Dad died Friday afternoon.
He went pretty fast. A week ago, he was tired and on oxygen, but felt good enough to plan to go down to their Florida place for the rest of the winter. Then he started sleeping more and more, and by Monday, he was no longer opening his eyes, just mumbling "Leave me alone" when you tried to rouse him from the couch.
By Wednesday, everyone flew in for the vigil. He wasn't responding much at all anymore, and had stopped drinking or eating. My brothers and stepmom took it in turns to keep watch over him 24 hours a day. He wasn't speaking or even opening his eyes, but he was restless, almost constantly sitting up and lying back down. It was obvious he was feeling sick, even if he couldn't communicate it, so hospice gave us a bunch of narcotics to let him relax. A nun brought a coke bottle that had been emptied and filled with holy water. My brother Mike, a fundamentalist, warned people not to drink it by mistake. I thanked him for the warning, since holy water burns me.
The same nun had come during the last crisis. She was giving her rap about meeting his maker and dad leaned over to my brother Don and said, "Get her out of here." He always hated nuns ever since they beat him as a kid. He wasn't religious as far as you could tell, unless golf is a religion.
Now the nun and the other religious gimmicks made a comeback. Beside the holy H2O, someone put some kind of talisman around his neck as he lay unconscious.
Thursday night my brother Doug and I were the overnight watchers. Dad was unresponsive by that time - pupils weren't reacting to light anymore. Very occasionally he'd have a tremor. Around 1 a.m. Friday, his respiration rate starting creeping up - it went from 12 per minute to 20 in about 3 hours. Doug, a health-care professional, slapped an Oxycontin patch on him and tried to get morphine drops into his mouth to lower the rate. It didn't work particularly well, and the rate bounced around between 20 and 24. Doug is a bit emotionally autistic and he started to explain to me that this is what happens when a body goes into renal failure. Without taking in water, the kidneys shut down, and after that, the rest of the body starts going, and the higher respiration is a symptom. I told Doug to shut up.
Eventually, the opiates worked. Dad's breathing rate seemed to stabilize at under 20, so I went to sleep at 9:30, after Doug had called the hospice nurse to inquire about administering the morphine intraveneously. Mike woke me up at 2:30 and said Dad was in distress. When I got to the room, dad's breathing was rapid and shallow. They had propped him up and everyone was gathered around the bed. There was a lot of crying.
Dad went into Cheyne-Stokes breathing, which is a good sign things are coming to an end. Mike got the bible out and did a reading. Mike's a frustrated minister. Much more crying, including by me. My aunt and stepmom were saying Our Fathers and Hail Marys. All of this for a guy who didn't even believe in God, and hated to have people crowd him like that. If he were awake, he would have been saying, "Get the hell away from me."
As the abnormal breathing went on, people started talking to him in loud voices. "It's okay to go, Dad!" "It's okay to let go, honey!" Now, this guy's pupils weren't reacting to light. His hearing wasn't working, either, given that his body only had just enough energy to run the heart and lungs - badly. So basically, the people around the bed were just talking to themselves. Dad was already gone.
Then his breathing went back to normal, although rapid and shallow. It only added to the vulgarity of the scene. People were nonplussed. What did it mean? they asked. Doug explained that it could go on for minutes, or hours. There was a sense of emotional letdown in the room, like the movie had failed to end in the right place.
It was just a pause. Fifteen minutes later, the Cheyne-Stokes returned. The time between breaths stretched to ten, twelve, fifteen seconds. Then at 3:19 p.m., he inhaled once more. And then no more.
Within a few minutes, we opened a bottle of wine. A half-hour after that, we were telling Dad stories and laughing.
In the months leading up to this, I had been afraid of facing dad's death. I had never had anyone close to me die before. Being a visual person, the image in my mind that freaked me out the most was that of him lying dead, looking like he had fallen asleep in front of the TV as I had seen him so many times, but knowing he was never waking up. Second to that, I was dreading the moment of death itself. I was afraid of watching him suffer. I was also afraid of what my reaction would be. I thought I might fall apart.
In the end, the end was pretty horrible, but not insurmountable. I guess everyone - whether they're the cynic I have re-exposed myself to be with this post, or not - realizes at some point while watching someone die that death is inevitable, and given the medications today, the patient is not suffering. Given that, you're just waiting for the automatic processes of the body to turn themselves off. I am sure that there are much nastier deaths, especially if you can't die at home. The last thing I would want, personally, is to buy it on a table surrounded by medicos in a hospital. But not everyone has the chance that my dad had to go out among family and friends, not hooked up to machines.
And once he died, I found being with his body not bad at all. That he'd had a relatively "good death" and the inevitable relief from the whole thing being over changed it for me. It was still incredibly emotional. But in a perverse way, it was fine.
A couple of hours later, the undertakers arrived to take his body away. They prompted us for an obituary, and being the family lawyer and writer, I got the job. It was fun to write. He led a pretty amazing life, and writing the obit helped me clarify something I had always thought. The one theme that ran throughout his life, and that more or less my brothers and I were heir to, was that he was own ultimate authority. Whether he was pissing off the nuns as a bad-ass kid, running an airfield crash crew in the war, starting his own businesses, or coaching baseball, he always did his own thinking. The big guy, the authority, the Man - whether politicians, the Church, the military brass, or the bigtime businessmen - all of them had an agenda, and he didn't trust one of them to look out for the "little guy," a category he put himself into, and which fit, both literally and figuratively. Dad often did a good imitation of an overgrown teenager with money, but at bottom he lived for giving everybody a fair shake. In running his businesses, he never fired anybody unless they stole from him or the customers. Ever. He didn't enjoy paying taxes, but he never got suckered by the Republicans' promises to cut his rate. The Republicans, for him, were always the party of Nixon, racists and the rich, forever, and it took me several years into adulthood to appreciate how refreshing that clarity of vision was in men of his age and social situation. It would have been easy for him to run with the bigots who were all around us. He never did.
He lived well.