I didn’t get there in time. It still weighs heavily on me, a year and a half later.
I didn’t get there in time. I couldn’t have gotten there any faster.
I didn’t get there in time. I had planned to visit exactly one week later. I asked him to hold on.
I didn’t get there in time. Why didn’t my sister tell me sooner that he had chosen to die? Refused all food and water? It wouldn’t have made a difference. I couldn’t have gotten there any sooner.
The night before he died I called and called. No answer. I left messages. “I’m on my way. I’ll be there around noon tomorrow.” No response. No way to say goodbye. No way to say “please, please hold on. I need to see you. I. Need. To. See. You.”
Got on a plane at 5:30am in Albuquerque. Touched down in Minneapolis two and a half hours later. This time when I called my sister answered. “I’m on my way.”
“Yeah, so I heard.”
“Can you pick me up at the airport in Iron Mountain at 12:30?”
“I dunno. I have an appointment at the funeral home at 1.”
My mind raced. Funeral home? Is she making plans already? It was only yesterday that he stopped eating and drinking. No! He can’t be gone already! It takes days for people to pass from dehydration. Three days!
I honestly can’t remember what I said next, but I think it was something like, “He’s already gone?”
“NO!” I screamed while sitting in a food court in the Minneapolis airport. I felt strangers’ eyes on me. “When?”
I don’t know what she said, other than to indicate to me that he had died that morning. I don’t remember anything that was said after that. We hung up.
I missed him. I missed seeing my dad one more time before he died of cancer.
I didn’t live with my dad after my parents divorced when I was 6. I spent the occasional weekend with him and my siblings, all of whom had a different mother than me. Once he moved to Crystal Falls, Michigan when I was 16, I saw him only once every couple of years. There wasn’t any particular reason. There were no hard feelings. I was living my life, he was living his. And, to be honest, Crystal Falls seemed so far away, so remote. I mean, how does one even get there?
Then, in 2014, I got an email from one of my sisters. Dad has atrial fibrillation. He can’t do much anymore. Can’t even mow the lawn. Well, yeah, he’s getting older. That’s too bad. Four months later came another email. There was something wrong with his blood. Basically, his body wasn’t making red blood cells. He’d been to the Mayo clinic in Minneapolis. The doctors couldn’t agree on a diagnosis, which means they couldn’t agree how he should be treated, so he wasn’t. It didn’t matter, however. He had already decided he didn’t want any sort of treatment. I called him and he hemmed and hawed about what was wrong, but I heard him use the word “oncologist.” The one word you don’t ever want to hear your parents use when discussing their health is “oncologist.”
At age 48, it was finally time to figure out how one gets to Crystal Falls, Michigan. Another sister and I flew into Milwaukee, then drove the 3 to 4 hours up to the Upper Peninsula. Geez, Dad. Could you have found a more remote place to live? I stayed with Dad in his tiny cabin-size house. My sister stayed with her sibling.
This was not the father I remembered from my childhood. This man was gentle. He insisted on making me breakfast every morning I was there. I can honestly say that before this visit, I don’t recall him ever, EVER making me breakfast. I can’t remember him fixing me a meal! Growing up, when I visited him, food was catch as catch can. I remember his third wife cooking meals. I know there were plenty of times when my sisters, all of them older than me, made sure I ate something. I remember a LOT of peanut butter on toast. I’m not sure if that was because that’s what I wanted or that’s what I’d eat or if that's all there was.
He was so solicitous. Did I need anything? What did I want to do? What should we do for dinner? He brought out scrapbooks. I learned so much about him. He had 16 different letters in 4 different sports in high school. He worked as a carny starting at age 13. His aunt had a booth at carnivals and he would follow the carnivals around during the summer months by train. At 18, he received a Navy scholarship and spent the summer on a naval cruise. He drove me to possibly the most remote part of Crystal Falls to an empty site where he grew up in a house with no running water and no electricity. When he was around 6 years old, he was tasked with digging the outhouse. He walked into town every day to go to school. He showed me a dilapidated old mine that his grandfather worked in. When we went to the local graveyard, he couldn’t find his mother’s grave. It upset him deeply. This was the first time I ever saw his mind fail him. We worked together to find the headstone. His mother had passed before I was born and all I heard about her were terrible stories filled with physical abuse. He obviously remembered her much differently and it was clearly important to him to show me her grave.
I had only planned a 4-day visit but this was not enough time for me. This gentle man, this is who I always wanted my father to be. It dawned on me that just because he had never called and invited me to visit him that my presence was not unwanted. I was the one who had to call and announce that I wanted to visit. Why did I learn this so late in life? I feel so stupid for not realizing this. There were so many wasted years when I thought he would see a visit from me as intrusive. To me, he was happy playing the hermit. I was wrong. In fact, he visited his aunt, the same carnival-working aunt, every day. She was close to 100 by then and still living on her own with stage 4 breast cancer. His devotion to her was something to behold.
I visited him again just two months later, traveling to Crystal Falls this time on my own. We spent his New Year’s Eve together. He still had plenty of energy and loved to take me on long rides. We talked about everything. When he was just out of college, he worked on the Polaris missile project. This was the most exciting and satisfying thing he did in his whole life, he told me sadly. He never thought the highlight of his life would come so early. The best salmon he ever ate was freshly caught in Alaska and he ate it raw. He thought Aruba was one of the most beautiful places he had ever been. He saw Thelonius Monk play in a dingy little club in Harvard Square and he was sure the musician was high out of his mind at the time. His third wife broke his heart so badly that he was afraid to fall in love ever again.
More visits followed. At each visit, there were some signs that he wasn’t doing well. He really had a hard time with his memory, as his brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen, but physically, he was doing much better than anyone anticipated. He lived past what the doctors had predicted. He just kept going! Then, his aunt passed, a couple of months after her 100th birthday and that took the wind out of his sails. I was there when it happened. In fact, that was the last time I saw him. I asked him if he wanted me to stay a few extra days. He responded, “Honestly, having someone else in my house is very tiring for me.” I was hurt, but I understood. I actually feel the same way.
I planned my next visit for just a little more than three months later. I wanted to visit earlier but there was Thanksgiving, my birthday, my husband’s birthday, Christmas and New Year’s to schedule around. I had a plane ticket for January 3rd, 2016. I had researched when in the year that most people died. It’s the first week of the new year. I planned my visit to give him something to look forward to during this dismal time. I know he wasn’t feeling well and joked that he had to hang on until I could visit again. Just one last time. I called him the week before Christmas. He didn’t want to talk because he was having trouble breathing that day. Again, I told him he had to hang on until my visit in just 2 weeks. He said he’d call me back when he was feeling better. “What if you don’t feel better?” I thought in my head but didn’t dare say out loud. My mom encouraged me to call him Christmas day but I didn’t, feeling confident that he’d call when he was able. Why didn’t I call? I should have called.
On December 27th, my sister who lives in Crystal Falls sent out an email that Dad was done with it. He was done feeling badly. He was done with any sort of palliative care. He had tried all day the previous day to get a blood transfusion, which usually made him feel better, but his doctor was out of town and even after spending hours in the ER, he went home without it. That was the last straw. The next morning he told my sister not to make him eat or drink anything. It was time to go.
He passed away on December 28th, three months to the day after his aunt had passed. I imagine he died while I was in the sky, racing to see him one last time. Did he know I was on my way? I don’t know. There is so much I don’t know about those last 24 hours. I wonder if he didn’t want me to see him die. Maybe he was afraid he was going to have to comfort me when all he wanted to do was leave this world. Maybe he didn’t think of me at all.
With all the time I wasted, all the years wasted, thinking he didn’t care one way or the other if I visited him, I wanted to be there when he died. I wanted to be there to be a comfort to him and make sure he knew he was loved. I wanted to do whatever it would take to make his passing easier. That was to be my last gift to him. It was a gift I couldn’t give.
It’s a year and a half later. I’m still sad. I still wish I had been with my dad one last time. One thing I don’t regret is telling him every time I visited that I loved him. He said it back every time too. Prior to that, I could count on one hand how many times he told me he loved me. It wasn’t that he didn’t love me all my life. I know that. He just wasn’t a demonstrative man when I was growing up.
I’m still working on feeling OK that I was unable to give him one last gift of love. Right now, I’m not OK. It still makes me cry when I think about the fact that I missed being with him by only a few hours. I replay the timeline in my head. I don’t know what I could have done differently. I couldn’t have changed the rules of time and space. I couldn’t have known on what day he would just say, “enough.”
Dad, I couldn’t be there to comfort you in your final hours but I hope you know I wanted to more than anything. I’m sorry I wasted so much time we could have shared together. I hope you know that I love you and always have.
I love you.
Created: Apr 29, 2017JenBen Document Media