I’m going to take a page from Olivet’s book and write this landmark in stages, but it will probably only be two installments. This entry is getting really long and unwieldy and I don’t know that I’d read through the whole thing if someone else wrote it, so I’m going to finish and post part two later.
I always figured I’d write a landmark at some point, but I thought it would be about me. But instead, it will be about one of the people who helped make me me.
My Dad was born in September 1924, and would have been 82 years old next month. We lost him on Sunday, August 20, at 9:30 pm.
I’ve been living with my parents in the Atlanta area for the past three years. It’s been a strange thing for me; I’m single and in my 40s and never in a million years did I think I’d be living with my parents at this point in my life. I came here as a transitional place after some changes in my life, which maybe I’ll write about in another landmark someday. I had planned to return to the Washington DC area to look for work but one thing led to another and I ended up doing freelance work from a basement office here in their home, and as Dad’s health declined I felt more and more that I should stay with them, even though they didn’t need me as a caretaker, per se. Now the three years I’ve spent here are precious to me, and I’m so glad I’ve made the unconventional choice.
I guess I’ll write a little bit about my father’s life. I’m using a bio I wrote up for the program for his funeral as a jumping off place for my ramblings:
His middle name was Leif (pronounced Lafe, not Leef, please) and he was a first-generation American born to Norwegian parents in Brooklyn, New York, in September 1924. He was very proud of his heritage and was happy to point out that his middle name was that of Viking explorer Leif Erikson. He was also happy to instruct you in the correct pronunciation of that name! His early years were spent in a Scandinavian section of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Dad was an identical twin, and had fond memories of his childhood escapades with his brother. They had a very close bond in what was, in some ways, a difficult childhood. My grandmother said that they even had a unique shared language in childhood. She told the story of them sitting at the table across from one another one day when they were quite little. They had company over for dinner, and the twins were chattering away in what sounded like nonsense to her. Suddenly they both got up in what was obviously an agreed-upon plan and they each dove under the table and switched places, obviously quite pleased with themselves. Although their relationship became strained and they were pretty much estranged somewhere during their early 50s, that close bond was renewed in their elderly years, and they would talk on the phone several times a week. My uncle is a stroke victim with a lot of memory problems; I don’t know how much of the memory loss is related to the stroke and how much is Alzheimer’s, but my father was incredibly concerned about his health problems and would call him on the phone several times weekly in recent months. He would always talk to him in Norwegian, and Dad told me he’d always start out the conversation by saying, “Hello, this is your twin brother!” to help remind him who it was. He simply assumed his brother would die first; he said several times, “I can’t travel, I’m not going to be able to make it to my brother’s funeral,” and I would always reassure him that I’d go to represent the family. After Dad died, my aunt told us that my uncle would ask to call and talk to his brother on the phone when he was no longer asking for his children. My cousin, who’s a couple years older than me and really a stranger to me due to the rift when we were still kids, said that he loved talking to my father in the past year or so because it was like talking to his own dad after his dad wasn’t himself anymore.
OK, that was a long digression. Getting back to the bio: Dad was an athlete who loved soccer and football; he and his brother played for a town football team on Staten Island, New York, where they lived as teenagers. Physical fitness was important to him and he remained active until health problems no longer allowed him to—but even in the last week of his life he was doing deep knee bends! Those who only knew him in his elderly years saw a frail man who had a hard time getting around, but in my childhood Dad was a weightlifter, and he was proud of being able to bench press 300 lbs. at one point in his life.
He joined the Army in 1943 when he was 18 years of age, in the midst of World War II. He was sent to the 99th Infantry Battalion, a Norwegian battalion trained as ski troops who were allegedly to invade Norway, which was occupied by the Germans. He was taught to ski and trained in Camp Hale, near Leadville, Colorado. They never were sent to invade Norway, but he served in England, Wales, Belgium, France, and Germany. He saw General Patton and had a conversation with famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle. At the end of the war he was sent to Norway to help escort the German troops out of the country. He’s a sensitive soul and I’m grateful that in all his marching around Europe during the war he never had to engage in fighting, although he did see a buddy blown up beside him during a training exercise
After the war he attended New York University where he received his B.S. in Physical Education and a Master’s in Education. He married my mother in 1949, and in September 1951 began his career as an elementary school teacher.
My parents started out their marriage on Staten Island in the home of Mom’s parents, then moved to Long Island, where they owned two different homes and raised two children, my brother and me, Uprooted. (and since my Hatrack name’s so gender neutral, I’ll add that that means they had a boy and a girl, me being the girl!)
In 1974, Dad was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, twenty years after my mom had made the same decision. His commitment to his newfound faith consumed the remaining years of his life. He often said, “becoming a Mormon was the best decision I ever made.” He was one of those gung-ho converts that didn’t always quite get the nuances of waiting for the appropriate moment to share his heartfelt beliefs with others, but most people recognized his sincerity and that he was truly interested in them and that he desired them to be as happy as he was. He served in many callings (LDS lingo for church positions), including seminary teacher, bishop, and executive secretary on the ward and stake level. My mom and I have been flooded with stories of the ways he has touched people’s lives over the years.
In 1992, my parents moved to Georgia. He loved his newfound church family and his service with his wife in the Atlanta LDS temple. He found a best friend here, another older gentleman with whom he could discuss ideas and talk on the phone at length. His friend, Don, has had serious health problems and his heart is in terrible shape. He carries nitro pills around with him at all times, and has been on the verge of departing this life a number of times over the years. Dad would always tell him, “Don, you’ve gotta hang in there, you are giving the eulogy at my funeral, you know!” Sounds weird, but I think that Dad truly meant that—although Don’s health was worse, Dad somehow knew that he would be going first. And Don gave a beautiful eulogy. He also writes a local editorial column and his piece today was a tribute to my Dad. Dad was limited in what he could do physically in his later years (he had emphysema, asthma, and an arthritic hip that should have been replaced 25 years ago but he was too stubborn to ever do it), but he spent his time preparing and purifying his heart and mind. I have watched a transformation take place in my father—as his physical body got weaker, it was like his spirit became stronger and purer and just shone in his countenance. I have no doubt that when he was called home, he was ready to meet his Maker. I love you, Dad!
So those are the basics on Dad. He was the quintessential great guy—beloved by many. He was an introvert by nature, but he went out of his way to get to know people despite his natural shyness. I remember when I was little, that he really cared about the kids in his classes as an elementary school teacher. And in his older years, I watched him spend time on the phone, calling people who were sick to check up on them, or calling those whom he just felt needed a friend to take an interest in them. People just thought he was sweet and loved him. As he grew older, his always pale skin took on a nearly translucent look, and with his white hair he just looked angelic. I hope I don’t give the impression that I think my father was perfect. He wasn’t. Not by a long shot. But you know, he was working on himself and trying to become better day by day, and he was succeeding. He was a wonderful father—I have always felt loved, supported, and protected by him. My parents had an interesting marriage; just about anyone who knows my mom would probably call her a “character.” I think most people who know them probably think that he was the long-suffering husband. But I, who grew up in their home, know that there was give and take and that my mom had to put up with at least as much crap as he did. I don’t think that anyone would have called them a classic Hollywood romance, but they were true companions. They stuck out the hard times and they were there for each other. And they were there for us. I was saying to my brother just the other day, “Can you even imagine a world in which our parents weren’t together?” I’m grateful that they stayed together through the hard times and were there for each other, and for me.
If anyone has read this far, thanks for sticking with me. I do want to write more about his last day and a half on earth, but I'll do that on another day.
That was a beautiful tribute, Uprooted. Thank you for telling us about your Dad, he seems a wonderful man. And what great pictures! I'm sorry for your loss, and I'm glad you're here.
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My apologies in advance--I know this is way too long.
OK, so it is time for me to continue the story of my father. I’ve been putting it off, I guess, not quite ready to go there emotionally. But when I wrote one Flash Fiction Friday entry on Thursday night and most of another on Friday morning, I decided that maybe my avoidance tactics are going on long enough and I should get on with writing what I really need to write about. I guess this really is more of a cathartic exercise for me than anything, but if you can bear with reading a lot of extraneous detail, there is also a message of hope here as well.
Oh, and if any of you with medical training care to try to pick out clues from my highly imperfect understanding of the explanations I was given and shed any light or correct any misused terminology, I welcome any contributions.
So . . . somewhere in the early afternoon of Saturday the 19th I pulled out my cell phone, which had been turned off, and checked it, and sure enough there were a couple of calls on it. I ignored them, because I had been dealing with a really sticky situation with some people at church for the past few days, and I really didn’t want to deal with it anymore on MY Saturday. I figured that someone was panicking and that they could just figure it out or wait for me to get back to them. I was with friends and just wanted to be left alone. But a while later I looked again at my phone, and there were two more calls, so my conscience then got the better of me and I listened to my voice mail. SO glad I did—can’t imagine the guilt I’d have felt if I’d waited any longer. The messages said not to panic, but to get to the hospital because my father had been taken to the ER with chest pains. One of the friends I was with is a nurse and told me that of all the places for him to have chest pains, he picked a good one because the hospital he was taken to, St. Joseph’s, is the best in the area for cardiology.
My parents had gone to the temple that day. They didn’t go too often, but that was the plan and although my Dad woke up feeling not too great he told my mother that he wanted to go, and that he’d dreamed of being there the night before. While they were there, he was stricken with chest pains and an ambulance was called. Our friend Kim was there as well, so she drove to the ER and stayed with my mother and was the one who contacted me. (My mother didn’t have her cell phone w/ her and couldn’t remember my number, and Kim didn’t have it, so the reason for the several voice mails was because she called a couple of people in trying to track it down and they all called me.)
I’m not sure how long they’d been there, but by the time I got to the ER he’d already been given a CAT scan and the doctors told us that he’d had an aortic aneurysm that tore and bled out, and that basically he had hours, not days, and that there was nothing that they could do surgically for a man his age. We were just in shock and stupid. His legs were paralyzed, which means that he did not have blood flow to that part of the spinal cord, and his kidneys weren’t functioning. We were incredibly blessed to have the doctor we did—a kinder, gentler, more concerned man I cannot imagine. My eyes tear up every time I think of him. He never rushed, he really listened, and he really cared about my dad and about us as well. I said something about calling my brother in North Carolina, and the doctor offered to talk to him and explain the situation, which he did.
Dad was conscious when I got there, and they had already begun treating his pain so he was feeling better, apparently, then when he arrived. Whatever I said to him, he just kept saying “thank you.” I told him “I love you” and he squeezed my hand and said, “thank you.” He didn’t need to say it back; he’s said it before and I know it. He thanked me for being there—as if I’d be anywhere else. But that is just the kind of guy he was, he never took things like that for granted. It was sweet to sit beside him and squeeze his hand and have him squeeze back; he was so glad we were there with him. Dad didn’t get the implications of what they were telling us, and neither did we—I know that I was in heavy denial and although I’d heard the words, I thought he would get better anyway. He just didn’t look to me like someone on his way out. Certainly he was stricken, but there was a sweet hope and positive attitude in him the whole time that just didn’t seem like he was going anywhere.
Basically, they told us that palliative care was the only viable treatment option, and that they would find us a room where we could essentially be together and await the inevitable while they did their best to keep him comfortable. We ended up in the cardiac ICU, where there were a couple of other patients. A number of nurses apologized to us for the lack of a private room, but I was frankly very grateful to have him in a bed directly across from a nurse at all times. We had some truly wonderful nurses while we were there.
When I arrived at the ER, Dad’s blood pressure was as low as 39/36 at one point. By that evening the top number was up in the 50s somewhere, and at some point Saturday evening he said, “Hey look, I can move my feet.” He was pretty proud of himself. He had visitors from our church that evening. Dad was thrilled to see them, and he was as animated as anyone on the verge of death could possibly be. He apologized for not being able to be at the meeting the next morning, and told one of them, “I think I’m going to have to be here for a few days.” I wish I could describe to you how happy a moment that was. He was weak as a puppy but his personality just shone through. I looked at him and really thought we would see him survive.
Well, Dad has always been a morning person and after our visitors left he was worn out and slept. He was morphined up pretty well so he wasn’t feeling pain. My brother got there at 10:30pm—it had been tough for him to get away, because he has a zoo at home. Well, OK, he doesn’t really run a zoo, but with four dogs, four cats, and two parakeets, it’s pretty close. His wife and son were in Florida so he couldn’t just leave without making provisions for the animals, and somehow he was able to get his dogs in a kennel on a Saturday afternoon which is normally not possible in his tiny rural town.
Dad was awake when he got there, and I just felt bad that my brother didn’t get to see him at his most animated earlier in the evening. But he was there, and our time together as a family was precious. They brought in these reclining chairs so we all took turns sleeping as best we could through the night. I think my mom and I got maybe an hour apiece, and my brother slept for several. I left for a couple of hours to return home, feed the cats, get us some changes of clothes and take care of some business I had to get out, then was back to the hospital before Dad even knew I’d gone. We watched his blood pressure slowly but steadily climb, and I think we were all pretty excited to see his vital signs stabilizing when we’d been given such a dire prognosis. His breathing became pretty labored and ragged at one point, and I was concerned about him—although w/ his COPD and asthma I’d seen him get like that before. The nurse on duty that night was super sweet, and she pulled me aside and talked to me. I think she could tell we were all getting our hopes up, and she wanted me to know that many times patients in his condition will stabilize and then suddenly a crisis will come, and she wanted me to be prepared. She said that the breathing wasn’t a good sign, and wanted to know if Mom had said her goodbyes. I’ll tell you, my emotions were on a roller coaster.
Well, he got through the night and the next morning, after he’d slept peacefully for several hours and the sun was shining through the windows, the rest of us were all awake and he opened his eyes and saw us all sitting around his bed looking at him. “Osten stodder til!” he said with a cheerful smile. That’s probably a horrible misspelling. It’s some sort of Norwegian greeting (although my mother tells me it isn’t true Norwegian, that he speaks a more Danish dialect of Norwegian that has been stamped out in more recent years in Norway). Anyway, it’s a familiar phrase that I grew up hearing him say to my uncle on the phone and I always took it to mean “How’s it going?” or something like that. And you’d have to know him to get this, but it was his little in joke—he thought he was being funny. His blood pressure was pretty close to the normal range at that point, and he could still move his feet, although his kidneys were still not functioning.
Later that morning the same doctor came in. He literally did a double take to see him still there. This sweet doctor then walked slowly over, gave us all a smile, and gently and quietly spoke to Dad, asking him questions, studying his vital signs and doing the little things medical people do to test his condition. Then he stood back at the foot of his bed for quite a while, not saying anything. He alternated between looking down and shaking his head, and studying my dad and smiling. He finally said, “Well, he is doing so much better than expected that perhaps we need to change course a bit. The fact that his vital signs have stabilized indicates that he may be one of the very, very rare cases in which the tear in his aorta has somehow sealed itself off. I think we need to look at medical treatment options to see if we can get his kidney function restored.” He told us that he was going to consult with a kidney specialist and that we would see what the next step would be.
Well, of course that was an incredible moment. The rest of that day was really a blur. My cell phone didn't stop ringing (well, I had it off in the ICU but there were messages all the time). The kidney doctor had none of the bedside manner of the cardiologist, and he never really did tell us what was going on. We were just glad to still be together as a family. My mom, brother, and I spelled each other off, taking naps out in the visitors room, going for walks and getting food. Although we all understood that he was critical, I think we all believed at that point that he was, for the moment anyway, out of the woods.
My brother had to return home to NC late Sunday afternoon. My mother also went back home to rest a bit. She’s 78 and although she’s in good health, I didn’t like the idea of her staying round the clock at the hospital. At that point we thought he would be there for a while so none of us saw any sense in her staying there 24/7, and she went home to take a nap.
The cardiologist came back in after she left, and there was some quiet time where I had the opportunity to talk with him for a while. He told me, “Your father is a wonder. None of us know why he is still alive with the massive trauma he has sustained.” He told me that people whose systolic BP goes down into the 40s shouldn’t have mental function, and so the fact that my father had been conscious and aware the whole time was inexplicable to him. He sat down at the computer with me and showed me the CAT scans and explained that the aneurysm was in the aorta up near he heart, and that when the tear occurred it was massive and extended all the way down the length of the aorta to the kidneys. (By the way, Dad had been to a cardiologist for a regular exam and had a CAT scan and been given a clean bill of health just a few weeks earlier, so apparently the aneurysm was a new development.) He showed me an X-ray which indicated that the massive clotting was pushing on his internal organs—I believe he showed me that the trachea was twisted out of its normal path. He thought that pressure might have had something to do with stopping the bleeding. I had been told that what he had was an aortic dissection (same thing that killed John Ritter before he ever got to the hospital), but the doctor said there were elements of a dissection and other elements as well. (I think he may have used the word embolism of some kind, but I can’t remember what else he said.) Anyway, when he showed me the cross sections of the aorta, there were these different channels that blood was running through, and all the rest of it was clotted. He showed me the pathway to the spinal cord, which was all dark, but he said that the fact that my dad could now move his feet and legs must mean that the blood had somehow made a new pathway there through the clot since the scan was made, and that their hope was that the same thing would occur for the kidneys. He kept repeating how special my dad must be, and that something was going on that they could not account for. He also said that he knew that our being there by his side made all the difference. And I just thought, “but isn’t that just what families do?” I mean, we are by no means the perfect functional family but I can’t imagine doing anything else. Anyway, I told him that my Dad certainly didn’t seem to think he was going anywhere.
I went back to Dad’s side after that whole explanation, and I pretty much repeated the same thing to him, including what one of the nurses said to me—that people who have what he has generally bleed to death in the ambulance. Of course I didn’t emphasize that, but more the part about how special he was and how he was beating the odds. I know it was the first time I’d really felt I understood what was going on, and I wanted Dad to understand, too. He was quite lucid, and he just listened and then looked at me and said, “Wow. So I shouldn’t even be here. Wow.” But I think more than anything, he was pretty pleased with himself. And grateful to God, of course, because that is just who he is. (I suppose I should put that last verb in the past tense, but you know, I believe that that is still who he is so I think I’ll just leave it.)
Well, he seemed to be feeling good, so I told him that I was supposed to call Mom and wake her up from her nap at 8pm so that she could come back (she sleeps through the alarm clock but not the phone), and he said, “Don’t wake her up.” (as it turned out, I had a call from her not long thereafter; she woke up on her own and was heading back).
Once again, as nighttime came his energy flagged and it was a little harder for him to breathe. His breathing was always kinda scary sounding when he was asleep, so sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between his sleep breathing and a real problem. The weird thing to me was that I was the only one who seemed to be attuned to it—the nurses didn’t seem to notice, and it was never my mother or my brother who drew it to their attention, it was always me who said, “he seems to be having trouble, can you check on him?” And none of them acted like I was being a pain or over vigilant; each of them thanked me for telling them and were happy to come try to help him be more comfortable. One of them said that since we knew him, we were better able to tell when he was in discomfort.
Anyway, I had been talking to him at one point and then he appeared to be asleep a few moments later. A nurse was working on one of his lines, putting in a different kind of pain med or something. The shift had changed, so this was an unfamiliar nurse. I heard his breathing go all bad and I said, “Dad, are you awake?” It seemed that he’d been awake too recently for this to be his usual deep sleep labored breathing. He opened his eyes and looked at me and immediately his breathing sounded lighter, so I felt bad for waking him up. I explained to him why I’d done it, and he seemed fine for a few seconds but then it was obvious to me that he was struggling for breath. The nurse began working with him to try to help him, easing him down and so forth, but it was clear that there was a crisis going on. Oh, and this is the part that is so hard for me to write because I can’t even find the words. He suddenly gasped and grimaced in great pain, his whole body seizing up. The nurse said to me, “You have a DNR, right?” I was not ready to hear those words, had never been ready to answer that. My mind was stammering, “but that question is for my mother, not for me!” This was not supposed to happen before she returned to the hospital. I said, “well, we were told it was provisional, that we could cancel it if there’s any chance of a good outcome,” and she said, “there’s not.” So I just stood by helplessly as my dad was overcome by another massive, wrenching pain, and then he was gone. I just stood there helplessly, and I never cried. I was actually quite calm, just feeling terrible that it happened when my mother was gone. Now I figure that it was a blessing that she didn’t have to see him go through that final suffering. “Was that a heart attack?” I asked the nurse. She said she didn’t know. I still don’t know, and haven’t made any effort to find out. I don’t know that I need to know; I mean, he had a massive rip from top to bottom of his major artery, so what exact physical mechanism caused his final moments of pain is probably irrelevant.
Anyway, the nurse said to me later, seeming almost like she was impressed by the connection between us, “but you knew that something was wrong.” To me, it was not hard to tell that something was wrong—I mean, believe me I have no nursing skills and could never, ever in a million years do that job. But I don’t think it’s just because he was my dad, I think I would have reacted the same way had anyone been breathing like that.
I knew my mom was on her way, and I didn’t want to call her. I figured she’d find out when she got there, no sense in causing her to have a car accident on the way. The nurse on duty asked if I wanted to see the chaplain, and I said no, and asked if there was anyone they could call, and I said no. I was probably in shock, but I think they were all concerned that I wasn’t showing any emotion. But I’ve been well aware of my father’s mortality for the past ten years, and I think we’ve all been preparing for the day he’d be gone. It just happened all rather more suddenly than we’d been expecting. And to my dying day I will be grateful for that precious day and a half in the hospital with him and our whole family. I’m so glad my brother made it, because he’d berate himself for the rest of his life if he hadn’t. And I’m also grateful that we were given reason to hope, even though it turned out to be a misguided hope—because it meant that we had one last day with him in a spirit of optimism rather than in a spirit of grief.
I guess I have another installment or two before I’m done, but this is more than enough for now. One thing I’ll add is that I realized that the timing of his passing was good, if he did have to go; one of the nurses had told me the previous day before she left for the night that we would not have been allowed to stay by his side in the ICU the next day because it becomes super busy post-op on Mondays, and so she hoped we’d be moved to a private room. And she also told us that the next step in treatment, should his kidneys not begin to function on their own, was a medication that would flush excess potassium out of the bloodstream and it would cause him to have diarrhea. That would have been a nasty ordeal, and I’m glad he was spared it, as well as dialysis, which would probably have been the next step.
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