So I’ve been quiet over here lately, mostly because I decided to start writing about music over on Medium and have been focusing my writing time and attention on that. I’ve been meaning to pop back over here and talk about what I’ve been up to for the last month, but unfortunately, I’m here to report pretty big but sad news.
My dad died on Saturday.
He’s been battling cancer all year, of course, and something told me back when we got the news that I’d be sitting here writing this post before the end of the year.
First, within the last couple of months, if that, we got the news that the chemotherapy he’d been doing wasn’t working and that the cancer had actually spread. He started immunotherapy instead, but he’d only done one session–surely, not enough for it to do much–before the cancer really started to take its toll.
My cousin Meredith was in town for a weekend a couple weeks ago, so I met up with her and Marissa that Friday night for dinner in Pittsburgh. I was even saying that night that if the immunotherapy didn’t go well, there was no way he was gonna make it through the year. We stayed out pretty late–I got in around 2 a.m. and woke up to my mom calling me at 7 to let me know that my dad had gone to the hospital overnight, likely right around the time I was finally going to bed, and that they were talking about the possibility of hospice care.
He was in the hospital for about 10 days after that, with a number of ups and downs along the way–first, things turned around and they were prepared to discharge him Saturday night, but he’d been in pain so neither he nor my mom had been sleeping well and they both thought they’d rest better if he stayed overnight. Somehow, things declined after that, and one day he’d be doing okay and close to getting ready to go home and the next, he was on oxygen or having fluid drained from his stomach or a lung. After the first couple of days, he slept almost the entire time, and when he talked, we could barely hear him. Paul and I spent the bulk of a visit just sitting talking to each other while he slept. He was awake maybe a few minutes, if that.
His doctors in Philadelphia, where he was being treated for the cancer, were still confident that they could help him and said they wouldn’t have even started the immunotherapy if they felt that it was time for hospice, so the goal became to get him strong enough to get out of the hospital and back into treatment. Despite feeling pretty ready to give up, he’d agreed to it, almost definitely because we were using Eliana, his new granddaughter, to encourage him.
The problem was getting him to that point. His Philly doctors may have thought they could’ve helped, and they probably could have, but he was just too wiped out at that point and finally decided to go home to do hospice care and got that set up. I drove out to my parents’ house last Tuesday to help my mom and Uncle Eric, a former army medic, get him situated. He looked awful–he’d lost a lot of weight over the course of the year and probably longer, when you consider when the tumor developed versus when he was diagnosed, and his face and shoulders especially looked really, really thin, while his stomach looked bloated, almost definitely from fluid and tumors.
I stayed to listen to the details the hospice nurse went over, thinking about how weird it was to basically be talking about someone dying when they were right down the hall, and popped in to give him a hug before I left. That ended up being the last time I saw him awake.
My mom had a hair appointment Saturday morning and asked me to come sit with him, so I headed out early. I forgot I needed to stop for gas, so I texted her to let her know I was doing that and would be a few minutes later than I said. She said she was afraid his lung had filled with fluid again and called a nurse, and by the time I got there, she’d canceled her hair appointment, too, since the nurse hadn’t arrived yet. When she did arrive, things actually seemed okay–she did some things to make him more comfortable and make things easier and got him drugs to help with a small amount of fluid, and although he sounded bad, it wasn’t so bad that anything needed drained.
Uncle Eric checked in, too, the nurse left, and I helped give him some meds and hung around a little longer, until almost 3 in the afternoon. I poked in the room–my old bedroom, actually–and noticed his breathing was really slow and let my mom know.
Paul and I were planning to spend the evening seeing a movie, and I’d only been home a few minutes and we were about to get ready to head back out when my mom called his phone. I glanced at mine and saw I had no missed calls or texts, and when he answered, I could hear her voice cracking asking if I was home yet and for him to put me on. I pretty much knew, even as soon as his phone rang and not mine, that he had died and she didn’t want to tell me while I was driving.
It turns out that he’d probably died at most a half-hour after I left. My mom went back to check on him and noticed he wasn’t breathing. She called Uncle Eric and the nurse, but Uncle Eric was closer and got there with a stethoscope. He didn’t hear anything. It was probably about 15 minutes later that she called Paul’s phone.
I had barely eaten all day, so we got some food delivered, sat out on the deck a little bit, and then packed overnight bags and drove back out to the house. We were tearfully greeted by my my mom’s best friend, Lisa; my Aunt Gina; my godmother; and her mother, plus my brother, his wife, and the baby.
The extended family cleared out pretty quick, I assume to give us time and space. Lisa hung around and we all shared some wine–Brandon already had a beer in his hand when I got there. We spent the evening watching one of my mom’s favorite movies, ’70s crime parody Murder by Death, and us kids, our spouses, and baby Eliana spent the night.
Sunday, Brandon, my mom, Uncle Eric, and I went to plan the funeral, and Kelly and Paul hung back at the house with Eliana in case anyone showed up with food, and show up they did. I think by the end of the whole mess, we had two sandwich rings, potato salad, macaroni salad, pasta salad, actual salad, rigatoni, fruit tarts, cookies, and cake from family, friends, and neighbors. And it was useful. It kept us all fed through Wednesday, pretty much.
We decided to do a short viewing Monday and a longer one Tuesday with the funeral Wednesday, so the whole three days was basically a whirlwind of sitting in the funeral home and talking to people. Monday I was having a fair bit of anxiety about seeing him in the casket from the first time, but other than the final goodbyes before processing to the cemetery, I was pretty okay. Well, except for when the Honor Guard, who stands by the casket, came in line and individually saluted his casket before the start of each viewing.
One of my mom’s aunts tried to talk her out of doing a two-day viewing, which I can understand, but the three of us–Mom and kids–all felt that a lot of his military connections would want to come and that a two-day viewing would give them more time to make it. Judging by the line Tuesday night, we were right. A whole line of guys from his various support groups came in, as well as the guys from his unit and guys he deployed with, even most of the guys who were in the tank with him years ago when he threw the grenade out of it. Friends of all of ours came over the course of the three days, plus some extended family and the occasional, “Do you know who that is?” met with a shrug.
Monday night, we went out for drinks with Uncle Clark, and Brandon’s sister-in-law Katie, her boyfriend, and a friend of theirs joined us. Of course, we did a round of shots. Tuesday night, I wasn’t really feeling it and lounged around my parents’ house for a bit instead.
Brandon and I were both thinking of speaking at the funeral, and I wasn’t sure I was gonna do it pretty much until the pastor called me up. I even told her there was a chance I’d change my mind at the last second, but weirdly, it was easy. We both got through our bits calmly–I talked about how I watched Star Trek with him as a kid and how we shared a love of food and music and closed by saying when we all get up there, we’ll meet him for a concert and buffet dinner once again like we’ve always done, and Brandon talked about how he was basically Peter Griffin and Stan Smith combined. We used to joke that we could sue Seth MacFarlane for stealing material from our own damn house for his shows.
The final goodbyes were difficult, and figures that I put more mascara on, totally forgetting that his coffin would be draped in an American flag and carried out by the Honor Guard. The ceremony at the cemetery was really nice, though, and he would’ve liked it, especially as someone who’s been saying for years that he was eligible for a full military burial. There was a gun salute–not technically 21 guns, but seven guns fired three times–and “Taps,” which can make me teary on a regular day, so I knew that it was gonna get to me like it did and was probably my most emotional moment of the whole few days, maybe with the exception of when my mom first told me. My mom was presented with the flag from his casket and a plaque.
The cemetery is closer to where I live and work than my mom and most of the rest of the family, so when we were making plans, myself and my cousin who’s nearby were asked for some input on where we could eat afterwards. We settled on this nice place we’d both been to separately called Juniper Grill, and my mom said that from the second she called them to ask about it, they were so nice that that alone won her over and she almost didn’t even want to call other places. I helped pick out the food, and we had a really nice dinner, under the circumstances, with this cornbread my dad would’ve loved. When the pastor gave the blessing and she asked us if there was anything we wanted her to add, I told her to tell everyone to eat as much as he would have.
Near the end, when everyone was getting ready to go, we did one more round of shots–we ordered 20 and had 17 participants, from us youngins to great uncles to even the pastor. Brandon and I took the three remaining shots, turned them into just two, and did them on our own, just us two kids.
I’m exhausted now, mostly physically, but some of that’s probably emotional weight, too. All in all, we’re all doing okay–the thing about all of this from the start of his treatments to now is that when I’m at home, everything feels normal. My day-to-day life is mostly the same. But I know that’s not gonna last and that some of the weirdest, hardest parts are yet to come. Lisa said to me Saturday night that nothing will be quite the same, that I’ll be going about my business and just think, “My dad is dead,” that things will remind me of him. I know the first time I go to share something funny in our group text, I’ll have to stop myself and remember Dad’s not in it anymore. That though we expanded to a family six when Brandon and I got married and now seven with Eliana, when we go to sit at a restaurant or buy concert tickets, we’re down one.