The first weekend I went home, my dad was at a hospice inpatient facility. A five-year negotiation with cancer was coming to its inevitable conclusion. His body could no longer tolerate more of the treatments that had slowed but not stopped the multitude of growths that were consuming his insides. Meanwhile, news about the coronavirus was on the rise. Soon it too would become cancerous, spreading rapidly into every corner of the globe.
My wife Mary and I arrived at the facility just after dark. We spoke to the nurses who had been attending him and were told it could be anywhere from a few days to several weeks until his body gave up on the fight. We walked down the hall to see him.
His room was surprisingly comfortable and inviting. As my mother had told me, it was like a fancy hotel room. The lighting was soft and warm, and he seemed relatively comfortable and relaxed. I sat by his bed and held his hand. We smiled at one another and talked. He seemed resigned and ready for what was to come. It was a nice moment. I would say it was pleasant if it were not for the reality that was underlying it all. This is when I felt like I said goodbye to my father.
The next day, we took him home. A hospital bed took up residence where once the dining room table had been. That first day, with great effort and the help of Mary and me, he could get from the bed to the nearby bathroom, but it was clearly exhausting for him. I think that was the last time he ever moved from one room to another.
The following morning we helped him move the short distance from his bed to his favourite recliner. Instead of the bathroom, he started using a potty chair we could move close to him. The day after that we had to go back to North Carolina for a few days and my brother came and took over the care of my dad. When we came back four days later, we found that he hadn’t left the bed to go to his recliner since we’d been gone.
A few days after that, my sister arrived from Washington State, bringing my first tangible fears of the coronavirus with her. Things were changing. The day before flights from Europe had been banned. The growing threat of the global pandemic was quickly coming to light.
But our world consisted of five of us living and one of us dying in a small two-bedroom townhome in Huntsville, Alabama. My siblings, Mary, and I took shifts staying downstairs with my father at night. My brother would tag off with Mary and I to sleep in the spare bedroom while my sister shared a bed with my mother. We hadn’t been this physically close to each other for such an extended period of time since we were children. Though there had been no official instructions yet, our own form of quarantine had begun.
For a few days more days my father could talk, drifting from sleep to wakefulness. He would say things that were half-dream, half real. He hadn’t eaten in days but one day as Mary and I were going out to the store he perked up from one of his semi-dream states and asked us to bring him back some chicken cacciatore.
Chicken cacciatore? Where did he get that from? It reminded me of eating Swanson TV dinners during my childhood, each portion of the meal covered in plastic and separated into little sections on a flimsy cardboard tray. The whole thing gave us a good laugh, something we all sorely needed at the time.
I looked in vain for words as I sat at my dying father’s bedside. There was an unaccustomed calm in the room. The TV was silent, the dog motionless beneath a pile of blankets. The only sounds were the hum of the refrigerator and my father’s slightly laboured breaths. It was strangely, unexpectedly peaceful.
There were visitors. The hospice nurse, my uncle, and aunt, and my dad’s best friend. But each day he was slipping further away from the shores of alert awareness. He stopped talking. His eyes stayed closed most of the time. He would respond to verbal stimuli with groans or small movements. Then he was only responsive to pain. In the beginning, he could tell us when to give him morphine. By the end, we told time by the two-hour intervals between taking an eye dropper of painkillers and dripping it into the sides of his partially open but unresponsive mouth.
One night as I was helping to change his brief, his cries of pain at being moved brought on a wave of panic and anxiety within me. Tears began to blur my vision. Thankfully, Mary saw my distress and reminded me to just breath. Meanwhile, you couldn’t find toilet paper at any grocery store and the only dried beans I could find were black-eyed peas. It was starting to feel like the end of the world.
As we all lost sleep, the days and nights began to bleed together into one continuous flow of experience. Looking at my father lying inert in the bed with his shallow breaths and occasionally open but glassed over eyes, my family believed that dad was about to die at any second. On at least two different days his hospice nurse came by and proclaimed that it would be soon, maybe only a few hours away. Every time one of us would leave the house to try to get a needed change of scenery or some exercise, there would be a phone call: come back now, he’s about to go.
But Mary, also a hospice nurse, knew better. My father held on. He was always a stubborn, strong-willed man and in those last days he would be no different. He clung to his breath, no matter how many times we tried to reassure him that everything was okay, that we were fine, that he’d done a good job, that he could rest now.
I laid awake at night, wondering what was it like for him in as he was with us and yet not with us. What was he experiencing? Is it like being in a dream you can’t wake up from? Would you even know you were dreaming?
He would make sounds that indicated that something was upsetting him. That’s when one of us would touch his hand and tell him that everything was okay. What else could we do? I envision that he was lost in some unpleasant mental state and would hear our voices and that it would lead him back to something more peaceful. At least, I hope that’s what happened.
It was all a blur. Dad dying, the coming of coronavirus, all of us swirling around each other in my parent’s tiny townhouse, the dog freaking out every time one of us came in the door. I could have handled the stress of that time better. My coping mechanisms involved copious amounts of sugar sweetened processed foods, an over-abundance of coffee paired with a lack of sufficient water intake, and incessantly running into my devices for distraction.
On March 18th, I entered the room where my father lay dying to find my mother, brother, and sister gathered around him. My mom was speaking to him with words that seemed to be coming from somewhere beyond herself. She spoke to him of love, forgiveness, and a place with no pain that had been prepared for him where it was now time for him to go to. My words can’t really do justice to the words she spoke that day. Suffice it to say, they were beautiful, and I’d like to think they were what he needed to hear.
Later that night, two weeks after bringing him home from hospice, my father passed on. Mary and I had just gone to bed and my sister was with him as he took his last breath. There was of course some sadness, but mostly we all felt relief that his suffering was over. In the end, the muscles of his face found release, and it looked as if he were finally smiling again.
The remains of my family are closer now. For that, I am thankful for the awful, wonderful time we had together. Among the overcrowding, sleeplessness, and confusion about what the hell we were supposed to be doing there was also laughter and joy. I hope my father heard that. That he heard his children getting to know each other again, enjoying each other’s company. I hope he knew that he was forgiven and most of all I hope he knew that he was loved.