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Monday, November 7, 2016

Seven Years.

We all remember certain dates. Some are burned into our memories like brands, but the stinging lasts long after the scar heals.

Seven years ago, on November 7, Chris was at the river for a quick trip for his brother’s birthday and my kids were at my Mom’s for the night. We had just closed escrow on this house and I spent most of the day moving little things over here with some help from my friend, Jen.

After a long day, I was exhausted, but needed to get out, needed to get my mind off of things.

Why would you go out if you were so tired? What kind of things did you need to get your mind off of? You just bought a dream house. You have so much to be excited about. Quit your whining…

Well, here’s why.

My best friend was officially dying. Like any minute. And I had spent the past couple of months at her side, either at the hospital or at her house. Every day, I tried. Even if it was for just an hour.

November 4, 2009 was the last day I saw her alive. I was planning to visit on the 8th, but someone had other plans for me.

My dad had been sick for a long time too. A very long time. No one told us he was “officially dying” but he was. I knew it. I saw him whither away, hardly able to eat, spending most of his days sleeping, exhausted from taking a shower. Exhausted from being alive.

For many, many months, there were car rides and plane flights to Arizona to see him. There were car rides to Hoag and then to Menifee to see her. My energy was directed toward them and there was little else to spare for anyone else.

Like my husband. Like my 10 year-old son. Like my toddler daughter.

They were both dying, Dad and Suz.

I remember the phone call from my father that day after he left the doctor’s office.

“Hi Honey.”

“Hi Dad, what’s up?” His voice was shaky. A little warbled. I was walking out of some store, I think it was Ross, with bags of stuff for the new house. A temporary distraction from all that was crazy in my life.

“I have to get a test done. They are sending me to the hospital. They see something on my lungs and need to do a procedure.”

“Dad, it’s gonna be fine. You’re in good hands. Do you need me to come there?” I asked, thinking that I might have to book another plane flight, knowing that Chris was already headed out of town. What would I do with the kids? My mind was racing.

“No, no, that’s okay. But, Honey, I’m scared.”

I paused in the parking lot. I had never heard those words from my father. Ever.

He was the bravest man I knew. He was strong, bold, a force.

And, he was afraid.

So, I was afraid.

Turns out, we were both right to be frightened.

I had seen Suz for an hour or so the day before. By then, she’d been sleeping most of her days. The times when she was awake were sprinkled with moments of lucid observations and comments, quickly followed by hallucinations brought on by the heavy doses of morphine pumping through her body.

When your best friend, since seventh grade, is dying from cancer, you discover new things about yourself in the process. You discover that you can sit in the space of discomfort, the space of grief, the space of sadness as you watch her struggle to turn over. As you watch her struggle to get off the bed, only to move to a chair two feet away. As you watch her struggle to speak, but when she does, she says these words into your eyes while her brother and you sit on the floor by her side…

”This is what true, true, true, true, true friendship is.”

You struggle to not cry because she hates it when you do. You struggle to stay strong for everyone around you. You struggle as she struggles, knowing that you are not capable of fixing this. Knowing that acceptance is your only option. You struggle as you leave that day, every day you leave her, wondering if it will be the last. Turns out, it was.

You struggle.

I hung up the phone with my Dad, trying not to think about his voice and his words and his fear. Trying to be optimistic. We said I love you and he said they’d call and let me know how it all went. That was Friday afternoon

So the morning came and we are back to the crazy day of moving things, Chris at the river and my kids with my Mom. My brain and body were fried. I should have just gone to bed but my buddy called me and told me of this party, that some old friends would be there and we should go.

What the hell? I needed to get out of the house and get my mind off things. My friend Chris doesn’t drink, so I was able to have a few cocktails and relax a bit. I got a good laugh watching a guy I knew knock over the cupcake table, icing and cake splattered onto the concrete, him stumbling to pick it all up. I laughed, hard. It had been a while.

About 11:30 or so, I decided to check my phone. It had been tucked away in my purse, stashed in the corner. I had many missed calls. Calls from my step-mom, calls from my mom.

My dad had complications from his procedure. He had arrested on the table. They were able to bring him back, but he was on a ventilator, unlikely to come off.

My head spun. My friend drove me home, not knowing what to say. What do you say? We sat in silence and he dropped me off, apologizing for my sadness. I was alone.

I barely slept that night, trying to figure out the next step. By dawn, I had mapped out a plan and decided to fly to Arizona, bringing my daughter with me.

All of this was happening the week we needed to be out of our house and move into the new one. The dream house. The distraction.

Chris stayed home with our son, and my nanny worked full-time that week to help with Gavin and the move. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone.

I was able to get on a late evening flight Sunday. As I boarded the plane, Dad was still on the vent.

Suz was still in and out, sleeping more, taking less fluids, quiet. It was a waiting game. I hadn’t seen her in four days.

When we got off the plane and met my step-mom at baggage claim, she had a wistful smile. “You won’t believe this, Dad’s off the vent. He’s awake.”

A glimmer of hope. He was awake. We headed straight to the hospital so I could see him. Lori stayed in the waiting room with Piper and I walked into the ICU, seeing my father lying there, so small, so tired. He weighed 98 lbs. His wrists, once hearty and thick, now bony and transparent.

He was asleep, but alive. I sat and touched his hand. He stirred, opened his eyes and said “Hi, Honey.”

I fought my tears but they came anyway. I knew this wasn’t good. He was alive, but I knew that he wouldn’t be with us much longer.

We hugged, and I wrapped my arms around his fragile body, careful not to squeeze too hard. I wanted to crawl into that bed with him and curl up like I did when I was little, and afraid. I wanted to rewind and go back to when he was the strongest man I knew. I wanted to save him.

I couldn’t.

He had been slowly withering away for three years. Endless doctor visits, endless pills, endless frustration. We had reached the point of no return.

I said goodbye assuring we’d be back early the next day. I left him, then, like I’d left Suz so many times, wondering if it would be the last time. Wondering if he’d make it through the night.

The next few days were a blur. Piper was being looked after by the kind neighbors and Lori and I headed back and forth to the hospital. I was in the room when the doctor explained what had happened during his procedure. The bronchoscopy was routine, they snipped some lung tissue but then Dad went into cardiac arrest. They were able to revive him and put another stint into the clogged artery. The trouble is, the CANCER they found all over couldn’t be treated because of the location of the stint. This was when the doctor said there’s nothing we can do…

There’s nothing we can do…

My sister was there by then. Dad’s birthday was the next day. He was turning 71. We were advised to make arrangements and hospice care. He was to get his affairs in order.

I had read Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s On Death and Dying in college. You know what, there is some solid truth to what she wrote because I watched my father go through the stages at a rapid fire.

     "1.   Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them." Kubler Ross.

These “stages” affect the dying person as well as those who are grieving. Dad moved through them in 24 hours, settling into acceptance much faster than expected. Although, I firmly believe he’d been working through stages 1-4 the previous three years. He just needed someone to say “It’s happening, your dying.”

I thought about Suz again, who had refused to accept her impending death. She was still hanging on. I was checking in regularly, I needed updates. I held out hope that I might be able to see her one last time, but dreaded the actual thought because she was no longer communicating. She was quiet, her breath raspy and erratic. She was in the final stages. I knew this because I had researched dying. I had researched what to expect. I had researched because that’s who I am and what I do.

We moved my Dad to a hospice house nearby. It was his birthday, November 12. His glasses needed to be repaired, the “transition” part had turned golden brown. I volunteered to take them back, get them fixed so he could sit outside without the sun glaring into his sensitive blue eyes. My uncle had arrived by then too.

“Honey, you don’t have to. It’s fine.”

“No, Dad, I’ll get it handled.” He grinned, handed me his specs, put on his back-up pair and took a puff of his cigarette. This was the first time he’d been outside, after escaping death just days before. The sunlight shone down on him and my uncle, and they smoked together and reminisced. I don’t know what they talked about but I left them in that courtyard of the hospice house, sharing a moment between brothers that I know my Uncle Frank still cherishes.

I found myself at Lenscrafters in the mall. I explained that my dad’s glasses were messed up, and asked if they would fix them. The sales person asked if they were under warranty. I didn’t know. The manager came out, looked up his account and said it had just expired. I started crying. I can only imagine what these people thought, a woman losing her shit right there in the mall eyeglass store, over an expired warranty on Transition lenses.

I pulled myself together, and explained the situation.

My dad’s in hospice, it’s his birthday, can we just do this?

Once they heard the story, they were willing to fix them. I left them there and mindlessly strolled through the mall, heading back toward the car. I stopped in the shoe section of some department store, picking up a pair of tan suede boots. Another momentary distraction using retail therapy to calm my scattered soul.

I made it back to the hospice house, and reality, about two hours later. Dad was in good spirits, in spite of celebrating his birthday in a place where people were dying. Including him.

I told him his glasses were getting fixed, his birthday present. He smiled, thanked me and then we chatted it up a bit.

We all headed home for the night, with some glimmer of hope. Picking my daughter up from the neighbors, I scooped her into my arms and played with my little girl. I talked late into the night with my brother and his wife, who was in the early stages of pregnancy. My sister had flown home the day before, needing to get back to her own kids and husband. We had planned to have a big family Thanksgiving in Arizona a few weeks later.

The next morning, I woke up after the first decent nights’ sleep I’d had in a while. At around 9:00am, while sipping coffee and getting ready to go visit Dad, I got the call.

Suz had died, minutes earlier.

It was November 13th.

Jen, also one of Suz’s best friends, lived in Arizona and was by my side through all of this.  We needed to be together, to share our grief and attempt to figure out what came next. How do you process the loss of your friend, who died so young? Who left behind children, a husband, devastated parents and siblings…How do you make sense of any of it?

I had asked Lori not to tell Dad about Suz. He had known her as long as I had, and I knew he would be sad. That was the last thing I wanted for him. But, Lori told him anyway. And that’s okay, because she trusted her gut, and knew that he would want to comfort me. That he could say the right words, which were simply, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I love you.”

And, when I went to the hospice house that day, those were the exact words he said. And he hugged me, the best he could. He was getting weaker by the hour. It seemed more and more unlikely we’d have Thanksgiving at his house, we thought we’d probably have to have it there.

I stayed for a few hours, then he said to go spend the night at Jen’s. Go be with one another and grieve the loss of your friend. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’m tired.”

So, I took Piper and went to Jen’s for the night. Our daughters played together. We drank wine, laughed, cried. We remembered so many funny stories in the history of us, of the Ya Ya’s, our tribe of women who love and accept one another exactly as we are.

I went back to see Dad the next day. My other brother Jon had arrived, and was able to spend time with him. But, Dad was slipping away from us. He was sleeping more, asking for more pain medication, on palliative care for comfort. The words were sparse.

The doctor explained that he would not be going home. He was in the “active dying phase” and we needed to prepare ourselves. It could be weeks; it could be days. Sometimes, it’s fast and it could be hours.

But, my best friend had just died. The day before.

That night, my father moved into a state of calm, quiet solace. He was breathing, but no longer speaking at all. No longer interacting. No longer engaging.

The words were gone. The voice, silent. I had to remember and hang on to those final conversations. I remember and savor them. His laughter, his voice stolen from me.

Silent.

My God, this was happening. My father was dying.

Suzy died. My father was dying.

He lay quiet for two more days. My third brother arrived the morning of the 16th. He spent time at Dad’s side, saying the things he needed to say. Knowing that Dad heard, but not knowing how he felt.

Silence.

By then, we had all said our peace.

I was watching Dad like a hawk, checking his legs for the telltale signs of mottling. Checking his feet and hands for coolness. Watching his breath stagger, waiting for the “death rattle” they warn you about.

I watched and waited. My step-mom had been loyal, barely leaving his side to go to the bathroom or eat. Everyone else was exhausted as we’d been waiting on pins and needles, hardly sleeping, unsure and nervous that we’d get that call.

It was late in the afternoon and Lori and I decided to stay while everyone else went for a nap, or food, or just some time away.

I knew I couldn’t leave.

In the four days he’d been in the hospice house and the five days he’d been in the hospital, he had made his peace. He’d seen all of his kids. He shared memories and cigarettes with his brother. He’d had his moments and phone calls and conversations.

He was ready. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t.

So I lied. I held his hand, told him it was okay to go. Lori held his other hand and said the same.

Even though I wasn’t ready.

I had said all the things you need to say. I knew where I stood and where he stood and we were one. I was his daughter, he brought me into the world. It was only fair that I be at his side when he left.

It was quiet. There was no rattle. No struggle. Just quiet.

His breath was soft and slow.

Then, it stopped.

My father was gone.

Suz was gone.

In four days, I lost two of the people who have meant so much to me. Two people who shaped my life in so many ways. Who shared in the love and glory of my accomplishments. Who stayed by my side when I wasn’t the best person I could be. Who loved me, when I didn’t love myself.

I’ve written about their deaths before, but this time, after seven years, it feels more raw than before. It feels more real. The grief morphs and changes. It hides and sneaks up when you least expect it. I know you all feel this. I know it.

We all have our own stories. This is part of mine. A huge part.

I share this because it helps me process my grief, my feelings of loss and sadness. I write because it helps me think and discover the truth inside. It helps me move forward. It reminds me of my own strength.

I write in their honor, pursuing my dreams of sharing my love for words and language. Feeling confident in my abilities, motivated to LIVE my dreams and honor my own truth.

Hope resides in me. It lives through memories and progress and knowledge and belief.

Dates are burned into our memories like brands. Although some are painful reminders of loss and grief, others are the moments we cherish.

As I sit here, writing and processing, tears in my eyes, I am sure of one thing, that our love and light is not lost when death arrives. That we are in charge of how we use our grief. That we have the opportunity to sit with it, let it sink in, feel our tears and then move forward.

My wish for you today is that you look at your own stories of loss. Remember those dates, because they matter. That you honor your grief in some small way, that you feel your tears, that you sit in silence and pause, then move forward. 

This is me, now. 

Sitting in the silence.

Feeling my tears.

And moving forward.