May 30, 2014 – My Dad passed away one year ago today. Unsurprisingly, I still miss him. In a way there are two Dads I miss: the man he was before his traumatic brain injury as well as the man who suffered from TBI and dementia. I miss the man who designed and built beautiful, creative furniture, and I miss the man I was able to help care for and love. Most of all, I miss his not being with Mom. Theirs was the kind of relationship about which they make movies; it just seems contrary to the way the universe should be to see Mom without Dad.
My reflections on Dad’s passing, however, are not about that moment when his poor, battered brain and body finally stopped functioning and his spirit was freed from the chains of mortal incapacity. Rather, my thoughts are of his last gift to us during the final three days of his mortal existence. They were truly extraordinary.
I went to see Dad on Tuesday, May 28. I purposely went at lunchtime so I could feed him. I suppose I could have been really saddened by the fact that my dad could no longer feed himself, but I found great comfort and satisfaction in serving him this way. I had nothing else scheduled for that afternoon; given my past experience, I knew mealtime could extend for an hour or more. Because he had no idea who I was and was, for all intents and purposes, non-verbal, feeding him was about the only way I could interact with him. Any other time he was either sleeping or paddling around in his wheel chair, completely oblivious to my presence.
I found Dad in the dining area seated all alone at a table, his food in front of him. I sat down and started to feed him, but he wasn’t very interested. I noticed that he didn’t have anything to drink, so I got him a glass of orange juice with a straw. He took one sip of the juice, said, “Mmmmmm!” and kept drinking. Although he actually drank very little, I could tell he was really enjoying the juice. That was the last communication from Dad before he died, and I am so grateful that his last conscious act was one of pure enjoyment.
Before long, he began to nod and quickly went to sleep. He looked uncomfortable all slumped over in his wheelchair, so I found his caregivers and asked them to lay him down on his mattress so he would be more comfortable. Because Dad could not stand on his own, he had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor so he wouldn’t fall trying to get out of bed. I sat down next to him and just held his poor skinny hand—he had gone from 230 lbs to about 170 during the year he was in the care center. After a few minutes, he began doing what the nurses called “guppy breathing.” The best way to describe it is he looked like a fish out of water. He would open his mouth and his stomach would suck in, but there was no air being exchanged. This would happen two or three times, then he would gasp and start breathing again. It was really kind of creepy. While this had happened numerous times in the hospital, I hadn’t seen him do it for a really long time, so I decided to call the caregiver and ask if this was something they normally saw with him.
Almost immediately, the nurses were there to check his vital signs. Fortunately, one of our favorite nurses, Joyce, was on duty that day. After checking him, she told me that this was basically the beginning of the end and that I should call my mom. She also said they would bring a bed in so he wouldn’t have to lie on the floor any longer.
Because I had spoken to my mom just about 10 minutes before this happened, I knew she and my sister Barbara were already on their way to see Dad, so I decided not to call and alarm them. I did call my brother, Bryant, and my other sister, Emily, and told them that they should come as soon as they could. I sat down by Dad and just kept asking him to stay long enough for Mom to get there. As soon as she and Barbara arrived, I told them what was happening. Mom, of course, immediately put her arms around him as best as she could with him lying on the floor and tearfully began telling him how much she loved him. About this time a couple of caregivers brought a bed in, gently picked him up off the floor, carefully laid him down, and covered him with a sheet and blanket—a circumstance he hadn’t enjoyed for quite awhile. I can’t describe how comforting it was to see him in a real bed instead of on a mattress on the floor. Even though we understood and agreed with the reasons he couldn’t sleep in a bed, it still seemed kind of degrading to have him sleeping on the floor. Before long, Bryant and Emily arrived, and we began to wait for the inevitable end. One of the caregivers had told me that, in his experience, death usually occurred within 30 minutes after a person began guppy breathing, but Dad apparently wasn’t in any hurry to leave. All of the care center staff left the room, and Mom, my siblings, and I found chairs and just sat talking.
About five or six o’clock, we began getting hungry, so we called Barbara’s husband, Ryan, and asked him to pick up some pizzas from Robintino’s—one of Mom’s and Dad’s favorite places to eat. In fact, that was where we went to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. By the time Ryan arrived with the pizza, the other spouses had arrived, so we all sat around eating pizza and just chatting. Occasionally a nurse would come into the room to give Dad some morphine or a caregiver would ask us to leave the room for a few minutes while he changed Dad’s brief.
As it got later, it was pretty evident that Dad wasn’t likely to go anywhere soon, so my siblings decided to go home, while Mom and I chose to stay the night. Even though my Dad hadn’t slept in it, there was still a bed in the room. So Mom took the bed, and I slept in Dad’s recliner which we had brought to his room when he first entered the care center. The staff gave us plenty of pillows and blankets, and we settled in for the night.
The next morning, Wednesday, Mom had one of my nephews and his fiancée stop at her house to get her a change of clothes and some toiletries. She also had them bring the quilt she was hand-binding so she could have something to do while we waited. I had my Kindle and an internet connection and was good to go. So we settled down to wait some more. My sisters and brother came later in the day along with my dad’s brother and his wife, Harry and Barbara. Again, we just all sat around chatting and laughing. There was no sorrow, just contentment. Occasionally, Mom would reach over to Dad, pat him on the hand, and say, “It’s okay, sweetheart. You can go now.” The care center took great care of us, providing food and anything else we needed. While their breakfasts and lunches were pretty good, dinner was less than appealing, so we decided to have someone go to Wendy’s to get us something to eat. Wendy’s is another eatery that belongs in our family’s history; for many years, we would stop for lunch at the Wendy’s in Price, Utah, on our annual trip to Lake Powell.
That night, all of my siblings as well as my Uncle Harry decided to stay the night. Mom took the bed again, I claimed the recliner, and the staff brought mattresses and bedding to the room for my two sisters. My brother and uncle were given blankets, and each found a couch in one of the lounges to sleep on. (About six o’clock the next morning, a couple of the caregivers, who had just come on shift and didn’t know about my dad’s condition, saw my uncle on the couch and figured he was just a new resident who had wandered in there during the night.) Our sleeping arrangements were reminiscent of our nights at Lake Powell with our family of 20 or more all spread out on the top of the houseboat. In fact, the whole situation seemed very much like one of our Lake Powell vacations with us all just relaxing and talking. Of course, Dad wasn’t taking part in the conversation, but he usually didn’t say much during our Lake Powell discussions, either.
Thursday morning arrived, and Dad was still with us. He was being kept comfortable with morphine, and he seemed peaceful for the first time almost since his fall three years earlier. The day was going about the same as the previous two days, so in the afternoon I decided to go home to shower and change clothes. While I was gone, Emily called and asked me to stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken to pick up some dinner. Again, although quite unintentionally, we had chosen a restaurant with a particular familial connection—during his career as a cabinet maker, my dad had made and installed the booths and salad bars in numerous KFC restaurants around the state.
After dinner that night, there was a definite change in Dad. His breathing got shallower and more irregular, and we knew that we wouldn’t be spending another night at the care center. Joyce, our favorite nurse, came in and told us exactly what we could expect when Dad died, how his extremities would get cold, how his cheeks would sink in, how his color would change, and how his mouth would most likely remain open. I spent most of the evening timing his breathing. He would breathe normally for a few minutes, and then he would stop breathing for a full minute or two. Finally, about nine o’clock the waiting was over, for both him and us. Perhaps there was a death rattle like they talk about, but I don’t remember hearing one. He finally just stopped breathing and was gone. We stayed for a little while, not really knowing what to do. Eventually we decided to go home and let the care center take over the necessary arrangements. The hardest thing was that everything looked so clinical and cold. Finally, Mom covered Dad with his Jazz blanket. Somehow that made it look like Dad was someone loved and cared for and not just a lifeless body on a bed. Then we left.
We’ve talked often about those three days. I really think Dad could hear us and was just enjoying being with his family until he finally decided that it was time to pass through the veil. I know it was a wonderful blessing and gift for us. We were able to be together as a family for those three days without worrying about Dad’s welfare. He was in neither physical nor emotional pain; he wasn’t confused and combative; he wasn’t aimlessly paddling around in his wheelchair, running into walls or getting stuck in a corner. He was just there with us and we with him. What greater gift could a family ask for than being together?