I wrote this post 5 months ago. I sat on it for a long time. Kept it in a folder on my computer. Didn’t dare to open it for a month or so. The few times I looked back at it, I’d cry for hours. The pain of grieving has softened to a dull ache most days. Today marks one year since he passed away, and we are now facing death’s door again with my grandmother on hospice.
A warning to my siblings and mom that this will be a painful read. If you’re not ready to read it, don’t. But it’s here if it helps your healing process later on.
I love a good birth story. Before I gave birth to the Big Kid and again before Bear Shark, I read as many stories of natural birth as I could find to prepare myself. I watched the Business of Being Born and found YouTube videos of water births, home births, hospital births, every kind of birth. Even in college, I watched The Baby Story on TLC since it was on every day about lunchtime. I was fascinated by the process, the pain, the emotion, the raw human experience of bringing new life into the world. Nothing compares to that transition of adding to the family, and I tried my best to prepare for it, knowing that it wasn’t a moment I could TRULY prepare for.
Throughout my pregnancies, I tried to keep a log of how I felt physically, mentally and emotionally. And soon after each of my boys arrived, I recorded my birth story so I wouldn’t forget any of the details – the good, the bad and the ugly. While we are two and done, and I don’t plan to go through pregnancy, labor or delivery again, I wanted something tangible to bring me back to those moments. The sheer joy, the painful contractions, the conjuring of something great and deep in me to keep going, the feeling of being a witness to my own transformation into motherhood.
When my dad died, the only thing I could compare my experience to was birth. Birth and death are so intertwined to me in how they can bring you IMMEDIATELY into the present moment. Nothing else mattered but to be face-to-face with that moment when you knew your life was going to change considerably, permanently and deeply.
I turned to Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, to help me process his death. I’m not done reading it yet; I take a chapter at a time when I’m feeling very vulnerable. But I came across this quote that made me stop and think.
Pain and pleasure go together; they are inseparable. Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else.
The line that got me was “Death is painful and delightful.” Painful, for sure. Delightful? I didn’t know what she meant. So I explored that, and I’m still exploring that. I tried to reach back into those 28 hours of my life to find moments of delight, and I didn’t know whether they existed.
So as I do when I’m at my most vulnerable, emotional state, I sit down and write. I thought I’d record the death story of my dad. This isn’t a detailed play-by-play of what happened to him. This is my story and my experience of what I went through. Perhaps others will find moments they relate to when they have experienced immense loss. Perhaps someone can find moments of delight in their own stories reflected in mine. And whether I go back to read this story the way I do with my kids’ birth stories is yet to be determined, but it seemed like an important thing for me to do to help my grieving process.
When you’re in your mid-30s, the fragility of life starts to become more real. I am at an age where my own health coincides with my children’s. If I cook them healthy foods, I eat healthier. If I encourage them to get out and play, I too am up and moving. But I’m not living with my parents or grandparents anymore. I’m not part of their day-to-day, so when I worry that something may happen to them (illness, car accident, tripping and falling, etc.), I feel extremely helpless.
I was getting ready for bed when the first text message came through from my oldest sister. It was a short message that Dad was in an ambulance going to the ER. No other information was known or shared yet. I had an immediate sinking feeling in my gut. My parents and grandparents have always been quite healthy and rarely needed medical attention. I’ve probably taken more antibiotics to fight sinus infections than I think they’ve taken in their whole lives. To be rushed to the ER indicated to me that this was something extremely serious, uncommon and unheard of in our family.
I tried to be patient – one of my biggest weaknesses – and fought the urge to ask a million questions. Even though I wanted every detail of what happened, what was going on, how serious is whatever it is, how is Mom doing, I didn’t want to add to the stress of my oldest sister being in the midst of it all. To calm my frantic mind and to give me SOMETHING to do, I tapped into my breathing. I found the passages about Tonglen Meditation and put them into practice. I tried to breathe in my dad’s suffering and send back love and healing. I did this for hours as I tried to get a little bit of sleep.
My mind was racing to every terrible outcome. I am neither what you would call an optimist nor a pessimist. I try to be a realist, taking information as it comes and making my assessments based on what is known. I tried to prepare myself for whatever news would come – improvements or degradations in his state of health. I couldn’t sleep though. I kept texting with my sister, hoping there would be something new that could tell us if things were worsening or getting better. The not knowing is the hardest part. Being left in ambiguity and only having your own crazy thoughts run wild is the most uncomfortable feeling. And so I tried to breathe in to my uncertainty. Again, it gave me something to do, whether it was fruitful or not.
By about 12:30 am, I was a mess of tears. I couldn’t stand not being there. Not knowing. Feeling so helpless, so powerless, so far away. I woke my husband up and asked if I should pack a bag right at that moment and drive to Dallas. He knew how important it was for me to be there, but he worried about my driving on no sleep in the middle of the night. I tried to call my other siblings in Austin to see if maybe someone else was up and willing to drive with me. They didn’t hear my calls or texts; no one was picking up or answering my messages. (Turns out of all nights, none of them had their phones near their beds.)
So I tried to get a bit more sleep, always keeping an ear out for my phone to ring or beep, waiting for any news.
By 5:30am, I couldn’t sleep any longer. I was ready to go. My other siblings were catching up on the night of texts, and we got organized for two cars. The drive was hectic, full of worry, full of angst.
In those 3 hours on the road, I thought about the drive to the hospital and to the birthing center when I went into labor. The anticipation of the unknown. The adrenaline rush. Two sides of the same coin. Would there be life? Would there be death? Would there be complications or would things go smoothly?
My brother and I talked on the drive in a way we haven’t in a very long time. The conversation is fuzzy now, outside of discussing what information we knew. But in a way, it was nice to connect with him outside of throwing joking insults and laughing about pop culture nonsense.
The last 20 minutes to the hospital felt especially nerve wracking. I could feel the buzzing in my veins as my body went into fight-or-flight mode. We parked as fast as we could and raced in, trying to find the ICU room. Since there were so many of us, we had to kind of tag in and out to see Dad.
I do remember very clearly how my stomach dropped to the floor the moment I saw him in that hospital bed. My dad, who was always so full of life and cheer and humor even when he was snoring on the couch, looked… awful. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but he looked bad. He didn’t look like himself. It’s like I could sense that his spirit had already left his body. I didn’t want to express it to my siblings or my mom, but in that moment, I had a gut feeling that he wasn’t going to make it. And it was a reality that I needed to face and eventually accept.
My first instinct was to touch him. To feel his skin. I held his hand a lot as a little girl, and I have that tactile memory embedded in me. He felt different, even my knowing that he was on a number of medications for comfort and to keep his body alive. I tried to hold myself together and have a show of strength among my emotionally-non-revealing siblings.
Dad was stable over the next few hours – no change in his unconscious state. We’d swap in and out of the room, watching the monitors and trying to figure out what all the beeps and lines and numbers meant. We asked questions of the nurses, hoping they could help explain what was going on or what we were looking for as signs of improvement or worsening. All day long, not much change. Our cousins and aunts and uncles came by to visit and bring food. We tried to distract each other.
I took my mom home to take a shower, change clothes and get some rest. Neither of us could really rest, so we headed back to the hospital.
Getting toward midnight, we had a more serious discussion as a family. What would Dad want us to do in this situation? If by some miracle he pulled through, what would the quality of his life be? It is a most unpleasant but necessary conversation to talk about life of a loved one at the brink of death. We had to make a decision as a family – one that no one ever wants to make.
It brought back memories of when my husband and I decided to put our dog Boo Boo down, 3 months after I gave birth to my older son. The situation was different in that Boo Boo was suffering from a tumor, but nonetheless, we were at the threshold. I was standing at death’s door once again and about to hand over my loved one. Sometimes, modern medicine is so cruel in that it forces you to even have to make a decision instead of the decision being made for you.
After our family discussion, the energy in the room changed. I can’t speak for my family, but I felt relieved in some ways that ours and his suffering and this ambiguity would end.
In the delirium of having not slept and being tossed around in this emotional hurricane, we started to play Elvis and Tom Jones when we sat with Dad. If he could hear us somewhere in there, we hoped this could bring him a bit of joy. We started recalling some of our favorite childhood memories with him. He was a man with a personality big enough to fill a stadium, and my tears of sadness turned into tears of laughter. He had an appetite for life and good food and adventure. He had more courage than all of us put together.
So maybe this is the delight in death. Maybe our reflecting on our love for him and wanting to hold on to those memories is the bitter sweetness of the situation. If there was anything I wanted my dad to know before he took his last breath, it was that I loved him unconditionally, soulfully and with the entirety of my heart.
Watching, holding and being there when someone dies is painful beyond imagine. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else than to have his hand in mine. I couldn’t look away. I didn’t want to look away. I needed to be witness to this moment.
I held it together as best as I could for my mom’s sake. She said if we cried, his spirit would be worried for us and not pass peacefully. I held in my tears. I tried to control my breathing and keep from hyperventilating. As soon as I stepped out of that room though, I lost it. I hugged my second sister. I dropped F bombs, knowing full well the nurses and the nearby patients in the ICU could hear. I did not care. I lost my father. This whole thing sucked. That whole year sucked with one bad blow after another. And no one saw this coming.
I was raised Buddhist – more like a Christmas/Easter Buddhist in that I got the gist of things but wasn’t intimately involved in any religion or philosophy. I do remember that in that moment, I wished so badly that I believed in a single God – to be mad at, to question his big plan, to tell him to eff off. But as a Buddhist light, I had no one or nothing to direct my grief. So I put my realist hat back on. I acknowledged my emotions while processing the facts and the order of events. I was also numb. I was tapped out and exhausted. We had to make some final decisions and arrangements at the hospital before we could leave, and it felt very surreal.
I drove my mom home. We talked in the car, and she shared about how she and Dad met and inadvertently went on a first date. I hadn’t heard that story before. I was clinging to any moment of light when we were surrounded in pitch-black darkness. I crashed hard and fast that night.
The next morning was probably the hardest for me. Reality set in. I couldn’t get myself out of bed, even though the house was bustling. I was curled up in my pool of grief. I had to peel myself out of bed. I spoke briefly with my husband that morning before joining my siblings. They have a tendency to get busy instead of wallow, so we began the great task of clearing old items. We didn’t want Mom living in a house full of stuff that no one wants.
My third sister and I went through his clothes, bagging them up for donation. I kept a sweater that he liked to wear; it’s cozy and it fits me. We also pulled out some amazing ‘80s jogging suits and an ugly sweater vest that would make a great costume for a decades theme party. It was nice to come across these moments of laughter. There were a number of other treasures we found – documents, photos, mementos.
It’s an odd thing to go through someone else’s stuff. It immediately made me feel like I needed to clean my own home because if I were to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t want my family having to sort through junior high notes and knick knacks that I collected over the years that have no value or meaning anymore. I can save them that task by recycling, donating and trashing my junk now.
We spent the entire day cleaning and making arrangements for the days ahead. Before we headed back to Austin, we went to the funeral home and made more hard decisions. It was the first full calendar day of his being gone, and life still had to go on.
As I write this, it’s now been almost 7 months since his passing. There were plenty of miserable days, especially as we got through the holidays. I still have a hard time going back to my parents’ house to visit because I will always be reminded of those first 28 hours of hell. I still have moments where I feel like I’m reliving that morning of realization. I also have moments of longing, when I want to call him and share news with him or have him talk to my kids.
Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else.
The beginning of something else… New milestones in my kids’ lives. A stronger relationship with my husband. Deeper understanding of my siblings and my mom. A nuanced way that I apply yoga to my life. Shared connection and compassion towards others experiencing loss. It doesn’t have to be as big and life changing as birth and death, but there’s always something else.
Dad always knew that about life, and he tried to teach us about it and train us to be ready for it. I will always miss him, but I also know he’s a part of me. In that way, we can’t be separated by death.