An attempt to put someone in shoes they don’t want to be in could be considered an assault on the soul. Please believe me when I say, it is not my wish to cause pain to anyone, but rather to alleviate my own.
My father’s cancer did not come on suddenly but, rather slowly as the result of toxins absorbed by his body over a period of a lifetime. The diagnosis and his passing are what truly came on suddenly. Pancreatic cancer has almost no symptoms. Even an early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, to my understanding, would still be a death sentence. It would only allow one, more time to get their affairs in order. I wish our family would have been granted that time.
It was June 2012 when my father was diagnosed with cancer. By October 11th 2013 he was gone. Just 9 days after my daughter’s first birthday. I’ll always be grateful that he was able to meet her and spend time with her. He was a wonderful grandfather.
My father opted for chemotherapy. He knew it was only buying him time, but I also believe he thought, just maybe; he could beat it. He set goals, made lists and initiated plans to get things in order before he passed. He had many Projects he had wanted to finish. Mostly household maintenance, broken windows, plumbing issues…things of that nature. A career spent working out of town didn’t afford him the time to do all of these things. Many of his weekends home were spent playing in a band. He tired easily now and failed much faster than we had expected.
I remember those days as trying and frustrating for everyone. Dad kept cycling through the stages of grief. He skipped denial, focused on anger, and then acceptance turned into finding God. We never had any formal religion in our house so my dad’s beliefs weren’t clear to me until he said the words “I’m getting ready to meet my maker”.
All of a sudden God was in the house. Everywhere. There were people who would come and pray with him. Those who thought they knew God, had a bible quote to offer. Apparently it made them feel better. Not me.
I took my dad to chemo, one time. It was the first time I had been alone with him since the diagnosis. I was having a hard time accepting that he was sick. He was the strongest person I knew and, because you can’t see this type of cancer, it just seemed like he was grumpy and tired for no reason. He was treating people in ways that he hadn’t really done before. He was saying things he wouldn’t have normally said. Mean things. It was hard to watch him turn so angry and bitter. It made me feel bad, but I would try to put myself in his shoes and just ignore it and keep being nice. Eventually it rubbed off on him and he would follow suit. So now I’ll skip ahead to the last two weeks. For me it started in the hospital, after some tests.
He was admitted because he had been dealing with an infection between his liver and pancreas. They were having a hard time treating the infection. Earlier in the month they had placed a stent between his liver and pancreas in hopes of draining the infection. The stent clogged so they took him into surgery and tried to irrigate it. They were also doing tests regarding the chemo and his tumors.
The day after the procedure was the top of a steep slope that I’ve been sliding down ever since.
The Oncologist that was treating dad’s cancer came into the room. He seemed very bright and cheery. He had great news for us. The tumors were responding and in fact they were shrinking. We were all filled with relief and a feeling that, maybe we would all have a little more time together. Then, as if on cue, the other shoe dropped.
The doctor that performed the procedure on the stent came into the room. He was very indifferent considering the news he had delivered. The stent was not able to be cleared. Due to the chemo the antibiotics were not working and he was becoming septic. We had just been told that he was going to die of an infection because his immune system had to be destroyed in order to fight the cancer. Why didn’t these doctors consult one another before entering the room? It seemed very cruel.
I wanted to fall to the ground and cry. Instead something totally unexpected happened. My brother began to cry, then mom, and then Dad.
My brain began the process of self preservation. I stood up straighter than I think I ever had. I started questioning the doctors about our options. I was taking over the conversation with the medical team because my brain had moved not to grief but to damage control. I have only briefly visited grief at odd moments. Taking care of my family, and keeping it all together became my focus. Someone would need to know what was happening at all times. We met with the hospice workers to discuss dad’s care plan and his DNR.
All of the grandchildren were summoned to the hospital. Dad had a list of items. On it were things he had wanted each of them to have. My family was the last to leave. For most of them, it was the last time they would see him alive. I was the last one in the room.
Dad and I sat and held hands for a while and he finally said “I’m not going to make it.” Then he began to sob in the way a child cries when they want their mom or dad, with nothing but emotion behind it. I leaned forward and held him. With his head on my shoulder and, without a tear, I told him it would be okay and I would take care of things from here on out. He said “thank you Bobbi” and told me he loved me. I didn’t say that I loved him back. I regret that. I didn’t say anything. I felt somehow older than him at that moment. Very maternal as though I could fix whatever was going to happen. Even as I am crying now writing this, I did not cry then. I could not cry. I needed every ounce of strength I felt, to pull my family through this to the end. I didn’t feel as though I was allowed to grieve.
Someone had to be alert and pay attention. That was my job now. After all, mom was very distraught and my brother was dealing with his wife and children. His marriage was in turmoil.
My older brother had passed away a few years earlier. I remember feeling that, in death, my older brother could maybe be more help than my younger brother, because maybe the thought of seeing him again would be something my dad would believe in and maybe embrace to help him through this. I didn’t know. I just remember thinking it.
So, this is how a person starts on the path to not dealing with a loss. For me it was instantaneous. Denial was my friend.
From that point on I cleared my schedule. I wasn’t going to miss a moment. I was still working at the County in the maintenance department. My boss was less than understanding and didn’t appreciate my time away. In fact, he made it a point to tell me that when his mom died of cancer he had to work and couldn’t be with her. He got the news through a telephone call and “life was just that way sometimes”.
I had some vacation and sick time accrued and coworkers donated their vacation time to me so I could be with my father. I will always be grateful to them. I ignored my boss and left to be with my dad. Subsequently, after I quit my job at the county, I found out that my boss had been diagnosed with the same cancer as my father. I wondered if his daughters were there for him and if he was grateful if they were. I wondered if he thought of the words he spoke to me as he tried to guilt me into working. And I wondered if it made me a bad person to have even had those thoughts.
My father wanted to do hospice at home. He was most comfortable there and didn’t want to die in a hospital.
I put everything aside. Two of my dad’s good friends helped a lot. They joined us in the rotation for dad’s 24/7 care. Many people stopped by during this time, and some people stopped stopping by. Some came to bring food and others came to bring peace to our house. All were appreciated.
The last two weeks we took shifts around the clock. .
The first thing we did was get the hospital bed set up. Dad wanted to be in the living room, so we rearranged it to accommodate his needs.
At first he was able to use the bathroom on his own. Within two days we had to get a commode in the living room. Dad could no longer make it to the bathroom. Mom wanted to get a wheelchair and try to take him into the bathroom, but helping him to the wheelchair was very hard. He would never make it there on time with only her and me to help. We were both five foot nothing and under the stress of the situation, she and I had lost more weight than we could spare. Even in dad’s diminished state, he was still much bigger than either of us. If he was going to go from the bed to a seated position; it would have to be onto the commode.
With each day he failed a little more. The last time he was able to get up and sit on the commode, he accidentally peed on the floor. We didn’t want to do it, but we had to have the nurse place a catheter. It caused him a great deal of pain.
Every night I was there I slept on the couch next to his bed. I could only sleep if he was snoring because it meant he was still alive.
The last time he ate, I fed him vanilla ice cream. I had to spoon feed him because he could no longer lift his arms. I couldn’t eat ice cream for two years after that. Ice cream made me too sad. It was one of his favorite snacks and that was his last taste of food. But it was more than that. He could no longer talk. The pleasure I saw on his face when the ice cream hit his tongue was enough. He looked at me with love and grace. Every single time I eat ice cream now, I see it.
I died inside every time the hospice nurses would come to bath him. It hurt him so bad… the only time he could make words was when he was in excruciating pain. With those few words, he begged them to stop. His skin was pale and clay like. If you pushed on it, it would stay depressed. We came to accept that we could not touch him because it was so painful for him. The nurses would come every other day. Four days before he died, I told them that I could not allow the bathing or the changing of sheets. They argued. I said no. At this point he wasn’t using a catheter and no waste was being produced. So their concerns fell on deaf ears. No more pain.
When the narcotic nurse came we talked about upping the doses. I felt he didn’t have much time left. She agreed.
When dad started doing the agonal breathing, I called my brother and told him I thought it would be that day. He came over straight from work and stayed for a while. He opted to go home and get some sleep. He was working crazy shifts and was exhausted. Soon after he got back to his house, Dad passed and we had to call him back. I think that still haunts him.
The moments that it happened, are burned into my mind. One of dad’s friends was in the living room with me. Mom was in the kitchen with my oldest daughter. Mom had just sat down to eat. Dad’s needs were great at that time so, actually sitting to eat a whole meal was a luxury.
Dad awoke suddenly and was upset. He was drawing his shoulders inward towards his chest. I thought the pillow was hurting him. His skin behind his shoulders was pushed in and flat. I repositioned his head and the pillow. I looked him in the eyes and knew at that moment what was happening. He was having a heart attack. He had a DNR. No CPR. No Resuscitation. I asked him if it was time, and if I should get mom? He could barely do it, but he nodded yes.
I went to the kitchen and said, in what I thought was an imperative tone “mom!” “Dad needs you!”
She said, “For Christ’s sake, I just sat down to eat.” “Can’t I even eat”!? She was exhausted.
I said “Mom, It’s time!”
She came in and held his hand. He looked at her the whole time. She told him she loved him and that it was okay and he could go now. And then he did. He looked as scared as anyone can look. As children we take our cues from our parents. If they don’t look scared we tend to not be as scared. In this moment I was terrified. As he slipped away his face relaxed. My terror was replaced with agony. As soon as I knew he was gone, I hugged him as hard as I could and lay across his chest in a way I hadn’t done since I was a little girl. The last couple of weeks we could only touch him lightly because it caused him pain. I wanted that moment to never end.
But of course it did. His last breath and that moment are now four years in the past. When I think of it, it’s as though it is still happening in front of me in the present. I can never swallow hard enough to choke down that agonizing image.
A friend of mine stopped by right as dad was passing. She literally walked in and witnessed one of the most intimate moments a family can have. My daughter was also there to witness dad’s passing. I’m happy my daughter was there, and I think it really impacted her. We were already close, but I feel, watching me go through this experience with my father, has given her a new view of our own relationship. Neither one of us takes it for granted. I do feel that she will be the one holding my hand if I pass in a way that allows us the moment.
Things were in motion. The hospice nurse came just as dad passed. She called 911 and had them alert the coroner. Things between the 911 call and the coroner arriving were kind of jumbled in my head. I felt as though I was outside of myself. I put my friend to work notifying people. I can’t remember in which order people showed up but I remember who was there.
The whole thing seemed surreal. Imagine a loved one lying deceased in your living room and people around you making small talk. You know someone is coming to take your loved one away, and you know how because you are also a coroner. It rips at you like a suspenseful movie that you know is not going to end well. The anxiety is so heavy in your chest, and you feel like you need to guard the body. Your entire being does not want this person taken away. In fact, you wish you could have followed them. The entire last two weeks were spent keeping that person safe and taking care of their every need.
Now what? How could that just be over? What do I do now? I couldn’t think. I couldn’t form an expression on my face; much less feel the feelings that lead to an expression. I was, in an instant; lost.
The coroner arrived. He brought into the house with him two objects, a mobile cot and a black bag. He talked to mom about the information he needed. What funeral home he should contact, was dad an organ donor and a brief questioning about his cancer. I’m not sure why, but as soon as the coroner arrived, everyone that had been in the house, just walking around my father’s body, decided that now their place was outside. It was very strange to me. If they had stayed, I doubt the burden of the next few minutes would have fallen on my shoulders. At the same time, I wouldn’t want it on theirs.
The coroner opened up his bag. He removed several objects, a clipboard, some paperwork, and a black object that was neatly folded in a perfect rectangle. If you didn’t know why he was there, you wouldn’t know the perfect rectangle was a body bag. After he was done filling out the paperwork and talking to mom, he asked if we were ready to release Dad’s body. Mom said yes. I couldn’t talk. I was not ready. Even though I too am a deputy coroner in the county I reside, for a brief moment I felt as though this pleasant and very nice man was the enemy. I wanted to stand in front of my father and fight him off. It felt as though dad wasn’t truly dead until he was inside this man’s perfect black rectangle. I did nothing, and I said nothing.
The coroner then turned to the hospice nurse and asked for help lifting dad’s body onto the cot. He bent over and picked up the body bag. He laid it out onto his cot. He then rolled the cot into position next to dad’s bed and locked the wheels in place. I could hear every sound as though it was amplified. The unfolding of the body bag, the smallest creak of the cot and the unzipping of the bag were deafening.
The hospice nurse told the him that she was unable to lift at this time due to a work injury. He turned to my mother and asked if anyone there would be able to help. That’s when she offered to him the information that I too was a coroner and that I could help him. I was still unable to speak. I just shook my head yes. I didn’t know what else to do. My mother was basically asking me to help my father one last time. I had to do it.
The procedure is relatively simple. One person is at the head and the other is at the feet. You grab the bed sheets and roll them tightly in your hands until they are close to the body. The cart is positioned lower than the bed in order to give you time to use gravity and a sideways motion to center the body in the bag and onto the cot.
The next few moments are often replayed in my dreams.
I grabbed the bed sheets and rolled them tight. I was at dad’s head as we began to lift. I have heard the noises before but not through the vocal cords of a familiar person. It’s a low moaning, gurgling sound produced by air coming out of the lungs accompanied by stomach acid that remains in the throat. All sphincters relax upon death so there is nothing holding the stomach closed. His head tilted a bit as we started the move. A small amount of this fluid ran out of my father’s mouth and onto my hand. I was not expecting it and I felt a sting from the top of my head and down my back. Like a long spike was being driven completely through me with one swift swing of a hammer. I did not falter. I continued the motion to get him onto the cot. Once he was there the coroner began to zip the bag to dad’s chest and looked at me. I could see every tooth of the zipper. I slowly took it with my fingers and finished what he had started. Watching as my father’s face slowly disappeared into the darkness of the bag.
Since, I have had recurring dreams. Sometimes I just relive it. Other times he’s very angry with me for putting him in the bag. Sometimes I’m in the bag and he’s zipping it. No matter what the dream, I always wake up in a cold sweat.
I can say with certainty that this experience has changed me. Not for better, not for worse. I am just changed. I take responsibility now for my ignorance of others pain that I could not fully appreciate until I lost my own parent. I wish I could go back and apologize to those who have lost loved ones because I didn’t dwell on it with them or for them. I didn’t hold them or check back months later to see how they were doing. Until I lost my own father, I can honestly say that other people’s loss was just that; someone else’s loss. I felt lucky that I still had my loved ones. I had the privilege of thinking that I had somehow mourned for others. How could I ever have equated what I was feeling to mourning? Even though I had already lost a brother, and a best friend, losing a parent is its own feeling. I can’t imagine the hell one feels when they lose a child. I hope I never know that. I believe that any person you lose will affect you in a different way. All of them significant. All of them missed. All of us, left behind.
I regret not crying with my dad at the hospital. As my dad was a captive audience in his last week, why didn’t I fill his days with memories and moments that made him feel like the best dad in the world? I regret not being softer with my mother. I regret giving his eulogy almost without a tear. I regret watching him being lowered into the cold ground without a tear. I regret being unable to show those emotions that come so easily in times like these for others. Aren’t they supposed to? Come easily?
I have seen stories of mothers, husbands, and children on trial for suspected murder that have been chastised and presumed guilty by the public because they didn’t shed a tear. “That could be me” is what I think when I see these stories.
Crying makes me feel weak. I know it’s the other way around. Crying makes you stronger. But somehow in this situation, not crying is what gave me the strength to fill these shoes.
This experience has changed the way I now handle my own coroner cases. I used to feel very nervous about talking with the families. I would almost hide in the paperwork I was filling out. I would ask them if they were ready to release their loved ones.
Now I use active listening skills that for some reason I’m only capable of doing while on a death scene. I can listen for an hour and when I’m done, remember everything they’ve told me.
I tell them to take all the time they need with their loved ones. It will not be me that rushes them through this or makes them feel there is anything more important than what they have just experienced.
Every life impacts someone’s world in ways that cannot be contemplated. I will not lesson that person’s impact by removing them as though they were something I came to clean up vs. a life that was special to the people surrounding them. My respect for the moment is, I feel crucial to the people I serve. Even in death, life matters. Especially in death.