“I wish I could go camping with you.” I am laying on a fancy futon next to my dad in a hospital room, tubes swirl around his body and leave imprints in his skin. I wish we could go camping too, but we’re going to have to settle for this.
I was sleeping in a hospital, my dad had pneumonia and they were worried he might be too weak to recover. I figured everyone was being dramatic but flew to Texas anyway.
Side by side we suffered through three nights, him tired and asking for a cheeseburger he could not swallow, me tired and sleeping through him calling out my name to get the nurse. He wet the bed. And I am tucking him in to the sheets, his skin soft, smooth and hairless. Like a baby. Accept for the fact he has a head full of pepper gray hair, and enough life stories in his mind to fill ten novels.
Death is a bitch. It drags on and on, making you feel hopeful it will never come. Meanwhile you pretend you are camping, hooting like an owl to drown out the beeps and boops of the machines.
A nurse comes in to rearrange the tubes and comments on how they are always tangled, how can we fix that? She wonders. I suggest making them wireless.
“Ha” my dad chortles in his soft and deep voice. He cannot swallow, and they are talking him into a feeding tube to prolong his life. He has agreed but I know it’s not his choice.
His words ring through my head as we lay side by side until the final morning before I head back to California. My mom is running late and has instructed me to take notes from the surgeon performing the procedure.
My dad in his gown, head drooping, eyelids drooping, voice drooping. The surgeon tenderly explaining the tedious recovery period of a feeding tube operation. Me with my little moleskin notebook and gel pen, writing ‘home care’ in cursive along with a few other words. I am performing my duties as mom’s get-r-done child. Taking notes, asking questions, nodding my head.
And then I hear my dad tell the surgeon he doesn’t want to do the feeding tube.
And then the surgeon nods his head empathetically and says ‘you have been fighting a long time.”
“I would say without the tube, you will have another one to two weeks.”
My ears are ringing. My dad has been dying for a long time, but this is the first time someone has stamped him with an expiration date. My soft spoken, stubborn father — one to two weeks.
That was three months ago. He’s dead now. And everything’s a trigger.
Obvious things, like old voicemails and his pocket knife I pilfered while I was home. And less than obvious things, like a blood pressure cuff in the doctors office or a TV show about anorexia. My dad dies of starvation — he could not swallow and therefore could not eat.
He had a higher tolerance for suffering than most, and for the last ten years as his body has slowly deteriorated, he has spoken more or joy than of sorrow. Never complained or been more angry at god than the rest of us.
He gave me my great grandfathers wedding band, on the inside it says ‘from Christine’ in cursive because I was named after her, my dad’s grandmother. She was born exactly 100 years before me. It’s an honor, because I know she was a strong woman who did not cower in the face of trial, but it also makes me sad because she was a faithful Christian.
It makes me sad because I know the pain it caused my dad to see his first born daughter let go of the faith which keeps him humble, strong and thankful in the face of his disease.
In the last weeks there were several moments we thought were the end of life for my dad — each time we would gather around him to say goodbye. Only to have him wake up two hours later asking for ice again.
In one of those moments, my mother and I were crouched close to him, attempting to decipher his words without consonants. (Fun throat fact: you need your swallowing muscles to form words with consonants.)
We leaned in, and he told me “not to walk away from God.” My body chilled and tears filled my eyes as I told him “I can’t give you what you want.”
I kept telling my dad it was okay to die, we would all be okay. I thought he needed to hear it, I kept getting angry at my siblings for not communicating to him the same thing, so he could die in peace.
I never imagined that what my dad needed to die in peace was something I could not give him.
He wanted me to be faithful. Like his grandmother. Faith gave him joy in his last years, and his daughter had, in his eyes, walked away. I could not convince him otherwise.
It was tragic and brought me more sorrow than his actual death. My relationship with god is complicated but I am not walking away, I am just walking.
I wept. And I still do.
Death is messy. At the same time he wanted me to believe in god, I also remember him saying repeatedly “I love you just the way you are.”
Nothing I do, no belief I give up or step I take carried me away from the love of my dad. And as much as I hate that he is gone, and hate the waves of grief which take over without my permission, I am satisfied to know I was loved.
That I am loved.
And that in the middle of a fancy new hospital in Texas, I was the last one who got to go camping with my dad.