Before walking became a “cool” exercise, my parents were all about going walking. I remember summer evenings marching around our huge back yard with Mom, Dad, and my brother for several laps multiple days every week. One evening my brother wanted to race from the very back of the yard to the back of the house. The four of us started to run, but Mom and I almost immediately fell behind. My chubby self has never been a runner, and Mom will quickly tell you that birthing two children dashed any hope of being able to run without piddling on herself.
My brother had a comfortable second place spot, but Dad totally schooled him on how far he had to go to catch up to his speed. His arms and legs blurred together as they dashed through the muggy summer air. The Six Million Dollar Man had nothing on him; the only thing missing was the bionic sound effect.
The memory played through my head as I sat by his bed in CCU and held his hand last Saturday night into Sunday morning, after the nurses told us he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. A breathing machine pumped oxygen into his lungs and multiple IV bags fed him a concoction of three antibiotics, fluids, sugar water and blood pressure medicine. What had started as a urinary tract infection Monday led to pneumonia by the end of the week, and his body, run down by months of chemo treatments and ten days of radiation for lymphoma, could no longer fight off what was going on.
We were all struck dumb. How could he have gone from sitting up in a chair three days before to not being able to make it through the night? This man mowed an acre-and-a-half lawn a couple of days after his first chemo treatment. This man once rebuilt a VW bug engine and almost single-handedly lowered it back into the vehicle. This man once beat all the bigger high school football players with the most pull-ups.
All the tests had showed that the cancer was not making major advances in his body. How could he suddenly be not strong enough to fight? Why was his body giving up now? There was supposed to be more time. The treatments were maintaining the cancer. We knew a day would come when they would not be effective, and then we would talk about Hospice and pain management and DNRs and living wills.
We were unprepared for this.
We had to make the decision to disconnect the breathing machine and IVs. Once the tubes were removed, he was physically gone in a couple of minutes. I continued to sit and hold his hand while other family members came in to say good-bye. Part of me wanted to run — out of the CCU, out of the hospital, across the streets of downtown Greenville. I wanted to run and scream and cry in anger, in confusion, in shock, but I stayed because running away meant letting go of his hand. The hands that repaired hundreds of printing presses and copiers over a 40-year career, fixed at least a couple dozen cars on weekends, put together a short-wave radio for my seventh-grade science project, built a two-car garage and a back porch sunroom, carried the heavy stuff into my dorm room in Columbia during the miserable days of August. He was a man who worked with his hands and was more interested in action than words.
When I came home from college on weekends, I liked to rent movies to watch on Friday night, and being the English major, I often picked the introspective ones. I remember him getting up from the den one night during a movie (don’t remember which one) and saying, “They talk too much in this movie, Carla.”
In his CCU room, discussions took place about how the mortuary would arrive in a half-hour to take him. Mom eventually asked if I was ready to go, but I shook my head. “I don’t want to leave him,” I said, and then I broke down, repeating the same sentence over and over.
Other family members left, but I was unaware of their absence. Four of us were left there with Dad — Mom, my brother, The Husband, and me. Somehow I found the will to stand and, after a few more minutes, let go of his hand. When I did, I knew I had to walk out of the room and not look back. Exiting the hospital and riding home still feels like a blur — perhaps from shock and perhaps also from fatigue since it was after 2 a.m. on Sunday morning.
We got home around 3 a.m., and because I knew some friends on Facebook would ask, I typed the only words I could manage at that moment: “Dad’s gone.”
I’ve always heard the statement: “We pay our respects for those who are left behind.” I’ve probably said the same thing myself a few times, but I never really comprehended the importance until this past week. From my aunt, uncle, and cousins who came to the hospital Saturday night and stayed until after the unthinkable happened to all the family and friends who came to my parents’ house in the days that followed.
I remain blown away by the thoughtfulness and support. My mom’s office shut down Tuesday afternoon and every one of her coworkers came to the funeral. My college roommate drove two hours from Camden. Another former coworker and close friend drove down from Charlotte. One of my brother’s best friends drove up from Charleston, twice — for the weekend where Dad took his downward spiral and then the funeral. The Husband’s boss and two other coworkers came. I simply can’t express my appreciation enough for all who have done so much to bring us comfort. My gratefulness knows no bounds.
This next stage of our lives is one huge question mark. It is still unfathomable to think that when I come up my parents’ driveway, Dad won’t be stepping out of the garage, sitting on the porch, or rocking in his glider in the den when I open the door. He will not be there at Christmas to say his line: “Before we know it, it’ll be the Fourth on July.” And on the Fourth of July, he won’t be there to say, “Before we know it, it’ll be Christmas.”
However, I do know that we are a close family and a strong family. We have amazing friends and loved ones, and no matter what the next days, weeks, months, and years bring, we will get through with their help and with God’s grace.