This will be by 40th blog post. Truthfully, I’m at a loss for what to write. I have typed and erased several things at this point.
In October of last year my father was diagnosed with Stage IV Adenocarcinoma of the lung. I will never forget that discussion around my parents kitchen island. It felt like an out of body experience. I was just hovering above everyone watching and listening to the conversation that consisted of chemotherapy, radiation, and six or less months to live. I am no stranger to these types of diagnoses. I spent close to 10 years as a Hospice social worker and spearheaded these conversations regularly. So to be on the other side felt out of place.
Dad decided no chemotherapy. I fully supported that. He had seen his closest friends endure the side effects of chemo and did not want that type of ending. He agreed to radiation and we did the daily appointments at the John Stoddard Cancer Center. My brother and I took turns transporting our father while also being there for our mother. During radiation, we learned that Dad had all the markers to be a candidate for immunotherapy. When Dad’s oncologist told us this I cried in the appointment. He told me “Don’t cry this is good news.” I said ” I know- I’m crying because I’m happy.” For those who don’t know immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your immune system fight cancer. There are several forms of immunotherapy and ways that it can be given to patients. My father ended up taking an oral option in pill form. Like any other family, we researched the success that other patients had with these drugs. We felt hopeful.
After Thanksgiving Dad completed the radiation treatments.
Looking back, I’m not sure that he really ever recovered from those treatments. Ironically. However, he never complained.. not once. I remember one time bringing him home from one of those treatments and holding his hand the whole way.. knowing in my heart that our time together was fleeting. We had multiple conversations in those days about life. During once such discussion he said to me “There are worse things in this life than dying.” So true Daddy. What a brave statement for someone in that position.
We focused the next several months on gaining weight, strength, and seeing what the immunotherapy drug could do to decrease the size and spread of the cancer. My Mother took care of my Father at home during this time. She had retired her professional career as a nurse 2 years prior and picked it back up like no time had passed. He wanted to stay home and it was because of her that he was able to do so. Her care and love for him was unprecedented. I could never fully express the love I have for my Mother or the gratitude I felt watching her care for my Father. I believe because of her care we were given more time with him on this earth. And no one could tell me otherwise.
In early March my Father made the call to stop the immunotherapy drug. He made the statement to me that he felt like he was just “running up a wall.” My interpretation of that was that he felt he was not making progress. And that was not a lie. I wish I could have told him that he was making progress but the facts were right there in front of us. He wasn’t gaining weight or strength. He didn’t really want to eat. And his quality of life was lacking. So we followed his wishes. Was it painful? Yes of course. No one wants to “give up” on someone they love. But what else did he get to control at that point? It was only right that he should be able to make that call.
Fast forward to March 14th (my birthday). My father sat at the dining room table and ate homemade chicken & dumplings with my Mother, myself, and my husband and daughter. It was a special moment. He gave me all he had that day. He fed Ella peas (which she normally will not eat) but she happily ate them from him. I can’t imagine how exhausted he felt after that. My mother and I had several discussions that once he had stopped the immunotherapy drug he seemed more like himself. Was that something we made up in our minds? Maybe. But it did come up several times.
And then it happened. COVID-19 came in full force after my birthday. I had been seeing things on the news and of course at work but nothing had really gained momentum. And then the marathon turned into a full on sprint. People were starting to (over) stock on supplies, businesses were closing, and the world just seemed to stop. I work at the VA Hospital in Des Moines on the homeless team, my husband and brother are police officers, and my sister in law is a nurse practitioner. So we all had been deemed “essential workers.” We made the decision to try to cut down our contact with my parents to try to protect them, especially my Mother who was caring for our Father. To be blunt-it sucked. It could not have come at a worse time. So we went less and wore masks when we did. It was hard but we made it work. Sometimes we went over and stood on the deck and talked through the window and other times I just stood at the front door and talked to my Mom thru the glass door. My heart broke for her. I mean could you imagine feeling isolated and then literally having to isolate yourself during probably the most difficult time in your life? Ugh. It was hard on us too but she had it the worst. My mother was a rock. She never complained and just continued to care for our Father.
As the days stretched on and the talk of COVID was the only thing on everyone’s mind we were talking about Hospice and how that was the next logical step. My Mother needed the piece of mind to have someone to call and we as her children felt like the extra support couldn’t hurt. I was at peace with it and I think that my Father was as well.
Everyday Dad slipped away a little more and rarely talked. I saw him a couple days before he passed and I took off my mask and said “Hi Daddy” and he said “Hello”. Later on he told me that he loved me. Before I left the room he didn’t say goodbye and I just said “That’s ok you told me you loved me earlier. So I’ll take that.”
And then he was gone.
I missed my mother’s phone call at 5 AM that following Friday morning. I shouldn’t have had my phone on silent but I did. She left me a voice message and my Iphone types out the voicemail so I actually read it before I listened to it. It felt like someone had punched me right in the gut. The pain of loss is not just a mental one it’s a physical one too. I got dressed and my husband came home early from work to stay with Ella so I could go see my Father before the funeral home came. It’s hard to describe those hours we spent with him. It was the deepest sadness I had ever felt in my adult life. I am thankful my mother, brother, and myself had that time. I think our soul’s needed it and I am certain Daddy appreciated it.
The next few days were a blur. The nagging feelings of grief and loss were ever present. To live a day without my father being alive on this earth didn’t feel right . Thoughts that our Father would no longer be there for birthdays, holidays, vacations, family dinners, graduations, and any other family milestone made us all feel physically ill. But we had to focus on funeral arrangements and in the “time of Covid” that was no small undertaking. But we made it happen. Was it the way that we would have liked it to be-No. But was it the best it could be-Yes. We had the funeral in Fort Dodge where my parents had called home for a better majority of their lives. Gunderson’s Funeral Home and the entire community stepped up to help us honor our Father. The funeral procession from the church to the graveside was open to the public. Our father would have cried. I am certain of it. All the law enforcement, first responders, and citizens that were there to honor him was something that I will never forget. Such a testament to him and the impact he made on people and the community.
I am not sure where to go from here. I admit that writing this all down was in it’s own way therapeutic. I think about my father daily. I find that my drive to work is the time where I break down the most. I don’t know if it’s because I listen to music and it reminds me of him or if it’s just a “safe space.” No one else in the car and I can just feel how I want to feel. When asked by my boss at work how I was feeling I said ” I think I will grieve the loss of my father for the rest of my life.” I also said that I keep telling myself that I feel all this pain because he was such a wonderful Father.
If you have lost a parent or anyone that is close to you my heart goes out to you. It’s an experience that brings so many emotions. Some day’s it hard to know how to move forward. I think the most important thing is giving yourself the grace to feel how you feel. If you are angry then be angry. If you are sad be sad. If you are stuck and can’t move forward then just stay in that space till you feel strong enough to move forward. But always aim to move forward. I believe it’s important to respect and honor these emotions. Is it easy? No. Do I believe that it will make you stronger? Yes. I look back at some of my biggest heartbreaks, losses, disappointments, and I know they made me stronger and brought me where I am today. And this loss will be no exception.
A few days after the funeral, I received a letter in the mail from my Father. It was typed out and I read it so many times with tears in my eyes. I felt like I could hear his voice, soft and loving. It was a beautiful letter. In closing, he told me his wished he could have stayed longer with us but that was not God’s plan. Cue all the feelings.
I love you Daddy. I wish you could have stayed longer too.