When Saying "I Love You" Isn't Enough
I don’t remember the last words my dad spoke to me. I’m sure it was something inconsequential or even nonsensical. After all, he wasn’t totally lucid for the last several days (or even several weeks) of his life. Every time I left the room, I tried to make sure that I said “I love you,” just in case it ended up being the last words he ever heard. Or maybe I said it more so that I could feel positively about our final interaction as I tried to go on living my life. It didn’t work.
My mom never hesitated to let me know that I had old parents. Shortly after being given “the talk” about how babies are made, she told me about the night she found out that she was pregnant. According to her story, my dad immediately exclaimed, “I’m going to be 70 years old when this kid graduates from high school!” The story of my mom’s miraculous conception always focused on what a gift it was to have me and how my parents’ age was in some way a real blessing for me.
Dad’s near-constant health issues never really felt like a blessing. I have a very distinct memory of a friend’s mom taking me aside at a slumber party to inform me that my mom had taken my dad to the hospital because he was having chest pains, so I wasn’t getting picked up until later. I was maybe eight or nine years old, too young to understand the potential severity of the situation but old enough to know that this wasn’t something most people my age had to deal with.
In 2013, I moved away from the city where I had lived since infancy for the first time. I went to graduate school in Nashville, a “quick” nine-hour drive from home. I never truly felt like I was able to start an adult life while I lived in Florida, and I was ready to be done with it. In December of 2014, on his 77th birthday, my dad had a quadruple bypass. It wasn’t his first heart surgery, so even though it was more severe than he’d experienced in the past, I assumed he would recover. And it seemed like he was going to. But then there was an infected incision and cancer and more heart troubles.
I called my mom shortly after my final semester of grad school began to talk to her about applying for graduation and asked if she thought she and my dad could make it to the ceremony in May. “I don’t think your father’s going to make it,” she told me.
“That’s fine,” I said. “Do you think you’ll need to stay home to take care of him? Or will he be okay on his own?”
“Honey,” she said softly, “I don’t think your father will still be around come May. We’re meeting with his doctors to talk about hospice options next week.”
I made the appropriate arrangements with my professors and headed back to Florida the week my dad began hospice care. Every day, my mom and I turned to the nurses in hopes that they might make some comment about how it looked like he was making a miraculous recovery. But time went on and eventually they started giving us resources on how to handle a loved one dying and ways to prepare ourselves for the months to come.
When it started to look like we were in the final days, I couldn’t be around him. I found myself looking for excuses to leave the house or locking myself in the bedroom where I was staying to “work on my thesis” or do whatever other tasks I could come up with to avoid facing my dying father. Every morning when I woke up, I did my best to avoid leaving my room until I could hear my mom moving around in the kitchen. I didn’t want to be the one to go out into the living room and discover him lifeless in the hospital bed.
One night, as I tried to sleep, I heard him making incoherent noises in between his snoring. These noises hadn’t been unusual for the past few nights, but they were disturbing none the less. Part of me felt like I should go out and be with him, but instead I just lay in my bed, eyes squeezed shut, attempting to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, on Thanksgiving, he had died. I tried so hard to make sure that the last thing I said to him was that I loved him. He didn’t even seem to know who I was most of the time, so I recognize that I had been trying to set myself up for a fond memory so that I could feel good about myself. But here I am, slightly more than a year later, and all I can remember is feeling like I should’ve gone to my father rather than just pretending I couldn’t hear him while he died, leaving him all alone.
I’m not sure if there will ever be a time where I don’t feel like I should’ve gone out into the living room to hold his hand for the last hours or minutes of his life. I’m terrified of death – maybe not of my own but of the people I love and care about. As I spent those weeks avoiding the reality of it, I’m now left wishing I had dealt with it head on to spend that time with him and maybe making the last moments of his life less scary.