Back pain. That’s how it started. The man who didn’t do doctors or medicine or pain, was being cut down, little by little, day by day, by back pain. Painkillers, heat packs, physical therapy, x-rays and MRIs: everyday something new was added, something else mentioned, in his quest to rid his life of that fucking back pain. We learned all this by phone, followed along with daily calls, listened as he checked off the appointments and pills and “if this doesn’t work, we’ll try this…” lines from all the doctors he was seeing. Over the phone, he sounded tired, but he didn’t sound sick. Over the phone, he looked fine.
He taught me how to drive. How to bait a hook, hook a fish, reel it in, and clean it. He taught me about dirt. And trees. And animals and rocks and books. He taught me how to cook, and taste, and love food. He taught me how to sharpen my knives. Do you realize the importance of that? He taught me everything I needed to know, and everything I didn’t.
I was newly pregnant. Weeks, only. We made a plan to drive down to see my dad, help him in whatever way he needed (he mentioned not being able to get out much, needing groceries to be bought and heavy things to be lifted), cooking and cleaning and whatever needed to be done. We told ourselves he just needed a little help until he got better, until the doctors fixed his back. We didn’t know. With my hand over my belly, we walked into the house, and my world caved in. It was January 15, 2010.
He laughed with his whole self. At everything. Sometimes he would call, and it would be 5 minutes before he could even get a word out. And he always called when he saw or heard something funny, always. He told a joke better than anyone I know, and he never told a joke the same way twice. I have so many stored in my mind, his jokes, his punch lines, but they’re incomplete. My memories of him telling the jokes are pure and bright and perfect, but I couldn’t tell one now. For the best probably. I can’t tell a joke like my dad.
He was at another doctors office when we arrived, so my reaction to what we found inside was raw and immediate and unedited. I knew the second my eyes glanced the filth he was living in, the piles of dishes covered in day and week old food that hadn’t been touched, the smell of rot coming from the kitchen, the messes his beloved cats and dog had made all over the house: something was horribly, horribly wrong. He was telling us what he needed us to hear, what he wanted us to know. He wasn’t telling us his truth. To this day, I wonder if he told it to himself. I called my sister, told her that something was really wrong, that what I was looking at was more than just back pain. And then the car he was riding in pulled up, and the door opened, and a man I didn’t recognize got out and said, “hi baby”, and I knew. I knew.
He nearly lost us, and himself, long ago. He wore his sobriety proudly, but never boasted. He collected his coins, for all the years he attended meetings, and carried his very first one in his wallet, for so long that it rubbed a circle through the leather. I was so proud of him, so proud to be his.
He had lost probably 40 pounds in 2 months. His hair was greasy and hung lifeless in his face, days and days since it had been washed last. He walked with a stoop, shortening his tall frame by 4 inches. His skin. Oh my god, his skin. A lifetime of working outdoors had given him a dark, natural bronze tone, but that was no more. I looked down at my feet to keep from fainting when I saw that he was yellow. Yellow. I knew what yellow skin meant. I knew what that meant. We helped him inside, and I called my sister, and in between panicked sobs, managed to tell her to get here, she needed to be here, I needed her here. I called my mom, despite their having been divorced for 10 years. I told her what I saw, and she came. And she saw. We talked to my dad, cleaned, tried to get him to eat, tried to get him to laugh, tried to stop his pain. He refused to go to the hospital, insisting that it was just a back problem, and he was already seeing a doctor for it, why did he need to see another? But his eyes betrayed him, showed his fear, his confusion about what was happening. He refused, and he slept. When he slept, we talked, about all the things we didn’t say in front of him: illness, serious illness, obvious liver dysfunction. He slept, my mom stayed the night, and we drove home to regroup. We would return in the morning. It would all look better by light of the new day.
When I close my eyes and tell my mind to take me to his place, it’s always on water. That’s where he felt right. Where he felt at home. In a boat, with a pole in the water, watching the break, listening the waves lap against the hull. We could spend hours on the water, and not say more than 20 words. He would have spent his whole life out there. He would have stayed out there forever.
My sister came the next day, and we were able to convince him to go to the hospital. He didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave his home. I think he knew that if he went, he wouldn’t be coming back. He walked around, aided by my husband and brother, taking in the vista of his ranch, the mountains and trees. He petted his dogs. He breathed in. He said goodbye. And he got into the car and we drove an hour to the only hospital he deemed acceptable. We spoke with the admitting nurse, told her his symptoms. We didn’t wait long. He found relief from the pain, the first in weeks. Blood was taken. Questions asked and answered. We waited again. The doctor came, told the gathered what they’d found: pancreatic cancer. Metastatic. End stage. I was in the waiting room, having rotated out to allow my brother in, so I wasn’t there to see my dad being told he was dying. I’m glad. My brother burst through the doors to the lobby, and his face told me what I knew already to be true. It was January 16, 2010.
I lived my life to make him proud. I still do. I think I did right.
The doctors couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us how long. Treatment wasn’t an option with a non-functioning liver, and the scans and tests done in the days after he was admitted revealed more than we’d bargained for. 6 months, maybe? On the outside? We were devastated. 6 months meant he wouldn’t be here to see the babies that were coming. How do you say goodbye in 6 months? He heard that number, and he clung to it. He planned his time left, what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go. He had to know, on some level, that 6 months was not guaranteed, that it was a best case scenario, that we would be lucky to get that long. I think he needed something to pin his hope on. We all did.
The days following the diagnosis are a blur, still, 2 years later. A lot of driving, sitting, talking, crying. A lot of waiting. He rallied for a few days after being admitted to the hospital, but never made any great improvements. There’s a kind of sick that’s not the kind you get better from. He was that kind of sick. He spent a little over a week and half in the hospital, before the decision was made to move to hospice. He couldn’t be treated. His care was palliative. He needed his pain managed. He didn’t want to go to hospice, he wanted to go home, but we needed time to figure out how. He was in hospice for 4 days, and declined steadily each day. We decided to take him home. He wanted to spend his last days in his house, looking out his window, at his trees, his mountains. He slipped out of consciousness the day before being moved. When the ambulance pulled up to the house, and the hospice care team unloaded him and brought him inside, he was a shell of his former self. We got him in bed, facing his big window overlooking his mountain. As the nurse briefed my mom and brother on his care, I sat with him. I held his hand, and whispered to him all the things I had planned on saying over the next 6 months. I spoke fast, with urgency and panic, trying to get it all out while he was still…there. He moaned, his eyes fluttering, the morphine keeping his voice locked away. We sat, and I talked, and told him where he was and that we had done it, we had brought him home. And he sighed a heavy sigh, and breathed out the word “home”. And I touched his brow and kissed his hands and said yes. Yes, daddy. Home.
He came home on Monday, February 1, 2010. He was surrounded by love. We talked to him, about him, around him. We curled his fingers into his dogs fur, let the sun shine on his face. He never opened his eyes. He never came back. Aside from “home”, he never spoke another word. He slipped from us, in peace and no pain, in the early morning hours of Tuesday, February 2, 2010. We had hoped for 6 months. We got 16 days. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.
It’s been 2 years, and time has not healed me. I still miss him. I still hurt. Too much some days, just enough on others. I don’t know how to process his death. I don’t want to acknowledge his absence. I still dial his number, long disconnected. I still set things aside to share with him. I don’t know how to live a life without him in it. It’s been 2 years. Maybe next year will be a little better. Writing this, his story, is a step towards healing. Towards moving forward. I’m learning how to move forward and keep him with me, even though he’s not with me. I don’t want to. But I need to. For myself, for my girl. For my dad. He’s out there, on the water, listening to the waves break against the hull, waiting for a bite. I know where to find him. He’ll be there forever.