My dad went into the hospital. He had had two heart attacks in one day. They put him in ICU (Intensive Care Unit). I was three thousand miles away in Seattle, Washington. My sister called to tell me the news. It didn’t look good.
I had no money, so if I were to make there to Tampa to see him I would have to hitch-hike cross-country. I had done it many time before so it wasn’t that big a deal. But I was older now. The roads were far more dangerous. The world had changed.
Somebody convinced my mom that it would be a good idea to buy me a plane ticket so I could get there sooner. Just in case time was cut short. She was reluctant, but bought me a ticket.
When I got there a host of other family members were already there, weeping in their misery. Dad was loved by everyone. He was a true hero. Not some media darling or commercialized here, but a true hero. A man you could count on if ever there was a need. A man who came to the rescue many times when family issues arose. A man who lit up a room like a sun lights up the sky.
Everyone knew something I didn’t. But I found out sooner than later. Dad wasn’t given much hope to survive. He was on life support machines with all manner of hoses going into his body and tons of wires coming out all over. He couldn’t talk – obviously. And he couldn’t eat. They fed him intravenously. The poor guy was on his death bed.
For two weeks I stayed by his side, icing him down, reading his notes and talking to him. I didn’t want to believe what was so obvious to everyone else. He was only 54 for damn’s sake! I was 28 and I was not ready to see my daddy off. But I could not stop what was already fore ordained. His kidneys were failing, his stats were not optimistic. He was dying right before my eyes.
In those two weeks there was no sign of him getting any better. There was no hope for his going home to tough it out again like he had done so many other times. This time it got the best of him.
I had moved away just six months prior. I had lived with him for ten years and watched him deteriorate over that time. When I got out of the Coast Guard, they had given him five years to live. And so together we battled through the diabetes and the heart attacks. We lived as full of lives as we could. We moved from California to Florida to be closer to my sister and my mom.
They had divorced when I was three. I was never told why. It was none of my business. I suspect it had something to do with my father being a flirt and my mother being a stone. They were about a incompatible as any couple could be. But they were both great people. They just couldn’t make it work.
Dad was in the military. His dad was in the military. His two brothers were both in the military. It provided a good life for them…..if you can handle the strict discipline and orderly lifestyle.
He could. He excelled in that environment. He was a lifer. Before they forced him into retirement, Dad made it to E-9; Chief Master Sergeant. The highest enlisted grade in the Air Force. He had served through Korea and Viet Nam. He saw action in both theaters. He was a munitions man – bombs and things. It was a good life. But as I said, they forced him out. Medical reasons. Diabetes.
This was before medicine got a handle on how to treat diabetes. This was when complications from diabetes included loss of sight, blood sugar episodes and heart attacks.
Dad was on 9 different medications. He took nitro-glycerin for his heart, he gave himself two shots every day of insulin (from pigs, beef and humans) and he took a host of other pills to manage his other diabetic issues. I watched him for ten years.
When I got out of the Coast Guard we planned the move to Florida. All was going well until we got to Texas. His foot had got a blister weeks before and it just wasn’t healing. We stopped in Waco, Texas to see our relatives, his brother Emil and all my cousins. It was there that dad decided to go to the VA hospital and have his foot checked out.
The doctors immediately admitted him and proceeded to experiment with his foot. A training crew had been brought in from DC or somewhere and without so much as a thank you, they cut off his toe. BUT, they did not take care of the wound. Within two days of him “coming home” to the apartment that I got, his toe exhibited signs of gangrene. We had to go back to the VA and have them fix it. But they again experimented and only cut out a canal and left some dead tissue to test out different medications to see if they would kill the infection.
It didn’t. They continued toying with it and now his foot had a huge crater in it with the edges being infected. Before long they had to chop off his leg at the knee. And that is how my dad lived for ten years. With a prosthetic because those doctors toyed with his foot instead of fixing it right to begin with. So I had real issues with him being in the VA hospital in Tampa. I had a hard time believing that he had no hope of coming home. I secretly wished I could just whisk him away to some “competent” facility where they would work miracles and my dad wouldn’t die.
But, that was not to be. He was dying and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Somehow word got to me that it was time to make a decision. And, that I would be the one to make it. This was not what I had hoped for nor expected when I got on that plane and flew to Tampa. I didn’t want to make the decision. Heck, I was the youngest of the bunch there. Why couldn’t my aunt or uncle or mother or someone else take the responsibility?
After they chopped off his leg, we stayed in Waco for two years and then moved back to California. Our trip to Florida just had to wait.
I don’t remember much about the in-between years in California, but I do remember we moved back to Campbell. A tiny enclave in the heart of San Jose. Campbell was where I went to high school before I joined the service. Dad had agreed to let me live with him after mom kicked me out of the house. I was fifteen.
She had been dating a guy that she met at work and brought him home one day and said, “I’m getting married!” To which I replied “Over my dead body!” She and I could not resolve our differences and so she kicked me out.
Dad was a bachelor. He hadn’t had many companions after he and mom divorced. So having a kid move in with him was a challenge. I was unfazed. I was happy to live with my dad. For all my life I had looked up to him even though I only got to see him on a few occasions. We got along famously. Especially when I showed an interest in the military.
At school, I joined the ROTC and learned all about the military, its customs, expectations and all that sort of stuff. And I enjoyed it. Playing soldier was exciting. By my second year I was named leader of the class. I was on cloud nine.
It was short-lived. I had been cutting art class and got caught by the dean of boys. He asked me where I was supposed to be and I smarted off and told him “I dunno. Where do you think I should be?” And from there it quickly dissipated. The whole thing. My dad was called and I was expelled from school. They wanted to make an example out of me. And then my dad asked me where I wanted to go? The Army. Navy. Marines. Air Force. Or, Coast Guard. I was not in my right mind as this happened so fast and so I decided on the Coast Guard because I liked water. What a stupid move. But then, any move at that time was wrong. I should have asked for some time to think it over. Anyway, within weeks I was in the Coast Guard marching and drilling and barking out “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs”.
During this time Dad was slowly getting worse. While I was in Alaska he had a blood sugar attack and drove himself from Lake Tahoe all the way to Reno, where the closest VA hospital was. His blood sugar was in the 400 range and the doctors told him that they knew of no way he could be driving because with that b.s. level he should be dead.
He also had a heart attack in this time. As I recall, it was his first one.
So the decision was left to me to make. The doctor said I had two choices: I could either take him off of life support now and let him pass quietly or I could keep him on the machines, but, this second option would give us extra time for a price – he would be in great pain as his kidneys died first. So there really was no choice at all. I would have to tell them to pull the plug.
I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye FOREVER to my father. It wasn’t fair. My dad was loved by everyone and he loved everybody too. He wasn’t a criminal. A jerk. A boozer. He wasn’t anything like that. He was a decent, loving man who only wanted the best for people and they loved him for it. But, I went home that night and cried myself to sleep.
The next day I went up to that room and talked to my dad. It would be the last time we would be alone – together. Later, all the family would gather in the room to send him off. And I would have to tell the doctor to take dad off of life support.
The hour came when it was to be done. I had already talked to dad about it and he was ready. I don’t know how anyone could be ready to die, but he was fully aware of what was to happen and he was okay with it.
My heart sunk. Okay, let’s do this. The nurses came in and did all the dirty work: they pulled all the electrodes, yanked out the tubes and then left the room for the rest of us to deal with. My uncle couldn’t handle it, it was too devastating for him, so he left and took my dad’s sister with him. Poor Louise, she didn’t even get to say goodbye to her brother. Dad’s other sister was there, my Aunt Gertie. She was somber, like everyone else in the room. We looked at dad and I could tell, we were all wondering how much time we had left with him.
He couldn’t speak. His throat was left raw by that darned tube they had down his throat. Dad did manage to get out a few words – “chocolate shake”. I was ready to go get him a shake at the 7-eleven just a couple minutes walk from the hospital but everybody freaked out and made me stay in the room. They were worried that dad would die before I got back, so, dad suffered and thirsted because everybody was so scared of him dying “suddenly”.
Well “suddenly” never came. What did come was some damned smelly hospital food. For some reason the VA thought dad would “enjoy” a last meal. But it stunk so bad, dad almost threw up as did I.
We stood there, lost in our embarrassment for what seemed like eight hours. Plenty of time to have gone to the store to get dad a chocolate shake. That bothered me. But who could have predicted how long he would live?
As the time wore on, his vitals started dropping. He was starting to breathe shallower and shallower. And as the hours passed his attention span dwindled as well. He was slowly succumbing to the inevitable.
There wasn’t much talking going on that day. Sure, there were the expected “I love you’s” and such but we really didn’t connect with him. It was sad to watch and be a part of.
When he finally “gave up the ghost” it was a shocker. It was not at all like what they show in the movies or on tv. He passed quietly and peacefully, but, his body lunged out for one last breath and that was freaky. And then, when I least expected it, his spirit passed through my abdomen and then went away. It was the coolest thing. My thoughts on death were pretty tame before, just assembled the beliefs that Hollywood offered. But to be there and go through it, and, to have his spirit pass through my body – that was special. No words can tell how that moment has impacted my life. I question everybody’s take on it now: the Christians and other religious folk; the doctors and their click; the Hollywood moguls and the way they depict life and death. I question it all. Reality is far more sophisticated than what I was taught.
In all my years I never would have guessed that my dad would die at 54. Nor did I expect to be the one to kill him, to cut off his life. It’s a damnable thing: this existence. It’s been 27 years and it still hurts.