 8 or 9 PM. Mom was the only one there, laying her head on a pillow at his side and holding his hand.
I hugged her, dropped my backpack, talked for a bit, and went to get some coffee from the hospital coffee room.
When I came back, I was absolutely shocked to see a childhood friend sitting beside my mother, hugging her. I hadn’t seen this friend in 20 years. It took me a while to even make the connection, I asked how her siblings were doing in the hopes that she would use their names and I could be 100% certain this was the person I knew all those years ago.
She had heard that Dad was dying and had been on a business trip to Florida, taking a flight connection in Atlanta. She abandoned her flight back home to come out to the hospital. She dearly loved my Dad, who had been like a second father to her since we were 3. She also felt she was blessed with this chance to say goodbye.
Another of my siblings showed up. Mom talked about how much she missed Dad already, about how he would come to bed late and slide into the sheets hold her hand and how much she missed that small and simple thing.
And then he was gone. It wasn’t a quiet slip into the next world, but it wasn’t terrifying or panicked. It was a body shutting down. It was Dad letting go.
We needed more time. He was only 61 and was in great health until the cancer. I feel a little cheated that he had to go so soon.
As Dad always reminded us, the Bible teaches that death is a curse. But everything else along the way was a blessing.