“I lit a fire with the love you left behind,
And it burned wild and crept up the mountainside,
I followed your ashes into outer space,
I can’t look out the window, I can’t look at this place,
I can’t look at the stars,
They make me wonder where you are…” – Grace Potter
The Whipple procedure had given Dad more time, but it always seemed borrowed or perhaps stolen. After the round of chemo following the procedure, he resumed a fairly normal life, slowly regaining his strength. By no means, did he return to the same old Dad. He lost weight and seemed frail. Bones protruded from his shoulders, and his legs, never meaty or muscular by any means, literally looked like chicken legs, but we were happy, even if only for a little while, to have him back in reasonable health.
For much of the length of 2014, we held the false hope that Dad just might beat the cancer. His doctor visits yielded positive results with weight loss being the primary concern raised by his caretakers. The cancer seemed to be at bay. We took a collective breath.
I took my family to visit him a couple of times that year in the summer and again at Christmas. He loved seeing his grandkids. He had waited so long to have grandkids that he couldn’t wait to play with them no matter how he felt. Even in his most miserable moments, the grandkids made him smile, and maybe, reminded him of a time when he too had so much future ahead of him.
I told the kids that their Papa was ill and that he had cancer, but I didn’t characterize it as a moment of impending death. I didn’t want their last memories of their paternal grandfather to be sad ones. I wanted them to have happy ones that they would treasure for the rest of their lives. I had loved mine and had so many fond memories of him that I desperately wanted that for them even though they never got to see Dad that much.
By the time we visited at Christmas, Dad put on a strong face, but I could see the pain. Nothing had revealed itself yet as problematic, but I suspected that he wouldn’t make it another Christmas. I asked my good friend Keith, a superbly talented photographer, to swing by at our Christmas gathering and take some portraits of Dad. I wanted to capture him in those moments even if he didn’t really look like how I thought of him. Keith took a series of photos of Dad alone and with us boys, the last family portrait we’d ever take. I had tens of thousands of photos in my collection, but those two of Dad, alone and with the three of us, became my most treasured.
By the time the New Year rolled around, Dad started having problems. A visit to the doctor revealed that the cancer had returned and spread. He went back on chemotherapy, but he grew progressively weaker. Danny’s reports grew grimmer every time I talked to him. The specter of death loomed. He seemed like he was in a free fall and there was nothing any of us could do except hope against reality. I’d known this was coming, but nothing, no matter how much warning I had had, prepared me for Dad’s demise.
By Mom’s birthday in early April, Dad ended up in the hospital in dire condition. I flew to Atlanta to be with him expecting it to be the end. Seeing him laying in the hospital bed like that, a shell of his former self, took my breath away. He had deteriorated quickly since I had seen him at Christmas. He wore the agony on his face and spoke in a raspy whisper. I could barely keep my composure around him, but the last thing he needed was for me to break down. I had to be strong even in the face of losing someone I loved so much.
In a seminal moment, one that will forever be seared in my brain, I spent the night with him at the hospital. His room had a little cove with a bench near the window, and I tried to sleep there, but all throughout the night, Dad moaned and writhed in pain. The sound still haunts my memories of him. The nurses tended to him all night trying to make him comfortable, but at that point nothing short of knocking him out worked. He couldn’t take care of himself. They had to clean him up multiple times throughout the night. The thin curtain that I had pulled between the bench and his bed did nothing to hide me from the terrible sound of my dad slowly dying next to me.
After that night, all I wished for him was peace and a pain-free existence. Even if he lived, his would be a life of abject misery. I didn’t want him to die, but I didn’t want him in that kind of pain either. Those opposing wishes battled inside my head.
The next day offered a level of respite that I hadn’t expected. Dad didn’t look better, but he stabilized and became more coherent and aware of his surroundings. We could talk between the moments he drifted off to sleep. His brothers and sisters came to visit along with my cousins and other family members. It felt like a family reunion, and there was a great amount of comfort in having everyone around him.
In between the family visits, I sat by his bed. When he slept, I read a book or worked on my computer. When he was awake, I talked to him as much as I could. The funny thing was that neither of us were great conversationalists. I preferred quiet solitude and so did he, but in those moments, we talked as much as he could because we both knew our time together was coming to an end. We pretended that things were normal (How are the Braves going to do this year?) and swooned over his grandkids (That Gracie sure is smart!), but in a few instances, when the stark realization of death scared him most, he became uncharacteristically serious.
It was during one of those moments that he said the one thing that stands out most to me, the one thing that I hear in my head even now. “I did the best I could.” That’s all he said, referring to how he raised my brothers and me. He looked at me, weak and struggling with the pain, and I told him that he did. He did great. I squeezed his hand but remained quiet, the lump in my throat too big to let me speak. He drifted off to sleep and all I could do was hold his hand.
That week, as hard as it was, got better. The worst moments passed and Dad, although still bedridden, seemed to regain some vigor. He sat up more as the week wore on and there was a false sense of hope that permeated the family. Maybe this was just another episode in the journey with cancer. By the end of the week, Dad looked well enough for me to return home to Seattle, so I left him behind despite my misgivings about seeing him for the last time.
When I returned home, I called him and Danny every day. Dad got well enough to be discharged to home hospice care, but before he left the hospital, I had a Facetime call with him in what would be the last time I would see him alive. He looked so much better than he had the week before that I almost believed that he was going to pull through, but that wasn’t in the cards. Cancer tortures its victims like that, gives them hope and then pulls the rug out from under them.
Dad’s progress eventually stalled and his health resumed its decline. He remained in his home heavily medicated to keep him comfortable. Other organs started malfunctioning, and the home nurse warned Danny that the end was imminent. I hastily made reservations for my family and me to return to Atlanta. I hoped to get there before he passed to say one final goodbye. I never made it.
I hadn’t slept well the night before our flight as I eagerly wanted to get back to Dad. We arrived at the airport for a very early morning departure. I fidgeted at the gate hoping everything would be on time. I still had my phone on waiting for any updates from Danny. As they called our zone for boarding, I took a deep breath. I’d be out of touch for five hours, and I could only hope everything would be fine, but as I walked down the jetway, Danny called. Dad had died. The long journey had come to an end.