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Wednesday, May 2, 2012
I wrote the following as the eulogy I intended to deliver at dad's funeral. I ended up delivering a somewhat different version (the reality of speaking at a funeral is that it is a rare person who delivers written remarks without giving in to emotionally-driven spontaneous changes).
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I am planning to cry, so please bear with me if I need a minute during this.
I’ve given eulogies before, but I’ve stuck with facts, praise, and prose. Dad deserves that kind of praise and prose, and he’ll get it from me and others. But I had the privilege of spending weeks living with him in the hospital, switching nights with my mom, and helping him as he did thing after thing for the very last time. It was hard to watch him suffer, but I am grateful I was able to give him the gift of companionship, the gift of making sure the hospital followed his wishes, and to enjoy the gift we gave each other of leaving nothing unsaid between us. So instead of talking about how great a dad he was – and he was, and you’ll hear that over and over today – and instead of offering a biography, I want to share his last moments with you.
I’m coming to grips with the fact my grandfather was the patriarch of the family just five years ago, dad was the patriarch until Wednesday, and that role now rests with me. But that also means that dad isn’t 71 years old anymore. He isn’t old, or sick, or worried, or battling cancer. I see him reflected, as if he were still alive, in the things my daughters do day to day, in my brothers’ kindness, in my mother, and frankly in my drive to do the right thing no matter the personal cost – particularly when the right thing involves keeping my family happy and safe.
We die as we live, and his last day told the story of his life.
He lived as a strong man, a man who knew what he wanted. On his last day, he knew he was going to die, and he didn’t want to suffer. In the morning, he told mom he was in respiratory failure, and she called for an ambulance. As he left his home for the last time, even struggling to breathe, he was having a technical discussion with the paramedics about his condition, he liked the details of stuff and he loved medicine.
Mom and I drove to the hospital and after a long wait they let her in to see him. Mom came out and said they only would give one pass and asked if I wanted to use the pass to go in. Mom was the love of his life and I knew he needed her by his side. I told her that and she just nodded. Of course, she knew it too.
Mom is crafty, and eventually got the doctor to give me a pass. When I got back there, I insisted that the doctor talk with us about dad’s DNR wishes. Dad was a bit out of it, but immediately engaged. “I do not want to be resuscitated under any circumstances.” The doctor said intubation would help him breathe. Dad said “I refuse to be intubated. Instead of intubating me, just shut me down with morphine. I’ve just about had it. I’ve had enough.” This is a man who was wrote on his blog that he was going to shoot the last chemo arrow in his quiver days before – but today a man who had finally concluded he was beyond any reasonable chance for a meaningful recovery. I leaned in and promised him that we would take good care of mom no matter what happened. You could just see him relax.
Dad always knew what he wanted in life, and it was no different in death. The greatest gift mom and I were able to give dad was making sure his wishes were honored. It was also the most expensive gift I ever gave, since I loved him so much and he was asking us to let the doctors let him die. But he was a good man, a good father, and he had long ago earned the right to have me fight to make sure he would be able to exit in the way of his choice. I gave him my word, and I made sure the doctors and nurses followed his.
We waited for a chest x-ray. Dad was interactive, even smiled a bit. Then the results, pneumonia confirmed. The doctor offered a BiPAP mask, which is a non-invasive mask that covers the mouth and nose and when you breathe, kicks up the pressure to force air in. Dad was cogent and said he wanted it. They fitted him with it, and he couldn’t talk easily once it was on. Just as bad, he couldn’t wear his trifocals over the mask’s seal. I knew he expected this to be his last day when he refused intubation, but I saw impatience in his eyes when he realized he couldn’t talk or even see properly.
They took him to the ICU, but didn’t let us in for a while. By the time we got in, dad had asked for Dilaudid painkiller. He was still cogent, but his plan was in action. He looked each of us in eye. He responded when we held him. The details from then on aren’t critical – he eventually lost consciousness. Dad would never wake up again, but this is where the real story of dad’s life was told.
His left arm was covered with IVs, tape, and other medical stuff. His right arm was clear. My mom was standing next to his left arm, and I was holding onto his right. It didn’t seem right, and I asked her if she would switch so she could touch his skin more easily. She paused, then walked to the end of the bed and said “no, he always loved when I rubbed his feet. I want him to feel me rubbing his feet.” She knew him so well, and loves him so much.
Eva had asked that I tell him she loved him, so I kissed him and said “Eva wanted me to tell you she loves you, and I love you too.” Mom said “I love you” and kissed him.
I’d spent so much time at the hospital that I knew how to read a lot of the machines, and I saw dad was about to go. The nurse said “it’s happening”. Mom rubbed his feet, held him. I held his arm and cried softly. He died the way he lived – with his family at his side, respecting his wishes, and on his own terms.
I looked up and saw mom sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed. I kissed dad once more on the forehead – his heart had stopped but I hoped he could still feel my love – then I walked to mom, hugged her, and asked her what she needed. In a strong, painful voice she said “I need them to take all of that stuff off of him so I can hug him, so I can hold him one last time.” I told the nurse and he complied in seconds.
Then I saw the most terrifying and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Something that was simultaneously the stuff of nightmares and the stuff of the endings of the most beautiful Disney princess stories. My dad’s body, his mouth slightly open, still, not breathing, and my mother holding him. She was holding him lightly in a physical sense, but it was the strongest hug I’ve ever seen.
I know that in intense situations people see things that aren’t real, but what I saw next I will believe to my grave to be real. Dad’s body looked full. It will still, he was dead, but even in death it was full. And with every second mom held him, dad’s body emptied and mom’s grew fuller. I could see him going into her. She held him until I saw that migration finish, then, like she knew it was complete, she looked up, let go, and told me that that was the last time she would ever be able to hold him.
Not true, mom. I’m not a religious man. I do know that nothing in the universe is ever destroyed; it can change form, but is never gone. I don’t know how I saw what I saw, I don’t know if it was really visible or just my realizing what it means to spend 50 years madly in love. But what I do know is that dad is with you, whatever spirit he has, however it manifests, you carry him with you for the rest of your days.
I don’t expect you to suddenly follow the NCAA. I know it isn’t literally that there are two people in your body, but the story of your lives was so intertwined with your love that at the moment of his death your merger became complete. At the time I couldn’t figure out why you had such an urgency to give him a full body hug, with all the medical stuff gone, but when I saw what happened, I knew.
You hold in you all of the love you share. Everybody should be so lucky to draw that much love, enough love to sustain you the rest of your days.
I love you dad. I’ll honor you by being the best dad and the best man I can be.
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