There are moments in life when something affects us so deeply, we almost forget how to breathe. The lump in our throat is too massive to swallow and the sinking in our heart drowns our ability to think past that very moment. That is how I felt on that Saturday afternoon, standing in a stale room of a ghostly hospital that reminded me more of a prison. There was no color there, nor warmth or hope of any kind. Walking through those hallways, I could almost see the tears and hear the cries of people who had suffered loss there in times past. The smell still haunts me to this day. In that room, I was surrounded by family and close friends. We all awaited the doctors prognosis, news we’d all been dreading to hear for the past 4 1/2 grueling weeks. We were told there was no hope for my father’s recovery. He would have to be moved to a long-term care facility, where he would not be able to speak or eat. Rather, he’d be held captive in his own body, being kept alive by a machine. Little did I know a month before that day that I would be in this moment, preparing my mind and heart to say goodbye far too soon.
It was 11:30 on a Monday night. I was sleeping at the time I got the call. The last peaceful sleep I would have for a while. The sound of the phone woke me, but not in time to answer. As I sat half asleep listening to the voicemail, I felt nervous and confused. My cousin, who lived across the street from my father at the time, was telling me there had been an accident at my fathers house, but everything was OK. I got dressed as quickly as possible and drove straight to the hospital, calling both of my sisters on the way. The wait in the ER felt like forever, and never have I been so happy to see my sister and hug her. At this point, we knew very little about my father’s condition, only that there had been a fire at the house and because of his pre-existing lung problems, he was taken to the hospital.
When I was finally allowed to see my father, the gravity of the situation hit me like a brick. The man I could call anytime I was sad or scared and find comfort in; the man whose arms I used to hang on as a little girl, thinking of how strong he was….was laying there surrounded by a web of tubes. Motionless and virtually helpless, he was at the mercy of his body. A body that we learned in the coming weeks was too tired to fight.
The next five weeks can only be described as an emotional roller coaster. My sisters and I were faced with many tough decisions from day one. We asked a lot of questions and tried hard to make sure my father was as comfortable as someone could be who couldn’t eat, drink, move, or communicate. I researched every moment that I could, so I could ask the right questions and understand the process that was about to unfold. Unfortunately, no amount of questions or crossing of fingers could change the reality of the situation. Without getting too technical or detailed, weaning someone with compromised lungs from a ventilator is no easy feat. Every time his breathing assistance was decreased to try and retrain his lungs to function on their own, his body would panic. His heart rate and blood pressure would skyrocket. In an effort to avoid a massive heart attack, his breathing assistance would again have to be increased. The process would then start over the next day. It seemed every time there was a spark of hope, it was extinguished by a flood of disappointment.
A pivotal moment in this journey was when our family decided that we needed to somehow explain the situation to my father and give him the choice (indicated by the nod or shake of his head) to continue fighting or not. Mind you, he had for the most part been in a medically induced coma for two weeks. When the medicine would wear off and he became somewhat aware of his state and surroundings, his anxiety would become debilitating. One day, he was very slowly weaned off of the medicine. My sisters and I made the decision to have a nurse try to understand his wishes. We believed that had one of us presented the information to him, the situation would be unbearably emotional for him and us both. Surely he would see the pleading in our eyes, wanting him to fight, and this would sway him from giving an honest answer.
The family sat for sometime in the waiting room, holding our breath. Trying to prepare ourselves emotionally for whatever the answer was. In that moment that the nurse entered the room and told us my father had chosen to continue fighting, the first joyful tears fell. The battle had not been won, nor was it any less daunting than it was prior to his decision. But someone wanting to live, despite the odds being stacked against them, is a beautiful thing.
However, after two surgeries and a transfer to another facility, the situation was bleak. There was no improvement. Watching someone you love die is an image you never forget. It is even more difficult when you know that in that person’s mind they want to live, but they are being betrayed by their own body.
Too early in our lives do we realize the inevitability of death. The “ideal” situation, if you can call it that, would be for us or our loved ones to pass peacefully in sleep at an old age. Rarely does life hand us those cards. Upon receiving the news from the doctor, my sisters and I had to make the toughest decision anyone could ever make on someone’s behalf. We knew in our hearts, without a doubt, it was what my father would have desired, given the quality of life he was being offered from that point on. My father would be removed from life-support the following Tuesday morning.
I have always felt that most of life’s occurrences are due to circumstance, even coincidence at times, rather than predestination or outside forces. But on a Monday night, around the same time I received that first haunting call five weeks to the day, my phone rang once again. My father passed away on his own that night. His heart stopped 12 hours before we were to remove him from life-support. I would like to think that subconsciously my father let go in order to spare us the wonder and the pain associated with his passing in that way. For this, I am truly grateful. The relief almost surpassed the devastation at that moment.
“Grief only exists where love lived first” ~ Franchesca Cox.
The grief was overwhelming because the love between us was undeniable. I will never forget how it felt to hold my father’s hand for the final time. To lay my head on his chest that had lost all of its warmth, knowing at the very least, he was at peace. It was up to me now, to pick up the pieces and find my own peace.
“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in” ~ Haruki Murakami