Saturday, June 5, 2010

How my Dad died

My Dad was larger than life.  Everybody who knew him knew that.  It was funny too, that at his funeral several people almost argued over which one of them was my Dad's favorite.  The truth was that they all were.  Dad had the singular ability to make anyone he met feel special and important.

He was an actor and a director of plays.  He was quite the showman.  Whenever he entered the room, it always seemed a little brighter around him.

Several years ago, Dad survived Leukemia.  It took alot out of him and he confided that he never wanted to go through chemo again.  He never seemed to have as much energy after that experience.  Nevertheless, he tended his orchard, cared for a prodigious vegetable garden and made countless doll cradles for his granddaughters.  Sometimes he found time to golf a few holes.

About a month and a half before he passed away, I had borrowed his pickup and was intent on returning it.  I called him up with the intent to return it and he began melodramatically describing his horrible golf day and claimed it was over, he could die now.  He went on and on, as he was wont to do.  So I asked rather innocently, "Does that mean I don't have to return your truck?"  He sputtered  a bit and said I needed to return it.  It was all in good fun, but as I look back there was a bit of self fulfilling prophecy at work.  A month an a half later he was dead and I ended up with the truck.

Dad didn't feel well that day, but he and Mom decided to go on an Alaskan cruise anyway.  Dad looked really unwell in the cruise pictures.  When they got back, Dad went to the doctor and found out that he had Melanoma, and it was all through him.  It was terminal.  All of us had always considered Dad to be an immortal, so it came as quite a shock to us when we found out he wasn't going to beat this one.

Dad was a quick study, though.  Once he found out he was terminal, he was ready to get on with it.  He went downhill really fast, and then he kind of leveled off for a few days as if he didn't know what to do.  He hadn't ever died before so he needed some direction.  They went to the oncologist again and the good doctor told them what to expect.  He also said it could take weeks or months to go through the next steps.  When he got home from the doctor's office, it was as if he said, "alright, now I have a script, I can get to work."

What the doctor said would take weeks or months for him to do took days and weeks.  At the very end, he leveled off again, and the hospice nurse came in and told us what to expect, and she said it could take days or weeks.  Once she gave him his next "script", it took him hours to finish the job.

I got a call on November 10th that the end was nigh and we needed to come and see him.  Halfway there, I told my wife, "Dad won't die today, he'll wait until tomorrow."  She thought I was ridiculous for saying that, but I explained that Dad's favorite play was "Seventh Heaven".  In a nutshell, it's about Chico and Diane, two lovers during WWI.  Chico goes to war and is presumed dead.  Diane tries to make do as best she can, but her evil sister tracks her down and starts to beat her and is going to sell her into prostitution, but then miraculously, on Armistice Day, November 11th, Chico returns, blinded but saves the day and casts the evil sister out.  I told her that Dad would wait until Armistice Day to die.  As a kid, I remember Dad pointing out every 11th of November that "on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the armistice was signed".  It was an important day to him.

Dad stabilized, and we went home.  The next day, Armistice Day, my wife and I drove to Rigby to see him.  My family all gathered and at 11 O'clock we had a family prayer and my brother, Lloyd gave him permission to die.  After that I read him one of his favorite poems that he had read at countless funerals, Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar."  When I read the line, "I hope I meet my maker to his face when I have crossed the bar.", Dad squeezed my hand.  He still had a strong grip to the end.

He lingered throughout the day, and we took turns sitting with him.  Mostly he slept.  One time when I was in with him, he awoke and said he had had a dream.  I quizzed him about it and he indicated that someone in his dream was asking him to come with him.  He wasn't sure who it was.  About four O'clock in the afternoon,  my sister Paula ushered us all into the room and Dad was thrashing around on the bed.  He was saying over and over again, "I'm cold!  I'm so cold!"  My sister-in-law, Renee ran to the laundry room and got hot towels from the dryer and draped them on him which calmed him down almost immediately.  Then he got a surprised look on his face and proclaimed, "I'm dying.  I'm dying!  I have to go.  Let me go!"  Then he threw the covers off and started to crawl out of bed, reaching towards someone we couldn't see.  Mom and my brother Bruce both grabbed his hands and stroked them and told him it was okay, he could go.  We'd all miss him desperately, but he needed to go and they gave him permission to do so.  Dad settled back onto the pillow, took some deep breaths, sunk into the "death rattles" and passed from this life.

I told the oncologist this story and he told me that it was remarkable because people with cancer that far advanced usually can't feel temperature and at the end are usually unable to speak.  Of course it wasn't remarkable to me, because it was my Dad.  He lived extraordinarily and he died extraordinarily.  That was to be expected of him.  He died well.  Anyway, the oncologist said, "Gary, you don't understand.  Your Dad made and exit!"  And that was a great way to characterize that great actor's demise from this world.

When we organized the funeral, we decided to honor Dad by making the funeral one hour.  He always liked promptness when he directed a show.  My oldest sister, and my two brothers each gave speeches, my other sisters, the granddaughters and one of Mom and Dad's friends who is a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir all sang songs in between the speeches, and I also read four poems from Dad's favorite book of poetry in between the speeches.  The program looked like it would be a very lengthy funeral, but we honored him and kept it right to an hour.  Prior to the funeral, we told the bishop of their church, who was to preside over the funeral that if he wanted to say anything he could do it at the beginning of the service, but that we didn't want him to do so at the end.  We had it planned out to the last detail and didn't want him to ruin the climax (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir lady's solo) with some homespun platitudes.  He honored our wishes and it was a glorious funeral.  Since he was a WWII veteran, an honor guard from the Idaho National Guard gave him a 21 gun salute, and my nephew, Brett who was in the Marine Corps assisted in folding the flag and presented it to my mother.

I miss him.

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