Saturday, March 29, 2014

Living Grief

My dad had a stroke in January 1989, when he was 63. I was 28 and had just learned that I was pregnant with our first child. Neither he nor my mom knew that I was pregnant.

The stroke changed him; it changed who he was. He'd always prided himself on not showing his emotions to anyone else. He lost about half the use of his left arm and leg, which was bad enough, but what he lost most was his emotional control, and his ability to sing. Slowly, over the next three years, he lost more and more of his memory. My children never knew the man that I knew growing up. I grieved that they'd never benefit from his wisdom, or hear his comedic timing when he told a joke, or see him "in action" when he was pranking one of my uncles or acting the fool with people who came to the house.

Mom and Dad - 1984
In fact, I felt abandoned - like I had lost my father when he had the stroke - because before me was this man I didn't know, in many ways the very opposite of the one I knew. He was impulsive, unreserved, would blurt things out no matter where he was or who he was with. 

It took me several months to work through the sadness I felt. And then, one day, my mother got sick and had to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks. She was afraid to leave him on his own and she asked me if I would stay with him. 

So I did. 

In those two weeks, I determined to get to know the man in front of me, to know what he was like.... and I learned that there were things about this fellow who used to be my dad, that I never knew about my dad when I was growing up. I learned how soft-hearted he was; he would burst into tears if he was moved. I appreciated how frustrated he was that his body wouldn't do what he wanted it to do, that his voice couldn't make notes anymore - he had been able to sing, rich deep bass notes. He could enjoy good music still, but that he couldn't sing the notes tore at him. I remember just stopping him as he was berating himself for not being able to get dressed after he used the washroom, and I just reached down without looking and buttoned his pants and buckled his belt for him. The gratitude in his eyes is not something I'll forget.

I learned that he could cook!! He always let my mom cook when I was growing up. He had the most wonderful belly-laugh and he laughed .... a lot. And his love came shining through. All those things I thought I had lost were still there. They just took a different form. Those two weeks gave me a gift: the gift of my father without all the defenses he put up over the years to hold himself in check. It showed me what he was really like inside, and truth be told, I liked this guy just as much as I had loved my pre-stroke dad.

As time went on, though, my mother began to suspect that he had a memory problem. 

He'd always had a problem remembering people's names; we used to joke about him calling someone "Whassisname" ... but this was different. Someone would ask a question and he'd start to answer, get confused, and look to my mother to get direction. She'd answer the question for him. 

Finally, because he wouldn't make an appointment for himself with a doctor, Mom made one and took him in. It was October 1, 1993.

The doctor asked him three questions: 
(1) Do you know where you are? (after looking around ... "Uhhh, hospital?")
(2) Do you know what day it is? ("Wednesday...")
(3) Do you know what year it is? (He looked at my mother. He didn't know.)

The doctor sent him for an immediate CT scan. It revealed that he had widespread brain cancer. Inoperable. He had a matter of weeks left. 

They set up a hospital bed at home and for a month he stayed in that bed using a bedpan. Then he developed a bedsore and was admitted to hospital. To palliative care. 

From that point, he went downhill fast. I visited as often as I was able. My mother almost never left his side. 

Week to week, I could see the deterioration as the cancer continued to spread unhindered. He lost his appetite. Pain - deep, nerve pain - wracked his body and the doctors prescribed morphine. He lost weight. The pain was so bad that he would moan and cry out for his "Mama" - who had died in 1974. He regressed. He didn't recognize his children. It was so very hard to watch ... the only parent I had that I absolutely knew loved me unconditionally ... and I saw him slipping away and there was nothing I could do to bring him back. 

I knew that he was nearing the end. The morphine injections weren't doing the trick so they put him on a slow drip. Gradually they increased the dose. 

I grabbed his hand and held it, about four days (as it turned out) before he passed away, and I told him the story of the first, last, and only time he had taken me fishing. I told him how he had taken me in the boat, how he put the bait on the hook, how he taught me to cast and to "set" the hook in the fish's mouth, and how he taught me to reel the fish in. And then how I strutted back into the house and told my mom that I'd caught the biggest fish. "You never took me fishing again, Dad, and I don't blame you. Not one bit. And I just wanted to apologize to you. I'm so sorry, Dad." 

He smiled at me, looking at me like I was some kind soul he didn't know but appreciated nonetheless.  "Tell me another story," he said dreamily.

Those were the last words I heard him speak. 

I never wanted him back after he left. Not if it meant that he would go back to being in that much pain. The first image in my mind when I learned that he had passed was of him striding confidently through a meadow of flowers, swinging his arms in the prime of life, singing in that deep bass voice at the top of his lungs with all the joy I knew he had in him - happy and free of pain.

They say that time heals all wounds. In a sense I guess it does. At least the callouses get a little thicker. I won't say that the hurt goes away, because it doesn't. At times it is just as fresh as the first day. There are times I want so much for him to hold me in his arms and tell me one more time that everything is going to be okay. I miss him so much! 

I comfort myself now with the fact that the granddaughter that never knew him, the one who told me how much she wanted to meet him someday because I'd talked about him so much that she thought she knew him, is now keeping company with him. It helps a bit to know that they have each other to spend time with, while we wait to join them. 

For us it will be a lifetime. For them - they will have just gotten there when we arrive.

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