My Father’s Untimely Death

Some things are complex and so utterly personal and delicate that they are impossible to forget, even after decades have left wrinkles upon one’s aging, earthly body!  Such was the story of my small-framed father, a man of very few words, and whose unobtrusiveness was like another character in our unsheltered lives.  We knew he loved us and he showed it and expressed it when he was sober.  The man we feared was the abusive monster into which our father would turn after he became drunk and violent!

During my father’s two years of sobriety before his death, I longed to know him – what filled his mind, I wondered, and what made him feel joy or contentment?  Did he feel unadulterated love for my mother or did he just want to belong somewhere?  Had he ever really laughed or felt genuine happiness?  I had so many questions about the man I didn’t know but the distance between us both physically and mentally was vast. 

He stood up for the things he believed in, and I knew he was a man that had integrity on the job.  He was stubborn to a fault as was I.  However, my father was a stranger to me in so many ways and I was terrified of him when I lived at home.  My tangled memories of him were like nightmares on the branches of an old tree, one bigger then the next.  Many reminiscences so old and cracked that the truth was buried along with the moss and dirt that covered those boughs.  

I had longed for him and my mother to watch and participate in special moments, significant achievements and milestones in my young life’s journey.  Such as the day I graduated from nursing school.  I stood alone that day as I was handed my diploma which was another achievement unrecognized.  However, they never attended anything I participated in and gave little if any encouragement for accomplishments I toiled hard to achieve.   

I was certain my father was an obedient and courteous, southern gentleman before he joined the army. He was just shy of his sixteenth birthday when after boot camp he was sent to fight in the Korean War.  My father had lied about his age and the military took him without question.  His father had abandoned his mother and she had absolutely no means with which to feed him. He did what he thought he needed to do to survive.  He must have felt so alone and frightened being so far away from home and not one soul in which to write. 

Once in the service of our country, my father had two appointments.  Still today, I believe the men he likely befriended and whom were in charge were trying to assure his well-being and survival.  One look at him and the experienced soldier had to realize he was still a boy who hadn’t had a chance to enjoy life!  Thus his dual responsibilities were assigned in kindheartedness, I truly trust.  The first job was to try and locate and secure the bodies of the men that lay fallen after a battle.  Second, my father made ice cream for the men he served with in the dark, lonely and impenetrable hours after the fighting had ceased.  What a strange mix of undertakings and yet it likely kept my father alive.

My father was extremely handsome, and appeared older than his age, but he was still a boy while in that uniform.  Imagine the impression those extreme images he witnessed on the field had upon my father. The visions of his fellow GIs, friends and fellow-mates, many of which I am sure lay in pieces forever imbedded in his psyche.  Placing his fellow buddies into lonely body bags must have captured and held his heart the rest of his life.  They must have accompanied him everywhere from then on.  Manifestations of horrors no man should ever be forced to witness.

My father was a young, poor, southern, and unworldly boy that was abandoned by his father.  He lived secluded in a small, poor town surrounded by trees, a water pump and an outhouse.  Just a few years later he would become a father himself, unprepared and already damaged by the trauma of abandonment and the anguish of war.

Dad had two inoperable cerebral aneurisms diagnosed in his late forties.  One aneurism would occasionally leak, introducing pressure on his brain and unbearable pain into his life.  This sent my parents to the hospital many nights for a shot of morphine to diminish my dad’s insufferable pain.  A simple rise in blood pressure could cause an aneurism to burst leaving him likely brain dead at any given moment.  He knew he was persistently living with a time bomb! 

My mother had shared with me how they had taken my father to a VA ward where many men who had surgery for the same condition, now stayed permanently at the VA.  Doctors had informed my father that he would likely end up with extreme brain damage, as did these once lively soldiers, if he preceded with the surgery.  My father was convinced that this was a sentence worse than death.  We all had agreed with dad’s choice when this knowledge and decision was communicated.

I am so grateful that during his last two years both he and my mother were sober.  My mother talked of their happiness together during our long distance coffee chats.  My father had a tiny poodle he poured his love into and a garden which he spent many hours a day nurturing.  I have a treasured picture of him standing by his enormous tomato plants holding his beloved dog.

Mom liked to plant flowers and ferns and cook my father’s favorite meals.  They enjoyed fishing off the pier with a hot thermos of coffee close by. They spent time on the swing outside their modest but comfortable southern home.  Swinging hand in hand while the songs of the tenacious crickets and the Red Cardinals provided music while their shoulders touched.  I like to think of them during this time loving one another and enjoying their simple but happy lives together.

They both had always had their faith and believed in heaven.  Able to express their love to one another once again with the “drink” out of the picture now.  I was happy for them and grateful for every sober day they shared.  They had been blessed by God and had found their way back to one another’s heart.

When my father, who smoked three packs of unfiltered Camels every day, for thirty years, was diagnosed with a spot on his lung x-ray, unbeknownst to me, he and Mom set out to make a “plan.”  

I was in Washington State with my first husband while my parents lived in Wilmington, North Carolina. I talked to my dad and he sounded happy and said he wasn’t in pain.  That phone call was possibly the most words he and I had ever spoken to one another. He asked me to bring my daughter when he went in to have his biopsy done.  She was only three and I knew that he would be at the VA Hospital and that my daughter, who had only met him twice, when she was very young, would not remember who he was.  I worried that she might be afraid in that hospital environment and staying at a hotel with people she hardly knew.  So I decided not to take her, given the history of unpredictability with my parents. I also felt afraid for my daughter just as I did for myself, due to the violent history my parents and I had.   

Little did I know, that decision would mean I would never see my father again, not really.  After all, Mom and Dad had a classified secret which they didn’t share with anyone at the time.  It was only months later that my little sister was told their executed plan by my mother, which she shared with me two years later.

So I flew out of Seattle to Wilmington, North Carolina.  I was met at the airport by my brother-in-law, whom I barely knew.  After meeting me at the airport and upon returning to his car, he immediately informed me that my father had suffered a severe stroke and was diagnosed as brain dead.  My shock and utter disappointment was indescribable.  My disbelief and sadness was overwhelming and I immediately thought about how much Dad had wanted to see his grandchild.  Guilt surrounded me like a thick fog that had rolled in without notice and threatened my suffocation.  I had denied my father the last chance he would ever have to see his beautiful granddaughter.  

That hour drive from the airport to the hospital was likely the longest ride of my life.  Time was suspended while I imagined every other possible outcome had I just been an obedient daughter and brought my child in tow. Questions filled my head and pummeled my brain until my head throbbed with the pain of an uncontrollable migraine.   How would I ever forgive myself for not bringing my daughter. Instead I thought about how we couldn’t afford it, my fear for her safety and how uncomfortable it would be for her in a hospital setting?  My daughter was used to things being quiet and predictable.  These were things that I never expected around my parents and how could I?  Had I underestimated the danger based on the years of experience and fear that haunted me in my dreams? Or was I just an unspeakably selfish and over protective mother?

I kept thinking about how the doctors had assured us that Dad’s blood pressure was stable and completely normal the day before I flew out.  He had already been in the VA for days so his blood pressure could be closely monitored. I had been assured by his doctors that he was doing well and that the procedure was a simple one and they did not foresee any complications.  

Standing now in the cold sterile hospital room alone, holding my father’s already cold hand, I looked around.  There was a tube coming out of his nose which I knew was anchored in his stomach.  The tube emptied into a gallon-sized glass jug which was filled halfway to the top already.  Several pints of blood made up its crimson contents.  After all, I was a nurse and I knew why his body, which lay on the well-made bed with its military corners, was already cold – it was due to the large amount of blood that had drained from his lifeless form.  

It was my turn to say goodbye.  I had a long conversation with my father and I knew his spirit was still stuck in the room but not for long.  It was a dialogue I wished we could have had when I was growing up.  I felt him in the room and knew he could still hear me. His spirit had not gone to heaven yet! I told him how much I loved him and that I knew he would be with God and Jesus when he died.  My words were full of forgiveness and regret at not knowing the man that he was.  Sadness poured into my heart and I stood there drowning in my own tears, pain and guilt. I leaned over and kissed my father on the forehead and tried desperately to remember what he looked like with his dark brown tan in the summer months of my childhood.

My mother had decided to stop all life support which we all agreed was the right thing to do.  He left his body immediately and I was grateful that his spirit was free.  Nothing feels real when you lose a parent because you only have two and you love them no matter what your life may have been like.  There is a void, an uninhabited space in your life now, that can never be replaced.  

My mother was so angry at me for not bringing my daughter even when I explained that I didn’t think it was the best thing for my girl.  I tried to clarify why I felt that bringing her into a hospital knowing we would be there all day would be problematic for a three-year-old.  My mother refused to let me stay at the same house where she spent the night my father died. This hurt so much because that home had been the only safe place for me, at least for a while, when I was a child.  I loved my relatives there and felt safe around them but I was not welcomed.  I was to lament alone.   

Trying to comprehend her vicious behavior towards me was difficult because I was mourning the death of my father.  She pushed me away from her when I tried to hug or comfort her in any way.  She screamed and yelled at me, pushing me out of the room where we were all gathered before I had to ask a relative if I could stay with her family.  I was grateful she said yes as otherwise I would have been forced to stay in a hotel alone that night.

It was two years later that I learned that my father and mother had decided to hide two bottles of decongestants in his overnight bag.  He planned to take them after he saw his granddaughter one last time prior to the lung biopsy.  He had been told that just one of these pills could cause a rise in blood pressure that would almost certainly cause a fatal stroke. So Dad knew that taking two bottles would definitely cause his untimely death.  Mom and Dad had planned his suicide together without my knowledge and I was punished for not bringing my daughter to see him for one last time. Another mistrust, emotional sabotage, and deception once again, struck at my face with an unimaginable force.  Such is the under tow and turbulence  of the wild waters, which rise and fall in the unhealthy and sick world of an Adult Child of Alcoholics.  

When Dad realized that he was not going to see his granddaughter, Mom and Dad decided to change the “plan”.  My guess is that Dad didn’t know if he could go through with their “plan” if he saw any of his daughters.  How was I supposed to feel about what had happened?  What a selfish thing the two of them had plotted!  My father was convinced that he had lung cancer and he was tired of living with the pain in his head.  

Again, decisions were made for me, not with me, and I felt utterly and emotionally alone the day he died and even more so the day after.  This was yet another situation in my life that was filled with confusion, anger and pain that took several years in which to come to terms. 

In the end, we all make decisions based on the life we are giving and what we choose to do with that gift. I loved my father and I always will. I am sorry for the way he suffered and that he didn’t trust me enough to tell me their “plan.”  Had he told me, I would like to think the question of bringing my daughter would have been a simple one, without judgement, and followed with an easy answer.  “Of course I will bring her dad, she can’t wait to hug your neck and I can’t wait to either. I love you and look forward to being along-side you soon!”

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