I got the chance to say goodbye to my father, via iPhone, FaceTime video, as he lay dying in the Medical ICU, in Albany Med. I had known, from the minute he was admitted almost 3 weeks ago, that this was going to be the fight of his life.
My dad fought his entire life for everything he had. I won’t say he made the best choices, in fact the opposite was true, but two things I know more plainly than the nose on my face; he fought for everything he had, and he loved me with all his heart.
For 22 years he was incarcerated in a maximum security prison for a crime we are not quite certain he committed. To his last day he maintained his innocence and his drive to come home to me. I shared this dream with him, after reconnecting again after almost 10 years of me completely ignoring his existence and moving on with my life. It wasn’t always easy having a dad in prison, and I couldn’t always meet the demands he had, as he made friends with guys that needed things they couldn’t get. He was a bleeding heart and wanted to help them, but it put me in difficult positions, and I just couldn’t do it. But I can tell you right now, almost 4 hours after his death, I am grateful to have reconnected, to have forgiven him, and to have had an opportunity to make peace with his passing this very day.
This is not the story I wanted to write. I want to share the nitty gritty, horrendously painful details of his passing so some part of our human condition, involving the pain of love, can be documented. Turns out I can be machine when I need to be, and get things done that maybe others could not handle and I get that from my dad.
He’d become a math tutor for other inmates at Greenhaven Correctional. He was the teacher’s aid for many years with Mrs. Z, helping guys learn fractions and division so they could get their GEDs and work towards a better life. He coached guys younger than him, from ghettos and projects who no one ever gave a shit about. My dad mentored them, told them don’t get mad, get educated, and that’s how you beat the injustice of this system. When I tell you he was wrongfully incarcerated, it wasn’t without profound reason. For 22 years he changed these guys lives, and there’s plenty of them out there right now, doing better, because of my dad.
Because he was incarcerated, there was a thick layer between me and any update on my dad’s condition. I was hung up on by the prison, told I was harassing the nurses at the hospital, all because no one would tell me if he was ok. The answer always was- the procedure is for you to contact the prison for updates- but the prison reminded me countless times that they faxed over his HIPA form so the hospital should be calling me directly. Nothing. For days. For a week and a day. And then, Dr. Wales.
Dr. Danielle Wales at Albany Medical called me on Tuesday of this week to give me the first update I’d had in a while. The Saturday before I’d been hung up on by whatever jack-off answers the phone at Eastern prison on the weekends. Real classy guy, and I explained why I called, with tears in my eyes. He said I had no business calling, they’d call me if there were any updates, and he hung up. So when she called and said she was the doctor treating my father, it was like the clouds parting after a long, difficult storm. She explained that my dad’s oxygen was low due to Covid-19 complications. He also had Influenza and a urinary tract infection. His underlying conditions? High blood pressure, a heart condition, obesity and diabetes. He once showed me a little pill during a visit and said, “hey, put this under my tongue if I fall on the floor.” His other ailments? He suffered from herniated discs in his back, numbness in his legs, fainting spells and tenitis which is a constant ringing in your ears. He was also hard of hearing.
Dr. Wales said he was doing better than she’d expect someone with his conditions to be doing. We had a lot of hope, and trying the nasal canula which forced oxygen into his lungs was a great way to open up his breathing and raise his oxygen levels.
The next update was also hopeful, while they hadn’t raised his oxygen levels yet, they suspected he was a snorer, to which I confirmed- he snores like a water buffalo! The doctor chuckled and thanked me for confirming. She had suspected we could be adding sleep apnea to the list of ailments. The plan was to put him on a CPAP machine that night and see how he does.
The next update, Thursday, he’d not done so well with the CPAP machine but was willing to try it again that night. His oxygen levels were still very low and she suspected now that there was a blood clot in his lung, affecting his ability to absorb the oxygen they forced into him. His cough had gotten worse as well and there was fluid and inflammation in his lungs. They gave him a diuretic to help get rid of some it.
I arranged to have 10 lunches delivered to the nurse staff caring for my dad, and they received it that day. I was told the staff was excited, and that they made a thank you sign for my dad and held it up outside his room. Once he realized what the hell the sign was for he was touched by the gesture and proud of me for doing such a kind thing. The truth is, I could never do enough to thank these people for what they did for my dad. I will never be able to express how much their kindness meant to me. By the middle of the day we had permission to have a FaceTime call so that I may see and talk to him for the first time in weeks. The doctor thought that would boost his spirits and light the fire to help him fight. I suspect the sandwiches tipped the scales in our favor.
So they called me. The image of dad on the phone was shocking, and I instantly knew he was in bad shape. He looked like himself, he sounded like himself, but he was fragile, bed ridden and hooked to every tube, hose and wire they could conjure up in the ICU. We cried together and he told me he loved me and I told him I loved him. I gave him the messages from family and friends that they were praying for him. He told me he was still fighting to come home to me and he said he didn’t want to disappoint me. The call meant the world to me, and though it set the tone for an inevitably tragic end, I was grateful to hear his voice.
Friday was the last day Dr. Wales was on the floor. I asked her to please make sure the next doctor called me regularly, if at all possible. She said she would. Dad had told me he fell into the sink in the bathroom and fractured one of his ribs. He was already in a world of pain, and having trouble breathing, but now it would be even more difficult for him to bear. Dr. Wales informed me that they’d started dad on blood thinners for the blood clot in his lung, and that they’d had the conversation with him- if you don’t get better and things take a turn for the worst- what are your wishes.
Dad said he would not go onto a ventilator. He refused the more potent blood thinners as they could lead to ‘brain bleed’. I agreed with his decisions, and supported them in my conversations with the doctor.
Saturday early afternoon, today, the new Dr. Kumar called me to give me the latest. He recapped the situation and let me know there was still more they could do for him. There hadn’t been much of a change, meaning no improvements, which was concerning to me. Still the doctor remained positive and said he would arrange another call for me later in the day. I was thrilled, and ready to deliver another message of hope to ignite the fight in him. Still, I had a terrible feeling, and a quiet, calm acceptance, that this could be my last conversation with my dad. In fact I said it to my brother, who I’d contacted right away, and asked if he had any last messages for dad. He said he had nothing. Their relationship was broken and severed many years ago.
I got a call from a nurse, Kevin, who was with my dad. He said he would set up the iPad so my dad could see me and he’d get us talking. He immediately said he was sorry I had to go through this, that I couldn’t be with him, and I felt the pit of my stomach turn. I knew something was wrong then. Kevin wheeled the stand with the iPad to my dad’s bedside. Took a few minutes to set it up where I could see him and he could hear me. The machines were loud, Kevin warned me the alarms may go off, but that he was watching dad as we talked. I smiled at my dad, waiting to start my well wishing, but he started first.
“I’m tired Jess, I don’t want to fight anymore.”
I felt my soul collapse inside of me. I had no reaction, other than sobbing, at this image of my precious father, on his death bed.
“It’s ok, dad, it’s your decision,” I told him.
“I don’t want to disappoint you, but I’m in pain, so much pain.”
“I’m not disappointed dad. You fought your whole life, for everything you had, and you fought the best fight here too. I’m proud of you.”
“I’m proud of you,” he said.
We talked another twenty minutes or so, as he grasped the plastic mask and pressed it to his face when he felt short of breath. He coughed a little and took his time before he spoke again.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “I can’t fight anymore.”
All I could do was nod and give him the ok, that he could let go and end his suffering, and do it with his pride and his dignity intact. It was on his terms, it was his decision, and he wanted to go before the end came for him in the worst possible way.
“Get the doctor,” he called at the nurse. “Give me a shot, I’m done.”
I say all these things not to expose a dying man’s weakness, but to show you the fight my dad still had in him. These were the wishes of a man whose mind was still sharp as an axe and very much in control of his fate. I want you to see it was on his terms and he just needed to hear that I would be ok.
Other people may beg and plead for their loved ones to fight and hang on, and shove their hope and talk of prayers and miracles at them with a blind faith that anything can be overcome. Anything can be and I admire the relentless strength of love, but for my father and I, we subscribe to another belief. Death should be on your terms. The end of your life should be handled with pride and dignity. I chose to support my father’s decision from the first minute he said he was done. It’s ok, was all I said, over and over. The doctor came and explained what would happen next for us. He would administer morphine, an anti-anxiety drug, and then something to put him to sleep. At that point he’d be comfortable and resting, and then nature would take its course.
My father thanked him and accepted that these were his last hours.
“I love you,” he said to me, many many times. He put his hand on his heart and said it slow and steady. “I. Love. You. I. Love. You.”
The nurse came in and explained to me what she was giving him. Morphine for his pain, pain killers for his ‘air hunger’ and anti-anxiety meds. She said he would fall asleep. She asked if I wanted to stay on the line. “Of course I do.” She said ok and administered the drugs for him.
My father and I talked another 10, maybe 15 minutes. He continued the same conversation from earlier, that he was sorry, he was afraid to disappoint me, but he couldn’t fight anymore. “If it wasn’t for the blood clot,” he said, “but there’s just too much wrong with me.”
“It’s ok,” I continued to say. “I’m so proud of you.”
He smiled at me, with the brightest smile you can imagine. I saw all his pearly white teeth from under his long grey beard and it made me laugh. “Look at your smile!” I said, “it’s the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen,” I told him. “It’s not as beautiful as yours,” he said. “But it is,” I told him, “because I have your smile!” I’ll never forget that smile, it truly was the greatest gift he could have given me, to hold on to for the rest of my life.
He drifted off, waking here and there to deliver another message for friends and family. Specific people he called out, for me to share his last messages with. At one point he looked up, quite alert and focused, “And tell Joe,” he said about my husband, “To take care of my little girl.” I know he loved my husband so much, and knew that I had picked the right one. To get his blessing on our relationship, meant the world to me and to my husband, and he happily agreed, with tears in his eyes, “I will, Joe.”
I sat a long time, and would have sat forever, clutching my phone and staring at his sleeping image. The oxygen would turn on and the noise in the room would be deafening, but he just stayed peaceful, with his hand on the mask, asleep. I watched his chest rise and fall, rise and fall. The nurse came to the iPad to check in on us. “He’s asleep,” she told me. I nodded. “You want to stay?” Yes, I nodded. She rushed away again, leaving us to our final moments.
I spoke to him, though he was no longer responding. I said the Catholic prayers for him that he would say himself if he could. I held my rosary and lit a white candle for him. I imagined a white light opening above his head and whispered to him to go. Minutes later we lost connection, but I had already found my peace and said goodbye.
I called the nurses desk and let them know I was disconnected but that I was ok. The gentleman on the phone was amazing, as all the nurses and doctors had been throughout the week. “We’ll keep him comfortable, we’ll check in on him, and let you know when it’s over.”
“I cannot thank you enough,” I said tearfully, “I can’t believe what you all do there, everyday, for all these people. You’re all angels, you’re all heroes and I can never thank you for all you’ve done for my father.”
“It’s our pleasure, ma’am, I am so sorry for you going through this. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Please just keep him comfortable,” I said tearfully.
“We will, of course. And I will call when he passes.”
“Yes, thank you.”
He asked me again if there was anything else he could do. It was like he didn’t want to hang up the phone until he knew I was ok. I told him, it is you I’m worried about! I am so sorry you have to see this everyday, and I wish you all the best too. He laughed and thanked me, and said he appreciated me saying that, and we hung up.
My father passed at 5:31 pm today. The gentleman ‘Oday’ (and I wish I could spell it correctly), called me back, as he said he would. It was about two hours later. I saw the number on my phone and already knew. “I’m sorry to tell you,” he said, “he passed 5 minutes ago, very comfortably, in his sleep.”
There aren’t words for the reaction you have, as your body crushes in on itself, heaving and crying with every bit of air in your lungs. My husband came to me and we embraced. “I’m ok,” I told him. “I’m so happy for him, that he is free. I am so happy that he is not suffering.” I meant that with all my heart. The grief, the pain, the raw emotion was almost silly to me, as I smiled through it all. I did feel joy, and I felt the confirmation of what awaits us so strongly within me. Heaven. whatever that means for you, it is where we go next, and no one deserved the peace of that place more than my dad.
“It’s ok, dad, you can go. I love you.”