Not that way.
Not that day.
But he did.
My father died and still, it hardly seems possible that he’s gone.
But he is.
He went to the hospital just needing a blood transfusion. Well not just, but it wasn’t supposed to careen out of control into a life-threatening situation. My father was being treated for severe anemia, and the doctor assured us he would feel much better after getting two units of blood. They scheduled it for the next day, which was Sunday. Since it would take most of the day to receive the new blood, I dropped my mom and dad at the hospital and then went on to church for the morning service.
I brought them home around five that evening, but Dad didn’t seem right. He was agitated and uncomfortable. He said things that didn’t make sense and complained of being cold. He shivered even after we turned the heat way up and covered him with a pile of blankets. While I got him into bed to keep him warm, Mom called the hospital just to be sure this was normal after a blood transfusion. It wasn’t. She hung up and dialed 911 immediately.
The paramedics were inside the house within four minutes ~ one of the advantages of living down the street from a firehouse. Like the most bizarre of Picasso portraits, I can only recall the ensuing 24 hours in mangled distorted images. There are pieces of identifiable reality here and there, but mostly there are fragments I stare at without fully comprehending.
Blue and red emergency lights dancing in the hallway through the sheer drapes, a “Heaven Can Wait” DVD I gave to Dad just days earlier sitting by the TV. The click of a gurney, My brother, Randy, helping me make sure we hadn’t left anything turned on in the house, Mom hurrying to get in the ambulance. Dad cracking hilarious jokes in ER, his heart monitor displaying 163, texting updates to Bob and the boys, the doctor saying, “Pneumonia.”
Pneumonia? We can do pneumonia. Pneumonia’s totally treatable. What a relief!
After two or three hours of IV medication in the ER, Dad was placed in ICU and getting better by the minute. Randy went home around midnight, but Mom and I hung around until the nurse dismissed us to go home and get some sleep. Crisis averted.
By 1:30am Mom and I had settled in for some desperately needed sleep. Two hours later we were summoned back to the hospital by one of those early morning phone calls that rattles your nerves and shakes your soul. My mind darted off in every direction at once as I fought to stay focused while driving down the freeway.
More fragments of distortion.
A full moon over the hospital, a clock in the lobby reading 5:40am, and a Christmas cross hiding in the reflection of the cafeteria window at daybreak. “Do you have an advanced directive?” “Fight for him,” my mother saying emphatically. A nurse starting to resist got a second, “Fight for him,” from me. Dad’s heart still racing at 172, organizing the tea bag drawer in the waiting room, doctor consults, my sister, Sandi, and brother-in-law arriving, feet running through the ICU corridor when Dad’s heart stopped, updates every 10 minutes as they worked on him, texting my family. Saying goodbye.
Only Mom, Sandi, Randy, and I were in the room with Dad when he died (and a hospital chaplain). Each of us got to say goodbye and then we stood. We waited. We watched. Mom watched Dad; Sandi watched me, Randy and I watched the monitor.
Slipping out of Dad’s room, I returned to the empty ICU waiting room. I wanted to pause; I needed to pause, and I just wanted to be. A doctor I had not seen before came into the waiting area and sat up on the back of the couch. His scrubs were soaked with sweat and he looked as drained of life as Dad had been when I left his room. I sensed he was angry.
“You worked on my dad?” I asked quietly.
“Thank you,” I said, stopping short of what I really wanted to say. Advanced directives limiting medical intervention on the elderly is a pretty standard practice anymore, but not in my family; we’re fighters. Until we’ve exhausted all physical intervention and prayer intervention, we will always contend for life.
The doctor looked at me through his exhaustion and began to speak.
Stepping out of character, I cut him off.
“Please know that my family is so very grateful for all you and your team tried to do for my father.” I paused to bury my timidity, gather my strength, and speak directly to his anger.
“I can see it was difficult, but it’s important that you know why we asked it of you. You might not be aware of it, but you tried to save a hero today. You did. My father was a hero. You see he served his country during both Korean and Vietnam. He was honorable and noble. My father protected this country and defended our freedom, which allowed you to pursue the life you are living and enter the field of medicine that you love. For twenty-one years my father sacrificed for you, so thank you, Sir, for sacrificing for him today. It means more to us than you can ever know.”
Anger melted away as the doctor cried.
Losing my father last year was a life-altering moment as it is for many people. It is important you know that despite the shock of losing him unexpectedly, we were held. We were held by the unshakable power of God like never before. We were not suspended in time, confusion, or anxiety, but we were really held by the sovereign power of a loving God. So much so that we heard ourselves saying, this was one of the best moments we have ever lived.
How can that be? How can it be that the day we said goodbye to the man who has always believed in us, supported us, defended us, and fought for us was one of the best days we’ve ever lived? Because we stood in the middle of grief’s fire and experienced the tangible sense of the joy of the Lord. Dad was our family’s greatest warrior. When we grew tired or our faith grew weary, His faith held ours intact. As a family unit we walked through one of the most difficult days of our lives deeply blessed.
My father was buried with full military honors befitting the finest of Air Force officers and heroes, despite the fact he would have objected to our plans. Actually, he wouldn’t have allowed them. Several times during his Air Force career he was dispatched to other military families to bring them the news that their loved one was killed in battle. These were the sacrifices my father understood, these were the heroes he compared himself to.
He never even considered his own sacrifices deserving of notice, but we did. We experienced the cost of his service and understood the danger of his duty. My father absolutely did not believe himself worthy of receiving any military honors at his burial and plainly told us so many times.
We ignored him. We had to; he is a hero to us.
It’s been almost a year since my father passed away and we’ve made it through almost all of the “firsts” without him. I think it fitting that Veteran’s Day will draw our year of grief near its end and the last holiday we will celebrate for the first time without Dad will be Thanksgiving. My family is, indeed, thankful for all Dad was and all he gave to us. His was a life well lived and ours was a life most blessed because of it.
© Copyright, 2015 by Donna Tallman.