This night last year, my father died. It had not occurred to me to blog about it, but earlier this evening I paid a visit to the Jolly Nihilist's blog. He has a new post up where he writes about his grandfather being diagnosed with terminal cancer. I decided to write about my father's death in the comments section, and then I thought, why not do a post about it on my blog?
My father was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. His doctor told him he would need to undergo surgery to have a stent put into the affected area. Here is a description of the procedure on the Mayo Clinic's web site. Dad had held off on getting the operation done because my mother had, and continues to have bouts of depression and anxiety. She would spend days on end in bed watching tv or sleeping, getting up only to use the bathroom or to get a drink or a bite to eat. Late in 2005, it had gotten so bad, that my dad had her admitted to a facility for electro-shock treatments.
Mom's condition did not improve much this time. In the past she would have periods of depression and then she would snap back to normal and be fine for months, and in some cases, years. In recent years though, her good streaks grew shorter and shorter. But dad's aneurysm had widened, so last May he finally resolved to undergo the surgery.
Very early on the morning of May 25, I rode with my father and mother to North Shore Medical Center in Manhasset. I initially thought I would be the one to drive, but dad insisted on driving to the hospital. Mom was very nervous and had hoped that I would be able to stay with her, but I had to work that day, though if memory serves I had scheduled to take the afternoon off. I said goodbye to dad, and I was struck by how carefree he seemed about everything in contrast to my mom.
Later that day, I drove back to the hospital and met with my mom in the waiting area. A short time later, the surgeon came out and told us that the surgery went well, though there were some problems with the artery in his left leg having hardened, so they had to perform a procedure to bypass to the artery in the right leg, or something like that. But apart from that, we were given the clear impression that my father was going to be alright.
I had to leave soon afterwards to pick my children up, but later that evening I returned to the hospital with my son to pick up my mom and take her home. When I got to the hospital, my mom told me that dad was not doing so well. He was barely cogent and visible in pain, with all kinds of tubes in him. I went in to see him and was shocked at the condition I saw him in. Still, I thought, maybe it was just normal for him to be like that after the surgery. I spoke to him reassuringly and told him to hang in there. He talked very little between groans, and I do not recall anything he might have said. When I left, I did not know then that I would never see him alive again.
The next day at work, my wife called me about 3 p.m. crying. She told me that my mom had called her from the hospital and told her that my dad was dying. I was stunned. I left work early and made my way to the hospital as fast as I could after I took the train back to Hicksville. I can't remember if I drove my brother Bobby with me or if he was already at the hospital when I got there.
When I got to the room where they had my father, he was on life-support. Apparently, the stent had gotten loose and caused massive internal bleeding that the doctors could not stop. His sheets were stained from the blood that had seeped out of him. It was hard to square the bloated and unconscious body that lay on the hospital bed before me with the the seemingly upbeat man I had said goodbye to the morning of the day before.
Bobby told the hospital staff that since dad was a Catholic that a priest should be summoned to give dad his last rites. The staff member told us they would make the arrangements.
As I described in a post months ago, my dad was an obedient church-going Catholic, though I never saw him read a Bible. He was raised Irish-Catholic, and I got the sense that he went to church because it was ground into him at an early age that it was the way things were supposed to be.
Dad knew I was an atheist and clearly was not happy about it, but he never actually asked me why I was an atheist. But as much as it may have displeased him, I was also the only one of his three sons who was a responsible person in a stable marriage, so I guess it was something he felt he had to begrudge to me. On the other hand, as much as I loved my father and all the generosity he showed to me and my wife, I was always troubled by his racist attitudes, particularly towards blacks. When I was growing up, he would casually use derogatory terms like "nigger" and "porchmonkey." I am sure he was raised to think that way by my grandfather, and his job as a New York City police officer probably did not contribute to enlightened feelings of interracial harmony. For some reason, the racism that he and my two older brothers expressed never rubbed off on me. At an early age, the idea of being prejudiced towards people because of their race struck me as wrong. Maybe it had to do with watching "Roots" when I was 8 or 9 years old, or that I had a major crush on Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek.
While Bobby had wandered off to smoke a butt and get a bite to eat, the priest finally arrived. And to my intense amusement, the priest was black. Judging by his accent, I think he was from Africa. As sad as I was about my dad's death, I couldn't help but find humor in the fact that my Archie Bunker-like father was getting his last rites read to him by a black priest. I wondered, if my father was able to look down upon the scene, what he would have thought of it. "Ahhh, why couldn't they get me an Irish priest?" he might have remarked.
I went off to look for Bobby and saw him coming towards me from down the hallway. I called out to him that the priest had arrived and acknowledged with a "Good." Then I said to him, with a knowing smile, "And wait until you see him." Bobby understood what I meant and made a slight chuckle.
While the priest spoke to my mom and read out the last rites, I stood apart from them with a sort of remote detachment. After the priest was finished and left, we instructed the staff to take my father off of life support. Then, for probably the next ten or fifteen minutes, we watched the lines and measurements on the displays grow slower and flatter until finally they had all flatlined. My dad was gone. My life would not be the same again.