Don Rogers: Last call for Dad
It was the right decision, the only one left. No less awful.
Variations of our drama were playing out in all the rooms. ICU had an everyday quality I found comforting somehow. People in blue scrubs and badges well drilled in their routines. Families a bit hollow eyed under fluorescent lighting, most still able to share smiles. In the beds, bodies rendered into bellows, my dad might joke Darth Vaders if he were there. But he wasn’t, not really.
A cheerful neurologist — I forgave him this oddity — showed us the MRI images and explained again the damage: see the light areas, diffuse, profound, the dad I knew gone forever.
The lights never were on in the room, either. A nurse switched on a television I didn’t know was there. We turned it off when she left. We held his hands, rubbed his arms and chest, kissed his forehead, told stories and mostly avoided the discussion we knew we would have to have. Four of us, everyone keenly aware of my role.
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This was not the telltale heart or anything like that. But the breaths shuddered on schedule, mechanical, loud, ongoing, the one sound I’ll remember. Numbers lit up, some big and bright, and a point drew oddly fascinating waves across a screen. A cat would pounce.
I drive my wife nuts imagining worst cases first before working through all the outcomes, the most positive last. I say it’s the training from an early career in wildland firefighting. If things blow up, where’s the safety zone and can we get everyone there on time? From there the attack takes shape.
So it was with the first phone call back in Grass Valley, the one I had dreaded for at least the past decade. The doctor who called, a resident in ICU at Queen’s near downtown Honolulu, was kind and thorough through several dropped calls on the cell phone. But her news was a scythe.
The doctors and nurses all were kind, even the one far more fascinated with the MRI images than the people around him in the darkened, telltale room.
I teared up most the first morning after we flew in, having coffee on a Waikiki hotel’s deck across the street from the zoo and Diamond Head right there, practically close enough to touch. My wife was sleeping in the room, and I ducked the server’s eyes while she poured me a second or third cup.
I was thinking about how sentient life began for me in Waikiki no more than a block or two away, remembering Kuhio Pier and the banyan trees outside the zoo entrance. Then a whole flood of memories, all with my father.
But my otherwise dry-eyed composure surprised me. Why so calm? Stiff upper lip? The product of a more complicated relationship that had settled into amiable and cordial in later years? Probably I’m just built this way, a natural stoic, if infused with a dollop of aloha.
Or maybe it’s a weird, unchurched faith in death as part of our bargain with life. We come in, we live our time, and we go back to wherever we came from. Think Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
I also find comfort in thinking about not just an entire ICU wing accustomed to passings, but 200,000 or whatever years of us as a species and billions as living creatures. This is just what we do. Live, die. Tick, tock.
Near the end, as the waves on his monitor drew down, down, I invited him to haunt me anytime, just in case something could hear, not in the brain but maybe flying around or just past the veil we don’t get to cross quite yet. Irrational? No doubt. But there’s so much we can’t possibly understand. He’s joined my dreams ever since.
The four of us had finally talked, my wife explaining the medical things, Dad’s roommate and best friend Rhonda holding on, her daughter loving her up.
Finally, Rhonda, eyes welling and spilling, nodded. I would have the conversation with the doctors in private, and she would not watch as life support was removed. We’d text afterward so they’d know when to come back.
My dad’s body faded quickly, so quickly. I texted. My phone rang, then rang again. It was my friend, the retired cardiologist and long ago crewmate and best man in my wedding who we were staying with. What remarkable, worst timing possible he had, I thought, as I let the phone buzz away while I touched and talked to my dad.
I texted again. Maybe Rhonda and her daughter didn’t want to witness this last sadder than sad part either. Try again, my wife urged. He’s going fast. That’s when I saw I’d been texting my friend by accident.
Dad’s oxygen level display plummeted and he had stopped breathing. Then, suddenly, he gasped, as if surfacing from a deep dive, and his numbers jumped back up. I imagined his irritation, like the time he’d hollered, completely exasperated while trying to teach his dunce of a son to sail: “No, the other starboard!”
I got the text right. Rhonda and her daughter returned. Only then did he go, a few hours later, our hands laid on, fading as gently as something like this could go.
Then silence. Finality set in with the stillness, the bellows at rest, after these days of the machines keeping beat heedless of a body’s natural rhythm, pending a fate no longer its own to call.
But this wasn’t my dad. That much had been clear from the start. His last conscious moment was all about the morning paper at home. Maybe a quick oops and then peace for him. The docs said he felt no pain. He certainly wasn’t here for all of what followed.
Maybe this was so we could take a breath, catch a plane, come to grips, and say goodbye. Seems we needed that. I did.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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