On Losing My Father

This is me, 4 weeks into losing my Pa to COVID-19. Has it really been a month since he died? I’m trying to crawl out of this little cave of grief I’ve created for myself in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s not easy. The little motivation I muster gets suffocated under this weighted blanket that has become my constant companion, even in the intolerable heat of late August.

Memories get mixed up with realizations of future experiences that now will never happen. I wish I could debrief with him about Obama’s speech at the DNC last week, which he would have raved about. That makes me remember election night in 2008, when he called me in joyful disbelief at the outcome. “I never, ever thought I would see this in my lifetime,” he said to me, and we both cried. He voted in every single election since he was 18.

In the haze of these last few weeks since I held his hand at his hospital bedside, so many questions pass through my mind like shape-shifting clouds. Why him? Why did COVID pneumonia make him so sick, when others recover? Why didn’t I demand they give him remdesivir, the drug that aided my mother’s COVID recovery? Could I have insisted, when they told me the drug was in extremely short supply now and they had to keep it for those who had a better chance of recovery? Did I say yes to palliative care too soon? Too late?

The questions my mind struggles with most are the adjustments to the finality of his absence. How is it possible that I will never hear him say my name again, hug me again, hear him give a Thanksgiving toast, spin me around the dance floor or tell me another story?

My brain can’t make sense of it. He was there when I took my first breath, and I was there when he took his last.

Two days earlier, they permitted me to see him to decide whether or not to move forward with palliative, or end of life, care. Because the memory care facility he lived in had been in lockdown since March, I hadn’t been able to see him outside of a video chat in more than 4 months.

The charge nurse helped suit me up in full PPE, and gave me stern instructions on how to remove it all safely on my way out. I have seen my dad in the hospital before, but this time was markedly different. He had a BiPAP mask on, and restraints so that he wouldn’t try to rip it off again. His legs were elevated because of the blood clots in his legs, and he was distraught and disoriented with the mask and all of the wires and monitors.

He didn’t recognize me at first, with the face shield and gown hiding my face and hair. But I started talking to him, and he got excited, trying to shout to me over the mouthpiece of the mask. I sat, and stroked his warm hand with my gloved thumb, trying to calm him down. The hospital’s speaker played some random mellow 70s tunes, while I nervously rambled about my husband, our dogs, and the Dodgers. We got my mom on video chat so she could see him, but she couldn’t stand it for very long.

I held his hand tightly and tried to memorize every inch of his face. I noticed the song playing was “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I felt the tears sliding past the edges of my N95 mask, as the reality started to sink in that he was never coming back from this.

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go

I tried not to cry. I started to tell him about every family member who was sending their love, from his brothers to his nieces and nephews, and friends and loved ones everywhere. I spoke each of their names, and told him they loved him so much. He said, “I have the greatest family.”

We talked about my wedding day, when he walked me down the sandy aisle in Hawaii, how he almost cut off the circulation in my arm because he was gripping it so tightly, afraid to let me fall. We talked about dancing to one of his favorite banda songs at the party afterward. The music changed to “Strawberry Fields” and we talked about the playhouse he built me when I was 4, the strawberry pancakes he would make me on my birthdays as a little girl. The next song was “I Got You Babe,” and he told me I would always be his chula, “la luz de mi vida.”

Finally he said, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?” and I knew he was ready for me to go.

36 hours later, Matt and I both held his hands when they took the mask off and he took his final breaths. By then, he couldn’t speak anymore or open his eyes. So I just held on tight and told him over and over and over again, “I love you, I love you, I love you so much.” He was gone within ten minutes. It was as peaceful as I guess a passing can be, and it still shattered my heart.

I’ve never experienced a loss like this before. I have heard people say that grief comes in waves, and I guess that’s true. So does the anger, the regret, and the sweet memories.

Some of those waves have a fierce rip current that can really knock me down. There are days when I feel like I’m swimming along okay. And there are other days when I feel adrift.

That reminds me of the last time we took him to Hawaii with us, a few years ago. I was worried about him going into the waves for a swim, but he wasn’t. He charged right in there, fearless and laughing in delight when the water splashed up in his face.

I hope I can hold onto that part of him. That joyful courage that marked all of his days, as I navigate my own journey forward, without him.