Thanking the Sponsors

Dad had only been sleeping for a short while when he opened his eyes, rose slightly onto one elbow and said, "I think we've reached the end of what we can do."

I had been doing nursing home paperwork. Reams of paper were littered at my feet in scattered, messy piles. I had been swearing under my breath about miscodes and missed faxes. But the tone of his voice, the frightened child-like look on his face stopped all that.

When these episodes happen and the world is abruptly upside down, I plaster a set, everything-is-copasetic half-smile onto my face. My brain goes into hyperdrive, whirring through the emergency To-Do list.

Is the oxygen line kinked? No. Okay, take a slow, shallow breath.

Does he need Ativan? No. We did that an hour ago.

Morphine? I gave him a shot twenty minutes ago. .75ml.

It's not working.

Check the line again...check the indicator on the oxygen machine...It's at the appropriate 7 lpm. Air blasts out of the cannula against my finger.

I angle the fan to blow cool air on him, as instructed by his hospice nurse, Sharon. In case of emergency, do these things..."It probably won't help," she'd said. "It's more psychological than anything. So he won't panic."

I've done everything. Worked my way through The List. All I have left is my calm, We're-good-Big-Mon attitude.

"Would you like me to..."

"Call Sharon," he says.

She is right in the building. She is walking through the hallway and I am pathetic in my relief to hear her say this.

She arrives, hooking up the pulse oximeter, listening to the tiny shard of lung he has left, feeling the pulses in his extremities.

I look at his feet. They are not blue, not like she said they'd begin to be when his body shut down. They are waxen and pale.

Her face has not changed but I can read her. She is worried.

She gives him another hefty dose of morphine. "This is going to gork you a little," she says. "But I figure better to gork you than to have you feeling distressed."

I am sitting at the foot of his bed, watching. A lump has risen in my throat and it is all that keeps my sanity and grief from blowing my head off. I cannot speak, I think. But somehow when I need to, I still manage.

"He said he thought we'd done all we could do for his breathlessness," I say softly.

Sharon looks to him for confirmation.

His eyes are wide. He is trying to appear calm and casual about this, but I see he is scared. He is protecting me.

"Aw, Sharon," he says. "You've done such a good job, you really have, but I think it's time. I'm ready to go."

She nods, just like we've all been trained to do in care-taker school but her cheeks redden. Her eyes brighten suspiciously. She is fighting it.

"Well, nine times out of ten, when my patients say 'This is it,' it usually is," she tells him calmly. "You've been up and down before though...but this time it seems like a slower decline. I think maybe you're right. I think this is it."

She is writing something in her notes and I know what it is, confirmed later when her back is turned and I read her notes, "Pt. states he is ready to go."

I look at the pulse oximeter. Heart rate is down from 90 to 80. O2 sats are up to 98. She looks too. "Feeling better?" she asks. "Your sats were in the 70s when I came in but they're back up now."

Dad nods, but he's not having any of it. "Now, I want you to remember something we talked about," he says to her. My father is giving the nurse instructions! Is this not just like him? To control his very death by monitoring his caregivers?

"I don't want the actual process of my death to be traumatizing to Elise, Nancy or Becky."

Sharon appears to miss his meaning, asks instead, "What do you want me to do, smack 'em? I might get away with slapping Becky, but this one," she says nodding in my direction. "I've seen her get mad. She might hurt me!"

I smile. "True that," I say.

"You know," he says, a bulldog clinging to the bone. "They've got to work and this is taking up so much time and..."

My voice returns, bringing the wit I hold like a shield every time I am scared.

"So, what're you saying, Dad? You're gonna be the martyr and die to make our lives easier? So, like, you'll leave me with the big guilt trip? I caused my father's death because he was inconvenient.." I let the word inconvenient break up into stretchy syllables...in-connn-veee-nee-ent, just like Dana Carvey doing The Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. "Can you say, Satan?" I think.

He smiles, looks at Sharon. "Or else I might die just to get away from this one!"

He says, "It's been a good ride but it's time."

And then he lays back against the pillows, like, okay, he's cued the cameras and "Action!"

Sharon squats down beside the bed, pats his arm and smiles gently.

"Well, you know, if you had brain cancer I'd say, yeah, okay, you're going today. But you've got a lung disease and they're different. It's gonna take a little while. It's not going to be today."

Oh he is pissed then!

His furry, white eyebrows arch. "What do you mean? I said I'm ready to go!"

She tells him he will probably stabilize on morphine very 4 hours instead of every six. That later it will go to three hours apart, then two. "And then you'll be in this drifty, dreamy kind of place. You'll wake up every now and then and see our ugly faces and think what am I still doing here? And then you'll just go to sleep and not wake up."

She says this like we're going to our first day of middle school, or to McDonalds, or to the bank to open our first account. She says this as if it were normal. Which in reality, it is.

But he is still ticked off about it. "Well," he huffs. "I guess I'm not in charge of that either, huh?!"

She lets it go. She says, "Besides, next week, I'll be down to only five patients. I'll have all the time in the world to hang around here. You won't be able to get rid of me."

I say, "Dad, even if there were some cataclysmic event and Sharon wasn't here and you were in distress, I am trained. I can handle this. You will not traumatize me...even if you seize up and foam at the mouth!"

But I am his girl, so he isn't buying this either.

"She can do it, you know," Sharon adds. "Look, she's got the fan going."

Dad scowls at the fan, realizing it has never before been turned on. "Is that what that was for?" he asks, looking from her face to mine.

We nod.

Minutes later he is stable enough for Sharon to leave. I know, down the hall, another patient is dying. I overheard her talking. Dad lays back, his eyes closed but not sleeping.

I think I need to call Becky. I need to call the priest. If Dad wants to die today, he might do it just to show Sharon up.

But I don't get a chance to call the priest. He's standing in the doorway, like a God-ordered pizza...which totally freaks me out.

He is tall, quite distinguished with his silver-shot hair. At first I thought he had a stick up his ass, but in the same breath I realized a fellow introvert. He is shy, trying to come off as quasi-regal, imposing, anything but shy.

I am so freaked that he has come that I say, "I was just going to call you!" I usher him in, spin around and mouth "it's not a good day," and say louder, "I've got to make a call. I'll be right back."

I make a mad dash for the parking lot, praying I will make it before I lose my shit and cry like a scared baby. I sink down beside the car and call my sister, leave her a voice mail, then text everyone else because I need the lump in my throat. I can't lose it now.

God makes me feel guilty...or I allow Her to...I know the priest will do communion. I know Dad will want me there, especially if he intends for it to be the last one.

So I drag-ass back inside. The receptionist is standing in the foyer, eyes wide behind her red-framed glasses. "A priest was looking for you!" she says...like the guy is God incarnate.

I nod. "Yeah, I figured. I was trying to get my act together before I had to face him," I say.

She giggles and nods. "Yeah, I know what that's like," she says.

I smile to myself. Well, well, well...does she have secrets or what?

They are in the middle of the prayer of Confession when I return. I pick up, staring at the leaflet, hearing the words come out with rote precision..."We have sinned against thee by thought, word and deed."

Well, I think, that's certainly true for me, I think. But what has Dad ever done to deserve this, to apologize for?

We do the deed. The thin wafer sticks like toilet paper to my dry tongue. The wine is only enough to make the wretched thing slide down my throat.

And then, God develops a sense of humor.

The priest goes to rinse out the chalice, trips over the trash basket, and before he can stop himself says, "Oh, I kicked the bucket!"

I adore this.

Dad is doing the same "Thank you for all you've done" routine he did with Sharon and me. The priest says, "I'll see you Thursday." He says it like three times, despite Dad's non-verbal "Yeah, but I might not be here" look. Finally Dad gives up and just nods. "See you Thursday," he says.

Kind of like..."Over my dead body!"

A few moments later I am in the parking lot...in time to see the priest drive away in a souped up, maroon Mustang GT. "BlaaaaVoom!" The exhaust manifold throbs as he cuts out on to the street, roaring up the road like a teenaged hot-rodder.

I walk back in, pause at the foot of the bed and say, "I suppose you know about the maroon Mustang GT, with, I think dual Hemi headers?"

Dad nods.

"Well, I say, I guess he has to blow it out somehow!"

Dad nods. He's got a little, been-there-done-that-t-shirt smile working the corners of his lips. "And he's got a lot to blow, too!" my father says.

The afternoon wears on. Dad's feeling better and better. I say, "Listen, I can understand if you're tired and you want to go on. I can respect that, Dad. But don't die because you think we're burdened. Don't you get it yet? We've waited all our lives to give back. We are the same children who used to fight for the opportunity to ride up to the hospital with you while you visited the sick, just to have the twenty minutes on either side of the two hour wait. You are giving me the greatest gift in the world by letting me be here with you. But if you want to go because you don't want to be here anymore, don't worry. I'll be fine."

I am squatting down beside him and he is rubbing circles across my back. "I know you will," he says. He tells me how great my boys are. I tell him it's because he's been in their lives. I tell him every single time I can off-hand remember him saying something momentous...like "You can't grow up to be like your mother, you have half my DNA."

It is tender and sweet.

I say, "How are you feeling? I want to talk about how you are."

He tries to tell me about how he's breathing much better but I cut him off. "No, Dad. How are you feel-ing, inside, emotionally. Are you scared?"

The eyebrows go up, he looks into my face. "Well, no. Not scared. A little apprehensive maybe. Because I've never...well, you know."

And then he says, "But it's been a great life. It's been so full. What a ride!"

I tell him about this sign I saw in a catalog that says something about not showing up at Heaven's gates with a well-preserved body. Instead showing up battered, worn out, out of gas, coasting on empty and totally used up.

We agree this is the way to show up.

I stay. I watch over him until late that night before I am able to move from my spot in the chair by his side.

I leave. I drive out across the bridge studying the brilliant full moon, half-hidden by clouds. The waters of the Trent sparkle and shimmer as the moon lights up a path to the Milky Way.

I think about my father and his full life.

At some point I realize the lump in my throat is gone. The feelings sealed safely away.

And only when I replay the day here on cyber-paper do the tears begin to fall.

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