After a fast shower and a leisurely brushing of teeth (mine had grown a bit hairy during the long drive), we left Eric behind with the children and drove off to see dad at the nursing home. We were assured he was still alive at this point and responding to others when they spoke to him.
Now, the thing to keep in mind about where we are in the Maritime region is that everything is about an hour away from wherever you happen to be at the moment. Want to go to mom's house from Cindy's house? An hour's drive. Want to go shopping? An hour's drive. Want to run out to the store and grab some milk? An hour's drive. So, going to the nursing home from Cindy's house was going to be...an hour's drive. After I'd spent three days driving with a sense of urgency, you would think that another hour would be easy enough to bear, but that drive wasn't leaving me just yet. Not until I had a chance to see him would I know whether I could step down from Red Alert or not.
As we drove, Cindy and I caught up. We talked about dad, mom, and the miracle of getting my brother Ian to fly in. He would be arriving later that evening with his sweetheart, Deb. Mom was thrilled that he'd be there. We three sisters were convinced that this is what dad was waiting for before he could let go of this existence. The weather was lovely, so many degrees cooler than Colorado, and so much more moisture in the air that it was just a bit like swimming. We drove, reminisced and wondered if we'd make it in time.
As it turned out, we did. We pulled into the Centre and walked in through the security doors. Since some Alzheimer's patients tend to go on walkabout when not supervised they have a keypad lock on the door and large, serious signs about making sure the door was shut all the way and that no patients were lurking about, waiting to make a break for it. The building was surrounded by lovely gardens, maintained by a team of volunteers. I appreciated the lush beauty of it just as I appreciated how very different it was from the depressing look of the hospital in January.
We opened the door to the Palliative Care Room and walked inside. There, on the hospital bed was my father. Cindy had warned me, but there's really nothing you can do to prepare someone for what a loved one looks like at the very end of their days. He was a husk, a mummy, the bare essence of my father. His eyes were still the same, if unfocused and rheumy. He was so very thin, as if all his life had burned up while trying to hang on, just a little longer. Long bones exposed, his hands curled into stiffened claws, his cheekbones sunken in. I held back tears, because I wouldn't lose it just as I walked in the door. I could be strong, at least for a little bit longer.
I walked around the side of the bed to where he could see me and said, "Hi dad!" He worked to focus on my face; his eyes found mine. Did he know who I was at the very end? He did recognize my voice, somewhere deep inside? Did he think I was mom or Cindy or some long remembered relative? I don't know and it doesn't really matter. I remembered him and I had made it in time to say goodbye. Again.
I don't remember what I nattered about for a couple of minutes, but I do remember telling him that we'd had a very long drive. I then joked that I wish I could tell him that we'd flown in and "boy, were my arms tired!". At that old joke, he smiled. He smiled. He was still in there. He'd heard me and smiled at my stupid joke. At that point my ability to tough it out failed and I excused myself and walked out into the garden just outside his door. My face crumpled up and the tears came. Cindy hugged me, hard, as I cried. Dawn came up and wrapped her arms around us both. It was so awful to see him left as just a shadow of his old self; that huge, bluff, loud man we knew as our father. I cried for myself, for my father, for my siblings and our children; for all that we had lost, all that we'd had and all that he'd never been able to do. All of those things he'd kept on putting off until "tomorrow". A tomorrow that never came as all of his yesterdays were erased bit by bit.
Cindy congratulated me for making it that long without crying. Then we walked it off a bit by wandering around the garden and admiring the plants, so lovely, lush and exuberantly alive. Peonies bursting open like slow motion fireworks, hostas with leaves the size of platters. Mom came out, traded off with Cindy and walked with me. She was all choked up.
The thing you need to know about my mother is that she hardly ever cried when we were kids. Apparently these days, tears were never far from the surface. All of those years of being calm and cool had dissolved as her husband of 44 years faded away. I always figured that since he was 12 years older than mom that he'd pass away first, but I never imagined it would be like this. Mom cried a little as we walked and talked. She felt guilty for all the things she should've done. That she should've spent more time just sitting with him when he asked her to. I told her that I often felt the same way about the twins and Caitlin, but that someone has to wash the dishes, do the laundry, sweep the floor. She'd done a fantastic job taking care of dad, all by herself, for all of those long years. She had no need to feel guilt for what else she might've done.
No one could have done a better job of taking care of dad than mom. The doctor expressed his surprise and deepest admiration for all of her work. That he'd never seen anyone as advanced in Alzheimer's in such excellent shape when dad was checked into the hospital in January. He was still ambulatory, he could still speak and eat on his own. I reminded her of all this and told her how strong she was, how proud I was, how heroic she was for taking care of everything. She amazed me.
Now we waited for my brother to arrive; we expected Ian and Deb to arrive at 11:30 pm that night. Dawn, Cindy and I were convinced that dad was hanging in there for mom who was holding him through sheer willpower. Making him wait, just a little longer, until Ian arrived. A steady stream of mom's choir friends came by with cookies, bars, sandwiches and fruit. Time slid by, slowly and steadily, as dad went in and out of a fitful sleep. His labored breath sounded as if he was scuba diving; bubbly and thick. His final bout with pneumonia would be his last.
Finally, Cindy and I drove off to pick up my brother. We warned him that it wasn't pretty. We told him it was going to be hard. I may have used the term "mummy", my black humor was the only thing between me and constant tears. Even with that preparation, he was aghast at what he saw. The last time he'd seen dad was for the twins' 3rd birthday party. That man was long gone. He cried. We cried to see him cry. Mom cried from happiness that he'd finally made it. Dad woke up a bit for mom who asked him to say hi to Ian. He got agitated, although we don't really know why. Was he in pain? Was he tired of listening to all of our voices?
We walked out into the garden to give dad space and told Ian how glad we all were that he'd made it in time. That he showed up.
Sometimes that all it takes. Just show up. Be there for the people that need you.
After awhile, we went back to Cindy's house to sleep. I had had 2 hours of sleep in the last 40 hours. As we drove, I tried to stay awake for Cindy, who was driving. Tried to keep her awake so that we didn't get into any untoward meetings with deer upon the road. I blinked in and out of consciousness as we drove. I passed out entirely when we crossed over the river on the ferry. I felt drugged, heavy and uncoordinated as we climbed up the stairs and into bed. How much longer did dad have? Would mom call us if he passed away in the middle of the night? During our drive home? Early in the morning?
First thing in the morning, Cindy called to check in and dad was still hanging in there. Around 2 pm, mom called. Dad's breathing had changed to agonal breathing. The end was very near. We needed to get there ASAP. We flew out the door and broke every speed limit between here and there. When we arrived, I recognized that sound. Those final breaths. We talked to dad for just a bit. We each said goodbye. Strangely enough, he seemed to be mouthing something. Was he trying to say something to us? What was he trying to say? Cindy swears it looked like he was saying, "Mom. Mom. Mom." over and over again. I couldn't disagree. Was it possible he saw his mother? He tried to reach out, but was too weak. His hand fell back into his lap again.
Mom, Ian and Deb weren't there. Mom had run home for a quick shower; Ian was off washing the car as mom had asked and getting lunch. Was washing the car the funereal equivalent to tearing bedsheets and boiling water?
Cindy was concerned that dad may have been in pain and called one of the nurses in. A pair came in to help readjust him to ease his breathing and give him another shot of morphine to keep him comfortable. As they left the room, one poked her head out the garden door and told us that if we needed anything at all, to call for them. I think she knew, right at that moment that the game was up. We went back inside and stood beside the bed. I recognized that he was fading away at last and that he wasn't waiting for mom and Ian to return. My eyes filled up with tears and a lump formed in my throat.
Dawn stood across from me and held dad's hand. She told him it was OK and that we'd take care of mom for him. That it was time to go. That it was OK to go. Cindy stood next to Dawn and couldn't believe it. I was nodding that yes he was going, then he had one last breath and I shook my head no, but then there was that long, last, slow exhalation and nothing more. After a moment of stunned silence, we held each other tightly and cried. Our tears fell freely at that point.
Gone. All gone. So quietly. Peacefully, even.
We pulled ourselves together just a bit and I asked what time it was. Roughly 4:05 pm. Dawn called mom who was terribly upset that she wasn't there. We figured dad was waiting for her to leave so he could go. Sneaky, stubborn dad. There was a problem, because Ian wasn't back yet. We didn't know where he'd gotten off to, so Cindy jumped into the car to go collect mom and bring her to the nursing Centre. As we waited, the nurse came in to verify my father's death, to check his vitals, and to set the funereal gears into motion. Just a few minutes later, my mother and brother walked in (My mother's house, fortunately, was not an hour away from the nursing home.) and cried. My mother kissed my dad goodbye.
My brother kissed my father on the forehead when he thought no one was watching and whispered something to him.
It was over at long last and we had all made it. We were exactly where we needed to be.