The Last Day

During the 9/11/01 attacks on the United States, I was performing Drill Sergeant duties at Fort Benning, Georgia for the United States Army.  I had been planning on exiting the Army to be closer to my family, specifically my father as his health had been slowly declining for years.  The attacks gave me reason to rethink my plan to stop serving in the Army as I knew what our next action was going to be, but in the end, and after much soul-searching about whether to stay in the Army and help my fellow service members during their time of need or follow through with my plans and go home to be near my father, I decided that I needed to go home, regardless of how that made my feel (I truly felt like I was deserting my brothers and sisters in arms, but I couldn’t do both)… and I was soon glad that I had done so.

On December 9th, 2001, I was a Drill Sergeant in the Army, and on the 10th I was an unemployed civilian, driving across country with my family.  We drove home to California and I spent three long weeks looking for work during a time when no one was traveling, and the economy was at an absolute stand-still.  Eventually, I applied with a company that was owned by a Vietnam veteran, and he knew that I could manage one of his restaurants based on my military accomplishments so I was hired and set about managing a restaurant.  It was a job I absolutely hated, but I was closer to my family… and my father.  My employment agreement mandated that I work ten hour shifts, five days a week and my shifts were always varied.  I would work just about every weekend and thus was unable to see my family as often as I would have liked, being 100 miles away from them.

In 2002, Easter fell on March 31st.  My father had gone into the hospital for a complication of one of his numerous ailments a couple of days before hand, and I happened to have been off work so I spent time in my hometown with my mother and brother, and we visited dad often.  My sister was with her future husband and in-laws, headed to Anaheim, California for a Disneyland vacation.  While my family is very close, it was rather small as many of the elders had been passing away, but we recently discovered another branch of our family tree was only an hour away from us, and it had many leaves.  All of a sudden, the size of our family tripled, and we enjoyed each others company on holidays or for random get-togethers.  This year, one of the “new” family members was hosting an Easter dinner for EVERYONE.  I left the hospital early on Easter morning, drove an hour and a half to pick up my wife and children, and we headed to the gathering.  My mother asked me to send her regards to everyone and apologize for not attending as she had planned, but she was staying with Manny (Dad) at the hospital.

I arrived at the house for the Easter gathering and began to mingle with a vast number of family members that I hardly knew at all (some I had never met before).  About an hour after I arrived, my mom called the house.  ”Danny, you need to come back up here right away.  Dad’s in bad shape.”  I was shocked, he was alert and seemed to be doing pretty well when I left just two or three hours before but I knew my mother wouldn’t say this if it wasn’t dire (she has a very bad habit of having medical procedures completed and not telling me until after the fact, they being easy to hide as I generally live thousands of miles from her), so I explained what was happening to my wife, organized for someone to take her and the kids home after the party, and I left… headed back to the hospital in Reno, Nevada to see my father.

When I got there, dad was unconscious.  Mom was sitting at his bed side holding vigil, waiting for my brother, sister and I to arrive… and to see what would happen next.

This is difficult for me to write about as it puts me in an obvious “funk,” and that’s why I’ve neglected my blog for so long.  I knew what I was going to write about, and I just wasn’t ready to re-live this just yet.  Anyway, on with the story…

I can’t tell you when my brother arrived, he may very well have beat me there.  This doesn’t stick out in my mind.  I do recall that my sister was phoned to get home just as she was waiting in line to enter the “Worlds Happiest Place,” and she apparently broke down immediately.  The Disney employees wisked her and the rest of her party into a private area so she could calm down and make travel arrangements.  Her boyfriends parents, now her in-laws, bought her a plane ticket and got her right to the airport.   My mother, brother and I held vigil at dads bedside, as we were informed by the hospital staff that this was “it,”… he was at the end of his journey and it was just a matter of time.  I have a distinct memory of my mother commenting that he WOULD pass away on Easter, that that would be just like him (ever the non-believer, well.. only mom really believes).  He didn’t.  My sister arrived some time in the evening and joined us in our wait.  We continuously talked to dad, told him that we would be OK, and it was alright for him to go… to stop hurting and suffering… This went on all night with no improvement or decline in dads condition.

Mom’s worry that dad might pass on Easter and eternally link his death with a day she celebrates religiously proved to be unwarranted as the sun rose on April 1st and dad was still with us.  That morning, after 12 hours of waiting by the bed side, a nurse came in and talked to us.  It was a forgone conclusion that dad wasn’t going to leave the hospital and that he was at the end of his time with us, and the nurse had spent all night watching us and listening to us talk to him… reassuring him that we would be OK and we understood.  She said that she could increase his Morphine dosage (he was on it for pain already) and that would help him finish his journey.  The additional dose given to dad wasn’t FOR him and we understood that; that dosage was for us.

We all knew that dad wouldn’t want to live artificially, or in pain.  His actions leading up to this day all showed that he believed in quality over quantity in this regard.  The four of us discussed it and in short order decided that we would allow the nurse to increase his dosage.  We all fought internally with the idea that we would be going against his wishes, or that we might be “causing” his end… but that’s just the guilt and the sadness of the event and we all eventually understood that.

We continued to encourage dad, telling him we would be ok, and then around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, it happened.  This is EXACTLY how it went:

If you are looking at the hospital bed from it’s foot, my mom was on the left side at my dads head.  My brother, sister and I were all together, arms around each other on the right side of the bed, just at dads feet.  After 20 hours or so of being asleep and not coherent, dad opened his eyes and looked at the three of us kids on his left (right side of the bed as I explained).  He tried to speak, but could barely move his mouth.  We all told him we loved him, that we understood, and we’d be fine.  I told dad that I would take care of everyone as best I could.

I had to take a break from my writing here… couldn’t see the screen through my tears.  Damn I miss him.

Dad then turned his head to look at my mother who was sitting right next to him, holding his hand.  With his last ounce of strength, he very clearly mouthed “I love you.”  Mom responded “I love you too.”  Dad closed his eyes, and his lungs slowly emptied of his last breath.

If you knew my father at all, you would know that it was more than fitting that he died on April 1st, on April Fools Day.  He was a joker, and the stories we relate later in our writings will show this… I miss dad terribly, and while I love a good joke, I hate April Fools Day now.  It’s a somber day when my brother, sister and I all call each other to see how we’re doing, make sure everyone is ok… and remember “Our April Fool.”

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