The Uncertainty of Life

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The Uncertainty of Life


Many of you have probably wondered where I’ve been lately. Last year was a time of big transition for me with my move to our new home in Delaware.  I took some time off to get a “feel” of what I wanted to do with my business. And, just as I was ready to get things going, well…life happened. So, my business is on hold for now. And, that’s okay. There was something more important to tend to…


Three weeks ago, to this day, I received one of “those calls” that nobody wants to get. It was a doctor from Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert, California, telling me that my father had been admitted with a large brain bleed. The prognosis was poor. Within a short period of time, I had made arrangements with a one-way ticket to fly out the next morning, knowing that I might not make it “in time.”


I arrived at the hospital the following evening, only to witness my Dad lying in intensive care, hooked up to monitors, barely conscious, with shallow, irregular breathing. His heart rate would fluctuate between 30 – 50 beats per minute. He showed signs of atrial fibrillation as he had been taken off his blood thinner, Coumadin, due to the bleed.


I took his hand in mine and said, “Hi Dad, how are you feeling?”  With his eyes barely open, he mumbled the words “Better, now that you’re here.” My heart sank.


I continued to sit there in the dark with him for the next hour, holding his hand, staring at his DNR wristband, and praying for his best outcome.  It was getting late and I found it hard to leave. I didn’t want to let go of his hand. I could feel him gently squeeze my hand periodically, for assurance and appreciation. But after traveling many hours, I was tired and longed for a good night’s sleep. I could only hope that he would still be alive in the morning. So I left to stay with close friends of the family who lived in La Quinta, a 30 minute drive from the hospital.


IMG_20160323_205000With my heart racing, I woke up early and got to the hospital only to find my father in the same condition. They had done a second CT scan to find that the bleeding had stopped but due to his old age of 87, with the size of the bleed being larger than a golf ball, there was nothing they could do. The doctors met with my brother and me only to recommend hospice. They didn’t give him more than a couple of days. “Just keep him comfortable. He will be unable to eat or drink… or he will aspirate,” they said. My father never wanted feeding tubes so we were there to honor his wishes. We chose to have hospice take place back at his bed and care facility. Later that day he was prepared for transport.


I watched the staff and transport team, in awe, as they gently moved Dad to the gurney.  The movement actually caused Dad to become more alert, his eyes darting around the room, as he tried to understand what was happening. I left the room and started to walk down the hall. All of a sudden, I heard a “cat call” whistle, only to turn around and see Dad on the gurney with his eyes wide open with a half smile. “Seriously?” I thought. “Did he really just do that?” I chuckled to myself in disbelief.


I ran an errand while the transport team took time to set up Dad in his casita in his special hospital bed at his bed and care facility, “Golden Autumn,” where his Hospice Care was to be conducted. He lived at this facility with five other elderly residents who also had physical and/or mental disabilities. The owner, Cyndy, an RN, took pride in her work, providing the best care with a well-trained staff.


Upon my arrival to the casita, Dad was in his new hospital bed, eyes wide open, with Cyndy at his side. Puzzled, I watched Cyndy help Dad drink a whole glass of water through a straw and take several spoonfuls of ice cream. Cyndy smiled as if to say, “I think he’s going to recover.” Concerned that he might aspirate as the doctors had said, we cautioned her to go easy with giving him solid food. But by the next day, Dad was eating solids without a problem.


It was obvious the brain bleed had affected his left side. He could barely lift his hand off the bed and his left leg lay motionless. Sadly we realized he will probably never stand or walk again. He barely spoke, nodding and making facial gestures to communicate.


IMG_20160323_204902The following morning my brother and I went to breakfast prior to visiting Dad. When we got to his casita, Dad saw us and we asked him how he was. He responded in a full sentence, and then proceeded to initiate conversation. We were amazed, mostly because he had not communicated like that in several years! Not only was he engaged in dialogue, but he was not wearing his hearing aids and he heard perfectly!  We took advantage of the situation and called family members so he could converse with them while able. We didn’t know if this was a short-lived rare phenomenon, but what a gift!


Later that day, I saw him sneeze and his left knee lifted up on the bed. I said, “Dad move your left leg… bend your knee.” He did. And upon asking him to lift his left arm, he was able to lift it above his chest. Confused and trying not to get too optimistic, I reached out to friends to tell them what was happening. Some did caution me that often people rally at the end of life before passing. Either way, it was a blessing.


IMG_20160309_112212As the days went on, Dad became quite unpredictable.  The talking became less and the fatigue increased. He graduated from the bed to a wheelchair and spent most of his time sleeping. But he started to eat by himself with his right hand and occasionally, used his left. There were days he could barely say anything, while on other days, he appeared alert, responding to questions with an occasional full sentence.


Relying solely on staff for almost everything made me wonder what was going through his head. Dad never complained about anything. He was always strong and independent and rarely shared his feelings. He could be having the worst day of his life and he would tell you that he was fine.


I remained in California unable to decide when I would return home to Delaware. Initially, I thought it would be less than a week, as I anticipated Dad to transition. Now, I watched him daily to determine if he was stable enough for me to go home. By the third week, Dad had a mix of good and bad days, but overall, wasn’t showing much change. He was still at risk for blood clots and embolisms as he was no longer on his Coumadin for his heart valve. But I chose to go home at the end of the week.


I know Dad enjoyed having me sit with him outside in the California sun. That was his favorite thing to do. I sat in silence a lot because he slept the majority of the time. But he would open his eyes on occasion, give me a quick glance, and go back to sleep.  The time spent with him was precious and I was grateful to have it.


IMG_1033-1The day before going home, I made it a point to let him know that his life is his and he can choose to go “home” to be with my mother when he decides.  He has defied death several times with many serious conditions and surgeries throughout his life. I told him that he was the man with “nine lives.” He smiled with pride. I also told him that he will remain in my heart forever because I loved him so much. “You know that. Right, Dad?” He nodded.


I chose to sleep in the casita in the queen bed next to Dad’s hospital bed the night before I left for the airport. Lying there and listening intently to the many sounds he made during his sleep became imprinted in my brain.  With the alarm going off at 4 am, I got up to get ready for my ride to the airport.  Dad opened his eyes and stared at me as I finished packing my bags. I told him I was leaving and he should go back to sleep.  I bent over and kissed him one more time, telling him that I loved him. As I closed the door of the casita behind me, I wondered if I would ever see him alive again. I then heard him mumble, “love you, too…bye.”  Tears welled up as I headed to Cyndy’s car, who had graciously offered to drive me to the airport.


So now, I am on my flight home reflecting on my time with Dad and the uncertainty of life.  I had heard of stories where the parent had died the day after the children left.  Perhaps Dad would prefer to die alone. A friend recently told me, “Sometimes death is like going to the bathroom. Some people prefer to do it in private.” Or, perhaps he will surprise us all with his “tenth life.”

So time will tell. But I do know that these last three weeks with my Dad were a miraculous gift and will remain in my heart forever.

Love you, Dad.

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Copyright Kathleen McGinley, Heartrock Healing 2016