10 years and 5 weeks ago today I received a phone call, and I couldn’t tell you today if it was from my Mother or from my Brother. Regardless, the phone call came, telling me that my Father was just diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Dad wanted me to visit as soon as I could and I did; within a few days I flew to Phoenix to be with family. By the time I got there Dad was home with a drain tube after having spent a week in the hospital.
I feel bad to this day for helping to sell Dad a false bill of goods, that liver cancer was treatable, and survivable. We all do it as soon as hear the specific diagnosis – look for information. The information I found was hopeful, primary liver cancer is treatable. We just didn’t know for sure if it was cancer that started in the liver or had metastasized from somewhere else. For anyone that knew my Dad throughout his life, primary liver cancer was plausible, predictable even. But there was an appointment coming up that Dad wanted us all to attend that would clarify that. That’s one of the reasons he wanted me to fly out as soon as I could.
The other reason was to go over finances for Mom. Dad’s exact words were that ‘your Mother would need help’, and he had written the value of their retirement accounts on a post-it note. Previously, when I was preparing to go to college and I expressed interest in understanding their finances and the forms he told me “It’s none of your fucking business”. I never asked again. Now he was offering information, which certainly gave some gravity to the situation.
That meeting with the oncologist was typical. Dad had previously underwent a PET scan, but I don’t think the oncologist had looked at it previous to the appointment. The doctor did confirm it was primary liver cancer, that it was treatable, even a possible liver transplant. I’m not sure if everyone felt as I did that day, but I left the appointment hopeful. I think careful inspection of his PET scan may have changed the way things were presented to us, but maybe not. The next few days I spent in Phoenix helping with what I could. Dad was asked to keep track of the fluid discharge from his drain and I remember setting up a graph on Mom’s tablet to make it easier. Notes were being made about the amount of drainage, but I set up a spreadsheet with the measurements that would graph the amount of discharge with respect to time. Yes, I’m a geek. The graph showed output was declining. I also need to return home, and I did after a few days.
Shortly after I flew back to South Carolina and was trying to function knowing my Dad’s health crisis, another call came. This one I remember who and when and where. I was at an evening networking event at Stella’s in Simpsonville. I wasn’t one at the time to keep my cell phone active at an event like that, but I was now, and it was my Brother calling around 7pm. I knew my Father had been re-hospitalized, but this call was to tell me that Dad had accepted the news from the doctors that he was no longer a candidate for any treatment and he was being transferred to a hospice facility the next day. We were informed that tumor(s) had encapsulated his portal vein which took treatments away as an option.
So, I bought a one-way ticket to Phoenix the next day. So many things to be thankful for at the time… A spouse that stayed and held our house together, and working for myself so I could spend as much time as I needed are among the top. My Father had been promised to not die alone, and the rest of my family was already on a rotating shift with him by the time I arrived. I remember walking into his room in the hospice facility the first time, not noticing many details about the room or facility itself, just seeing him laying in a bed, clearly uncomfortable, and when Mom told him that ‘Mark is here’ seeing his eyes flutter open in recognition and I think some sort of relief for him at the time.
The next few days were hard. My Brother had processed way more than I had, but he and his family also lived eight doors down from Mom and Dad. Between my Brother, my Mother, and I, we were rotating shifts with Dad, with Mom and I spending nights there. I think it was only my second night there when things turned, might have been my third. The hospice nurses were great, but on this night one of them had told me that I needed to prepare myself and that I should probably call my Mother. Dad’s conditions were deteriorating and they knew it was coming from his vital signs. I didn’t. Still, trying to decide to listen and trying to balance letting Mom sleep a while longer was torture. It was around 3 am. I knew calling my Mother would understandably cause her concern. I made the call, she answered, had no idea who I was at first, and she arrived a short while later. Now we were both in the room with Dad, trying to comfort him and ourselves. A few hours later that fateful moment arrived.
I mentioned before that between the three of us, someone was always with Dad. My Brother’s wife is also a critical component in the family, as is their daughter, who is on the autism spectrum. My Sister-in-Law had been rearranging things to allow my Brother any needed time with my Father. With a child on the autism spectrum, leaving my niece alone has never been an option. Even with all of that my Sister-in-law was also spending some time with my Father. The evening before his passing I had relieved my Sister-in-law from her shift with Dad. I so clearly remember walking into his room and telling my sister-in-law that she was needed at home. The next few sentences I’m going to write has caused quite a bit of anguish for me, and also strengthened the connection to my Father.
The relationship between me and my Sister-in-law had been terse for a few years. She’s the type of person who likes to dig and needle at people until she finds out something that maybe just shouldn’t be found out and then that something is no longer private. Lets just say that she didn’t understand my parents relationship. That’s fine, sometimes I didn’t understand it. But appreciating the fact that their relationship worked for them is not something my sister-in-law gave any respect for. When I walked into my Father’s hospice room that day, my Sister-in-law got up from the chair in the room and decided to have a conversation with me. She started by telling me that my Mother would still be a vibrant woman after my Dad passes away and then she mentioned something about encouraging my Mother to start dating. I was so shocked I didn’t even know how to process that. My only words to her at the time were that she was needed at home.
Hindsight being what it is, there have been so many times I wished I had immediately walked her out of his room and told her to go fuck herself, to get the fuck out, and to shut the fuck up. I didn’t, I kept what she said that day to myself for several days. After she said that she very respectfully said goodbye to my Dad, touched him on his foot, and left. Shortly after she left, with tears in my eyes and trembling hand I laid mine on his uttered these words: “It’s okay Dad, the bitch is gone.” A few hours later I made that phone call to Mom.
Right around 7am (10 am eastern time), 10 years ago today, my Mother and I both knew Dad had passed. There was no breathing, no heart beat that we could see. I’m not sure why at the time, but I felt compelled to feel for his pulse on his neck. I have no medical training. When I put my fingers on his neck it was with sadness and trepidation, and it felt like an eternity with no signs of life. And then it happened – a very strong, determinate, and single pulse of his heart. It felt almost electric, and there wouldn’t be another one. I sometimes feel that last heart beat was meant for me, some sort of acknowledgment between the two of us that it was OK, even though it wasn’t at the time.
Seeing my Mother grieve in the instant she knew her husband of more than my entire life was gone was gut wrenching. There’s no consoling that. I remember Mom saying she didn’t know what life was like without him. Me either. And my Brother was the strong one at the time, he dealt with all the details that needed to be done in death. Things like making sure it’s Dad’s body in the casket before the burial happens kind of things. My husband had flown out for the funeral, but I don’t remember if he was in Arizona or South Carolina when Mom and I were watching television just a few nights after Dad’s passing. A commercial came on for eHarmony. When it did Mom said something to me about it will be interesting to see if her daughter-in-law suggests to her that she should start dating.
I teared up. Not at thought of my Mother dating sometime in the future, but because she already experienced comments from her own Daughter-in-law on the subject while my Father was still alive. She saw my tears and knew something was up and I partially confessed to her what happened. And by partially confessing I mean I lied to her. I told her what happened at the Hospice facility, and that I kept it to myself because I didn’t live in Phoenix and didn’t have to live with seeing you know who very often. My Mother wasn’t very happy about what happened and she had only question for me. “Did that conversation happen in the hospice facility or in Dad’s room?” I lied, I think she knew it. After all, she already knew her daughter-in-law would be asking or pressuring her to date soon. Anyway, I lied and said it happened outside of his room instead of right in front of him. There’s something we were all aware of and told by hospice, hearing is usually the last sense to go. Talk to your loved ones. Just because you think they can’t hear you doesn’t mean they can’t. That’s why Mom wanted to know where to conversation took place, and I knew why she wanted to know where. So I lied. To my own Mother. To save ill feelings towards someone that in my opinion deserved all the ill feelings.
A short wile after returning home an episode of Grey’s Anatomy came on that both my Mother and I watched. The episode dealt with a case of a patient with cancer or the liver.. And ended with that patient being told they were not a candidate for surgery or transplant because their tumor had encapsulated their portal vein. Did our lives just imitate art or the other way around? Mom and I did talk about that coincidence on television. She also told me that after I left she had a conversation with her daughter-in-law about the dating conversation with me during Dad’s hospice. It was reported to me that my Sister-in-law said she doesn’t remember that, and that I should have said something directly to her, and that if she do that, then it was just a blonde moment.
She’s not blonde, and 10 years later my relationship with my Sister-in-Law is still terse, I still miss my Dad, and I know he heard me when I said “It’s OK Dad, the bitch is gone”.