A little over a year ago, I made my father smile. It’s the first smile I’ve seen on his face in a long time. He lay in a hospital bed, recovering from an amputation. At least trying to recover from an amputation. The doctors, try as they might, cannot get his heart to climb up to a normal rate.
He didn’t have a good heart before the surgery. I recalled the scar that ran up his sternum from when he lounged around shirtless in the house.
“Javier, mira quien vino a visitarte,” my mother told him as we entered. Her voice soft, sweet. It was moments ago when she told me that it was only a matter of time.
His face, weak, scrunched up in confusion. How long had it been since we last saw each other?
“Hey Dad,” I said because nothing better came to mind.
“Es Willie. No lo reconoces?”
And there. At that moment, a smile. It started with his eyes. Life being brought back to them. His thin lips stretched. He smiled. And though I’m sure my eyes betrayed my emotions, I smiled back.
My father was scheduled to enter a rehab center after recovering in ICU. Because of his heart rate, those plans were changed. Instead, he was admitted to Amara Hospice – a stone’s throw from Bert Ogden dealership where my father worked for most of my life.
(Side note: The year previous, I visited Jeanna in that ICU after the car accident. The rehab my father was to attend was the same Jeanna spent her the last months of her recovery. The same facility her mother, who lost her life in the accident, worked.)
I visited my father on July 8th at the hospice. His weak voice managed, “They lied to me.” He was told he’d learn how to walk again; instead, he was moved to a hospice. And understood what all that meant.
“Visiting dad,” texted Jeanna. “He knows what’s happening.”
I sat on the couch and just tried to talk to him. I wanted him to know me in his last days, but I couldn’t muster up the words or courage. Instead, we watched TV.
With each passing day, his voice grew to a whisper. Until he said nothing at all. I bought him Ensure because he wasn’t taking in any foods. I split my attention between work and him until he dominated my thoughts.
On July 14th, I was given an opportunity to say my goodbyes.
“I could have made an effort just as much as you could have. But we’re just so goddamn stubborn, I guess. Just don’t think for a second that I didn’t love you. That I didn’t want you there, because I did. And I’m sorry you never met Shaun before all this. That’s on me and I’ll have to live with that. But look, I’m not mad anymore. I forgive you for going when you did; I don’t think I’d be the man I am now if you hadn’t. And I won’t contemplate if I’d be a better one or a worse one because all that doesn’t matter, you know? What matters is now. If you have to go, it’s okay. I understand. I’ll be okay. Mom will be okay. Jay and Martin will be okay. We’ll be okay. I just needed you to know that I’m not angry anymore, and I forgive you, and I love you. And you can leave if you have to. We’ll all be okay.”
I intended on visiting him the next morning, but drained from emotions and work, I opted to stay instead. I had a 4-hr shift that day, so visiting him after work was probably for the best. While Mom and the girls signed in at the front desk, I walked to my father’s room to say hello.
You won’t understand silence until you notice how loud it can be. The breathing machine that pumped oxygen into my father’s lungs for the last days of his life had become commonplace. Part of the background. Ignored but noticeable when missing.
I stood by the door understanding what my mind didn’t want to process. As my mother approached, I turned to her and said, “His breathing machine. Why would they turn off his breathing machine?”
My father died an hour before we arrived to the hospice. I settled down in the visitor’s kitchen and made an attempt to eat my burger. There were phone calls that needed to happen. We called my older brother who had power of attorney. I called my aunt, my father’s sister.
I wasn’t angry at myself for missing my last moment with my father. I made my peace the night before. And my being there may have just prolonged his pain. Maybe he would’ve continued to fight as to not let any of us see him slip into that good night.
Before they took him away, I returned to his room and told him one final farewell.
“Thank you and goodbye.”