The decision was made in an instant but years in the making. “I love you girls but I cannot keep fighting. Please don’t be mad.”
A glance at the nurse and a plea. “Please. I just want to go in peace.”
Suddenly we are out of time. After years of ups and downs navigating a broken health care system watching my dad fight for his life – and win; and advocating for his life more times than I can count, the decision is made. My sister and I advocate for him one last time. We watch dad initiate hospice and support him with all of our heart while feeling a piece of our heart break. He signs the papers instantly. He cannot nor should he suffer for another second in a system where folks fight to keep him alive, regardless of the physical pain he endures and his desire to die. He is ready.
He tells my sister and I he’s proud of us one last time in a sterile hospital room. A man of few words, he couldn’t have chosen a better book ending to a complicated yet rich life. I do not know it at the time, but I will not see him conscious again.
I should have seen this coming. In my head, I had prepared for it over and over again. I had made time for visits, listened to my dad’s endless stories and jokes, and sought therapy to help navigate the struggles of an aging parent. I had worked through my anger surrounding an amputation and a healthcare system that never understood my father. I had resolved all of the what ifs in my life – the times growing up where I was too busy pursuing my dreams that I missed the simple things. You know… the weekend fishing trips, county fairs, camping, phone calls and lunches. I spent the last ten years making up for those moments. I said everything that needed to be said. But yet, I still find myself in this moment, completely lost. Caught in the in-between. The part where you pray for a quick ending but guilt bubbles up and challenges why you would actually wish your father dead. A friend who knows grief all to well reminded me there is a difference between honoring your dad’s wishes and accepting them.
Later on, I find myself alone in the hospice room watching my dad gasp for air. COVID-19 has added a logistical layer of complications in saying good-bye. Science says my dad is on enough morphine that he is comfortable. My heart says he knows I am here. Here. Sharing one last moment with dad.
I choose to use this moment to remember. I remember our fishing opener trips – including the time I was so engrossed in my book that a fish pulled my rod into the lake before I noticed I had caught it. Somehow dad managed to retrieve the rod (with a very tired fish on it). I remember my one successful day of fishing catching Sunnies with dad and how delicious his pan-fried fish tastes. I remember our annual camping trip including the year my girlfriend and I snuck out to meet boys on the beach. My mom had to let us know she knew while my dad just gave us that look. You know – the one dad gives that say a thousand words. It was the same look he gave when I flicked matches into his ice shanty and got removed from a little league softball game for being sassy.
I remember arguing over the cost of a good steak, grapes and a 12-pack of diet coke more than once. I remember the endless conversations about weather where only Google could resolve the temperature differences between Cloquet and Iron River. I remember arguing just to argue and then argue about why we were arguing. My dad loved a good debate about nothing. That trait lives on in me.
I remember the endless days of playing ball growing up. Or, how dad would patiently watch me twirl baton, doing his best not to comment on the fact that I was destroying the lawn with my endless pivots in a quest to land that double turn around. I remember helping him plant his garden and sharing that first ripe summer sweet pea. I remember our trips to the Chicken Swap that resulted in unconventional pets and dad buying me a mule named Goldie and trying to pass her off as a pony because I was sad the pony I had wanted got purchased before we could buy him.
And then there was the advice. I remember dad lecturing me on how I didn’t need another degree to feel smart or that changing jobs wouldn’t make me happy. That a job is called that for a reason. I remember my wedding day where after our father-daughter dance he simply said, I hope he makes you happy and if he does, I’m happy for you. Or, the time he casually asked if I knew how babies were made when he felt I was taking too long to make him a grandpa again. I was 34 at the time.
I remember dad telling me he missed mom too when he knew I was sad. I remember dad walking me down a makeshift aisle at my wedding and holding my son after he was born. I remember him helping me pack for college, see me off to Oxford and inspect my first home. In every critical moment, dad was always there on the sidelines rooting for my success. He’s been the constant in my life. For 42-years, every major milestone has been marked by dad encouraging me to pursue my dreams.
These memories and thousands more will carry me forward. This morning he passed peacefully. And now the waiting is over, replaced with grief. Grief is a crazy beast I’m all too familiar with. A new void in my life no one can ever fill. There will be no story big enough, no fish large enough, or joke bad enough to replace the man who made me. But in this moment, I’m thanking a higher power that dad’s struggles are done and that he’s reunited with mom in time for Christmas. Heaven gained another angel this Christmas and left a hole in my heart. But for now, I will find comfort in remembering and knowing that my dad’s stubborn spirit lives on in the family he created. Not even grief can take that away.