One year ago ...
I took the children shopping for supplies so that we could host a lemonade stand for our wonderful bus driver, Mr. Yani.
He had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and with mounting medical bills and dismal insurance coverage, we thought it would be a good opportunity for the children to host a fundraiser and show support for someone who they cared about. (In the end, they rose nearly $1K!)
The theme would be yellow. Yellow for sunshine, school buses, lemonade, and joy.
Standing in the aisle looking at yellow cups, balloons, and table cloths - I received a call from my brother, Francis. I'd seen the emails flying around the family the past 48-hours that Dad wasn't doing very well and had been hospitalized, so I immediately knew why he was calling. I didn't answer the phone because I couldn't very well talk to him about my father's failing health, in the middle of Party City. But as I clicked him through to voicemail, and let out a few small gasps and the tears escaped my eyes, the children stopped their perusing and looked at me. "What's wrong Mom? Why are you crying?" Biting my lips, wiping my face with two hands, and trying to hold it together, I whispered, "Aw sweeties ... my Dad is dying."
By the time I'd pushed the cart to the front of the store and checked out, Charlie was calling me to say that my family was trying desperately to get in touch with me. "I know," I told him. He urged me to get home as soon as possible and call my brother back. "But, I don't want to call him back," I said. As if my not returning his calls would somehow delay the inevitable.
When I arrived home, I made the call to my brother. He was standing at my father's bedside in the hospital, along with my sisters Beth and Janet, and my brother, Wally. Francis told me that they were administering comfort measures, and asked if I'd like to say a few words to my father. He then held the phone down to Dad, and I could hear his labored breathing and the beeping of various machines in the background. I was totally unprepared for this.
What had happened?
How had he slipped so fast?
While I knew that Dad was not well - I had spoken to him less than two weeks earlier when Beth - thank God for Beth - called me while she was visiting Dad so that he could wish me a happy birthday, and I could wish him a happy birthday. The phone had been removed from his room, so my ability to call him was non-existent. On that call we had on Beth's cell phone, we talked and we laughed and he sang, and it was so wonderful just hearing his voice.
And now, less than two weeks later, he was being given comfort measures?
So on that Sunday afternoon, while our children were selling lemonade with other neighborhood children and their parents, I spoke with my Dad. I told him that I loved him then I sang to him, "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" The Van Morrison song that he and I danced together, at my wedding. Then I sobbed and my brother Francis must have heard my sobbing because he came back on the phone and said, "Do you have any objection to us taking him off life support?"
Absolutely not ... I have no objection, because I do not want for him to suffer.
Soon my sister Eileen called and told me that she was flying back to Boston that night. I decided that I, too, should look at ticket availability and found that there was one seat on a 7 PM flight. But I hesitated booking it ... because I didn't want to leave Charlie and the kids. How would he get to Boston if and when Dad passed? Would he drive - all by himself - with all the children?
Carolyn was supposed to have her tonsils removed on Thursday. We were smack dab in the middle of a kitchen remodel which was on a fast-track because our house was going on the market the next month. And on top of it all ... I was in disbelief that this was actually happening.
Could I really be on the verge of losing one of my parents?!
So instead of booking the flight, I called my cousin, Margaret and I cried. Then I left the un-purchased reservation on my computer and walked up to the lemonade stand to think. And for the next two hours, I stayed with the children and handed out cups of lemonade and worried. Although Charlie had been telling me, "Go, Go, Go..." I wasn't listening. It wasn't until my neighbor, Le, said, "GO RIGHT NOW." That I literally dropped a cup of lemonade and ran all the way home; threw clothes in a suitcase and ran back to my computer to purchase the ticket.
But that ticket was gone. No longer available.
Panic gripped my heart and I started to sob. I wanted to go to Boston, and I couldn't. Even if I got in the car and drove, I wouldn't be there until the next day and that might be too late. So I searched and searched and searched and nothing showed up, because by this time it was 6:00 PM and there were no flights available on the internet for departures that evening. So I called airlines, and on or about the fifth airline, I gave up and called a travel agent who informed me there was one seat remaining on a flight that departed at 7:45 PM. I booked the ticket on the spot, and was still talking to the travel agent, reading off my credit card number, as I was throwing my suitcase in to the car.
Our children stayed with a neighbor while Charlie rushed me to the airport. When I arrived - I ran through security to my gate - and was the last person to board, just seconds before they shut the door. This was a photo that I took that evening en route to Boston. When I snapped it, I suspected it would be the last sunset shining on my father's life:
I arrived in Boston at the same time as my sister, Eileen, who was flying in from Michigan. Our sister-in-law, MaryAnn, picked us up from the airport and drove us directly to the hospital in Concord. We arrived at 10:00 PM and immediately put on the yellow disposable coveralls that were required prior to entering my father's room in the ICU.
After greeting my siblings, I entered the room and immediately went to the left side of my father's head. I held his hand and despite warnings of biological hazard, kissed his cheek and said, "I'm here, Dad ... I'm here with you." He squeezed my hand. And whenever I would put Chapstick on his severely parched lips, he would softly squeeze my hand again.
Six of the seven siblings were there ... Marylou was still in Kentucky, having just attended the Derby, and was trying to figure out how to get back. In addition, my father's younger sister, Peggy, stood vigil with us; along with Janet's husband, my brother-in-law, Bob.
For the next several hours, we told stories, listened to music, sang, and we laughed. Particularly when we heard the lyrics to this old navy song (Bell Bottom Trousers), which my father used to sing an abbreviated version to me, when I was younger. As a surprise - Dad had that same abbreviated version played for us to dance to, at my wedding.
None of us had heard all the lyrics before (for good reason!) and we were in stitches laughing. Even Dad, who we thought was slipping in to unconsciousness, tapped his foot a few times to the beat, and had a slight smile across his lips that let us know YES, he actually DID know ALL the words.
While I wouldn't characterize our gathering as "festive", it certainly wasn't somber, which was remarkable given the grim circumstances and the fact that several of my siblings are estranged.
Francis and Wally had a business falling out several years ago, and had not spoken to each other in more than a decade. Francis and Beth had a falling out - over the care of my father - and were on rocky terms, which put everyone at odds with someone else, depending upon whether you were in the "Beth" camp or "Frank" camp. For example, I'd had a semi-falling out with Francis ... because of his falling out with Beth, and we were on quasi-rocky terms. Others had fall-outs here and there, and would likely not be standing in this same space if not for the circumstances. While there was an air of cooperation and uniting for our father's behalf, there was an underlying friction that we all did quite well to ignore.
Given our family dynamic, I'm absolutely certain that my father knew we had gathered for him. That we had put all of our disagreements and frustrations aside and had united, telling stories and helping to usher him out of this world - with kindness and laughter - in a way that he would want.
A nurse came in and told us that she was going to remove my father's oxygen line and make him comfortable. She asked that we exit the room for a few minutes so that she could clean him up. Before I left my father's side, I adjusted the prayer shawl that lay across his legs, and leaning down whispered, "I love you so much, Dad. You are a GOOD man, and a GOOD Dad." And my father, who had been laying so still, gently lifted his hand and softly cupped the back of my head.
When the nurse joined us a few minutes later, we asked what would happen next. She told us, that you never can tell. "Sometimes," she said, "People will wait until a certain moment to leave. Sometimes, they wait until everyone has exited the room and then they slip away. It often helps to open a window and let them know that it's OK for them to go."
When we returned to the room, all the beeping sounds were gone, and the whoosh of the oxygen was silent. We cracked open a window, resumed our places around Dad's bed, and continued our vigil for another few hours, before we were exhausted and people retreated to the waiting room.
Janet and Bob tried to sleep in a chair - and quickly decided that they needed to drive home so they could properly rest. Aunt Peggy decided to leave and drive back to Boston. While Beth, Wally and Francis stayed in the room with my father, Eileen went somewhere in the hospital to sleep, and I curled up on the three foot sofa and dozed off.
By 8 AM, I was awake and back in my father's room. Soon, my brother Wally's wife, Donna, who had just gotten her three boys off to school, joined us ... as did a Priest who read my father the Last Rites. The morning nurse entered at around 9:50 and asked that we go outside for a few minutes so she could reposition my father. We retreated to the waiting room again and a few minutes later, the nurse hurried back and said, "You need to come quickly." We rushed back in to the room and stood around Dad's bed as he took one last breath and exhaled. Just as our evening nurse had predicted - he waited until we had all stepped out of the room to leave.
I waited for him to breathe again, but when he remained silent, I gently put my hand on his face and softly closed his eyes. For several minutes, I remained on his left side, holding his warm hand, stroking his fingers and nails, while clearly remembering the way those strong hands would grip a steering wheel, ship helm, lobster tail, prescription bottle, Budweiser bottle ... or my own hand.
"Don't leave me, Dad." I silently prayed. "Please don't ever leave me."
A year later, I'm certain that my father hasn't left me. I feel his presence now more than ever; and there have been so many things that have happened ... almost every day, something new - all of these incredible "chance occurrences" or "coincidences" that remind me of Dad, and what I strongly feel is some greater energy, surrounding us.
I'd arrived at my father's bedside at 10:05 PM, and he passed at 10:05 AM, exactly 12 hours later. It's hard to believe that I had hesitated purchasing the plane ticket to be there, and then had the incredible luck of actually making it; the last seat on the last plane. Because when the time came - there was no place on earth I would have rather been, than right there with Dad, holding his hand on the last night he was physically with us.
One year ago, tonight.