Nine more days. Nine more days until my ritualistic habit of date-matching events from the previous year comes to a close. Nine days from today is the anniversary of my father’s death. Throughout the last year, I have found comfort in knowing he was still here within the past 365 days; that on some days I can say, “last year on this day we did this”; that when I find a receipt and check the date, I see that I bought the foods he liked. That last year at this time we held hands and laughed. That two days from now we had our last conversation while watching the pre-season Bears game. He had a huge meal that night and those that surrounded him were pleased that he finally ate. “You need your strength,” we’d say over and over again as we watched him whittle away, his cheeks sunken and legs like toothpicks.
The Bears lost that night and he turned off the TV in his usual frustration, citing which players were at fault. I made my bed on the couch next to him to ensure he got his medicine when he needed it. The medicine had to be given consistently or the pain would come on strong. “Breakthrough Pain” is what the hospice nurse called it; it came on quickly and intensely but the constant dosing of morphine would keep it at bay. He didn’t want to sleep on the hospital bed, that was another sick-person apparatus we had to coax him into. “You’ll be much more comfortable, Dad. It’s much easier to get in and out of than a regular bed. See?” I lied to him as if he was a toddler and moved the bed up and down with the attached remote.
He had a restful night’s sleep and the next day he was gone. Not physically. His body was there but it was on auto-pilot as he tried to perform the same daily functions that he had for 70 years. He wanted to go to the bathroom. He wanted to drink something. He wanted to take medicine. He shuffled his feet for the last time, his mind in a daze, unsure of how to act. He didn’t look at our faces, we didn’t connect. He laid on the plastic mattress covered in flannel, atop all the pillows he normally stacked and re-stacked each night until he was comfortable. He closed his eyes and I learned the true definition of a new word: unresponsive.
Unconscious means unaware; unresponsive means unable to react. “Be careful what you say because he can hear you,” my friend told me. Her father had similarly passed the month before, and once he was labeled “unresponsive,” he had reacted to a comment with a thumbs up sign the day before he died. Because of this, I ushered nurses out of his room when they casually spoke about how much time he had left and, “See? His skin is beginning to break down.”
I held the phone to his ear as out-of-town family told him that they loved him. I learned to internally sob so he wouldn’t hear me. I told him that we would all be okay and not to worry. He was a jokester so I tried to keep it light, “You raised an amazing daughter so I’ll take care of everything. The Vickster has it all under control.”
He used to call me the Vickster.
When my three boys came to say goodbye, they stood at his bedside unable to speak, faces soaked with tears. “Dad, the boys are here,” I said cheerfully while announcing them with the nicknames he personalized for them, “Jackson Brown, Maximillian Shmell and Brody Coyote are here and they all love you.” My dad smiled.
His breathing became slower and more rattled throughout the week. I left his room on a Friday afternoon at the advice of my family. “He might not want to let go if you are here.” The sun shone through the blinds and the transistor radio lightly played his favorite oldies station. I kissed his soft forehead and patted down his hair and told him, “Dad, I’m going to go get a good night’s sleep.” I gently put his hand in between mine and told him I would be back in the morning. When I stood up, the radio made a soft popping noise and went quiet. I froze. Crazy as it sounds, that was the sign of the final goodbye. He passed away early the next morning.
There is still half a bag of frozen peas in our freezer from well over a year ago. My dad lived in my home for the last six months of his life and he would sometimes cook for us when he had the energy. One night he cooked us his favorite meal — rigatoni with Italian sausage and peas. I haven’t touched the peas since that meal because they symbolize a memory. The plastic bag, folded over and secured with a thick rubber band sits tucked in the far corner of the freezer. When I rifle through the shelves looking for frozen waffles or ice cream, sometimes I see it and stop. And remember.
Life moves on and life moves fast. It’s hard to fathom that its almost been one year since I lost my boisterous, “life of the party” father. But the human spirit is resilient and propels you forward in order to return to normalcy. Many told me, “It will get easier, the first year is hard.” It has gotten easier. Maybe on day 366, I’ll figure out what to do with the peas.
But I still have nine more days.