Last Halloween I was on the road (I may actually have recently arrived) to my parents' place in South Carolina. I'd received word that Dad was comatose. He'd aspirated when hospital staff had tried to remove a breathing tube. Dad in the hospital was, strangely, nothing new, but this time was different. This time Mom simply said, "I think you need to come home."
That was all it took. I drove up to my brother's apartment and we made the 10 1/2 hour drive south that night. I saw the sun start to rise just as we made it to the hospital.
My sisters and I split Thanksgiving duties a few weeks later. By that time Dad was conscious, though not completely lucid, and his lungs were failing. He'd developed pneumonia (in the hospital, ironically enough). Several cousins and my Uncle (Dad's last surviving sibling) had made it into town by then. I remember I'd watch my Uncle - Dad's older brother by a decade - and marvel at how healthy he seemed comparatively. Uncle could walk on his own. He remembered conversations we'd had in the past. Hell, he even went to Arby's on occasion (culinary options around hospitals in Seneca, SC are a bit limited).
Dad had been struggling for a while now. I'd call on Valentine's Day, Father's Day, his birthday. He'd usually ask the same string of questions: How's Tony? Is he at work? How's your research going? (At which point I'd have to remind him that my research had wrapped up some time ago.) Every year I'd call on Dad and Mom's anniversary, which happens to be the same day as my birthday, knowing that Dad would always end the call with the same phrase: "You're by far my favorite anniversary present."
I said goodbye to Dad a few times while I was home and told him I loved him every time I left the hospital to head to the house for food, sleep or a shower. Dad's speech was impaired (the tube down his throat had caused minor damage by pressing down on his vocal chords), but he always said "I love you, too" each time.
When we first took out his breathing tube (a decision that took weeks to make as we weren't sure he'd survive without it), I had the chance to speak with him privately. I took his hand- one that always seemed so big to me when I was a kid but was now shrunken and swollen from lying in bed for weeks- and told him I'd always be his little girl. I remember stroking his fingernails. My sisters and I had filed them earlier because we'd hated how broken they had looked. (Dad was the epitome of a sharp-dressed man.)
The day after Thanksgiving my sisters humored me by going to Kohl's at midnight for Black Friday shopping. Sometimes you just need a little normality, as it were.
Later that day, after speaking with multiple doctors, Mom made the decision to move Dad into hospice. I still can't imagine how hard that decision was for her. She and Dad had been married for over 40 years - she shared a longer life with him than any of us.
Hospice was weird. It's this place that seems like a home but comes with hospital beds and care provision. It's a combination of relief and resignation. When someone says, "We need to make the best of a bad situation," hospice is what immediately comes to my mind.
Still, I lack the diction to describe my gratitude for the hospice in Seneca. Where we could barely fit our immediate family into Dad's room at the hospital (in fact, hospital regulations said that we weren't allowed to all be there at once - a family of 6 is too large, it seems), there was room to spare in his hospice space. Where doctors at the hospital seemed unwilling to provide us with complete objective information (and had failed to read Dad's entire medical file and living will), the staff at hospice were forthcoming, held no punches, yet supportive and empathetic.
This came in handy when Dad passed away quietly two days later. (Not so much when one of the hospice nurses asked when I was due, which stung a bit as I've yet to be pregnant.) We had a memorial mass a few days later, and a formal military service when Dad was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in March.
Today it's Father's Day. I have no phone call to place, no preset script of questions to answer. Instead, my brother and I are going to make another drive, and visit Dad at Arlington. I'll come home and spend some time with BHE and his father (and mother) instead.
And, yeah, it kind of sucks. But then I'll see little things that remind me of Dad at random moments: the Navy officers and cadets in uniform walking around the city (Dad was a retired Captain and pilot), the handkerchiefs I kept and use whenever I'm caught without a tissue (Dad used to pull one out like some kind of magic trick whenever I needed one as a kid), pulling on a pair of socks as the first line of defense against an oncoming virus (Dad asked me if I was wearing socks each time I mentioned I was sick during our phone calls. Every. Time.). I'll see these things and it will sting a little, but then I remember how lucky I was to have my Dad in my life, and what an amazing human being he was.
And then I smile.
Happy Father's Day, Daddy.
Your little girl in perpetuity,