The Reckoning

Two empty seats at the Christmas Table that’ll never be filled, but in the wise words of Pooh, how lucky I am to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

Your wings were ready. My heart was not.

This quote popped up in my Pinterest feed last night buried between recipes about homemade chicken pot pies, Christmas appetizers and running exercises. I’m working on a book about grief so I imagine there’s some logical algorithm explanation for this moment of clarity that literally scrolled in front of my eyes.

This Christmas marks one year without dad. One year of reckoning with my faith and trying to come to terms with how things went down last December. How my dad went in for a hairline fracture and in less than two weeks was so isolated, distraught and heartbroken that he was begging ICU staff and his daughters to let him die. I genuinely believe we made the right choice – if choice is the word one uses in a situation like that. I’m so grateful that even with COVID-19, we were allowed to be there to say goodbye. I know many families did not have this luxury. But, the logical side of me struggles with the unanswered questions and lack of accountability in a system that failed.

I imagine in this moment, some turn to faith. To let go and let God – to believe that the universe had decided it was time. Others, want to understand. The past year, I did what any daughter would do. I sought to understand the events that had unfolded by asking questions of those who cared for him in his final days. I expected a logical explanation and medical records that supported that. That this logical information would provide much needed closure and peace. Instead, I was dealt a series of calculated conversations packed with misleading information, missing documentation, unanswered phone calls and shaming family members. Each encounter left me with more questions than answers and heightened skepticism about multiple systems that failed my father and was in cover their ass mode.

This story isn’t about the mistakes made, though. There are countless books about how our healthcare system sucks. That despite having many heroes on the frontlines, the systems they are boxed into are costly, inefficient and at times deadly. This is a story about what happens next. How far you go to get a simple answer.

For me, I sought the most basic of answers and was dealt more heartbreak. The lack of empathy in a world focused on risk mitigation, even though I never threatened litigation, broke my heart. The latest – a so-called investigation in which the Minnesota Department of Health investigated Benedictine Health System in under a few hours. The investigating nurse so “committed” to her case that she left me a voice mail on a Wednesday afternoon stating she wanted to get more information from me and despite me calling her back within the hour – never spoke to me again. The case was closed that same day. After several attempts, I finally got an opportunity to speak to her supervisor. Turns out, that’s the definition of a quality case review, skilled nursing home lie during investigations (her explanation, not mine), and that I wasn’t entitled to any information about the investigation without filing a freedom of information act. As for wanting to talk to me, apparently that wasn’t necessary. This, despite the state’s QI department citing Benedictine for quality issues relating to my father’s case. As for an apology or explanation about the unreturned phone calls and emails – that’s just not a thing. And so it goes.

How long does one keep asking the questions? The truth is, nothing will bring my dad back. But, reliving his final days over and over again, only to get more questions than answers, does nothing in finding closure or peace. It is one thing to set-out on a crusade to make the world a better place. It is another to advocate for change in a system that’s indifferent to your pain knowing nothing will change. That’s the trouble with asking questions. The answers are often worse than the unknown.

Twelve months in, I’m still grappling with how to let this go. A new reckoning so to speak. An attempt to carry on with life and a new normal of no dad, while also honoring his legacy. To advocate for others, including dad, who deserved better those final days but not let it consume me. A man who deserved to die with dignity versus defeat. Perhaps that makes me irrational and angry, a logical stage in grief. Or, perhaps just a daughter with a broken heart trying to bargain for his return. Or, finding meaning in his death by not letting him die in vain. It is a fine line.

Yesterday, my son scored two baskets in third grade basketball. I couldn’t help but think of how proud my dad would have been to see this. A part of me even feels he even played a role in this shot in-between cribbage games with mom, hunting bucks with Uncle Booty and securing the perfect Christmas tree. Picturing these moments bring me peace. It makes the empty seat this Christmas a bit easier to bare. I know I’m not alone in grappling with the reckoning of holidays. Of finding ways to remember those lost while celebrating new moments and traditions with those still here. After more than 25 years of holidays without mom, I know it never gets easier. Different perhaps. But never easy.

For those grappling with these big questions and no answers as well, I can only provide this word of advice. Grace. Give yourself grace and give grace to those around you. Allow yourself to feel all of the emotions. Early on after my mom died, I didn’t do that. I kept it all in. Decades later and some hefty therapy bills, I now understand the value of the human body being able to process multiple emotions. How we’ve been gifted the ability to feel joy and pain simultaneously. To laugh and cry in a single moment. To be grateful and heartbroken. That this is in fact normal. For me, that reckoning has been the single greatest gift I can offer myself this holiday season. I hope it helps you as well.

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