His breathing changed. Where a few minutes before it had been coming from down by his stomach, it now came in gasps as if he were sucking through a straw clogged by a lemon seed. Strained. Deliberate.
His breathing stopped. His chest stilled. His mouth closed. Before the nurse left to get her stethoscope, she asked if I noticed his head rise slightly when I’d said, “It’s time you go be with mom.”
I didn’t know what to say. All I knew for sure was that I had just witnessed my dad’s last breath.
The call had come at seven on that Sunday morning. Dad’s blood pressure was eighty over fifty and he was unresponsive to touch.
Within a half hour I arrived at the nursing home. I asked the nurse what was happening.
“Your dad’s kidneys have stopped working and his organs are shutting down,” the nurse said.
I went to dad’s room. He was alone. The room was still.
The hospice nurse came about an hour later, checked dad, noted his vital signs and said he was in the early stages of dying.
I wanted to say, “No, you don’t understand. My dad started dying six years ago, when my mother died and dementia took her place.” But I didn’t. This kind of information isn’t noted on doctor’s charts but ingrained in the hearts and minds of family who have been a part of the journey.
The coma was a relief. Gone was the involuntary ranting that had come every few seconds for months. No more fear of being in the range of an errant spit. Instead of trying to remove his clothes and squirming like fire ants were in his soul, dad lay still on the bed.
My sister and daughter arrived. I rubbed dad’s head, soft with white hair on the sides. I noticed his ears and nose looked even larger than normal, but kept that observation to myself. I held his hand. It was still strong.
Dad had always had a good handshake. It was his hand that rubbed my head when I didn’t feel well, snapped the thorns off roses, peeled carrots, bag after bag, before putting them in the juicer to make what he hoped would be the elixir that would hold my mother’s leukemia at bay.
They were the same hands that held the hanger that swatted my bottom once when I had lied. These same hands had shown me how to bend the thorns off roses, hold a broom, arrange a good poker hand, and draw shadows in the right areas on pencil drawings.
The nurse said it was believed people in comas could hear. So we told him, as we’d told him often, what a good father he had been, how much we loved him and that we would all be fine. No matter how far into dementia he had traveled, whenever I left after a visit, I’d lean into his good ear and say, “I love you. “ He always said, “I love you,” back. That is, until the Friday before his death when even after I said, “I love you,” three times. There was no response.
You might think I would have known that death was coming. But, with my dad, you could never be sure. It was one of our inside, macabre jokes that dad had more lives than a cat. I had sat at his bedside many a time after various ailments — suicide attempts, falls, hallucinations, pneumonia — watching over him curled into a fetal position, telling him it was fine if he wanted to go and be with mom.
Somehow, some way, parts of him would come back, but never fully back.
Shortly after noon my daughter wanted to go home, so we left, as the Hospice nurse assured me that death was not imminent. Over halfway home, we made an abrupt turnaround after my husband called me on my cell phone. My sister had called our house and told him things were progressing faster than anticipated.
When we arrived back to dad’s bedside I noticed he was breathing harder than before. Blood pressure: Sixty over forty. Another hour passed. My sister and I talked about how the hospice minister probably didn’t know what to make of us when he came into the room as we were saying silly things, and had our Sunday newspaper spread out atop dad’s legs.
He had no way of knowing how many tears we had shed in the last six years, how many conversations I’d had with God asking him what I should be praying for. There is no way he could have understood the promises my mother had each of her three daughters make — that we would “take care of daddy“ — and how guilty we felt that the dementia was stronger than any of us. Or how badly we felt because we couldn’t make dad happy. Dementia doesn’t allow for much happiness, unless it exists in some deep, secret recess of the mind we aren’t privy to.
When the minister left, we talked about food, one of dad’s favorite topics. Some people lose their appetites in such situations, but that characteristic is not in our gene pool.
We were hungry. Kentucky Fried chicken sounded like it would hit the spot, something good and greasy and banned by most diets. Something dad could smell. Something we used to take on picnics when life seemed as if it would go on forever. My sister said she and my daughter would go out and bring it back.
Within minutes after they left, dad’s breathing changed. The nurse came in. Should I call them back, I asked?
I left a message on my sister’s cell phone. The nurse sat on the other side of the bed. She pulled back the sheet. We both noticed dad’s feet were mottled, a term you probably don’t learn unless you are sitting vigil at a deathbed.
I looked at dad’s hand. The purple was spreading from his hand and up his arm. Tears fell on both sides of the bed.
The nurse said, “Hold on, Henry, hold on,” hoping my sister and my daughter would make it back in time.
“No, it’s ok,” I said. “He has held on long enough. It’s time for him to be with mom.”
Side note: This was written almost ten years ago and was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I came across it today wen I was looking for another essay. Reading it stopped me in my tracks and made me think of my dad … when he was alive, not dying.