I knew what was coming on Christmas Day. Like any good daughter, I called my dad and wished him a Merry Christmas because he lived in northern Alberta and it wasn’t easy to see him often. Every phone call was always the same. For maybe the last 15 years my dad has repeatedly said he’d probably go soon. There wasn’t always something wrong with him, but since his mother died, he just never had the same kind of zest for life.
This phone call was different. It felt different. He wasn’t just his usual doom and gloom self. This time there was something in his voice that sent me a warning. After we said goodbye I looked at my husband and announced that we were going to see my father in the next two days. We didn’t have much time during the holidays to spare, but we were going to make the road trip anyway, even if it meant we drove 12 hours non-stop, visiting for three hours and turning right around to head back home, which is ultimately what we did.
We didn’t forewarn my father. I wanted it to be a surprise. I waited until we were on the road before I told my stepmother our plans. I didn’t want my father to try talking us out of it.
When we got there, he was incredibly frail, thinner than I had ever before seen him. He had diabetes and cancer and it had taken its toll on his poor body. He was on a strict pill regimen, 25 pills a day, around the clock.
Nevertheless he was happy to see us, and to share post-war stories, firsthand accounts of his life as a child in Germany. My husband was fascinated, being a history buff. I couldn’t look directly at my father much because the sight of him was too difficult to bear. Disease had reduced my strong, proud, fiery father to a tiny, quiet, unrecognizable man, and I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to bring him hope, to challenge him and convince him that he could get better so long as he believed it was still a possibility.
Before my visit, my mother suggested I take photos, but I refused. I didn’t want my father to think I was giving up on him. If by some miracle he could get better, I wasn’t going to be the naysayer who doubted him.
We left as quickly as we came. I wondered why we didn’t do spontaneous trips more often. My husband agreed and we made a vow to visit my father more often.
But we didn’t get another opportunity. My stepmother phoned me several weeks later in tears. My father was in the hospital and it didn’t look good. His surgeon said he didn’t have long. I took a flight there and spent two weeks by his side, watching him grow progressively worse. He had good days and he had bad days, much like his surgeon predicted. His kidneys were shutting down from all the drugs he had to take to stay alive. Some days he was awake and alert, harassing the nurses, endlessly entertaining me and my stepmother. Other days he slept all day, and we watched fretfully, certain that he would pass away at any moment. He would probably pass away in his sleep, the surgeon said. He likely wouldn’t feel much pain.
Those were probably two of the most excruciating weeks I ever had to endure. Grief and anger struck me at bizarre times, like when I had to adjust the seat and mirrors before driving his car. I thought he might be annoyed that I fussed with his levers, until I realized he would never again drive the car, and promptly burst into tears.
Or when I was feeding him pudding and someone visiting him commented in a baby voice that he “did a good job!” I was irate. I wanted to say that he was a grown man, with an adult brain. Just because he lost the strength to lift straws and spoons didn’t make him a toddler, so he definitely didn’t need to be patronized like that. Of course I knew it must have been hard on his visitor too, so I remained silent and practised forgiveness for his visitor and myself, instead.
My stepmother still wasn’t quite sure what he wanted after he passed away, and I didn’t want to inflict that conversation on her. So one night I bawled in the hallway, and then entered his room stoically, to ask him point-blank what he preferred. I told him it was necessary and to answer me yes or no as I listed all the options and offered suggestions. By the grace of God we got through it. And I think we all felt a sense of relief that we at least had a plan for that moment’s inevitable occurrence.
He passed away on Feb. 21 and all I could think of were the words of an Elder I’d heard speaking two years earlier. She said something to the effect of: “Death is a beautiful thing! Do not be afraid. For someone who has lived a long life, you should rejoice that they are now with the Creator.”
I wanted to share this story because while my experience feels very personal and intimate, I also realize that everyone will grieve a loved one at some point in their life. It is therapeutic to talk about it, and for me, to write about it.
My mother gave me books about grieving that I’m really enjoying, as strange as that sounds. A couple friends of mine suggested we plan our own funerals, obituaries and all, to lift that burden from our loved ones, just in case. I probably will.
I really am happy and honoured I got to be there with my father, walking him to God’s gates. It was the least I could do for my amazing father.
I love you, dad. Rest in peace.