It Happened To Me: My Dad Died and I Was 3,000 Miles Away

I had always imagined that if one of my parents' health was failing, it would be such a long, drawn-out process that I would have time to get home to them, to say goodbye. But my dad had died and I hadn't even seen him in four months.
Publish date:
December 23, 2011
death, dads, family drama, fathers

My clearest memory of the morning I left for college, just before boarding a flight from Portland, Oregon, to New York City, is of my father holding back tears and saying to me, "Don't forget your roots. Don't forget where you came from."

OK, even now I can recognize that this moment was not without some cheese factor. But it was sincere and heartfelt, and I carried it with me, because I'm a cheesy person.

My father was one of the most caring, genial men I've ever known. Most people would say this about their dads, I'm sure, but mine really was.

The trust my parents put in me growing up was what enabled me to travel 3,000 miles away for college. I sobbed into my sweatshirt throughout the flight, scared I'd made some horrible mistake. Two weeks after I arrived, 9/11 happened, and my dad was the first person I was able to make contact with to confirm I was OK (I woke up at noon with not a clue what had been going on the last three hours -- story of my life).

While my mom cried and worried and asked if I wanted to come home, Dad didn't give it a second thought. She just got there, she's got so much to do in New York, why would she let this turn her around? He was right, and I stayed.

Four years flew by, and once I graduated and found work, my visits home became less frequent. One year I didn't make it back at all between Christmases. I promised myself I would visit more the following year, and it turned out I didn't really have a choice.

My dad had this kind of ridiculous habit of keeping Coke float supplies downstairs for late-night snacking when he was using the computer. On May 3, 2009, he was bringing back upstairs a glass, a two-liter of soda, a carton of ice cream and an economy-size jug of chocolate syrup.

This is where we become a little unclear about the events: He either had a stroke that caused him to fall down the stairs, or he tripped juggling all these items, fell and had a stroke as a result. My mom heard a loud crash and got out of bed to find my dad unconscious in the landing at the bottom of the stairs.

Paramedics were called, he was taken to the hospital, MRIs were done, and it turned out there was blood pooling on his brain. The next afternoon he was taken in for emergency brain surgery -- which was the first time anyone thought to call and let me know what was happening. Post-surgery, he remained in a coma for almost three weeks.

I flew home to Portland about six times between May and December that year. Dad came out of his coma unable to speak or walk; these skills came back with weeks and months of rehabilitation.

He had to relearn how to swallow, he never regained full use of his left hand, his impulse control was basically kaput (let me tell you how awesome it is hearing your father tell you he doesn't like the Christmas gift you searched all over town and the Internet to find for him). He had to wear adult diapers, and my mom had to help bathe him.

But beneath the short-term memory loss, slurred speech and drastic weight loss (eating through a tube will do that to you), my father was still in there, albeit a more childlike version of him. My sister got married a few months after his fall, and my dad was able to walk her down the aisle -- though he stopped along the way to introduce her to distant relatives and old college buddies.

Just days after the wedding, in September 2009, the seizures started. He would have them a couple times a month at first, then just once a month, once every three months. He would have them while lying in bed, while digging through the refrigerator, even while sitting on the toilet, which some part of him pre-fall would've found humor in.

Throughout 2010, I still came home to visit as much as possible, but it became increasingly difficult.

Because my mom was his caretaker and the one who always had to tell him no -- when he wanted a beer, or when he wanted to go to a dealership to buy a Ferrari (holy end-of-life crisis) -- and because my dad's brain was functioning at an age much younger than his 69 years, my parents' relationship was understandably strained.

I felt guilty that I was on the opposite coast, unable to help take some of the pressure off my mom. I worried that my family resented me. I was scared to death that my dad's mental state meant he would forget about me entirely. And I was angry at no one in particular. I started therapy.

By April of this year, my dad had gone nine months without a seizure. His doctors scaled back his medications, and he was getting ready to retake his driver's test. He was in the best spirits he'd been in in a very long time.

His doctors had told us after his fall that he would reach his maximum level of improvement two years out; that however much better he was at that point was about the best we were going to get. We were happy with this, with how far he had come. We were excited.

On April 16, 2011, I was sitting on my boyfriend's couch when my cell phone rang. The past two years had made me incredibly paranoid about calls from home:

"Dad had another seizure." "Can you give Mom a call? She's having a really rough day, and I don't know what else to do for her right now."

I always wondered what it would be like to get the phone call, but I never imagined it happening when I was 28. I somehow never imagined it happening while I was still so far away.

My dad had suffered a massive heart attack. He'd collapsed in the bathroom, paramedics had had to carry him out to the living room to work on him. While being rushed to the hospital, my sister was called, my brother was called, both of them living somewhat local. I was the last to get a phone call, and by the time I got it, Dad was already gone.

I had imagined this moment before, out of some kind of macabre, melodramatic need to know whether I would be able to survive this kind of news. I didn't react the way I thought I would.

I cried, sure. I wailed and sobbed. Mostly I sat on my boyfriend's couch and stared at the wall in disbelief. How could this have happened while I was 3,000 miles away? Where was the fairness in that? How could this have happened so quickly, before I even got word there was an emergency?

I had always imagined that if one of my parents' health was failing, it would be such a long, drawn-out process that I would have time to get home to them, to say goodbye. But my dad had died and I hadn't even seen him in four months. I hadn't been there with him as he went. I didn't get to properly say goodbye in person that last Christmas, or even on the phone a week before. It was all so unfathomable to me.

The reality, as my sister and I have discussed since Dad's death, is that we had already been grieving the loss of our father for the last two years.

He was a resilient, stubborn man, and we didn't foresee him leaving us anytime soon. But we had, in essence, been preparing ourselves for this. We had seen for the first time that Dad, as strong as he was, was not unbreakable.

At his core, he was still the same man we'd always known him to be; the water was just a bit murkier. In some ways maybe he was his truest self in those last two years. He'd always had this sort of restrained childlike wonder and fascination with the world. In those final years, that childishness was less restrained, in bad ways sometimes, but also in good ways (like the Christmas morning my 69-year-old father asked me to help him put his "slippy-slips" on as he got out of bed).

There's a part of me that hates myself for being so far away at the end of my dad's life. He was so proud of me for moving to New York and making a life of my own, but I regret every single day that I wasn't able to spend with him -- not just of the last two years but of the last decade.

I honestly don't know whether being near him when he died would've been easier or harder. Being so geographically distant helps me at times to remain kind of numb to the idea of his absence, but that numbness comes with its own awesome raft of guilt.

My sister and I each wear a gold teardrop-shaped necklace that contains a bit of his ashes (which is a super-awkward thing to explain to people who ask where you got it). The chain is just long enough such that the pendant hangs right in our cleavage, which we joke about when we see each other. My mom hears this and changes the subject.

A few months ago, I was cleaning up my iChat buddy list and saw Dad's screenname. I deleted it. Then I cried. I still can't bring myself to delete his cell phone number from my contacts. Of course it's the entry immediately after my local Mexican spot (which, yes, I have saved in my phone), so I'm reminded on a regular basis.

It's trite, but people always say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I'm hoping that if I'm able to make it through the death of my father 3,000 miles away -- and I'm still trying to figure out whether what I'm doing constitutes "making it through" -- I hope I'll be able to take anything life throws at me from this point forward.