Wow. I have let two years pass since my last post, and I have regrets about that. I planned to document this journey better. I thought it would be cathartic. The truth is, writing is cathartic for me, but I often do it in private. There’s a freedom in journaling that is lost when you know it will be posted publicly. Some may say there’s a freedom in releasing it to the world, and I agree with that, too.
I’m trying to take myself back to the mindset I had in May 2016. I was pregnant and I didn’t know it yet. I was a caregiver to my father, who was living at the skilled nursing facility where I worked and still work. I was exhausted and stressed but I was so actively trying to heal myself so I could get pregnant and be strong for my family. I was in a better place then than I was during the October before, when Dad was given 6 weeks to live and I was struggling with infertility. I’m happy to say I’m in an even better place now, though the hearts of everyone around me broke with mine when he passed away in the Fall of 2016.
To go back a bit to Summer of 2016, Dad was getting chemo infusions. It was getting to be exhausting for him to be transported to chemo, and though it seemed to be keeping the tumor at bay, it wasn’t clearly improving any quality of life for Dad. My mom was at the point of exhaustion and the family made the decision to stop treatment that Summer. Since two years have passed, I am now fuzzy on the dates.
Since I work at the rehab where he was living, I spent time with him every day and contributed (along with my mom, sister and our parents’ friends) to cooking his meals. We didn’t give him institutional food because we wanted to maximize his immune system function through nutrition. I made sure his nurse’s aides got him out of bed every day, so he wasn’t just laying around. Dad’s occupational therapist, Melissa, and physical therapist, Lisa, checked on him and helped me transfer him out of bed when other staff members were busy. Lisa got him hooked up with an awesome wheelchair that tilted back so he would be more comfortable. The whole rehab team was so supportive during my Dad’s time there, and I will be forever grateful for them.
On Monday, September 26, 2016, I sat with Dad after my shift ended, but I was 5 months pregnant and tired, so I left around 4pm or so for home. Dad had developed a cough over the weekend and, all of a sudden, his voice was so weak and hoarse it was almost gone. That morning he had a chest X-ray and they diagnosed him with pneumonia. Meds were on order from the pharmacy by 3pm that day, and he would have them by the next morning. I wasn’t too worried. I purposely didn’t kiss him goodbye for the first time since his diagnosis because he had pneumonia and I was pregnant and also had a cold. I did say, “I love you, Dad,” and he was so weak and tired he didn’t respond. I said, “Do you love me?” in a both joking and expectant tone, and he smirked slightly and nodded his head. And I left.
Around 2 am on September 27, 2016, I got a frantic phone call from my mom. Just seeing the phone ringing was a bad sign, of course. She was crying and saying that the paramedics were working on Dad, trying to revive him. The nurse had come in to check on him and he wasn’t breathing. Mom lives about 2 minutes away, so she went right over. I figured, “Okay, I’ll get dressed and meet them over at the hospital.” She called back just a few minutes later to say he was gone. My husband and I packed bags quickly and left for Delaware (we live 45 minutes away in PA).
The next week was full of planning and trying to get to work in between. Mind you, my father had just died in the building but I didn’t want to take extra days just to sit home and cry. I didn’t go down that hallway for the rest of my pregnancy and for a few months after I got back from maternity leave. My family doesn’t understand how I even set foot in the building, but I’m alright now as long as I don’t have to go into his room.
It probably seems crazy to say that his death was a surprise, but I was not expecting it at the time. The doctors were right. He didn’t die from the cancer; it was a related complication. After 17 months of constantly thinking about his needs, cooking for him daily, being with him every weekday, and helping make medical decisions that are well beyond my preparedness level, he was just gone. And we were all devastated. I would be misrepresenting myself if i didn’t say that there was a tiny wave of relief that came over me, though. Not relief that he was gone, because I knew I’d rather have kept doing what we were doing for as long as he’d hold on because we knew he wanted to live- and we wanted him to live! But deep down in the selfish pit of my soul, a weight was lifted. I was free. Free to enjoy the rest of my pregnancy, free to take care of myself and prepare for the changes ahead, free of the constant guilt I felt when I wasn’t there. Free of watching my Dad be someone different than the memory of him that I want to hold on to. I also felt gratitude for the time I got to spend with him in the last 17 months of his life, which was exponentially more than I would have had he died suddenly. Feeling the guilt of feeling the relief is still something I grapple with.
I thought that I had already gone through some of the stages of grief while he was still alive, since we all knew what was likely coming (outside of a miracle). What I learned was that the stages of grief are all true, but they are not linear. They don’t necessarily happen in the same order for everyone, and they can reappear. When you think you’re past denial and bargaining and you’re on your way to acceptance, all of a sudden a wave of anger can come over you and you’re not even sure at whom it’s directed. Even now, a wave of shock will come over me when I think, “Did all of that really happen? Is he really gone?” Because sometimes it’s still so hard to believe.
I’m reminded of a quote from Joe Biden, from a speech given to military families who had lost loved ones:
“There will come a day, I promise you … when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later. But the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m telling you it will come.”
This day has not yet come for me, almost two years later. I am hopeful, though. We do tell stories of funny things he did or quirky things he said and we laugh. But he was too young (61), and too close to retirement, and too damn close to meeting his granddaughter for me to not still be hurt and angry and so so sad.
Thank you for reading my story. As one of my favorite writers, Gretchen Rubin, always says, “Onward and Upward.”