Daddy, you doubted that it was as bad as was being reported. “You know the news sensationalizes things all the time, right?”
Even when your daughters, two of whom are nurses (one who worked firsthand with people stricken by this virus) assured you that it is bad, REALLY bad, you still did not believe.
When those same daughters urged you to get vaccinated because you just had a heart valve replacement, you insisted that you have always been healthy as a horse, rarely getting sick. To which I responded, “Even horses stumble sometimes; please get vaccinated.” You grumbled that we were all worrying too much, but you complied…somewhat, choosing the single shot over a two-dose vaccine. “Seriously? Well, at least it is something,” I muttered. I didn’t even bring up boosters. Why bother?
When you saw me wearing a mask in a restaurant, you chided me for my choice to cover up. I responded that I did not want to be a carrier and take it back to older family members. You just shook your head at my silliness and turned to talk with your grandchild.
Every time you went out to meet your friends for meals unmasked, I worried. “Are they vaccinated? I wish you would wear a mask, Dad.” You brushed off my concerns and kept doing what you wanted, when you wanted, let the consequences be damned.
Well, those consequences came. A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, you and your wife caught what you thought was a cold. It got a little worse. You kept your sickness to yourself because you didn’t want to worry us and, well, it was nobody’s damn business anyway.
The first time that we heard that you were unwell was on Thanksgiving Day when your wife texted well wishes and said that you both had the flu. I responded that my spouse was recovering from a mild case of COVID, and I wished you both a speedy recovery. She got better. You did not.
Several days later, your wife called my sister, the former COVID nurse, asking that she drive down, as you were unwell. Sis insisted that you should go to the hospital. “I think it might be COVID,” she said. Because you did not think that you had COVID and because you dislike doctors and the “damn hospital”, naturally you refused. So, Sis called me to intervene. I put my foot down and none too politely, I’ll admit. “You tell him that either he gets his ass to the hospital now, or I will drive down there and make him.” Needless to say, you went.
It was as we had all suspected. You had contracted COVID-19. The hospital quickly admitted you to the intensive care unit.
Because no one could see you in person, our stepmother had to rely on a single status report daily. She would paraphrase what was verbally communicated and mass-text the family each day. Her first status report indicated that you were getting better and even ate a hamburger. “That’s good,” I thought. Unfortunately, that upward trend did not last long. Your condition began to worsen. Soon, you were placed in a medically induced coma and intubated.
Each day, we received a mass text conveying some ups, mostly downs, all ending with requests for prayers and how well they were working. But looking at the data and reading between the lines, I knew that all the prayers and positive thoughts were not helping as we had hoped. You were struggling. I hoped that you were not suffering.
Our stepmother was also struggling, mentally, not willing to accept what she could see coming down the road. She called my sisters and me, looking for guidance on what should be done next. We were willing to lend our support and insights into what you might want, but we could not do the deciding,
In the mid-afternoon of Wednesday, December 15, we received a teary text from our stepmother about natriuretic peptides levels and a possible cardiac incident. I called my stepmother, letting her know that Sis and I would be willing to drive down if she wanted us to be with her to talk with the doctors. She did.
The next morning, instead of heading to work, I headed south to my hometown to meet with our kin and your caregivers. In addition to the doctors and nurses, my stepmother, and I were all three of my sisters (one in-person and two via phone), my sister’s fiancé, your only living brother (out of five boys), and one of your sisters (out of five girls, four living, via phone). The doctors discussed palliative care and end-of-life wishes, asking each of us for insights into your life.
The doctor wanted to know more about you as a person… your childhood, your likes, and your positive and negative character traits. Those willing to share talked about your love of hunting, fishing, and the outdoors; how you are a ramblin’ man who has moved around everywhere all of your life; how much you hate being dependent on others, especially doctors; how you always play your cards close to your chest; how cussed stubborn you are and how hard you fight; your quick mind and even quicker wit; and your gentleness that you hide behind a gruff exterior. And even though you would have hated it, we shared the heartache and losses you had suffered through your life and your determination, in your later years, to make amends and build bridges.
The doctor then asked about your end-of-life wishes. What would you want us to do? That question was met with silence. Now, Daddy, we all knew what your wishes were; heck, ever since your brother Wade died and since your heart surgery, you have contemplated morality and told each of us, often, that you did not want to be kept alive by machines or live a half-life. “If I ever get that bad,” you told me, “Just take me out to pasture and shoot me.” Leave it to you, a farmer boy, to use that analogy to express your last wishes.
After the meeting, we were allowed to visit you, two at a time. Although all four of us girls talked to you via phone the night before, Sis and I wanted to talk to you in person, so we headed up. After getting covered from head to toe in sanitizer, masks, gowns, hairnets, and gloves, we walked in the door. I saw how emaciated you had become. Your cheeks were sunken. Dried blood lined your lips and nose. A scratchy beard had grown, sticking out from under the ventilator tubes and tape. “Looks like you need a shave,” I told you. “Although, this beard would be perfect for bear kisses.” Sis and I chuckled, remembering our childhoods and how you would tickle us with your beard. “Stop, Daddy. That tickles. Do it again.”
Your hands were hot and swollen. That was not a good sign. Your breathing was labored as if you were fighting with the ventilator or it was fighting with you. I could see the worry on Sis’ face. She knew firsthand what COVID could do. In turn, she saw the worry on mine. Despite our misgivings, we tried to convey how much we loved you, even though tears sometimes silenced our words. It soon became too much for Sis. Watching so many people wither away and die alone hurt her heart. Seeing you in the same state was more than she could bear. We had to leave.
Once we got back to the rest of the family, your brother and your wife went up to see you. We waited in the lobby, talking with the nurse on duty until they came down for lunch. We drove to one of your favorite restaurants to eat. Your sister, who had attended the meeting via phone, joined us for lunch. We chatted with one another. Staying silent was my stepmother, who was in deep thought, searching her heart for an answer she did not want to hear. At the end of the meal, she asked that we please take her home to let out the dog before we headed back to the hospital. I think she just wanted a little more time. After that task was done, we loaded ourselves back into the car for the drive back to the hospital. Again, she was quieter than usual. The rest of us tried to fill the silence. A few miles from the hospital, she said, with a hitch in her voice, “I have made a decision. I am going to let him go. It’s what he would have wanted.” After that, we had no words to say.
Back at the hospital, the shift had changed. The new lobby attendant was stricter than the one before and told us that we had to wait outside until it was our turn to visit. First up was your sister and your wife. My sister’s fiancé decided to wait in the car, giving us time as a family. Your brother, Sis, and I took up residence on a bench sitting in a gravel bed just below your window. The temperature was chilly but bearable, although we did huddle together on the bench for warmth and moral support. I sat silently on the end, looking down at the ground. Suddenly, I spotted something extraordinary, at least to me. Lying at my feet was a stone containing several brachiopod impressions. I was immediately transported back to my childhood when you and I went fossil hunting together, Daddy. Such good memories… my eyes teared up as I picked up the stone and put it in my pocket.
When your sister came down, she sent me up. It was time. The nurse allowed us a few moments with you alone. When she came back, she gave you some morphine to try and make you as comfortable as possible. She was then ready to take out the ventilator. I walked over to the window during this part, looking down at the rest of the family huddled together.
You were not happy about having that ventilator taken out, moaning and making sounds during the process. The nurse said soothingly. “I know, I know that feels uncomfortable. I’m sorry.” After you were unhooked, she stepped back and allowed your wife and me to sit on each side of the bed, holding your hands. As we were talking to you about how much those you would leave behind loved you, we were watching the monitors. Your heart rate slowly dropped, one slow beat at a time. I told you that your siblings Karen, Tommy, Wade, and Jody were waiting for you in the light and assured you that you would hold your baby boy on the other side.
When you flatlined, we both sobbed silent tears and kissed you on the head. About 30 seconds went by when suddenly the monitor started beeping again. Your heart was beating. The nurse who had come in to call your time of death said to us, “I see what you mean about him being a fighter.” I smiled at her observation. She was right; you were fighting, but we knew that no matter how strong your will, your body was not.
After about 20 minutes of your heart rate staying in the 70 beats per minute range, it began to fall again. It sounded as if you were trying to speak, but the words would not come. We stroked your arms and hands and face, saying soft words of love and telling you that it was alright to rest. You had fought long enough, and it was time to lay down your arms and go home. Again, you flatlined. But knowing you, I waited. About 10 seconds later, the monitor registered your heart rate fluctuating between 26 and 28 beats per minute. When the monitor zeroed out for the third time, I knew that you were gone.
Goodbye for now, Daddy. I will see you on the other side someday.