Several years ago, there were repeated broadcasts of one of those Pass It On commercials featuring a middle-aged woman saying good-bye to her dying father. The song playing in the background throughout the ad was “You Can Let Go Now“, performed by Crystal Shawanda. Title of the ad is Everlasting Love.
My mom had passed away a few years before I first saw this commercial, in 2007. But, my dad was still alive and I was reminded every time I watched it that I would someday lose him, too.
That time is near.
But, unlike in the professionally-produced video, this daughter – one of my father’s seven – isn’t telling her dad that he can let go. Instead, I have to convince myself to do the letting go.
Two weeks ago, my youngest sister called me – early on a Saturday morning – to let me know Dad had taken a turn for the worse. While his body has been aging with his organs going through a long, slow process of degeneration, he has generally been blessed with good health.
Other than a minor heart attack in 2005, we are unaware of any major diseases – terminal or not – from which he is suffering. No cancer; no diabetes; no hypertension; no emphysema.
Not long after Mom died, Dad fired all of his doctors and later took himself off of all the medications they had him on. At the time, I was doing his bill-paying for him and he instructed me to stop paying his monthly MedicareRx premium. I made sure he understood that discontinuing that coverage meant that he would have to pay out-of-pocket for any drugs he might need in the future – or, at least, until he could re-up during the open-enrollment period. He insisted he would have no such need.
I love my dad and I consider the most humble and gentle man I have ever met. Yet, there have been many times I went to visit him over the past several years and wished I would find him dead in his recliner. He’d be still with eyes closed, looking very peaceful with no obvious signs of breathing. I’d approach him gingerly, wondering if this was the day.
Then, a wave of relief and gratitude would always wash over me when his eyes would open and he’d extend a warm greeting to me and I’d be gifted with yet another visit with the man who, with my mom, brought me into this world, raised me, and always made me feel loved.
After hearing from my sister on March 23rd, I hurried down with my husband and son to see Dad who lives an hour south from me. We stayed briefly as he all but slept. We just wanted to let him know we were there – thinking of him – as we could no longer communicate with him by phone.
My son and I were both sick with colds that week and I didn’t want to expose Dad to anything and make matters worse for him and so we waited until the following Friday to pay him another visit. This time we sat down in his bedroom as he slept. When he awoke enough to try to re-position himself on the bed, I quickly dialed the cell number of my daughter who is away at college. Luckily, she answered and exchanged a very brief conversation with her grandpa who could now just manage a sentence or two before dozing off again.
After holding my phone up to Dad’s ear so that he could hear his granddaughter’s voice, I went to sit back down in his wheelchair that was positioned next to his bed only find find it was no longer there. During that ever-so-brief moment I had gotten up to facilitate an extension of compassion between my daughter and my father, one of my sisters had tip-toed into his bedroom and removed his wheelchair – my temporary source of seating – from the room without a word.
I guess it was in grade school when I learned to always feel for my seat before transferring all of my weight and momentum into a sitting position. It’s one thing for 3rd grade boys to pull such pranks; it’s another when a grown woman does at a time most inappropriate.
But, that wouldn’t be the worst experience for me as I tried to recreate the loving moments between a woman and her dying father that were so touchingly portrayed in the Everlasting Love commercial.
I wanted to visit Dad and spend some time with him as I have done ever since the day Mom died. But, due to a potpourri of unaddressed or improperly managed mental illnesses in my birth family (nine siblings ages 49-65), going down to see my dad who lives in a house owned by one sister and one brother and co-occupied by that brother and another sister is comparable to walking into a hornets’ – or cuckoo’s – nest.
Witnessing the declining health, physical and emotional suffering, and eventual death of one’s loving parent is hard enough, but being forced to deal with unpredictable, highly offensive, and even violent behaviors on the part of their other children is a whole other ballgame – one I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
The only way I could bring myself to visit Dad the following week was to have my husband escort me. He went into work late last Wednesday so that he could accompany me to see Dad. He was more than moral support, however. As a law-enforcement agent, he was, on that day, my bodyguard.
No one bothered us that day. We went straight to Dad’s room, sat with him for awhile, briefly spoke to him the few times he opened his eyes, and then we left.
Feeling like it might be safe to go it alone and feeling bad that, whenever I had gone to see Dad, I found him alone in his room, I decided I would spend the following day with him even if he just slept the entire time.
Last Thursday morning, I packed a small tote with a book, a water bottle, a snack-sized bag of almonds, a small apple, and a travel-size package of tissues. When I got to Dad’s house, I grabbed my bag and swung a collapsed lawn chair – a tad more comfortable than a wheelchair – over my shoulder and headed in for what I had hoped to be a day of simply being a peaceful, loving presence for an 89 year-old WWII vet who happened to be my father and who happened to be dying.
I ran into an obstacle, however, when I found the door to the garage locked. That is the door everyone always uses because it is the closest entry into the house (I can’t call it a home) from the driveway. Since my parents moved to 13852 W. Carriage Lane in Manhattan, Illinois, in 2004, I have used that door well over a thousand times and never once did I find it locked.
The cars of two sisters were parked in the driveway – the one who lives there and the one who owns the place. Maybe they just hadn’t left the house yet that day, I thought, and forgot to unlock the door. So, I carried my gear to the front door and rang the doorbell. While I was waiting for someone to come and let me in, I peeked through the window of Dad’s bedroom to see if anyone was in there with him. No one was.
Still no answer, I rang the bell again and knocked a few times. The dog started barking and the sister who is the landlord and the eldest sibling at 65 hollared, “Hold on!” Standing inside the front door, she looked at me through one of the sidelights and asked in a loud voice, “Are you staying?”
Not quite sure of the meaning of her question, I calmly answered through the thick glass, “I’m here to see Dad,” wondering why this unnecessary communication had to happen as if one of us was an incarcerated felon.
Her next question was just as curious, “Are you here to cause trouble?” to which I answered, “I’m here to see my dad.” I wondered if Dad could hear all of this drama just a few feet away from his bed. While he is hard of hearing, his window was opened and I always wondered if he couldn’t hear more than he led on.
After what seemed to be several minutes of this, I asked the gray-haired pit-bull, “Are you keeping me from seeing my dad?” She finally opened the door with obvious reluctance, apparently realizing she had no choice as my next move would have been to call the police. As I walked past her toward Dad’s room, she continued to harass me about “causing trouble” which I interpret as “holding her to account for her many devious actions against my parents” which I won’t get into today.
For the next 4 hours, it was just Dad and me, minus a few minutes during which yet another sister came in and talked about anything under the sun other than Dad’s well being. A nurse, she came and went. I may have left the room for but a minute to use the bathroom a few steps away while she was in the room but, other than that, I didn’t see that she tended to Dad at all. During that 4 hours, no one else did either.
Whenever Dad opened his eyes, he tried to roll over to the other side. He reached out his hand and I took it so that he could use my strength as leverage. To roll to his right, he’d grab on to the cross-bar of his walker parked at the side of his bed. But, to roll to his left, he had nothing to grab on to except the sheets which simply gave way.
Because there was no folded blanket laid atop his sheets across the middle of his bed, there was nothing I could pull on to help him ease from one position to another. His body was so tender and weak that I feared causing him pain or – worse – dislocating his shoulder just by gently applying enough pressure to help him turn. There was no bell or horn within his reach with which he could call for help and he certainly didn’t have the strength to do so with his voice alone.
For five months before succumbing to cancer, my mom was under the care of a hospice nurse and nurse’s aide. After her death, Dad made clear he didn’t want his daughters or any hospice people taking care of him. “If it comes to that,” he stated firmly, “just take me to the VA hospital.” I imagine he aimed to preserve as much of his dignity as he possibly could after witnessing what Mom had to go through.
That was why I had hoped God would be good enough to take Dad in his sleep as he did his older brother who tucked himself into bed one night and never awoke.
But, that was not to be. Instead, it must have been God’s plan that I witness Dad grimacing in pain, struggling just to go from his right side to his left and vice versa, frustrated that he couldn’t sleep and wouldn’t die.
Fortunately, there is a happy medium between going to a hospital or nursing home and lying alone in a room without so much as bars or a strap on the bed with which to pull on in an attempt to simply roll over, an absolute must in the prevention of painful bed sores.
Unfortunately, some mental illnesses allow those who suffer from them to think only in black and white – all or nothing – with no in between, no gray area. Since Dad said he didn’t want hospice care, I am told by my siblings, he is essentially on his own. When a next-door neighbor who is a doctor asked to see my dad two weeks ago, he was turned away.
After reaching out to the county’s so-called senior services office, the neighbor’s wife, and yet another sister who is Dad’s medical power of attorney, I decided there was nothing else I could do for him.
The very same people to left my mother to lie on her back in soiled sheets for hours and told her, “That’s not our job. Wait for the hospice nurse to get here” were now the sole “caregivers” to my dad. The very same sisters about whom my dad said, “I keep firing them and they keep coming back” were now in that house alone with him without any supervision.
A few weeks before she died, my mom made sure she had witnesses (me and two of my sisters) when she wheeled herself up to the kitchen table to tell my dad, “I don’t want you talking to her,” referring to the one who has lived with him all of these years. It was that same sister my brother’s wife spent over an hour one afternoon pointing out all of the red flags surrounding her “not normal” behaviors.
When I confided in one of my brothers in 2006 that I thought something was wrong with this sister about whom he used to complain to me how much she tormented him while living under the same roof, he responded flippantly, “Kate, I’ve known that since high school!”
One Christmas, a nephew motioned circles around his temple while nodding in her direction. The following Thanksgiving, during one of her many fits, she told us we could all eat our turkey cold. Today, the State of Illinois is paying her to care for an elderly man – my dad.
When I said good-bye to Dad last Thursday just before 4 pm, I said to him, “I wish you much peace, Dad. I wish you nothing but peace,” knowing, under the circumstances, that was unlikely as long as he was still breathing.
To that, he said, “Maybe tonight”. Then, he said, “I love you and tell the same to Frank and the kids”. I was thinking – and hoping – that he would enter the other side of life before dawn. When I watched the sun set a few hours later, I thought of it as being Dad’s sunset.
But, he would live to see another day, and another, and another.
On Saturday morning, after another sleepless night (mine), I did one of the hardest things I will ever have to do. After striking out with four telephone numbers I had tried in an attempt to see if there was some competent, objective professional out there who could peek in on Dad to make sure his basic needs were being met, I dialed the non-emergency number to the Will County Sheriff’s Department.
I requested a well-check and explained to the dispatcher that I had been there for 4 hours two days prior without any of the “caregivers” so much as entering his room. God knows what happens when I’m not there. When she asked why I didn’t call then, I answered, fighting back tears and envisioning Dad being strapped to a gurney and connected to machines by wires, “Maybe I should have but my dad always wanted to die peacefully at home.”
An hour later, a deputy called me back and informed me that he checked in on my dad and that he had requested an ambulance. He told me Dad had no visible bed sores and that his vital signs were consistent with a man of his age. He gave Dad the option of going to hospital and Dad, hard of hearing but of sound mind, declined.
I could tell that my father had made an impression on this deputy just in that brief encounter in his bedroom. “He’s a World War II veteran,” the officer told me after I thanked him, “It was my pleasure to check up on him.”
It took me a few hours to accept that the deputy – and I – and done all that we could for him.
That was four days ago. As far as I know, Dad is still alive. I don’t know if I will ever see him again but I have come to terms with that. I have done all I could possibly do to honor him and my mom who had pleaded days before her own death, “Get Dad out of here!”
I can let go now, I think.