One Friday morning a couple of weeks ago, I put my girls on the bus, jumped in my car, and went to visit my dad. He lives at The Inn, the nursing home he calls home, and where he has done his slow dance with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia for the past 7 years.
Usually I head over a little later in the morning, but that day, I felt I needed to go over there sooner rather than later.
I wasn’t sure why.
As I walked down the hallway to his room on the third floor, his nurse – a pal – smiled brightly at me. Then she looked at her watch and said, “They haven’t got him up for breakfast yet; a couple of the aides came in late today so they’ll be in there soon.” (My dad usually needs help getting out of bed, and assistance with dressing and freshening up in the morning.)
So I walked into his room and found him snoozing comfortably in his bed. I didn’t want to disturb him so I sat in the chair in his room across from his bed, glancing at him periodically, and soaked up the quiet.
About 5 minutes later, two aides came into the room. I heard one of them walk over to my dad and say cheerfully, “Good morning, Ed! Are you ready to get up and get some breakfast?” I heard my dad reply in his characteristically chipper voice, “Sure. I think I can do that!”
I quickly got up from my chair, and walked out of his room to give him privacy, and to let the aides have all the space they needed. I told them I would meet my dad at his breakfast table when he came out. As I walked away, I made small talk as I passed his nurse again, chit-chatting about Thanksgiving the next week, and how we had plans to head down to NY to see my husband’s family.
There is a lounge area right next to the dining room where my dad and I have had many a visit over the years at The Inn. I sat in the familiar wingback chair, facing the hallway to my dad’s room so I’d be able to spot him when he started his pilgrimage down the hall to breakfast.
As I checked my email on my phone, I looked up to see his nurse walk in my direction. I looked down at my phone again thinking she would just walk past me on her way to tend to another patient, but her gait slowed as she approached. I looked up at her and smiled, but I couldn’t quite place the look she had on her face in return.
It didn’t seem right.
She pulled up a chair next to me and sat down. She rested her elbows on her knees as if she had something very important on her mind, and looked up at me with tears in her eyes.
“We think your dad may have had a small stroke,” she says.
“Okay,” I replied, calmly. After all, that’s not a big deal. He’s had those in the past. Many moons ago. But he rebounded fine. A little physical therapy…some extra attention. I can handle that. No big whoop.
She continued, “When they were getting him up, they brought him into the bathroom and they noticed he had drooping on the left side of the face, he was slurring his words, and his left arm was flaccid. They put him back to bed. I am going to go check his vitals and evaluate him now.”
I stood up mechanically and followed her back to my dad’s room. I stood in the doorway as she breezed by me, a stethoscope around her neck. She put a blood pressure cuff on him, and started checking him from head to toe. His eyes were closed. She said, “HI, ED!” loudly, and my dad mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand.
I walked back into the hallway and took out my phone. I dialed my mom’s number and she answered on the first ring.
“Hi, Mom,” I said. She replied, sunnily, “Hi, honey!”
I continued, “So….Mom…they think Dad may have had a little stroke.”
In a panicked voice she said, “Really, honey? What happened?” I explained that it must have just happened….that they put him back to bed…that the nurse is checking him.
“I’m on my way,” I heard my mother’s voice say. “Please, drive safe…” I asked her.
I walked back into my dad’s room. The nurse came over to me and hugged me. I noticed she was now crying.
“It’s not good,” she said.
Huh? Did she just say, “It’s not good?”
She left the room and I was alone with my dad. I pulled a chair over to him and sat at the side of his bed. His head was turned on the pillow facing me; his eyes closed as if he was dozing.
“Hi, Dad!” I said with enthusiasm, grabbing his right hand. He squeezed it hard.
“Hi…my…dar…ling,” he said, weakly, in slurred and garbled speech.
My heart started racing. Let’s try that again.
“How’re you doing, Dad?” I said, biting my lip to chase away the tears forming in my eyes.
He sounded as if he had just had Novocaine from the dentist – like his tongue was numb or something. I could barely make out his words. But after trying very hard, I heard him manage, “I’m o—–kkkay.”
Then it hit me. This wasn’t a small stroke.
My face flashed hot and I kissed him on the cheek. Then I felt a huge lump in my throat as the tears began to stream down my face.
Suddenly I heard a school girl’s voice come out of my mouth as I choked back tears and said, “I love you so much, Daddy,” and I began to sob.
I held his hand and studied it in mine. His grip was strong. His skin wrinkled and weathered from the many seasons it has seen.
My dad’s hand has always been symbolic to me. Ever since I could remember, when we would part, he would take my hand in his, and hold it up to his mouth, and gently kiss it. It was his signature send-off; an old-fashioned gentleman’s gesture. And how he told us he loved us.
He did it for me. For my sisters. And for my daughters.
I studied this hand, in mine. My father’s hand. Now I had to be the strong one. It was my turn to hold his hand.
I held it with care, and with love as time ticked away.
It was now 20 minutes since his stroke.
About 10 minutes later, tears running down my cheeks, I looked up to see my mother standing in the doorway. She took one look at me and started crying. I ran over to her and hugged her.
“I’m so sorry, Mom” I said.
“Oh I’m so sorry for you, too,” she cried, her breath skipping.
I looked at her, and said, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this.” She nodded. Little did I know that that statement would become my mantra for the next few days:
“It’s going to be okay.”
I walked her to my dad’s bed and brought a chair by her. She stayed standing, rubbing the top of his head, and holding his hand. His eyes were closed. He was breathing softly but could still communicate with us.
She leaned over him, softly kissing him on the cheek. “Hi, honey!” she whispered into his ear, her voice quivering. “This is Barb. I’m right here,” she told him.
“Hi, Bar….bie,” came the slow, garbled reply.
I pulled over a chair and sat down next to her. I watched as she studied him and then she started gingerly rubbing his chest, then caressing his arm, trying to soothe him. She continued to hold his hand and I heard her begin to do what she has always done in times of worry or uncertainty.
She began to pray.
She began, “Our Father who art in heaven….hallowed be thy name…thy kindgom come…”
Then my father tried to say something. It was a big effort for him, you could just tell. She paused as he tried to get the words out. Then I heard him summon up the strength and he added,
“Thy… will…. be… done…”
She continued for him, “On earth as it is in Heaven…”
My dad fell silent as she finished the prayer, seemingly trying to add words, but never quite forming them completely. She continued with “The Hail Mary,” and “Glory Be…” prayers.
As my mother finished the prayers she said, smiling,
“We love you, God.”
My dad tried to say something. He was struggling.
“And He…” he stammered, then fell quiet.
He continued, his eyes closed,
“And..He…LOVES US,” my dad managed to say, his words jumbled, but easily understood.
“Yes!” my mother said, a smile washing over her face with approval, “He loves US!”
I watched my two parents in awe. I remember thinking what a gift I was witnessing. Their love and their faith on display in front of me. It is something I shall never forget.
An hour had now passed since his stroke. My sister, Jeanne, arrived after racing over to The Inn from her job in Nashua. She rushed in, with her name badge on, and tears in her eyes. We began the process of calling our 5 other siblings in the midwest and extended family. I called my dad’s brothers and sister and broke the news that a sad turn of events had occurred. We held up the phone to my dad’s ear to give them all a chance to say something to him.
We called our priest. He came over to administer “The Sacrament of the Sick.” It took all of 5 minutes, but provided great consolation, especially to my mother.
The administrator at The Inn came to see us. Word had spread throughout the building about my dad. She told us they were going to move my dad to a large private room so our family could gather with my dad in peace. The room would be big enough to put extra beds in there if anyone wanted to spend the night. Whatever we needed, whatever comfort, they would bring us.
“So…. he’s dying?” I heard myself ask her, matter-of-factly.
“Well, it’s not imminent,” she replied softly, her voice trailing off. She gave me a hug and rubbed my back.
I looked up to spot another pal who was a staff member in the kitchen wheel over a cart with drinks and snacks on it. She smiled nervously and gestured she was leaving it in the hallway.
For us? Why were they were giving us a beverage and snack cart?
An hour or so later, my dad soon was moved down the hall to a beautiful end room that was empty. The walls were freshly painted and there was a candle, music and doilies on the dresser. It was very homey. People started to deliver extra chairs since they knew we had a big family. We went back to my dad’s old room and started to retrieve some items – pictures on his bulletin board, my dad’s Notre Dame mementos he used to carry around in his walker, his Notre Dame hat. We wanted to begin to make this new room, my dad’s.
There is a large, framed photo of my parents that we took when they had their 60th wedding anniversary – just 2 years ago. It has been on the wall of my dad’s old room ever since. In recent days, it was how my dad knew he was at his room in the evenings when his memory began to fade. “I can always tell this is my room when I look at that picture on the wall,” he used to tell us.
Just then, Ron, the wonderful maintenance man at The Inn, who loved my dad, came in. He was holding that picture. He took out his drill and began to measure to hang it up on the wall – on the freshly painted surface. I don’t know why, but I asked him with concern, “Are you sure it’s okay to hang that up? They just painted the wall.” He looked at me and said,
“I’m happy to do it.”
The people at The Inn are top-shelf.
The hospice nurse came to my dad’s new room. They explained what was happening. They handed us a brochure that explained signs to look for at the end of life.
The vigil began.
The sun was starting to go down. It was now Friday night, about 10 hours after his stroke.
My dad was semi-conscious. He was comfortable, sort of drifting in and out. My sister, Kate, had arrived. She is a nurse and helped to manage his care with the other caregivers. Our wonderful friend, Theresa, was my dad’s aide and helped our family with whatever we needed. She became our guardian angel as time went on.
My dad was sitting in a reclining chair in his new room. My mom sat next to him, holding his hand and talking. She said, “We’re right here.”
I heard him say to her, “And Teresa?”
My mom responded enthusiastically, “Yes, Teresa is right here!” She caught my attention and I realized that he said my name. I quickly walked over to him and held his hand. I said, “I love you, Dad!”
I heard him say, “I…love…you.”
Those were the last words my father said to me.
My sister, Kate, insisted on spending that night with my dad. She didn’t want him to be alone.
We left as it got late. We brought my mom home and my sister, Jeanne, spent the night with her.
I went home and tried to sleep. I pictured scenes from my childhood…my wedding…times at The Inn. I played this slide show in my mind the whole night. I kept my cell phone on, worried I would get The Call.
But it stayed silent the whole night.
The next day was Saturday – the week before Thanksgiving. I woke up, jumped into the shower and made a beeline for The Inn bright and early at 7:00 a.m. My husband – gratefully – was off on a scheduled vacation and was taking the girls to ice-skating lessons. He told the girls what was happening. They wanted to come to see my dad after their lesson.
I walked into the room and saw my dad in bed, sleeping, breathing a bit more heavily. My sister, Kate, looked weary from the night watch. My dad was laying on his right side. I crawled into bed next to him, hugging him and stroking his silvery-white hair. The tears flowed freely as I told him how much I loved him and how everything was going to be alright.
When I was a little girl, my dad sang a lullaby to me every night right before bed. It’s the same lullaby I sing to my two girls every single night since they were born. Without thinking, as I hugged him I started to sing the lullaby into his ear.
In some ways, my dad was like a child to me as the role-reversal was often achingly real in the last few years. Singing the lullaby to my dad was my way to try to soothe and comfort him. “It’s going to be okay, Dad,” I whispered. “You’re doing great.”
I know he was fighting, and I was so proud of him.
Other residents and staff were now coming in to visit my dad throughout the day. Though he wasn’t able to rouse enough to see them, it was amazing how many people would drift in and out of the room, sharing their stories about my dad.
He was loved.
Saturday wore on. My husband arrived with my two daughters, 5, and 7. My girls literally grew up at The Inn, and the environment wasn’t scary to them. They knew my dad wasn’t doing well, but they were very accepting. As my girls came in, they saw me lying next to my dad. My 7 year-old studied me and came right over to my dad. He was sleeping. She wasn’t afraid.
“Hi, Grandpa,” she said. She touched his shoulder.
“Mom, he’s snoring,” she said, smiling. “Yes, he is!” I reassured her. “Just like you do sometimes,” I kidded.
“I do NOT snore!” she teased, giggling. Then she went over to the table and began to draw with some crayons and paper I had layed out. She and her sister got busy coloring. After about 10 minutes, she produced the artwork and showed it to me.
Then I saw her do something I will never forget.
She walked over to my dad, placed her picture on his chest, as he was sleeping. Then she carefully grabbed his right hand. I watched as she held it up to her mouth. Then she kissed it sweetly.
Just like her Grandpa had done countless times to her before.
I couldn’t move. I looked at her in awe.
The room began to fill up. My brother arrived from Wisconsin. My grown niece and nephew came. My niece’s 2 year-old twins arrived. There were 4 generations in the room with my dad.
The room filled up with life.
There was even laughter in between the tears.
It was now 24 hours since his stroke. Things started to change. They started my dad on morphine as his breathing was starting to become labored. It helped ease and relax him.
But, as I learned, once your start someone on morphine, there’s no more communicating with them. They go into a deeper place, a peace-filled place, as their body prepares for what’s to come. He was slowly slipping away.
My other siblings were en route. Flying from Minnesota. My dad’s grown grandchildren were starting to travel home.
Thanksgiving was only days away.
It was now Sunday morning. My dad’s breathing had slowed to the point where he now had periods of apnea (where his breathing stops and then starts again.) My brother, sister and nephew had all stayed overnight with my dad. The staff at The Inn had wheeled in an extra bed as well as another mattress. My dad was never alone.
This day would be my dad’s last day.
My husband had to work that day, so I had my daughters with me. We got to The Inn right after sunrise. We all took turns talking to my dad and sitting next to him. My 7 year-old got into bed with him as she saw me do, and stroked his hair.
The hours passed.
My husband called me to let me know he had an hour break at work so he was coming to The Inn. It was getting close to lunchtime, and my kids were getting antsy. They had been cooped up in his room for 5+ hours, so I decided to bring them home to pack a quick lunch, let out my dog, and then make the trek back to The Inn. My husband stayed with my family as I planned to be back in a half hour. I needed to take a breather.
As I drove my girls home, we were all silent in the car. As I opened the door to the house, my dog happily scooted out. I made my way to the kitchen to quickly grab some lunch items to pack into their lunch boxes so we could return to The Inn. Then my cell phone rang. It was my husband.
“Come back fast!” he commanded.
I hung up the phone and screamed, “Girls!!!! We have to go!!! WE HAVE TO GO NOW!!!”
I raced into the car, my girls following. We pealed out of our driveway. I left my dog in the yard.
A minute later I heard my text tone go off on my phone. It was from my husband.
“HURRY!” it said.
I pleaded out loud in the car, “PLEASE GOD!!!! HELP ME GET THERE IN TIME!!!! PLEASE, GOD!!!!”
My girls reassured me in the back seat, “It’ll be okay, Mom!” they said worriedly.
I floored the gas petal through the streets of my neighborhood. The road was clear.
As I approached the street where The Inn was, my husband called again.
“Where are you?”
I replied, “I’m almost there. I’m passing Macy’s now.”
“RUN ANY RED LIGHTS,” he said, his voice breaking.
I started screaming and raced my car into the parking lot of The Inn.
My husband met me outside. I stopped my car, threw opened the door and screamed, “Park it for me!”
I ran at breakneck speed into the doors and pressed the elevator to the 3rd floor. Inside the elevator, I pounded on the doors, pleading with it to move faster.
When the doors opened, I bolted down the hall. When I walked in, my family was standing, holding hands around my dad.
Breathlessly, I screamed, “AM I TOO LATE??? IS HE GONE????”
They said, “He’s going now.” I looked at my dad. His eyes were closed. His breathing had stopped. My family was heartbroken. My mom had tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Did I miss it?!?!” I demanded. “DON’T LIE TO ME! TELL ME!!! DID I MISS IT?!?”
My sisters insisted it was happening “right now.” I saw people exchange looks.
But I know that I missed it. My dad slipped away when I was gone. Just minutes before I got there.
My husband came up and joined me. “He still had a heartbeat when you were here,” he promised. He had a weak pulse. You were here.”
My niece, Elizabeth, said softly to me, “Maybe he was waiting for you to leave before he went.”
I understand. Really, I do. It was the way it was supposed to be.
In the days that followed, there was shock, heartbreak, laughter, anger and gratitude. A lot of what happened those days is a little foggy for me. We met with the funeral home. I wrote his obituary. There was a wake.
My friends, neighbors and even perfect strangers showered me with love, support and strength. It occurred to me that my life had been forever changed, but the people who sent messages, cards, flowers, food, provided child care, and friendship, were a part of a bigger circle of family in my life. I am forever grateful.
I am so blessed that I had this man – my father – in my life. I was blessed to be able to care for him as much as I could through the many seasons of his life. It was an honor to be able to walk with him on this journey as his bright star began to fade. I was so grateful to be able to be with him as he left this world.
I know it was his time to go. He was God’s to begin with, and to God he must return. I know he is up there looking down at all of us with love – and maybe just a hint of mischief in his sparkling blue eyes.
Today is my birthday. Today, I have finally turned the age that my dad was when I was born.
I look at the year ahead as full of possibilities. My life is forever altered as I learn to navigate a world that is very different without him in it. I share this heartbreak with my brothers and sisters, my mother, and everyone in our family. I miss my dad with all my heart but my faith tells me he is more alive today than we could possibly know.
Today on my birthday, I am thinking of my dad. I’m remembering how he used to be one of the first calls I would get in the morning. How he would sing “Happy Birthday” in his deep booming voice. How each year on this day, he would revisit the memory of the day of my birth, How he would tell me, “Teresa, you will never know just how much we love you.”
Today on my birthday, I will be remembering my dad. I will reflect on how much he meant to me and how much he has taught me.
Remembering my dad will be the best birthday gift I could ever receive.
I love you, Dad.