Fifteen years ago today my father passed away.
It was not a surprise, as much as any death is not a surprise. He had survived his first bout with cancer four years earlier. But it had come back. Several times. And at the beginning of my first year at the local university, he told my siblings and me that it had returned again and had been deemed inoperable. It was going to kill him.
It was shortly after that family meeting that things changed enough to make the inevitable very real to us. First he had to give up his daily bike ride to and from campus because he had to go on a morphine pump to control the pain--no biking, no driving. The bicycle went to me as the only other person tall enough for the frame (we were, in fact, the same height, though I appeared taller due to my long legs and ballet-trained posture).
Within a couple more weeks it didn't matter that he'd had to give up the daily ride, as he was no longer able to work. He was set up comfortably at home, but his only trips out were for doctor's appointments. A couple of family members with nursing experience came to help out and handle all of the medical things that needed to be done at home; they also made sure that my mother and siblings had a good dinner every night. I was living in a residence hall on campus, so I wasn't there all of the time, but I went home much more often than I'd initially planned.
Around midterms in October, my father began to display signs of mental deterioration. My father had made it quite clear to us that life without his mental capacities intact was not worth living. We thought that the end was coming, had a visit from a hospice worker, tried to steel ourselves. And then the doctor discovered that two of his drugs were interacting. Within days, his mind was back.
At the beginning of Decemeber, my mother's father passed away and she made a quick, frantic trip to be with her family, worried the entire time that something might happen back at home.
My last final for the semester was on the very last day of the exam period: Friday, December 20th. My residence closed that same afternoon, so I headed home for the month-long break. My father and I talked some about what I might major in--I think I still hadn't narrowed it down from the triple major I had been contemplating. My areas of interest overlapped with his, both his major and minor from university (with another language thrown in).
Over the weekend, he began to decline. His speech became more labored, his movements less controlled. My mother and our relatives talked about moving him to a hospice where they'd be better able to handle his needs. My father had wanted to die at home, but they didn't think they could do everything he needed.
On Monday, December 23rd, I sat in the kitchen with my mother and siblings. We were talking and reminiscing about funnier times. I remember feeling the need to make sure we were laughing. A relative came around the corner and asked my mom to come back with her. And I knew. I just knew.
I suggested to my siblings that we head downstairs. I don't remember the reason I gave or if I even needed one. And so we went to the playroom and continued our conversation. I was divided in the moment, keeping up the light-hearted banter with them while waiting for someone to summon us. I have no concept of how long it was before we were called upstairs, told the inevitable, and allowed back to the master bedroom so that we could see our father one last time.
I have always believed that my father picked the moment of his passing. He knew that he wouldn't be able to stay at home much longer, that he would lose the opportunity to dictate his own terms. I would like to think that on that afternoon our laughter trickled back to the bedroom and that he decided to let go while the house was full of happiness.