An Unexpected Gift
2011 by Lauren Jaworski
When Dad was diagnosed with cancer, he said, “Hell, no!” to chemotherapy, radiation or any of those things that poison the body. He was eighty years old and figured he didn’t want to live much longer. He said he had had a full life, which he did. And he had me for a daughter, so hey! It doesn’t get much better than that.
Near the end, when Mom couldn’t take care of Dad anymore because he was in so much pain and on so many funky drugs, we decided to ask him if he would go into Hospice House. Dad’s second cousin directs the Hospice House, so we figured he’d get better than normal care. He agreed.
Dad had some really bad days, both at home and at Hospice House. One evening when visiting Mom and Dad at home, Dad was playing with the thermostat on the wall. My Mom said, “What ARE you doing?” He said, “I can’t get any coffee out of this damn thing!” I looked at her with horror, and she said, “Babe, that is not where you get coffee from.” All I remember is that sweet little boy face looking at her like SHE was the one all doped up on meds. Some days I wish I had those meds. Reality is highly overrated.
The worst day I can remember at Hospice House was when Dad was really drugged out and they were trying to let him adjust to the meds. He was running around in his underwear and his hat with a Sports Illustrated magazine in his hand. Literally, he ran up and down the halls of Hospice House babbling god knows what. My brother followed him to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.
Dad was so cool. He knew the drugs were making him goofy, and when he had lucid days we would tell him what he did and he would joke about it. I wish I thought it was funny, but Dad did. He said, “I don’t remember, so no big deal.” Wow.
Near the end, since I work downtown in hell and Hospice House is near hell, I used to stop there in the mornings to visit Dad before work. My Mom and brothers went later in the day, and I liked to go early and sit with him peacefully while he rested or ate breakfast. We’d watch the news, talk about the Indians (“Did they win last night?” he’d ask? Inside I was like, “Who cares?!?! My father is dying!” But on the outside, I was like, “Oh, yeah Dad. It was a great game! Hafner still isn’t doing shit though.”
On Tuesday morning, I stopped at Hospice House like I always did. Two weeks prior his doctor had told us he had a month to live, and two days after that he gave him one week. That Tuesday I walked in his room and he had a machine in his throat that was pumping fluid out. Each breath was a sticky, mucus-filled gasp. He was asleep, and it scared me, so I went to the Nurses’ Station. I said, “My father has a tube down his throat. Did something happen last night?” They said, “Well, he has lost his ability to swallow, so all of his saliva gets stuck in his throat and that machine helps pump it out.” Oh, okay. That’s cool. So not cool…
I went into his room and sat by his side. He was awake but could not talk, so I had to do all the talking. I told him how it was supposed to be 76 degrees that day and that Steve and Neil would probably leave work early to go golfing. I told him that Mom would be here in a few hours. I told him that my baby, Samantha, got a great interim report card. He listened, but his eyes were trying to tell ME something. But I couldn’t read them. Or maybe I didn’t want to. So, I kept blabbing. Good thing I’m good at blabbing.
Dad’s eyes fluttered closed and he started to breathe deeply, snore, whatever that sticky gasping could be called, so I took the opportunity to go outside and call my boss. I was bawling my eyes out when I told her what was going on, so she agreed I should take the day off. I knew we were near the end and that this was not going to be a great day.
Then, I sat with Dad again and his cousin, Bob (the Hospice Director), came in and saw me crying. He said, “You can hold his hand, ya’ know?” I said, “I know. Just giving him a break right now.” I did not want Dad to see how hard I was crying, so I was hiding my face from him. Bob felt bad for me. I could see it in his eyes. He didn’t need to say anymore, but he said, “I’ll check in on him a little later.”
I watched some stupid television. Well, it was on. Whether I was watching it or not is a different story. At about 10:30 when I knew Mom was awake for the day, I stepped outside Dad’s room, which was a lovely brick patio with benches and flowers and located right on the lake – gorgeous. I called Mom and told her about Dad’s new status, the tube in his throat, and she said (ever the strong one), “Well, that was bound to happen.”
BOUND to HAPPEN. Right.
Anyway, Mom and I talked for about half an hour. My Mom can talk about her toenails for half an hour, so it was easy to stay on the phone that long.
I went back in to Dad’s room and his eyes were wide open! They were so blue, but yellow around those gorgeous blue irises. He just plain looked sick. Well, duh, Lauri, he was sick. As sick as sick gets. Again it was like he was saying something with his eyes. To this day I wish I knew what he was trying to say. “Goodbye”? “It’s time for me to go now?” “Did the Indians win another one?”
I sat and talked to Dad a bit longer, saying, “Mom will be here in half an hour, and then Neil will be here around 1:00.” I smiled at him, sat back and closed my eyes for a minute, and the next thing I know his eyes started to roll back into his head. It sounds worse than it is. It was like he was dreaming – like his eyes were fluttering. Then, the raspy breathing stopped for a second and the most incredible smile that I had ever seen spread across Dad’s face. Like the sun shining so bright after a bad storm. The clouds rolled by, and for half a second, I just thought, “Whoa.” What did he see? What was he thinking about?
My Mom keeps saying it was gas, but that’s just because she’s my Mom and she’s a dork. Love you, Mom!
But then, the most incredible thing - Dad’s eyes came back to me. He took a couple calm breaths, his eyes fluttered again, and he smiled AGAIN! The only explanation that this blonde, Polish, daughter of a dying man can come up with is that he had passed away and had seen his mother for the first time in forty-five years. I picture her saying, in her broken English, “Chester.” I picture him with a huge smile saying, “There she is – my Julia!”
So, Mom, your gas theory is great and all, but I choose to believe that my father was experiencing something a little more relief than flatulence. He smiled and stopped breathing twice. Why?
Did he test it out before he decided he was ready to go? “Okay, let’s go see what this life after death stuff is about, and if I don’t like it, I’ll come back.” Then, wow! This is great. Sorry, Mare and kids, but I’m OUTTA HERE! Then, one last goodbye with a smile for me or a smile for the wonderful eighty years he lived, and then, “See you later!”
When the breathing and the smiling stopped, I waited a second. Just in case he decided there was more. When nothing else happened, I went into the Nurses’ Station and said, “I think something is happening with my father.” They followed me into his room and said, “Yes, you are right. He is near the end.” I said, “Is this the time when I should call my family and tell them to get down here?” They said, “Yes, why don’t you do that?”
Okay, Laur. Now be calm. You have to get Steve and Neil from work to Hospice House safely. You have to be the calm one here. (Not my forte’.)
I called Neil first. I left him a message and said, “Hi, Neil. It’s your sister. I am with Dad at Hospice House, and they are saying he is near the end. The nurses said you may want to get down here. Just make sure you get a ride if you aren’t sure you can drive. I want you to be safe. Okay. I’ll see you soon.”
Then, I called Steve. He answered on the second ring, and I could tell he was at work. He was going to be the tough one. “Steve, it’s Laur.”
“I’m at Hospice House, and they are saying that Dad is near the end. You want to get down here.”
He said, “Okay, I’m on my way.”
I said, “Why don’t you have someone drive you. I want you to be safe.”
He said, “Nope. I’ve got it. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Then, I called Mom. We had just hung up what seemed like five minutes earlier. But time flies when the mind is on auto-pilot. I said, “Mom, you may want to get down here sooner rather than later.”
Then, I went into Dad’s room again to see what was going on and the nurses said, “He’s gone.”
I guess I thought I would freak out. I guess I thought I would break down into tears and fall on the floor in a fit of insanity. But I said, “He is?”
He looked so peaceful.
The nurses asked me if I wanted to say goodbye, but I said, “Oh, I already did.” Didn’t I? Wasn’t it too late? That was no longer my father. I saw my father leave this bullshit life and enter another world. Another plane. Another stratosphere or whatever you might call it. Paradise?
I didn’t cry. I called my cousin, Linda, and told her he was gone. We had talked to each other every day recently, so it was nice to hear her familiar voice. I called my boss and said, “My Dad just died.” I’m surprised she didn’t ask me, “Oh, okay, so you’re coming to work now?” She’s a troll.
I walked outside into the beautiful sunshine and waited for my brother, Steve, at the front door of Hospice House. When his car pulled up, I walked to the curb and he said, “Is he gone?” I said, “Yeah.” He was still in his car and had to get into a parking spot, and I wanted him to be okay. I am a good mother. I worry like no other.
He and I walked into Hospice House together, walked into Dad’s room, and Steve was okay. I guess we all felt the same. This sucks out loud, but we would rather Dad be out of pain more than anything else in the world.
Steve went out into the hall to see if he could find Dad’s doctor when Neil walked in. “He’s gone,” I said.
Neil smiled. He smiled that Chester smile. Dad was smiling at me again.
A few minutes later Mom walked in with my precious baby girl. Okay, so she’s fifteen, but cut me some slack. I needed my baby.
Mom said, “He’s dead?”
I said, “Yeah.”
She said, “Oh, wow.” That woman is an interesting one. She is kind and cool and funny, but when it comes to emotions, she is the Queen of the Cucumbers. The Stoic of all Stoics. God knows what goes on inside that heart or head of hers. I did not get most of her practical genes. I think she gave them all to Steve and Neil, ‘cuz I got nuthin’!
I said at Dad’s eulogy that I am a cynic. I am not sure I believe in heaven or in life after death or what I believe in. Until I saw Dad smile before he left this world as we know it. I have tried to explain it away, but I can’t make it make sense any other way.
My greatest fear when Dad got sick was that I would be alone with him when he died. What would I do? How would I call my family and tell them? That would be too much for me to bear.
Being with him at that moment was the most amazing and unexpected gift I could have ever asked for.
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