Sunday, February 27, 2011
As I arrived in Palm Springs this February evening, I realized I was about 30 minutes earlier than I told her I would be. I was reaching for my phone to call my mother about my early arrival as I thought how comforting it was to be in such mild weather. Back home we were experiencing a bit of a cold snap so this temperate air was a welcome change. As I connected with my mom she told me that it would be a few more minutes before she arrived and that I should stay inside the terminal to stay warm. Due to her desert acclamation, anything less than 75 degrees was cold but still I had to chuckle to myself. Here I was flying into town to support my mom but true to her nature she wanted to take care of me.
It was only a week before my arrival here that I got that call that shook me to my core and was the cause of this trek. My oldest sister Cindy phoned to tell me that my mom had called in Hospice to help care for my dad. How could this be? I knew he was back in the hospital but he should be getting better by now. Calling in Hospice seemed to mean that this was the end of his life. He had just left Vancouver a few weeks before and I thought he was getting stronger. But I hadn’t seen this recent decline and as usual my mom had been insulating me from how bad it really was. Protecting me. But Hospice meant he was going to die and soon.
I didn’t know what to think. There were so many variables that I didn’t have the answers to. Was he really this sick or was my mom making a mistake? I know that there are others in her life who gives her advice all the time. Between her Palm Springs girlfriends and my sisters, there is no shortage of suggestions that comes her way. But was this counsel the right thing to do? Were these others coming from a platform of looking at both my mom AND my dad’s interest. I just didn’t know. But I knew I had to find out. If my mom was right I needed to say good bye to my dad before he died and give my mom support. But if she was wrong, this was going to get messy.
One part of the equation that really bothered me was hearing that my mom was not telling my dad he was in Hospice care. If this was the right decision why not tell him? One of the answers to this question could be he wasn’t sick enough to warrant Hospice. I knew this was a terrible thing to think but this is where your mind goes when you are trying to cope with the sudden news your dad will soon be dead. But I am not the type to except things I believe to be possibly wrong. So south I went.
It was great to see my mom as she pulled up to the airport. I am always impressed with how put together she is. Here she is dealing with the end of life with her husband of 55 years yet her shoes match her purse which complements her jacket which is accented by some sort blingy broach. She is always the perfect lady and it wasn’t until sharing a glass of wine later that night that she would drop her composure to show her stress. Yet it was this topic I was most concerned about that made her break down for the first time. She said she couldn’t even tell some of her friends that called with concern for my dad that he was in Hospice care. As she spoke the words her voice cracked and the pain of what she was dealing with rose to the surface. Clearly she was bothered by her choice but now was not the time for me to ask. I think you learn more sometimes if you just listen. I patted her shoulder but kept my silence. There would be time for questions tomorrow.
Waking up to blue Palm Spring skies the next morning was a contradiction to the gloomy day ahead. As much as I needed to see my dad as soon as possible I was dreading what the day would bring. The fact was that no matter what my discovery was this day, there would be sadness. And there was the idea of going to the Hospice facility that gave me pause. Both my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in a nursing home the last several years of their life. Sunday’s of my youth were spent visiting them and I remember how scary I thought it was.
Nursing facilities were akin to what I thought were insane asylums. As I would walk down the halls where my grandparents lived their final days I remember my fear of the others who seemed trapped in this hell hole. There were sounds of despair and moans coming from the rooms that scared me to my bones. And then there were the patients that would stand in the doorways wanting to reach out and touch me. It always seemed one of them would pull me into their room and then I would become crazy too. To this young boy there was not much worse than our visits to this place. I knew visiting my dad today in a like facility would bring back memories.
Walking into my dad’s room for the first time instantly answered the big question for me. He was in bad shape. He seemed to have less hair than he did just a few weeks prior. His mouth seemed pried open in an unnatural way and his cheeks were sunken in almost resembling a skeleton. The color of his skin had an unhealthy gray tint. But when he saw me he reached out with both his hands and his eyes reached out to me. He was aware of his surroundings. He tried to speak but nothing seemed to come out. I had always heard that with Parkinson’s it’s your body that betrays you…not your mind. So much that in the end you can’t even swallow. Years prior, I asked my dad if Parkinson’s would kill you. He said no but you get to the point you wished it would. This ran through my brain and I wondered if my dad wanted to die. And I thought of how ironic it was that there was a “Get Well” balloon hovering in the corner of his room. He was not going to get well.
Talking with my dad in this condition was hard for me. I guess I worry too much about other’s feeling in these types of situations. I felt terrible the few times my dad would try to speak that I couldn’t understand him. I hurt that all that effort he put into put forcing out a word was lost because I couldn’t hear him. Watching him mouth the soundless words was painful. But I figured I would try to hear him.
In a matter of moments the mission of this trip became clear and more focused. This was no longer a fact finding trip. This would be an exercise in support for my mom and my farewell visit with my dad. Over the years, my relationship with my dad has been strained. But I noticed that in a flash our past frictions became insignificant with no relevance at all. And maybe I was here for another reason. Maybe I could somehow make this dreadful situation just a little bit better, for him. My dad was soon to die but he didn’t know that my mom was ready to let him go.
After visiting with him for a while and helping him eat his meal, he fell into what I assumed was a common state of medicated sleep. This was a good time for my mom and me to leave for a visit. As true to her nature, my mom was worried about taking me someplace wonderful for lunch. Some might think it’s superficial but I think it’s her way to take care of others. She wants to make sure you have the best experience you can and she sees it as her job to help that happen. And her choice for our outside lunch this day exceptional.
My mom is great at keeping her “brave face” on. Seldom does she let others see anything other than a wonderful outward appearance. But I could tell she was badly stressed and needed to talk. We talked about what type of service she wished to have for my dad. We talked about needing to make arrangements for cremation. We even talked about the fact that she has never set up the voice mail on her cell phone. But then I brought up the big topic; telling her I thought it was a mistake to not tell dad he was in Hospice. I understood how it must be hard but she needed to think of how she would feel if the roles were reversed. She would want to know and he deserved the same. What if he had something he wanted to say before he leaves this earth? What if he had unfinished business that needed some sort of resolution? I told her that she thought she was making it easier for him but in reality she was making it easier for her. As hard as it was tell him it needed to be done.
Surprisingly enough she agreed almost immediately that he needed to be told. I think she knew this but perhaps just needed to verbal affirmation to make it happen. I could see a relief from her face that was almost beyond words. I didn’t think that her not telling him was a burden to her but it was. Her whole demeanor changed at the idea of telling him and she knew what she needed to do. I guess she just needed someone to say it was ok he was going to die.
After stopping to take care of his cremation arrangements, it was time to head back for to see my dad. But this visit was different from earlier in the day. He was less responsive to me. When he slept, his breathing was much more labored. I could visibly see a decline in the couple of hours since I left. I confirmed that his time with us was short.
Having a new found sense of what she needed to do, my mom wasted no time in telling my dad what needed to said. Within a few minutes of our arrived she made the announcement. “Chuck, do you know where you are? You are in HOSPICE!”…I almost bite off my tongue. I thought, Jesus, Mom, ease into it. But I think she was relieved to have made the decision to tell him and I think my presence gave her strength. But thinking back on how she blurted out this declaration in contrast to her trepidation makes me laugh.
My visit to Palm Springs involved more time visiting with my mom and taking about what needed to be done planning the passing of my dad. We also talked about the upcoming next phase of her life. I feel I was able to help by just allowing her to say the words that perhaps she thought were wrong to say. But I also got the satisfaction of doing some projects around her house. We men have our uses and we like taking care of our women folk..especially our mothers who we love like no other.
Before leaving town on my noon flight I told Mom I needed to see Dad one more time. I knew there were words that needed to be said. With time short, I knew there would be no other chance.
As we arrived at the care facility, his nurse, Sara, wanted to give us a warning. She was the nurse taking care of my dad and he couldn’t have been in better care. I think that if there are angels here on earth they work for Hospice. Sara told us that they had not been able to wake him this morning. She said he had not eaten nor had any of his pain medication. She said she didn’t want to scare us but she thought this was the beginning a coming decline. She said she was truly sorry.
I tried to wake my dad but nothing worked. Knowing this was the last time I would see him alive I decided to tell him what I needed to say, whether he was awake or not. Half laying on the bed with him I held his hand and his face at the same time. Leaning close to his face, I told him what needed to be said:
“Dad, I wanted to talk to you. I know the next time I see you we will be with Jesus. And that’s ok. I want you to be at peace. I love you and I want to thank you for all you have done for me and our family. You were a good father and a good provider. You have been a good teacher and the man I am today is, in large part, because of you. So relax and know we will be ok. I love you very much and I will see you again.”
I got some of the words out without breaking up. I could see my tears dripping down on his face as I spoke and I hoped that if my words weren’t actually heard by him that my feeling of love for him would somehow be absorbed through his sleep. This was it. This was the last time with him. I wouldn’t get another chance. I needed no regrets and I didn’t want it any other way.
After thanking Sara for all she did for my dad, we headed for the airport. Riding in the car through the city of Snowbirds towards my flight home, I realized that things would never be the same. My mom thanked me for not only for my help but for my positive attitude. She said that I helped her be more positive herself and she wanted me to know she loves me very much for the man I had become. Damn it! And I had just stopped crying.
Walking to my gate at the airport I got one last call from my mom. She wanted to tell me of her best memory of dad in the last few days. I had suggested to Mom that due to his limited communication ability she needed to ask him only one question at a time. He would then raise or lower his thumb in response. But mom would get busy and forget, again asking him two questions simultaneously, frustrating my dad. The day before I politely scolded Mom (for about the 10th time) about asking two questions at once and just then Mom told me to look quickly at my dad. He had a surprisingly big smile on his face and forced out a chuckle, all the while pointing at my mom. It was if to say “See Marilyn, someone else notices your foolish questions, too”. It made me smile, too.
As my plane took off I looked out the window to the mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley. I thought to myself that soon the snow would melt announcing the change in seasons as Palm Springs warmed up going into the summer. Just then I felt the familiar jolts of the desert “thermals”, causing turbulence through the plane. I thought of the irony of how turbulent the coming days would be for my mom and my entire family. But I am thankful for the chance to say goodbye. It will make the rest of my journey just a little smoother.