Twenty-five years ago tonight, I sped across the Cascade mountains to see my father one last time before he died. My sister L was driving. In the car with us were L's husband and daughter, then about a year old. It was a Monday night. On Sunday, my mom had called to say Dad was in the hospital. He'd been sick with what we thought was pneumonia for what seems like a long time. Maybe months. The doctors tried different medicaitons, but he just didn't get better. On that Sunday Dad felt especially bad and told Mom to call someone from the church to take him to the hospital. I'm not sure why he didn't just ask Mom to drive him; maybe he needed help in and out of the car by then.
After Dad checked in, the tests began. Later in the day they told my parents that Dad had lung cancer, late stage. They talked about the options available for treatment (bleak) and his prognosis (bleaker). An oncologist met with them and basically told them the end was at best a week away. Then he offered to pray with them. My parents were grateful and they all prayed together there in Dad's hospital room.
Then came that round of phone calls that anyone who's faced a family crisis will remember. Mother called her daughters, we called each other. Travel plans were made. My sister and I lived about a five hour drive from Mom and Dad. We decided to leave on Tuesday.
On Monday, I went to work and tried to get everything caught up, since I didn't know how long I'd be away. I worked for a title insurance company then. I was 21 and it was my first "real" job. I had some good friends among my co-workers. They were great.
In the middle of the afternoon, I got a call from Mom. She told me that Dad was worse than they'd thought and if I wanted to see him I'd better come right away.
I called my sister L, who lived about 20 minutes from me. The earliest she could leave was after her husband got off work, but he'd get off a little early. I went home to pack.
I can't remember now what I packed or if anyone was at my apartment with me. It's possible my ex-boyfriend came over. We were still friends and I seem to remember him being there at some point. I just remember the crazy, frantic energy of getting ready for the trip. The many phone calls to my big sister, making plans and reassuring one another.
My sister wanted to drive because she knew the route better than her husband and besides, she's a crazy fast driver. A trip that usually takes at least five hours took us four. She practiced the speech she planned to give any state trooper who dared to stop her for speeding. I remember we ate junk food -- barbeque flavored Corn Nuts and other nasty stuff -- and laughed a little bit too much. We were close, then. Like sisters. We were together in the crisis. We probably didn't stop talking once during the four-hour drive.
When we got to our hometown, we drove straight to the hospital without stopping at Mom and Dad's house. It was dark and the hospital was quiet. We found Dad's room in the ICU. Mom was there, of course, and so was my sister K, with one of her children. I'm not sure which one (she has six) but whoever it was, he or she was just a baby who slept on the floor of Dad's room on a blanket K brought along. Dad was asleep. We all talked in whispers, so as not to wake the baby or Dad. We each greeted Dad when we got there and he seemed to acknowledge us but he was pretty well drugged by then. I sat on the bed next to him and rubbed his arm. Gave him a kiss. I think he had an oxygen mask over his mouth, but I can't remember for sure.
Then, we waited. And watched his monitor tell us his heart rate was too fast, then slower, then fast again. We all stared at that monitor, willing his heart rate to return to normal. At one point, near morning, his heart rate slowed and he seemed to settle down. Then he died. The heart monitor showed "0" and started making a screeching noise. My memory tells me Dad made some kind of noise at his last breath, but honestly I'm not sure I can trust my memory all these years later.
I waited for the nurses to rush in with the "crash cart." They didn't. One, a woman I'd gone through school with, came in and turned off Dad's monitor. That was it. His life was over.
This being a Catholic hospital, an old nun/nurse was dispatched to assist the grieving family. She was completely unskilled. Before my mother had even two minutes to let the new reality sink in, this old woman was in Mom's face asking her what she wanted to do with Dad's wedding ring and watch, and did she want his dentures?
I was furious. I was furious at Dad for being dead, furious at that old nun for being such a callous ass, furious at myself for not realizing he was about to die and holding onto him to keep him here a little longer. I slammed my fist into the wall. Then I cried.
We all went to the house then. It was too early in the morning to call anyone from Mom's church to begin funeral preparations; we were too keyed up to sleep. We just sat in the living room and talked and cried and then fell silent. L joked that Dad, with his amazing sense of humor, would have probably liked dying on April Fools' Day, if he had to die. Mom went to bed to try to sleep. I can't remember if the rest of us did.
My sister J didn't make it in time to see Dad before he died. She was on a plane from Florida or maybe she left the next day. I can't remember. I know it still bothers her that she didn't get to say good-bye. I remind her that really, none of us did. We thought he was doing better. That he'd sleep through the night and then, in the morning, we'd have our chance to visit and tell him how much we loved him and say our good-byes. Still, it makes her sad that she wasn't there with us in the middle of the night, watching his monitor.
I miss him still, but 25 years takes the edge off the grief. I tend to have a little anniversary effect around this time of year, but it usually takes me a few days to remember why I'm in such a lousy mood. This year it's hit me harder than usual. I think that's because I realize everything has changed in 25 years. Mom no longer lives in that same house, or that same town. Nobody visits Dad's grave any more, because no one lives close enough. We've lost touch with cousins and other relatives on my dad's side of the family; he was the glue, apparently.
My sisters and I have never been farther apart. My sister J and me, well, I don't really know what happened there. We used to talk or e-mail or IM every day, several times a day. Then her partner retired and wanted her to spend time with him, then we had some disagreements and now we just don't communicate any more. Maybe once a week we'll exchange some superficial "news" in an e-mail. I miss her. L and I haven't spoken since a heated e-mail exchange last year after we put Mom's house up for sale. I sent an apology at Christmas time, but I never heard back. We'd drifted apart over the past ten or so years. I'm not sure why. She always seemed pissed off about something when we got together, but could never bring herself to tell me. The fight last year just made the break complete. I miss her, too. It hurts to remember how close we were that night when we sped through the night to be with Dad. This grief is fresher and sharper than the grief over Dad's death, which by now is an old companion.
It's hard to realize Mom has now been a widow for 25 years. She and Dad were married only 36 years when he died. She was 55 then. She adjusted to widowhood better than anyone expected her to. She went to grief support groups. She learned to take care of herself. She became active at the YMCA where she took swimming classes with other older women, many of them widows. She let her church friends and her daughters take care of her. She started walking for health, eventually logging four miles every day. She got a dog. She took a trip to Hawaii with my aunt, also a widow. Mom bounced back in a way none of us would have imagined. We all did. Funny thing about a huge loss like that -- you can never, ever know what will come from it. Until much later.