Chapter 13 – Goodbye
Everyone slept like shit Sunday night. With Dad hooked up to a machine in the hospital and it unclear if he’d survive or not and – if he’d survive – how inert of a vegetable he’d be reduced to by the major stroke he suffered, sound sleep and sweet dreams were out of the question. Around 6am, my sister and her fiancé came into my bedroom asking if I thought they should call the hospital for an update. I said sure. They called and I don’t remember there being any breaking news. All the tests they ran the afternoon before pretty much established my dad had very, very minimal brain activity. He wasn’t responsive to any sort of communication or painful stimulus. He was not breathing spontaneously and would most likely die almost instantly if taken off the respirator. So, the big debate around our house that morning was the question of whether or not we should pull the plug.
On a rational level, it makes a lot of sense to say things like, “Yeah, okay, let’s unplug him. He’s not there anymore. His spirit has left the body. This is now just an empty shell where his spirit used to live being kept alive by some machine. It’s time to let him go – time to let him rest in peace.” But then you start asking yourself, “What if the doctors are wrong about his level of brain activity and he’s not really gone and we unplug him prematurely when he might’ve come back a couple days later? It’s like we’re killing him.” And then you start beating yourself up for all the things you didn’t do not only in the time of the crisis but over the course of your lifetime that could’ve possibly led to a different outcome for this person you care so much about. And then…fuck, I dunno. Like, I’d spent so many years worrying about this man and dreading the day something like this would inevitably happen. It was as if I thought taking a paranoid, anticipatory approach to my dad’s mortality would somehow soften the blow when the day actually arrived. But then having actually experienced it, I can honestly say that it didn’t help for shit. It didn’t make any part of playing Pontius Pilate with my dad’s life any easier. Every bit of making the decision whether he deserves to live or die still felt like I was tiptoeing my way through an emotional minefield. In the end, the rest of my family members and I all arrived at the same conclusion, deciding that the only acceptable thing to do in this situation was to remove my dad from life support.
Once again, it was my sister who made the call and talked to the doctors and let them know what we were all thinking. During other conversations the day before, they made it clear that there was a strict no visitor policy at the hospital due to covid but for whatever reason, during this conversation in which we let the doctors know our decision, they said they’d be willing to make an exception. They said that two visitors could come in and visit my dad one last time. They said we wouldn’t be able to go in the room, but we’d be able to stand outside in the hallway and look at him through a glass door. I jumped at the opportunity. I said that if I didn’t see him layin there hooked up to all those machines, I’d never believe that any of this was real and would never believe that Dad was dead and wasn’t actually just out in the woods somewhere getting his miles. I was in major denial then and still am to a certain extent now, a year later. My mom and sister said they didn’t care to go to the hospital and see my dad hooked up to all those machines. My brother didn’t seem quite as enthused as I about wanting to go see Dad, but said that he too was interested in going. So, my sister told them the two of us would be there in an hour or so to pay our father a final visit.
We walked into the same building where I’d picked my dad up a few months back following his hip replacement surgery. I don’t remember what fuckin unit he was is in or how we found him. In my memory, we’re just there all of a sudden – me and Danny on the other side of the glass, a world apart from my father and the cute little Filipino nurse dressed like an astronaut who’d been taking his vitals. I guess the nurses had to wear that shit even around patients who’d tested negative for covid. I don’t know for sure though, I didn’t ask. Once I got over the novelty of this strangely dressed person looking at those monitors, I shifted my focus over to Dad. It felt weird that we couldn’t be in there with him and feel close to him one last time. I mean, the distance between us was cold. It felt more like being at a zoo in which I was prohibited from climbing into the exhibit than I thought a final visit to see my dad should’ve felt like. From our vantage point, the view was pretty depressing and I understood why Mom and Teresa weren’t all that interested in coming to witness this display. It was Dad’s body mostly covered up by blankets and things stuck in his arms and a bunch of tubes stuffed into his face. His chest rose and fell with each artificial breath pumped into him by the respirator. If not for that, he’d be laying there motionless. He’d be laying there dead.
My brother and I started talking about his body. We talked about his slightly crooked nose that he’d broken while playing football at the park as an older teen or young man. After it happened, Dad said he’d gone home where he found Grandma washing the dishes at the kitchen sink. Apparently he told her he thought it was broken and tried to get her attention so he could show her what’d happened to him, but it was taking her a while to look over. She just wouldn’t look up from what she was doing. I think she thought he was exaggerating or something and didn’t wanna feed into that, but Dad said that when she finally did look over, Grandma nearly had a heart attack seeing his nose smashed completely sideways and a waterfall of blood running off his face down onto the chest of his shirt. She wanted to know why he didn’t tell her how serious it was. He shrugged and said, “I told you I thought it was broken.”
While we were on the subject of sports, we talked about Dad’s crooked fingers that’d all been broken so many times over the years from playing 16-inch softball – not to mention whatever other unfortunate accidents they’d been subjected to in recent years. And while we were on the subject of softball, we also mentioned his busted-up shin that he smashed against a picnic bench this one time while playing left field when he’d gone running recklessly deep into foul territory trying to catch a pop-up one of the opposing batters had hit out that way. Of course, his eyes were to the sky carefully tracking the ball and he never saw it coming. After slamming it against the bench, he said the flesh on the front of his lower leg was peeled off down to the bone, but he nevertheless refused to go to the hospital because he wanted to play the rest of the game. So by the time he finally went in to get it stitched up, the doctor was like, “Why’s there so much fuckin dirt in here?” And when Dad told him that he played five more innings after the accident happened, the guy’s eyes practically popped out of his head in disbelief.
We talked about the things Dad used to say – phrases I’d never heard out the mouth of anyone else. Like, for example, if we worked a long day of window washing but didn’t make a lot of money, he’d say, “Sometimes you bite the dog and sometimes the dog bites you.” Also on the topic of dogs, if he wanted to make a backhanded compliment about food he was eating, he’d say, “This is a meal fit for a king.” Then he’d proceed to pick up a piece of something off his plate and hold it out to an invisible canine saying, “Here, King! Here, King!” In my early years workin alongside my dad, during breaks from school, if we were having a particularly good window season, he’d tell me, “You’re makin money hand over fist this summer.” And then when he’d hand me my daily window washing earnings in cash, I often felt like he was payin me more than I deserved and I’d express my guilt to him. To this he’d always say the line, “You’re worth your weight in gold.” And I’d reluctantly take the money and say, “Thank you,” and he’d always reply, “Thank YOU,” with – as I tried to denote there – the emphasis on the “you.”
See, it wasn’t just the things he said, it was the way he said ‘em. And beyond verbal communication, the sound of his voice in general I found to be very distinct, especially the sounds he’d make when he was playing with us as kids. Danny and I talked about how, in the shallow end of the pool at Woodside Village down in Florida where we’d visit every Easter, when he was teaching us how to swim he’d pretend he was Jaws and come after us making the “dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun” noises from the film’s soundtrack. And when he’d inevitably catch us, he’d do this fake shout like “Ahhhhhhhhhh!” as he picked us up under our armpits and tossed us as far as he could into the water.
We then talked about, at that same pool, our dad’s perfect diving form. We talked about how he’d start in the corner of the pool area up against the chain link fence and get a running start and then transition into a few of these little stutter steps leading up to the elevated ledge that surrounded the water which he’d use as a platform to gracefully launch himself forward. He’d hit the H2O leaving almost no trace of a splash and swim the length of the pool underwater with the agility of Mark Spitz.
And then there was the way he threw. We talked about how we and the rest of the kids at the pool would line up along the fence near the deep end awaiting our turn to run up and jump in the air and try to snag the football my dad’d be throwing to us from the shallow end. The passes weren’t always accurate but his release was always perfect and his spirals tight. He’d throw to us for hours – ‘til his shoulder gave out. He’d do the same out on the front lawn back at home in Chicago, though out there we mostly threw baseballs around. Sometimes he’d throw liners right at me, sometimes he’d throw sky-high pop-ups, and sometimes he’d skip some grounders to me. That was back when I was just learning the game and Dad was still a relatively young man – when he was still in his late-thirties. But then even ten years later in his late forties/early fifties when he was coaching me and my brother’s teams during the final years of our little league careers and his body had already begun to forsake him, the guy would throw batting practice for an hour straight until every kid on the team had taken more than his fair share of cuts at home plate. Everybody loved Coach Dan. That was one thing that was pretty cool in the weeks after he died – fuckin kids my dad coached fifteen years back that we hadn’t heard from since then musta somehow gotten word of his passing and reached out to my brother on Facebook to say they never had as good a time playin ball as they did the summer when my old man was their coach. What can I say – the guy just knew how to make shit fun.
Those were all great times. But now – as me and my brother visited him in the hospital – Dad wasn’t doing any of those things. And he wasn’t gonna be doing any of those things ever again. Now he was just layin there. Like, that was it for him, ya know? He was done. The only thing the future had in store for my father was a flatline on the EKG when they’d be taking him off the respirator later that afternoon. That said, the disturbing reality of the situation didn’t stop me and Danny from standin there for – fuck, I dunno – maybe close to two hours alternating between talkin about the old times and just staring on into this fishbowl of a hospital room in wistful silence.
During that time, we had four main interactions with hospital staff. The first had been with the doctor that my sister had been talking to on the phone a couple hours earlier. She was a kind, understanding, empathetic soul. She was fully aware that we knew the gravity of the situation and were there for no reason other than to say goodbye. That’s why, other than coming up to greet us, offering us her deepest sympathies and telling us to come find her if we needed anything at all, she let us be. She let us stand outside the room and have our moment with Pops. And for that, I offer her my sincerest gratitude.
Another interaction had been with that first doctor’s boss. Unlike her, this physician was a fuckin loud, condescending, fat-ass, know-it-all bitch whose face I wish I coulda punched my fist through. She came up and unapologetically interrupted the conversation my brother and I were having to explain to us for at least ten minutes – ten minutes that seemed like an hour – my father’s current situation while using a voice and style of teaching most commonly found in preschools and kindergartens.
“So I don’t know if you guys know this, but your father has suffered a very serious stroke. Now, most people don’t know what a stroke actually is. A stroke…”
Me and my brother glanced at each other. She just kept talkin. She told us to ask questions if we had any. We didn’t have any, but even if we did, she didn’t offer us enough time to ask anything because she just never shut the fuck up. Everything about her was so off-putting and upsetting. Even my sister thought so. Like, a few hours later after me and Danny got back home, when she called the hospital one last time to talk about the final details of removing my dad from life support, for whatever reason the doctor that we liked was unavailable at the time so this chick is who she got stuck talking to. Teresa had her on speaker so we could all hear the conversation and this broad was bein just as big of a stuck-up cunt on the phone as she’d been in person. And like, after she hung up, my sister goes, “Ew, no. I don’t want her to be the one that takes Dad off the respirator. Anyone but her. She was such a fucking bitch and it’s so uncalled for. Should I call back and make a request that it’s anyone but her that does it?”
So anyway, as we’re standin there listenin to this asshole toot her own horn, at one point I tried sayin, “Yeah, we get it,” ya know? Like, “You don’t have to keep reminding us that today is the day our Dad will die. Just leave us alone now.” But she just talked over me and kept sayin things like, “His prognosis just doesn’t look very good, you guys. Chances are, he’s probably not going to survive.” It was disgusting how in love with herself this bitch was. It made me wonder how someone so tactless and emotionally retarded with zero situational awareness could not only make it through med school but then also be the doctor in charge of all the other doctors on her floor. And with all that authority, I also wondered why she didn’t have anything better to do than just hang out and flex all her super-cool medical knowledge in front a pair of regular-ass layfolk like me and my brother. Whatever the case, after a while I’d had enough.
“Thank you!” I said loudly. “Thank you for your time! But we fully understand the situation and don’t expect you to save him for us. We’re just here to see his body one last time while it still has some life in it. Okay?”
Thankfully, she took my assertion as her cue to fuck off and go feed her ego elsewhere. Meanwhile, Danny and I got back to doin our thing. Sometime later a priest snuck up behind us.
“Hay-loh,” he said in this thick eastern European accent. “Are you minding eef I say a prayer for your loved one?”
“Nah,” we said. “Go for it.”
My brother and I were standing shoulder to shoulder looking into the room. The priest, directly behind us, opened up his bible and read a passage. I have no idea what he read. I wasn’t really listening. He finished about a minute later and we thanked him but then said nothing more and did our best to ignore his presence. Sensing we just wanted to be alone, the guy decided to move along.
“My man didn’t like goin to church that much,” Danny said. “But I think he woulda liked that prayer.”
“Yeah, I think so,” I agreed and we returned to silence.
“Ya know,” I said about a minute later, “I actually asked Dad one time what he thought of our religion. I asked him if he believes there’s a God. He said he didn’t have the slightest idea what’s out there in the universe. I liked that. It’s simple. Honest. Makes more sense to me than either blind faith or smug atheism. I agree with him. I don’t know what’s out there.”
My brother nodded.
The last person we interacted with was the representative for Life Goes On which is the name of the organ and tissue donation program here in the state of Illinois. She was very nice and professional and straight to the point. We talked to this lady in a waiting room down the hall from where my dad was. Me and Danny were all business. We answered all of her questions without being affected by any messy emotions and asked her a few of our own. The lady felt the need to tell us that we were handling this conversation exceptionally well. She said most people’s family members are choking up and have a hard time talking about these things. We told her that our dad was a Chicago firefighter for thirty years and was dedicated to saving the lives of others and if he could continue to do so even after his death, that’s absolutely what he’d want. We said, “Our dad always believed in the idea of organ donation and checked that little box on the back of his driver’s license making it official. He’d say to us that, ‘Yeah, sure. I mean, if I’m dead, I got no use for ‘em, so if my organs can help someone else live…why not, ya know? The only thing is,’ he’d always joke, ‘I’m not sure that anyone would even want any of my beat-up organs.’” She assured us that they’d make sure as many of his organs and as much of his tissue as possible would be salvaged to improve and/or save the lives of others. She thanked us for her time and we thanked her for hers and she said we’d be hearing from the organization if and when any of my dad’s parts were used by Dr. Frankenstein or whatever.
So, after we finished our meeting with the organ donation lady, we went back and stood outside the room for ten or fifteen more minutes. We didn’t tell any more stories. We weren’t interrupted by anyone. We just stood there. I mean, although I felt like I coulda stood there forever, I eventually asked Danny if he was ready. He said yeah, but we still didn’t move. Maybe a minute later my brother said…
“I’m gonna miss you, my man. Thanks for all your hard work over the years and all the fun times we shared together.”
I tried to think of something to say as well but was struggling. I can’t remember what I said but I’m sure I said something because I remember feeling really awkward while doing so through a glass wall to a man who couldn’t hear me. I turned away from the image of my dad’s lifeless body being pumped with oxygen and didn’t look back. We walked down the halls through which we came and exited into the parking lot. We started driving back towards our house. A couple blocks away from the hospital, we flipped on the radio and “Who Are You” by my dad’s favorite band, The Who, was on.
“This one’s an ultimate cranker,” my brother said just the way our old man always used to right before he twisted the volume knob.
With the speakers blasting as we drove along, upon hearing Roger Daltrey’s “who the fuck are you?” line, I was transported back to a ride in my dad’s truck some twenty-five years beforehand – my brother and I scrunched up in the backseat giggling that they said a swear word on the radio; my dad at the steering wheel full of youthful exuberance, seemingly invincible.