Trigger Warning: If reading about death is a trigger, you may not want to read this.
I had to dress my dad's dead body. Is that something people do? Is it strange for me to even mention it? Considering the way my head works; the way my internal dialog is usually met with societal expectations- it's either something everyone does or my doing it is weird.
It can't be that weird because I didn't do it by choice. The Hospice nurse called me into my dad's room to help her do so. First she asked me to grab a diaper- something he refused to wear. Other than that disposable garment, my mom chose the outfit that would be his last; A soft, from years of wearing and washing, button-up shirt and a pair of jeans that had a zipper sewn into the side-bottom of the left leg (I think it was the left leg). Also, his belt.
He hadn't worn his prosthetic leg in at least a week, after things went really bad. Not that things weren't "really bad" for a long, long time. Things went really, really, really bad at the end, I guess.
My mom left the room while the nurse and I pulled his jeans up over his feet, past his knees and over the diaper. She called me to the living room and asked me to ask the nurse to check again if he was actually dead, so I did. She asked the nurse if it was normal for a dead body to be warm in certain parts. The nurse said that it was.
He was so heavy. So hard to move around. I learned about how heavy he was in October, when he was first "admitted" into Hospice care at home, after a spell where he forgot his circumstance. Early in the morning, before the sun rose, he somehow hopped on one leg to the bathroom next to his room and nearly fell. He hollered something awful, which woke me up. I tried to hold him and ease him into his wheelchair, but the best I could do was to help him to the floor, where he ended up sitting. He had peed himself in the process. (That's the reason he made his way to the bathroom.) We had to call the fire department. Something called "lift assist" where firemen come and carefully lift people who need lifting. He was nearly a skeleton but he was wasn't capable, at that point, to help out at all and therefore far too heavy for me to do anything but carefully ease him onto the floor.
I didn't mind dressing him, or rather, "his body." After all that my mom had to witness and endure toward the end and after so many years as his caregiver, I was glad to be able to do this for her and for the wishes I knew he had- regarding her emotional well being.
That day, the day he was dying, was so strange. (How could it not be?) I had arrived the evening before, on Saturday. I was not planning on driving up that soon. It was a week earlier than I had planned but the "planets" that were orbiting my work and financial life, as well as my dad's quickly failing health, all suddenly aligned. I knew without a doubt that it was time to go.
When I arrived I found my dad suffering through what I later learned is called "terminal agitation." He was refusing all food and fighting my mom's attempts at giving him his medicine. What was most upsetting, however, were his constant efforts to get up and out of bed. he could only "half-way" do this- and if he did manage to get up, he'd inevitably fall and hurt himself or get stuck on the floor, in some uncomfortable position. This led my mom to call the nurses to help on several occasions. They told her he was tensing up (part of the terminal agitation), and this tension made it difficult for anyone to scoot him back into bed. His stubborn nature, however, was something my mom and I were very familiar with. It made sense that his instinctive bahavior would lead him to react to impending death in this way
When I arrived, I did what I could to help my mom with him and he saw me. Just his eyes.
She administered the Morphine and Lorazepam, but not as high of a dose the nurses were instructing her to give him because he didn't want any of it, and my mom wanted to honor his wishes, at least to a certain extent. This, however, was allowing him to experience more agitation and during the night, he made some terrible sounds. Finally my mom listened to the nurses (and me) and increased his dosages. That Sunday morning was when we began his hourly regimen of comfort meds, including a newer, stronger one. I can't remember its name.
Earlier though, on that Saturday evening after I had arrived, my mom suggested I take myself out to eat, as she knew it would be a rough night, so I went to a nearby Chinese restaurant and a woman with her adult son made a scene. She was trying to get a refund for some soup she had the night before, that she claimed was drugged. The staff refused to give her anything back. The waitress apologized to each of the patrons individually, after the demanding woman had left, and assured us that her food was not poisoned. The radio in the restaurant was set on a Christian station that played a sermon and static, intermittently. The lighting was fluorescent and it allowed me to notice things like stains on their silk flower decorations. There was a party of local drunk people in an area to my right, separated by a half-wall. They didn't notice the lady making the scene. After I drank my half-sake and ate my rice and bowl of hot and sour soup (indeed not poisoned) I opened my fortune cookie. It read, "Always a valley before a hill." What the hell does that mean? Is that good? Is the valley the hard part? Wouldn't it be exhausting to climb out of a valley only to find a hill lying ahead? Wisdom. The fortune and the "ambiance" that night felt like a clear cosmic joke -perfectly aligned to the entirety of life at that moment. If I wasn't scared, I'd have laughed out loud.
Saturday night was when I finally realized my mom was having a hard time facing the inevitability and very real occasion of my dad's death. She suddenly wanted to put him somewhere, in some kind of home where he could receive the help she believed she could no longer give him. She said she was too old and frail to deal with his worsened state.
On Sunday the nurses came and helped my mom accept the reality as it was, by telling her in a clear manner, that the transport to another location would be moot, if not harmful- in regard to my dad's wishes to be at home. I say "be" at home as opposed to "die" at home because the conversation, once he returned from his last hospital visit (exactly two months from his death-date) was about his continued life- how we could help him get around and do the things he liked to do. I mean, there were some moments of clarity where he spoke to me about the finality of financial matters and what he wished for our future without him and my mother's sense of comfort. He also spoke to my mom at the hospital about his fear of dying. He made it clear that he was afraid, that he didn't want to die. Other than that, he wanted to keep plugging along with ways to continue his life, regardless of his condition. After all, the doctors told him he'd have ten years to live back in 1995.
My dad beat a lot of the odds. He did so while heavily medicated and limited on activity and movement, but he defied a lot of odds.
That Sunday morning though, his body was done defying, denying and working. Early that morning, one of the nurses came and sat with my mom and I. He had come a few times before, during the Hospice experience, and chatted with my dad about their mutual interest in radio controlled airplanes.
Just before he arrived, my mom had administered enough of the comfort medicines to my dad so that he fell into a sound sleep. She didn't like the new, stronger medicine she had to add to the mix, because he threw up a bit while asleep, at one point, which we soon found out was most likely a symptom of his dying, not the medicine. She couldn't accept that though. Later in the day I called the nurses in frustration and they told me I had to force my mother to give him all of his meds or else the agitation would worsen. Or else he would die within his feeling of agitation and panic. I did not want him to die that way.
That morning we vented a lot and asked the nurse who liked radio controlled planes if he could help situate my dad in his hospital-style bed. He was very kind and he listened well. Upon walking into the bedroom, he paused. He mumbled something. I was behind him. When I asked him to repeat what he said, he responded, "His way of breathing tells me that he's..." he leaned in closer to me "he's transitioning now."
My reaction was to go to the living room and tell my mom the news; that it was now occurring. She didn't believe me. She said she had heard the same thing many times before, over the years and recently.
The nurse moved my dad into the position he would die in, later that night. He placed pillows at his sides and raised the bed frame by his head. He raised his legs. He looked comfortable. My dad stayed asleep through the position shift. That was when I first noticed his breathing was a timed pull and click, over and over again. This was the sign of transition.
I thought about a dying chihuahua I once sat with. Many years ago. The only living thing whose death I'd ever been present for. He did the same thing as I held him on my lap. His breath became a pull and a click. His consciousness seemed to leave a while before that.
We don't know if my dad lost consciousness because of the condition, or the drugs caused him to get to that point. The nurses told us it was the condition, that he'd have gotten there with or without the drugs, just with less "comfort."
I don't think my dad made peace with death, not while he was conscious, anyway. My hope is that there was some kind of magic that occurred on that Sunday, where perhaps, the parts of him that exist in some kind of "hovering" and wiser and omnipresent or liminal realm, above fear and above worrying human consciousness took over.
There was one point, after I found out that he was going, when I was helping my mom administer his comfort beds (given in the mouth, using syringes) that I swear I saw the movement of something like particles, above him. There was natural light in the room, but not the kind of light beams that hold dust particles. It was different. This may have happened before or after he let out a pained moan. His last.
He moaned in the late afternoon but he died closer to 8:30pm. That's what I decided on, as his death time, but it happened some time between 8:15 and 8:30, as we had just administered one of his doses and another needed to be given at 8:30.
I was having a glass of red wine and reading Joan Didion's The White Album: Essays, on my phone. The one about the L.A. freeways, when I heard my mom's snore. She fell asleep on the couch. It was then I noticed my dad's loud clicking sound seemed to have stopped, but I wasn't sure if it actually did or if her snoring was covering it up. I figured as well, that maybe his breath simply became more relaxed- that he had evolved into a new stage of transition. Part of me hoped too, that all of this suffering was over. Finally over.
There was a feeling of peace in the mobile home that I hadn't felt before, or ever, so I decided to let things be.
I was ready for a long night, for staying awake, so eventually I decided to walk carefully and quietly to my dad's bedroom and check up on him. I was considering administering his medicine myself, although I was afraid he would wake up and be terribly disturbed. He only trusted my mom.
I found my dad in the same position he had been in all day, but his head was lowered to the right. His chest was still. No click, no pull, no heaving. He was gone.
I thought about the fact that my mom had fallen asleep, of all times, while he died. In-between a span of only fifteen minutes, even though the nurse confirmed that he was "transitioning" since early in the morning.
I thought about how I decided to not rush to check on him when I felt the air of calm and peace. I thought that their spirits may have connected during that time. That somehow her unconscious self may have reached his or vice-versa, and he left that way, in peace.
I tip-toed back to the couch and squatted down beside my mom. I touched her arm gently and I said, "I don't want you to get freaked out but..." of course this freaked her out and she lept up in a panic. I said, "I could be wrong, but I think he's not here anymore." She put her shoes on (she always wears shoes inside) and together we walked to his room. She touched his head and, just like every other time she checked in on him that day, her tears fell onto him. She looked over at me and asked, "Is he dead?" I said, "I think so." She kissed him and put her hands on his. I sat at the end of the bed and put my hand on his foot, the one he still had left, and we cried for a little while.
Eventually I realized that we needed to call a Hospice nurse, and that's what I did. Before she arrived my mom asked me if we should dress him and I didn't know whether we were supposed to. When the nurse arrived, after I helped her dress my dad, after she had called the morturary on our behalf and notified her office and observed me disposing of his medicines, it was just my mom and I with my dad lying flat on his bed and dressed, and covered in his favorite blanket, in his room where he died.
My mom and I took turns walking back up to see him, his body now just a body. She continued to mention his warm body parts, so I reminded her what the nurse said, that it was normal for that to occur.
The morturary took a while to get to us, but we didn't mind having him stay with us. I didn't mind. I thought it was important. I wanted him to stay for a while in this "space" that was without suffering. Finally. My mom was worried about his skin changing color, of him changing. She didn't want to see him like that, so I eventually called the mortuary to make sure they were on their way and they came within minutes after I hung up.
His physical body left quietly. They used the back door, right next to his room. It was just a woman and a young man. The young man was wearing a formal burgundy and black suit. He looked like he might have left a school dance, or maybe this was something he wore as a uniform for this task. His way of showing respect.
In any case, they put him in the back of a Suburban. No police, no ambulance, no firetrucks, no lights. No one in the mobile home park even noticed. I was very glad for that.
Change of energy.
This is the hard stuff. Not as hard as dying or suffering but hard for me to admit to, in the face of grief.
The energy has changed a bit (just a bit), in this place. His space, and I have a need to be with this.
I said my goodbye to him in a way I believe to be honorable. I learned to accept the best love he could give. I forgave and I had compassion and I developed boundaries. I tried to be a vessel for good energy throughout the year of his transition.
When we found out his time was limited a little over a year ago, back when I was in L.A., I was terrified. I hadn't a clue as to what the right thing to do, was. I listened to everyone who told me that I was going to "lose it" when he died. But the transition was slow. I suppose I'm thankful I had time to digest what what happening and perhaps that time gave me emotional fortitude to handle other unexpected life-hurtles I ended up needing to make my way through and over.
That weekend, a little over a year ago, when my dad had his strokes and we learned there were no more surgeries or procedures that could be done in order to save him, I meditated in nature and tried to transfer pain and suffering in myself, in my mother and in him. The equivalent of prayer, or actual prayer, for everything to transpire with as much beauty and spiritual purpose as possible. Less fear, less anger. For all involved. To keep myself who I am, through it all. Remembering that I left a toxic environment that I believed to be the root of my making choices and relationships that put me in bad positions of power.
So, when my dad's body left, I entered his room and waved my arms and hands around. I tried to move the air. I stayed in the room alone and shook my hands. I turned, slowly, in circles and felt a bit weird about it but it's what my intuition told me to do.
His suffering was done. His energy was in the process of leaving. I had the opportunity, in my mind, to act as a kind of "midwife" to this. To try and ease it to a better place. Not with anger, but with a sense of relief and release.
It's been three weeks of ritual for me. Reclaiming, with tenderness, this place that was so toxic for so long. Cleaning the walls, the floors. Picking up wild beach sage and bringing it into the space. I asked my mom if she would put one of her plants in his room as a symbol of life and she agreed. Now I'm in the same room, typing this.
In respect to the energy shift- I've been waiting my whole life to do this.
I'm not wrong when I say he was so angry for so long. He held such grudges. My parents couldn't bring themselves to be the parents they needed to be. They weren't socialized. Self-centered. They didn't communicate with each other or my brother and I in a way that created a wholeness; to actualize a space of forgiveness and love. They loved in their own ways. I was often the in-between fiber to something I absolutely had to get away from. But now, for this, I'm back.
I'm here for the landscape. The trees, the beach, the ocean, my memories. The great deal of compassion I feel for my mom's sense of loss and guilt- her age and physical condition (she's several years older than my dad). I'm here for the salt air that makes me feel peace the way I never have in L.A.. The birds, the space around people, vehicles and buildings. The dampness, the cold. The old people, the walks, the fucking sea otters and jellyfish.
I'm here to be empowered through a process of letting go with as much love as I can muster up. I may not be grieving or fighting through old, messed up attachment issues I've developed the way I might be expected to, but I'm not out of control, and I'm not losing myself (yet). I'm coming to terms with change and creating another new life. I'm excited about new work and new views that come with something this big, while rendering myself as being tangled, carefully, into old roots that have been waiting.
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.