Death is a part of life but unlike new life where people share “birth stories” sharing a personal death story isn’t quite as simple, and understandably so when there is so much pain in loss. I don’t often talk about my father’s death and if I do I rarely share the entire story. The grief has changed over the 12 years since he has been gone from this earth but there is always a huge emptiness in moments where I wish he was there with me.
The last time I saw my dad alive and well was Tuesday January 22nd, 2008. I’d just finished my shift at Lowe’s and had come to my parents house to pick up my almost 4 month old daughter, Sofia. My parents were taking turns watching her while I worked, my mom worked evenings so she could stay with her during the day and my dad would come home from work and take over for a couple of hours until I got there. On this day my mom had called me and said “if your dad is asleep with the baby in his arms don’t tell him anything because you might hurt his feelings”. I’d never scold him though, I have never subscribed to the idea of spoiling a baby. He was so happy to be a grandpa for the first time, when I was pregnant he loved talking to her in my belly because he “had to make sure she knows my voice”. Both of my parents were over the moon with Sofia and I was relieved that they weren’t disappointed in me because I’d had a baby at 20 years old.
I packed up her things that day and he helped me to the car. I gave him a kiss goodnight and said thank you, I pulled out of the driveway and he waved goodbye. It could’ve been a regular night that I would’ve otherwise forgotten, but you hold on to moments harder when you know you won’t have anymore of them again.
I didn’t work the next day, I had plans to go somewhere and I’d just put the girls in the car and drove away from our condo. I hadn’t made it to the nearest intersection when I got a frantic call from my mom, she said “I just got a message from your dad’s work that he’s been in an accident, he was hit by a truck… they took him to Arrowhead hospital”. I told her I would be right there. I called Mike, I told him something happened to my dad at work and it didn’t make sense but I had to go to the hospital. I hung up. The car radio was on and it played Pearl Jam’s cover of ‘Last Kiss’, in that moment I knew that song would always remind me of that moment and I thought of how cruel and eerily fitting the whole thing was.
The hospital was a debacle. I wasn’t allowed in the ICU area with children, they weren’t allowed in the waiting room or the floor altogether. I had to wait for Mike to get there so I could go and talk to anyone in charge. My mom was already there and crying with so much anxiety and worry. The doctors would not talk to us right away and we still were not sure what had happened. Him being hit by a truck, my first thought was a car accident, one truck hits another so it can’t be that serious, right?
It felt like hours until someone could give us an answer but finally we were face to face with surgeons and specialists and it was clear this was not a regular accident. He had been run over by a loaded tractor trailer, his pelvis and right leg shattered. He’d lost too much blood. It was a miracle he was alive at that point. They gave us some statistic of 7 in 10 people with this kind if injury don’t make it past the first night and that they weren’t sure they’d be able to save his leg.
I was calm, too calm, it felt like someone had placed a cloak over me and I had this power to not react. I now know it was shock. The body has incredible coping mechanisms and in this moment, where everyone around me seemed to be losing it and our world was falling apart, I was grateful for whatever this feeling was that allowed me to stay level headed or at least feel like I was.
My dad made it through the first night. Then the second night. But by the third night, the doctors said there was no hope for his leg and they would have to amputate. We agreed to the amputation, whatever we had to do to save his life. We prayed that he would make it through surgery, 6 hours later he made it out with a severe amputation.
Then he made it through the first week. His body was swollen beyond recognition. He was under a medically induced coma and intubated. He had metal braces and pins everywhere below the waist, I refused to look under the sheet. I couldn’t do it, that is not how I would remember my dad. We lived in this state of hope and despair, every day mattered but we were told his chances improved with every day he survived.
This point in time would become an odd blur outside of the hospital. I had just returned to work from my maternity leave and I had exhausted all my paid time off. I was still breastfeeding and I’d had to excuse myself to relieve my milk while I stayed in the hospital the first few days. My milk would eventually deplete because of this time I’d spent away from my baby and a pump.
Friends and family came and went through the hospital. Everyone just sat and prayed. My mom didn’t leave for days and when she finally did it was just to go home and shower so she could come back quickly. After a week had passed I had no choice but to go to work.
About 10 days had passed and my dad was showing signs of improvement, his swelling had gone down, his breathing tube had been removed and although he was hoarse and exhausted he tried to talk to us. I couldn’t stand him exerting himself, I wanted him to save all his energy for his recovery. I talked to him but I’d tell him not to worry, that I loved him and he didn’t have to speak or explain anything. I’d hold his warm hand, still dirty from the work he was doing that day of the accident and always rough from a lifetime of hard work. I loved his hands, they were always a safe place for me as a child.
At the two week mark I got a phone call from a nurse, she said I had to get to the hospital immediately but she couldn’t give me any more information. I was 40 minutes away and I feared the worst. Mike drove me there and I don’t think I would’ve been able to get there on my own, my overthinking kicked in immediately. My gut knew that something was wrong, I could only fear the worse.
By the time I arrived my mom was barely conscious. My dad had gone into cardiac arrest four times. It was not unprecedented, his heart rate had been elevated this whole time, liked he’d been running a god damn marathon. We had to make a choice, he was slipping away and we could either opt to keep resuscitating or sign the DNR. My mom could barely function or comprehend at that point and I’m translating this information like I’ve done with my parents my whole life. I explained what they were telling me, she shrieked and shook then passed out, she’d be taken to the emergency room downstairs.
I was the next of kin. I signed the DNR papers.
I knew my father well, I could feel him in my heart telling me to go look after my mother. I went to see him for what I knew would be the last time. I told him it was ok, that we would be ok, and that he needed to rest. I kissed his face and his hands one last time, I told him I loved him and I walked out of the room with tears swelling in my eyes.
For a moment I thought I might lose both of my parents at the same time, I went downstairs to be with my mom. I knew she’d lost her will to live in that moment because that’s how it feels to lose the person you love the most. You don’t want to stay in a world that doesn’t have them, you want them to take you with them.
I took her home some time after midnight, I sat on our sofa with her head on my lap. We just sat in silence. Some time around 2 am we heard two taps on the sliding door, the same tap my dad would make when he’d come home from work to water the garden but he needed us to unlock the door. We knew it was him saying goodbye.
My initial state of calm-shock had worn off, I’d stayed strong as long as I could. I’d have survivors guilt, I’d question whether I did the right thing by signing those papers. I’d be devastated when thinking of how he wouldn’t see his granddaughter grow up or any future grandchildren. It tore my heart out knowing Sofia wouldn’t remember his voice. How I wouldn’t have a father-daughter dance if I ever got married. How I couldn’t call him when I needed help. That my 13 year old sister still needed him too. I’d be angry too, angry at the situation, that there was obvious negligence at fault by a trucking company that didn’t equip a truck with a backup alarm. I’d fill with rage against semi trucks, cursing their existence. I’d question god and faith of how horrible people continue to live their lives while good people get taken away. I was bitter that all the prayers did not work to keep him alive. I’d be jealous of old people and jealous of people with old parents who got to live long lives, jealous of people who had time to prepare for death. Grief is a monster with many faces.
Being a new mom provided many moments of welcome distraction during this time, my grief would take a backseat to motherhood. That baby girl gave all of us a reason to pull out of our sadness. It’s funny, the timing of everything. Yeah, maybe I had a baby sooner that I planned (I actually never had a timeline for when I’d have children, I just knew I would) but my dad got to be a grandpa at least for a few months, and that thought still makes me happy today.
There is a lot to learn from grief, even if it is a most unwelcome teacher. I saw my extended family come together. My mom and her sister reconciled after 23 years of not speaking to each other. My friends showed up when I needed them, I had people show up for me that I never expected but their presence was a show of love I needed in that moment.
I’m grateful for the 21 years I had with him, for all the unforgettable memories, the lessons, the laughs and the conversations. I say grief has changed because it never truly goes away, it just morphs into different shapes; some days it is a small trickle and other days it’s a tidal wave.
I’ll always miss him but I know in my heart that he is always with me.