Accepting the inevitable: The last days with my Dad

Dad didn’t feel like dying. He felt full of life and longing to live. He had more to do, more to say, more to feel, to taste, to write, to experience. He was angry and sad, disappointed and confused, scared and brave, unaccepting and, finally, accepting.

For the past three years, I talked to him daily to be as close as I could. I listened as he told me everything he could think of about his day; he often told me the same things twice. Our time together was coming to an end, and although we didn’t know when that would happen, we knew it was coming sooner than we wished.

In 2009, he was hospitalized with a blockage that required surgery. A bowel tumor was detected and, despite its removal, Dad’s cancer grew. Next, they removed half his liver—a big operation that beat him down emotionally and energetically. He rallied by setting small physical goals and systematically beating them all, with each phase of cancer growth and each new method of zapping it while preserving the human body where it grew. Since he couldn’t tolerate chemotherapy, Dad opted for other treatments that worked effectively… right up until his most recent hospitalization.

The plan was to get him feeling stronger and send him home. I was with him at the hospital waiting for the physician to talk with Dad about his release the next day. He was eager to go home to his apartment and to see my stepmom, recovering from surgery in another facility. Our mood was jovial, hopeful.

The doctor arrived and asked Dad how he was feeling. “Not so bad,” was my Dad’s reply. “Will I be going home tomorrow?”

“We will release you tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest …” Clumsily, the doctor added, “And I recommend that you visit with the hospice coordinator and get that support system set up before your discharge… [He said what?]… with no further treatment options.” Period.

Hospice? How could that be? Why, Dad had just received encouraging news a few days before! Did the doctor say hospice? The room seemed to cave in on me as I looked at Dad’s shocked and fallen face.

The doctor bumbled the “there-is-nothing-we-can-do” end-of-life news and traumatized Dad unnecessarily with his abrupt and backhanded delivery. I thank the Universe that I was there to ‘translate’ the newest findings and to ease the unexpected blow—even if just a little bit—by absorbing it along with him.

Hospice? No more treatments? No more goal setting. No more … everything. This is it, then! Life is coming to an end and I’m not ready. I have more life to live. There’s more life in me. I’m not ready for this news. Hold me, hold me,” my father reached for me through his broken words.

And then the tears came. I held him as well as I could, standing next to the hospital bed. We cried and cried. “I’m so glad you are here. Thank you for being here,” he repeated.  We cried some more. And then we talked it over again, everything the doctor said and what that meant for our future.

One by one, Dad and I contacted everyone who needed to know. Again and again, we repeated: Dad would not return to his apartment. He would not be getting better this time. He would be on hospice and facing the end of life. One phone call blurred into the next: waves of tears and words of comfort, disbelief and bare acceptance.

Our family opted for the extra layers of hospice support, thankful it would augment his skilled nursing care. Each morning my father mustered all his strength to be with my stepmom at her bedside, cheering her on as she recovered from her own health issues, lovingly being present as only he could.

Children, stepchildren, grandchildren and some great-grandchildren came to visit him. In private turns, he hugged each of us close, assuring us of his undying love and the certainty that love never dies.

When it was my turn, he asked me if I was ready to release him, if we were ‘finished’.  Through my tears, I said bravely, “I am complete with you, Dad. When you are ready to go, I’m okay with that.”

“Thank you. Anytime you want to feel my love, it is there for you, and it always will be.” He spoke to each of us in much the same way.

Tears streamed down our many faces, as we hugged, kissed, held hands and breathed together, feeling the gifts of time, words, joy and peace—a lifetime of sharing summed up in a few precious moments. He just wanted us to be there, and I was so thankful that I was. We laughed. We touched. We accepted the inevitable.

My Dad passed while I held his hand, talked and sang to him. In those moments between his last breath and my realization that it was, I felt many things—sorrow, relief, surprise, wonder—and, finally, gratitude and peace that his struggle to live and to die all at the same time was over. I’m so grateful that I was present and that I got to say, “Daddy, you will always be with me, and I with you. My heart and your heart are one. Thank you for your endless love. Thank you for being the very best Dad I could ever have.”

-Julie Saeger Nierenberg is a writer, editor, educator and artist. In the last few years of his life, Julie’s father, Armin Saeger Jr., published a book of memoirs, entitled Sowing My Quaker Oats.

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