By now, a lot of you that know me know that my Dad -Dootnie- lost his battle with cancer this morning. That little gem -“lost his battle”- is one of the fancy, but palatable, ways we use to say “he died.” I (we) now have a better appreciation for the grim details that are covered by that euphemistic patina. At 10:45, he went to be with his Lord, to a mansion that was prepared for him. Our family is sad to be without him, but we are encouraged about where he’s gone and about the prospect of seeing him again – one day. To some folks, it may seem a little cold, or crass, for me to be writing about his passing this way, in this venue, so soon after his death. It’s what I need to do – it helps me to process what has happened. This post picks up where I left off on Friday, when things looked (on the surface, anyway) a little different.
Be careful what you wish for
You just might get it. I’m speaking of information, that is. In my last post, I grumbled about the lack of comprehensive information about Dad’s care. We just didn’t know what was going on. That stuff all seems trivial right now. Thanks to some comments from folks here, and on Facebook, we were able to find the right person to ask all of our questions. That person was very helpful, and my sisters Kim and Shannon were able to get a lot of answers. By that point, Dad was not just not improving, he was going downhill fast, so the answers were not at all what we wanted to hear.
Acute renal failure
was the principal culprit. The stress on his kidney from the colon surgery was tremendous. The dialysis that they started a day or two earlier wasn’t helping. Because Dad had “metastatic disease” (Stage 4 cancer), a transplant is out of the question. Pneumonia, and the persistent infection were continuing to take their toll on his body. By late Friday night, it had become apparent that we were going to be making tough decisions very soon. The doctor confirmed to us on Saturday morning what we hoped were wouldn’t hear (for a long time, anyway): Dad’s condition had declined to a state where he would not survive without life support.
My Dad has expressed, on numerous occasions, that he had no desire to be kept alive on machines. Now, they were the only thing standing between him and leaving this world. My mother and my siblings gathered to discuss what we needed to do. I think, at that point, it was more of a joint acknowledgment that the end had come, and we must agree together to assent to Dad’s wishes. My brother was not with us in Richmond yet, but we discussed it on the phone: tomorrow, when he got into town, we would have Dad removed from the life support mechanisms, and say goodbye.
There a million questions to ask…
when you’re going to have your father removed from life support. Will he feel any pain? Would he be able to speak with us, and hear what we had to say? We had this romantic notion, however briefly, that we’d have him brought up out of sedation so that “he could see and hear us, if not speak to us.” But then we worried if this would cause him even an instant of additional suffering. I wanted no part of that. If his sedation is changed, and he regains consciousness, and they took out the breathing tube, would he even be able to speak? The nurses couldn’t say for sure. It was a moot point: the nurses changed the type of sedation on the chance that we’d want to try to speak to him – he did not respond to the change. That settled things, really – the nurses would remove the breathing tube, and the other machines, and we would say goodbye.
On Sunday morning, we gathered at the hospital, and asked the doctor to begin the process of removing the life support. Dad was an organ donor, but the fact that he had cancer disqualified him from donating any major organs. They would be able to harvest his corneas; we were happy that someone would have the gift of sight from Dad. The end came mercifully quickly. About 45 minutes after the machines were removed, he was gone. My brother and two sisters stayed with him until the end. I understand why they did it – they wanted some of his family to be there with him at the very end; I could not see him any more like that.
Going back to Cellar Mountain, one more time.
My Dad had, as my Mom puts it, “no desire for the accouterments of death” – no fancy casket, or headstone, no viewing or open casket. They used to joke about the fact that they both wanted to be cremated. If Dad went first, his ashes were to be taken to Cellar Mountain -one of his favorite hunting spots- in the Big Levels Game Management Area of the George Washington National Forest. It’s out near Stuarts Draft, Virginia; we hunted there for many years. If Mom went first, my Dad would “fire her from a couple of shotgun shells.” It seems a little irreverent, but their beliefs are grounded in the idea from the Bible of “absent from the flesh, present with the Lord.” If they’re already gone, there’s no earthly value in making a big show of preserving and displaying their earthly remains in a gilded box, and then putting that box in the ground.
And that is what we’ll do: take him to Cellar Mountain. There’s no hurry; there are endless details to attend to this week. But, when it gets a little cooler -perhaps when hunting season comes around- we’ll take him there: from the Blue Ridge Parkway, to Bald Mountain, by the Green Pond, and the head of the Stony Run trail, out to Cellar Mountain. We’ll leave his ashes in a place that he loved a lot.
And we’ll remember my Dad.