Five years ago today I stood over my father as he lay dying in a hospital bed in the ICU at Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville, Minnesota. It was a crisis. My sister, brother, and I had control over decisions about whether to “pull the plug” if my father were not able to communicate. He couldn’t.
One day prior we had decided late in the night that the next day we would stop all extraordinary efforts to keep him alive. We did this because it is what the healthcare directive. We read over the healthcare directive like it was scripture. We were going to follow our father’s wishes with honesty and integrity. We succeeded. He was unconscious, kept alive by machines and heavy drugs, and was unable to communicate in any way. The doctors gave us so little hope that he could make it through this that they left it to the realm of miracles.
All three of us believe in miracles, but none of believed this was going to be the time for one. Dad had burned through a few miracles in his life already. This seemed like the end.
Then, the next day, the doctors told us to come into the room as dad was conscious. This changed everything. He could communicate. He could be informed of is condition and asked his wishes. This would make the healthcare directive go to the back burner.
It was so good to talk with him and know he could hear me, see me, know me, know I was there for him…that I loved him. I did love him. My dad had been dying for years, really. His soul had been dying. His body had been falling apart. So much of the man’s potential never even got addressed by life. I had always loved him. Even though the collaboration of life’s cold mastery over him and his own self-destructive decisions had brought on the onset of death too early, I loved him. He knew that. But at death’s final blow, I got to be there and kiss his forehead and utter the words, “I love you.” Oh how I ached. Oh how it was sweet. I had a lot more relationship I wanted to forge with him, but it wasn’t going to happen.
He didn’t want to die, but he knew he couldn’t stop it. He was so afraid. I had never seen that look in his eye in all my 36 years of life, but I knew it to be fear mixed with helplessness. He was hoping for one more miracle. But the one he was hoping for was not going to happen. What did happen was that my brother told a joke. It was a very funny joke. I had not heard that one before and it got me laughing. It got my sister laughing. Mostly importantly, it got dad laughing. At well over 450 pounds on a 5’8” frame, when my father laughed, there was lots of body to move around. His body quaked on the bed. Hooked to machines that beeped a lot and with tubes down his throat, he laughed. It was his last act of defiance. Literally, my father laughed in the face of death. Afraid, helpless, and weak, he laughed.
There are times when laughing and crying at the same time is the only sane thing a person can do. This was one of them. My mix of emotions was intense. How could I feel some many things so intensely all at once? I knew my life was in transition and there was nothing I could do about it. I would never be the same again. It was as if God were saying, “from this point forward, your life as you knew it is over. Here is your new life.” What can a person do in that moment but cry and laugh? There is no point in trying to change the inevitable. All a person can do is to interpret it. It is our only defense.
Laughter was a defense our family had against the difficulties of life. It was the one theme in our family that could be traced back to the beginning. Laughter was a gift. There was so much conflict and pain in our family life in many areas, but there was always laughter. It was our medicine. And the last act of my father’s conscious life was to laugh. Within two hours after the joke, he was unconscious and fading fast.
And then he was gone. I know this because the nurse looked at me as I held his hand listening to the frequency of the beeps decrease as she said, “He’s gone. Any beep from this point forward is just residual electrical charges, but he is gone. I’m sorry.” And there I stood, over my dead father. Crying. Powerless. The man who gave me life was dead and there was nothing I could do about it.
Five years later, I still cry. I still ache. I still go to the ICU room in my mind and stand there with him. I have bursts of grief that just overwhelm me when I don’t expect them. There is a pain that will never leave me. Grief is not something that gets closure. Grief is a strange friendship. Well, it is a relationship at least. Grief shows up and never leaves. I must choose what sort of relationship it will be. I do not like being sad, but it is a relief to weep. It is orienting in a painful sort of way.
Also, five years later, I have good memories, painful memories, and instructive memories. Five years later I am still making sense out of my relationship with my father as I am developing a relationship with my children as a father. They, in turn, are trying to make sense out of me and their relationship with me.
Five years later, I grieve. Five years later, it is ok to grieve.