Three years ago last night, I was driving back to Corona from the Kaiser Permanente medical center on Sunset Blvd. I’d left my mom there because she felt like staying with my dad. It was the one night during his 19 days in the hospital that she really felt the need to be there.
The hospital sleep apnea machine was so loud and grating that he didn’t stand a chance of getting the good rest he needed, so I drove from LA to Corona to get his own machine and pack my mom an overnight bag, then back to LA, then back to Corona to get some sleep. We had been at the hospital early that morning, and the daily trek to and from was starting to catch up to us.
When I returned to the hospital, my dad — who had been in and out of alertness and sleep all day — attentively opened his eyes and asked me how the traffic had been. These moments were becoming further apart, but he would still amaze us with the way he’d go from dozing off to being completely present and in the moment. I told him the drive was fine, but I knew he was using energy he didn’t have to make conversation. I told him to rest — that he was in the right unit for recovery, and that he needed to get some good sleep. I said I’d see him the next morning. He nodded and his eyes began to shut.
They had moved him earlier that afternoon from the surgery prep and recovery wing to the cardiac intensive care unit where I delivered his CPAP machine. It wasn’t the move we’d been hoping for — he’d been waiting almost two weeks for the triple bypass that never came — but what better place to be than in an ICU? After all, there were doctors everywhere, miracle workers, life savers…right? But the reality of his move was less hopeful.
“You’re not a candidate for surgery,” the doctors told him. We were stunned. How could he not be a candidate? Not even a month earlier he was home, still going to work, still doing his routine, preparing for his retirement party that would never come. He was slowing down a bit, sure, but heart failure could be managed, and I know we all intended to manage the hell out of it. So how could these words be our news? Our world changed in that moment; the hope he’d always been so good at imparting was gone. And we all felt it.
After his doctors said there would be no triple bypass, we all sat quietly in the room. At one point my mom excused herself for a few moments, and I walked over to my dad.
“I’m so nervous for you,” I said. My eyes filled with tears immediately.
“I know,” he said. “But I’m in God’s hands.”
“I know,” I replied, “but aren’t you nervous?”
“Not nervous, just sad,” he said.
“Why sad?” I asked.
“Because I’m expecting the worst.”
It was one of his last few “alert” moments, and I remember how hugging him felt as I leaned over his hospital bed. The next week, I was struck by how cold and heavy his hand felt when I touched it as he lay in the casket.
Three years ago last night I was driving back to Corona to sleep.
Three years ago last night I saw him alive for the last time.
Three years ago last night I turned off my phone to get a good night’s rest, and three years ago my mom was getting none because my dad went into cardiac arrest. Twice.
They brought him back after the first, cautioning my mom that it would likely happen again. And it did. After the second time, he died. He passed around 1am on September 19th.
She made it home around three in the morning because she was able to reach my brother. He had just gotten home from a flight and was getting ready for bed when he saw his phone light up. He headed to LA to pick up my mom, then drove her to Corona.
First the overhead light in the bedroom came on, then I heard her softly saying my name. As she woke me, it reminded me of times from my childhood when she’d wake me with news that a sick pet hamster, bird, dog or cat had passed away during the night. At first I thought she was home because I’d left something out of her overnight bag, and I was immediately frustrated with myself that she had to come home to get it — and what was “it,” anyway? Did I leave her toothbrush out? Hairbrush? Did I forget a change of clothes? But then I realized that she’d left her husband’s side — my dad’s side — because he was gone.
Last night was a difficult night, today was an emotionally comatose day, and it will continue to be a difficult week. I’ve been bracing for this day for almost a month, and the fact that it’s behind me for another year doesn’t provide any relief. It simply keeps the raw emotions somewhat at bay, not that they’re ever far away. The clock gets reset, and the countdown starts all over.
I miss him every day, and I dislike a lot about this life without him here. I miss my solid, calm sounding board. I miss splitting a beer with him, I miss his raised eyebrows when I’d make an inappropriate joke — followed by a few of his silent chuckles and head shaking. I miss watching “the game” — any game — with him. I miss having a built-in giver of financial advice, and I miss the aura of peace that surrounded him. It’s fitting, really, the lack of that; I’ve been searching for a way to get it back, and while I know what they say is true — that you can never go home again — is it too much to ask for a little less change, and maybe a bit more predictability? Maybe just some quiet for a while? It seems so.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last three years, it’s that for as much as I wish he was still here — he really already is. He’s telling us to keep going, and he’s doing what he always did: he’s being the steady force in our lives that helps us put one foot in front of the other, day after day.
For my dad, for his way, and for his life that’s still a part of us, I am eternally grateful.