They don't ever explain to you that it might be like this, even if you kind of knew it would.
I got the call from the nurse on duty this morning at about 9:30 a.m.: "Steve, he isn't doing well. His breathing is really shallow, and it usually isn't long when that happens. I don't think your dad is going to make it through the day." I said I wasn't surprised, that he had been pretty weak on Thursday when one of my sons and I had visited. I also said I would be over soon, but he was in a nursing home for dementia that is over an hour away from where I live, so it would take me a little while to get there.
25 minutes later, I got a second call. My father, age 87, had died, comfortably, with a hospice nurse by his side.
I showed up at the place, punched myself in through the keypad that lets the visitors in but keeps the residents inside, and I headed for his room.
Everything was pretty much the same as usual. The radio was on. The lights were low. My dad was in bed, alone in the room, and he was not reacting to me entering the room.
I can't tell you how many times I walked in there just like this over the last two years, and thought he was dead, only to be somewhat surprised by him awaking -- sometimes to talk, often to grumble, more often to make unreasonable demands or to tell wild tales of phone calls (there was no phone), important interviews with the press (uh, no), plans for various honors, often from the Catholic Church, to be presented to him in elaborate, soon-to-be-held ceremonies.
This time, though, certainty was preordained by the phone call that had begun my drive. OK, still, I will fess up to putting my hand on his forehead just to make sure, but yeah, he was not with us anymore.
And I don't know what to tell you from there: I don't do grief unless I am actually sad. And I don't do guilt for not being sad when I am "supposed" to be.
I closed his door, went down to the nurses' office, where I ran into the nurse on duty and the hospice nurse, and thanked them both for having been so nice to him without fail, despite his often horrendous attitude. I think the phrase "difficult customer" crossed my lips, and knowing smiles crossed the faces of both nurses.
God, he was a monster the last few years. He was not always that way. I would never classify my father as warm and fuzzy, but he could be kind in his own way. But once my mom died too soon in 1997, he retreated hard and fast. Too many years in voluntary solitude, concealing some health problems, and probably drinking too much in secret, and, somewhere in the mid-to-late '00s, he simultaneously started to lose his mind and began to abuse the trust and kindness of friends and family.
But recognizing the mental slips was hard for most of us that were close to him. He was a frighteningly intelligent guy. He was still discussing politics and science in exacting detail on the same days when he was making wacky, bossy demands of his friends ("Come change my TV channel. I can't seem to do it right." "Come work the microwave for me.") all so he wouldn't have to leave his three-story, five-bedroom house where he barely coped (I won't say "lived") alone.
And his friends eventually got tired of the shit, and they disappeared, and never came back. It was sad, but predictable.
But the wacky stuff got wackier ("The handyman is breaking in at night and tapping on the walls, and that neighbor's kid [in his twenties] keeps ringing my front doorbell at 3 a.m.") and, despite my libertarian bent that generally makes me believe people ought to be able to run their own lives, he wasn't really running anything, and, eventually, in 2011, a burning pan and cackling laughter signified that the shit had hit the fan, and he never came home.
And it was never right thereafter. The best I can say is that once he was institutionalized he was safe, but, Christ, he was a miserable guy. And, mind you, he was pretty polite/nice with me. But the staff.... Jesus, he was rude and awful to them. If they didn't secretly hate him, I would be shocked.
So I thanked the staff people I saw today, and I am thinking about sending them all a note. "I have been a nurse for 27 years and that is the most stubborn patient I have ever had," said a hospital nurse to me, about him, in 2011.
He didn't get less stubborn after 2011.
So anyway, again, I don't know what to tell you. I loved my dad. But he was fuckin' hard to like, for quite a while. I hung in there, managed his affairs, visited him, and did all the stuff I felt obligated to do, but I will not pretend for a moment that I am truly upset by his death. He was very sick, very miserable and his time was, in any vaguely realistic sense, overdue.
I am not burdened, nor blessed, by religious faith. I think dead is dead. I can't think or believe my way around that. And, other than it being a little, I don't know, *weird* to hang out with his dead body just a few feet away while I cleared out his clothes, sorted them into two piles -- "donate" and "trash" -- and dutifully made a few trips out to my car with them, returning each time to the quiet room where he lay, I was sort of vaguely comforted by him just lying there while I worked.
It was the first time in years that he wasn't fighting something, or someone.
I took a deep breath, touched his forehead one more time (no, I really don't know why, but it seemed right), shut off the light and closed the door.
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