In memory of my father, Peter Stein 6-11-09 – 7-23-04
first published, July 2004
He had tried to spare me, not telling me how difficult the days had become for him. But I knew.
The smallest task turned into an insurmountable problem: he couldn’t get his shoes on without a shoehorn and he had lost it somewhere in his room. He turned the television on with the remote, but then couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. The clock said 7:30; he wondered if that was morning or night.
I called him every three days, asking, “How’re you doin’, Daddy?” Our conversation centered on his needs of the moment. “Of course, I can bring another shoe horn when I come and yes, I’ll explain that clock to you again.” After I asked what he had been served for dinner, or if the new paint in the dining room looked nice, the real purpose of the call became apparent. “I love you so much and I can’t wait to hug you,” I would say.
“You are the best thing that ever happened to me, honey. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he always replied.
“I’ll be there next Saturday…this is Sunday. Just six more days.” He didn’t know how long six days was, really. But I knew.
Then soon it was, “I’ll be there in three more days, Daddy. I love you.”
“Oh honey, I love you, too. See you soon.”
The shrieking phone awakened me at 2:30 in the morning. “We’ve sent your dad to the emergency room. He’s complaining of extreme lower back pain and his blood pressure has spiked. I don’t think they will be able to tell you anything until morning, but I wanted you to know,” said the nurse from the assisted living facility.
I willed herself back to sleep, but my dreams offered no respite. Almost twelve hours crept by before I could get any news. “We’ve admitted him and we are doing tests. That’s all we can tell you now,” the nurse murmured over the phone.
At five o’clock in the afternoon Dr. Smith finally called. I had never met him: his voice was warm, yet matter of fact. He told me that the CAT scan had not shown anything definitive but that my dad had been medicated for the pain and his blood pressure was coming down. We agreed that regardless of any diagnosis, only the symptoms would be treated. He was, after all, ninety-five years old. “I am scheduled to fly in late tomorrow evening,” I told him. “His granddaughter is arriving for a surprise visit as well.”
My calls the next morning were to the nurse’s station on his floor. I didn’t want to disturb him if he was sleeping, but I was so was eager to hear his voice and to remind him I would be there soon. The nurse assured me, “He did quite well with breakfast. We’re not giving him any medication and he’s without pain. You can take him home tomorrow morning, since you’re arriving later tonight.”
I asked when I should call to talk with him. “Call at lunchtime,” she replied.
I heard her hand him the phone, and listened as he tried to force words from deep in his throat. At first I couldn’t understand what he was saying , then I heard “I just have to rest.”
“Okay, Daddy, you rest. I’ll be there in the morning, Sweetie. Bye-bye.”
“Bye-bye,” he managed to say.
Thirty minutes later Dr. Smith called. “He’s slipping very quickly. I don’t think it will be too long now.” He gave his assessment of what was going on in my dad’s frail body, but I could only tuck the information away to process later.
“Do you mean a matter of hours?”
“I think so,” he replied.
“I board the plane in two hours. Please keep me informed.”
Then I called his granddaughter, who gasped and said, “Mom, I will be there as soon as I can get there.”
I finished packing my suitcase, removing the shoehorn and the large print books. At 2:45 I stopped in my tracks and thought, I’m doing these mundane tasks while Daddy is fighting for his last breath.
My cell phone rang as my husband was driving me to the airport..“Is this Peter’s daughter?… I am so sorry to tell you that your father died at 2:45.”
“Was it peaceful?” I asked through my tears.
“Absolutely. I had told him you were on your way and he said he didn’t think he’d make it. I asked him if he wanted me to tell you anything.”
“No…she knows,” he said.
And I knew.