Two years ago, yesterday, I woke before sunrise. I arrived at the airport just before dawn and watched as the sky grew full of magnificent colors and light from the bridge to the terminal. I knew where I was going, and I knew why. I'd spent the prior two weeks making the preparations to leave. I knew that the time was near, and I knew I would have to go.
My father was dying.
Though I was never able to fully explain it to anyone then or now, I just knew that it was time for me to go. He had been told the day prior that the cancer had grown far more aggressive, that the tumors now infiltrated both his lungs and his liver. That the chemo he'd just been given hadn't made a difference.
He had two oncologists. One was a realist. At first my parents hated that man, with his somber talk of staging and time. They didn't ever want to hear what he had to say, because they wanted to cling to whatever tiny piece of hope they could, even when it became obvious that the hope was slipping away. The other oncologist, different. He was the guy who never let you believe it was over. The one who gave unending hope, let you hang on to that chance of making it, even if it was less than 5%. He was the guy who'd let you keep fighting even when your body screamed at you to stop. He was the guy who'd let you go out in a blaze of glory, even if he knew it would never make a difference.
I am grateful, so grateful, that my father had them both. They balanced each other. Sometimes he needed one, sometimes he needed the other. And then, one day, the first told him the fight was coming to an end. The second offered to load the cannons again.
And he was done.
He was ready to stop fighting. He was tired of being sick. He accepted that his time with them was done, and hospice was called.
I flew home the morning that hospice came. The flight was hard, harder than the one I'd made the year before when he was in respiratory distress and in the ICU. Harder than the flight I'd made home after he was discharged and settled. This one was harder, because I knew it was the last one. I knew.
I knew that even though they said he might have six weeks that he didn't, and I knew I had to go now.
I had always known this day would come.
My brother picked me up that morning, and the look on his face told me that it was bad. Worse than it was when we'd left just two weeks earlier after spending Christmas back home. He was right.
Dad was curled up in a ball when I got there. Almost catatonic. I suspected that it wasn't the cancer, but the medications. I talked to the hospice nurse, and we devised a plan. We'd take him off all of it, save the pain meds, adjust the dosages of those, and see what happened.
The next day, he was back. He was alert. He was talking and laughing. He was smoking pot in the garage and eating entire jars of peanuts. He was drinking margaritas with us on the patio.
He spent some time most afternoons out there, oxygen tubing snaked through the house. Out there, he could just be.
I had some tough conversations with him that first week, some of the hardest discussions I have ever had in my life. I had to sit him down and witness the DNR paperwork. I had to be the one in the room when he asked the doctor what it would feel like to die. I had to ask whether he wanted to be alert or knocked out. I knew that to keep him alert, he'd have to exchange some degree of pain, as the cancer had progressed so much, but I left that in his hands.
He asked me to do whatever I could to keep him alert for as long as I could. And so, the dance began.
When cancer affects someone's liver, it completely changes how they metabolize everything, including medications. Every day required adjustments. Sometimes tranquilizers, sometimes anti-anxiety meds, sometimes sleeping pills, sometimes more pain meds. All of it changed, every day.
I was a walking alarm clock, sometimes with ten different alarms set a day for medication. I took him to work, then hung out in the parking lot until he was ready to go back home. He wanted to go, but he wanted me there. So, I did it.
I carried nausea medication, ativan, oxycodone and morphine in my purse as if that's something normal people do.
I slept in fifteen minute increments, I kept my glasses on all the time so I could peek across the room and check on him. The agitation always got worse at night, and it made me nervous.
He wanted to see his family, so we made that happen. They all came, save a few. The night two of his sisters spent the night and we all camped out in the living room is one I will never forget and will always be grateful for. He made time for the people he needed to. He made one last delivery run for work. He made amends for the past, he held the hands of his brothers. He comforted them, he comforted us all.
He worried that I was missing my family back home, he urged me to leave if I needed to. I told him that I was there to help him for as long as he needed me. We had an understanding.
The morning of my birthday, even though the night before had been a rough one, he got up and showered and dressed, then announced we were going out for breakfast. Told me that even though it was my birthday, I had given him the gift that year.
He was gone four days later.
I had been home less than three weeks.
I miss him every day, and this experience changed me in so many ways. The lessons I've learned I have tried to pass on to anyone starting down this path.
Love for a parent is as unconditional as love for a child.
Listen to your heart. If it tells you to go, go.
Listen. Absorb the memories. Take it and keep it.
You are stronger than you think.
You can't tell someone you love them too much.
Life is not fair, but it is beautiful. Death can be too.