Dorothy had it right, “There’s no place like home.” We just got back from a trip to Long Island, which like the journey through Oz, was an unbelievable, sometimes heartfelt, but mostly horrifying series of events and challenges.
We were already asleep when we got a call from a nurse at the VA hospital; Lou’s father was in intensive care, still lucid, but on his deathbed, and asking to see his son. He had named Lou as next of kin authorized to make medical decisions if he became unable. We hadn’t communicated with anyone in Lou’s family in ages. He stopped talking to his dad because he wouldn’t have an honest conversation about the lies and pain from their past. I can’t even remember why he wasn’t talking to his mother and sister this time, but likely something petty someone said or did or didn’t say or do. I overheard the nurse, got up and gave Lou pen and paper to note the contact info, while I started to get ready to leave. He thanked the nurse for calling, hung up the receiver, turned off the light and laid his head back on the pillow to sleep again. I said I was awake and would be fine to drive, but he did not want to go and would think about it in the morning. The hospital soon called again, requesting permission to administer treatment to alleviate the buildup of fluid in his abdomen. This time, I talked to the nurse to get more details, and told her to tell him that his son and daughter-in-law were on their way. I didn’t care that Lou didn’t want to go. If I let him stay home, while his father died alone, he would regret it someday. Even if he didn’t outright blame me, I would feel responsible. I was going by myself even if he wouldn’t. Nobody should suffer alone in a hospital, especially when they know they are near death and have asked for family. I sat bedside caring for his mother by myself before and after she had cancer surgery, even though it was no secret she despised me. Lou conceded to making the drive to see his dad.
Before leaving, we called his sister, Debra and her husband, Bill. She also was not talking to either of her parents and had even less interest than Lou in seeing her father, but I think Bill, who was raised in an extremely tight-knit European family, convinced her. They had a baby several months ago that nobody on Deb’s side of the family had even seen. Once we got on the road, the urgency finally kicked in, and Lou was in a panic that we wouldn’t get there in time. About 3 hours later, we met up at the hospital with Deb and Bill. His father was still alive but unresponsive. The nurse explained that he had cancer, his organs were slowly shutting down, and his abdomen was swelling with fluid. Other than that, I must say he looked pretty good. He was very tan, and his body appeared quite strong and healthy, despite his laryngectomy stoma. We later learned he had been working at a church as grounds keeper and custodian.
Lou and I spoke to him quietly, I held his dad’s hand, stroked his head and arm, and used a swab to moisten his cracking lips. Bill was great for trying, but his futile upbeat bellowing of his name to rouse his father-in-law reminded me of someone trying to communicate with a person who doesn’t understand English by loudly yelling words one by one. Debra stayed in the room, but kept her distance both physically and emotionally, which was painful to witness. She had been essentially abandoned by the dying man most of her life. I give her credit for being there, and yet not faking the expected emotional response to the situation.
We called Lou’s mother from the pay phone and explained that her ex-husband was probably not going to live much longer. She told us that she had seen him recently, and knew he was not feeling good; they had joked around that he shouldn’t buy any green bananas. We offered to pick her up, but she decided not to come to the hospital, since he wasn’t conscious anyway, and she wanted to remember him as he was. Somehow, they ended up being good friends to each other over the past few years, which had to be comforting while neither of their kids spoke to either of them.
I was mesmerized by the stats and blips on the monitors documenting the slow shutdown of his body. Bill wore a beeper on his belt that went off once in a while. I have never known anyone with a beeper, and thought only drug dealers used them, so I jokingly asked if he had to meet his connection, which was a big mistake on my part. I heard about that comment later.
Eventually, his stats dropped very, very low. I was still holding his hand, which was clasped tightly around mine, even though he was not conscious. Lou and Bill were on the side of the bed also, and Deb was standing back, near the foot of the bed. He then opened his eyes, and slowly and deliberately looked around at each of us. Although he didn’t say a word, he appeared to have clarity and recognition in his eyes. We told him that we were all there with him, that we loved him, and that it was ok to let go in peace. His eyes closed and the stats dropped until the solid line and steady beep indicated his heart and breathing had stopped.
That was the end of the calm and peace, because suddenly there were alarms going off, and out of nowhere, came what seemed like a dozen doctors and nurses jumping in the room with equipment and insisting that we clear out of the room for the code blue. I refused to move, and now I was the one yelling bedside for them to leave him alone because he was DNR. I don’t know why the unit nurses didn’t step in; they had shown us his card with treatment preferences and directive.
The nurses gave us his few possessions, car keys, and the address of his apartment near the church. We went out to dinner with Deb and Bill to catch up and talk about what we should do. At first, Debra wanted nothing of his, and did not want to go to his apartment. We agreed that Lou and I would handle the funeral arrangements, the apartment, and that their mom should get the car to sell. All was fine, and we hugged our good-byes at the end.
We stayed with Lou’s mother, and got in touch with his dad’s church to make arrangements for his funeral. He was a WW II Navy veteran, and his death benefits included burial at Calverton National Cemetery. We called Deb from a pay phone at the beach we had stopped at to relax and reflect. After giving her the wake and funeral details, she told Lou that for the sake of her child, she decided that she wanted what was due her, and would meet us at the apartment to “clean out” the place. That phrase sent Lou over the edge, and he reamed her out for being disrespectful and picking over the paltry few remains of his life like a vulture. It was a moot point because their father literally had nothing but the old car we gave their mother. They had a screaming fight over the phone, that ended with her declaration that she would not go to the funeral. But that was not end. That night, Debra and Bill showed up at his mother’s front door with the grandchild she had never seen. Their mom, who had just been talking with Lou about how disgusted they both were by Deb’s attitude, was skilled at building, burying and unearthing grudges, resentments, and feuds spontaneously. She welcomed them with open arms, excitedly doting over both her grandchild and daughter, oblivious to the contortions rage produced on Lou’s face, and Debra’s smirk of satisfaction with her game changing move. Lou immediately tried to regain control and ordered them to leave the house. Deb rightly stated that it was not his house, and he could not tell her what to do. As their argument grew more heated about the whole situation with their father’s estate and each other’s behaviors and intentions, Bill stepped in to tell Lou to back off. Lou grabbed him by the shirt, which ripped apart in his clenched fist. Sensing they were about to start throwing punches, I covered my ears and screamed at them all to just stop! stop! stop! stop, and stormed out of the house. I hoped that would startle them out of the physical altercation, but mostly, I simply could not cope one minute longer. I walked down the dark street and sat on the curb where I would not be easily spotted but could still see the front of the house. It was a long time before I saw Deb and Bill leave. I waited for a while, expecting Lou to look for me to regroup, but eventually went back to the house on my own. Lou’s mother was distraught and torn because she wanted a relationship with both of her children and families, but Lou was fuming that she would even consider forgiving Deb’s behavior. In the end, Debra did not attend her father’s wake, funeral, or burial, although most of the New Jersey relatives came to pay their respects, extend their love and condolences to Lou and his mom, and of course, ask about Deb.