Constance saved my life when my dad was losing his. I will never think of it any other way.
It is Tuesday, three days before I meet her. I am sitting on the floor of Dr. Hanson’s office in Napa, staring at my dad’s face as the doctor gives voice to what we already know. Mom is in a chair to Dad’s left, Ann is standing behind him, the doctor stands before him angled off to Dad’s right, and I am sitting on the floor just in front of him. It crushes me to hear out loud that my dad will die soon. And it is worse to be looking up at Dad’s face as the words strike him.
“There’s nothing else we can do. If we increase the medicine for your heart, your kidneys fail. If we cut back on the medicine to save your kidneys, your heart will fail. It’s been a careful balancing act, and the medication needed now is just too much. There’s nothing more we can do.”
These words are all-powerful. They push against every instinct telling me that to live in this world means to have my dad in it, too. No matter how mightily I push back against them, the words win. They knock me flat.
“How long?” Dad asks with his eyes on Dr. Hanson. I don’t look at the doctor. My eyes are locked on Dad’s face.
“A few weeks. Less, if we keep you comfortable.”
And so there is nothing more to say.
We use the word “hospice,” and we may say “thank you” to the doctor as we all leave the office – my physician sister Ann, my Alzheimer’s-affected mom, my dad, and I. The doctor follows us out to the front desk, where there are awkward half-words and half-motions towards us as we head for the door. Dad doesn’t look back at his doctor or at the young receptionist who watches us with big eyes. How do you say good-bye when you know for a fact that it’s the last time? I think you don’t. You just head for the car to go home.
Outside, Mom, Dad, and I hug Ann, and she gets back on the road to go to work in Elk Grove, south of Sacramento. I settle my parents into their large white Plymouth and take the wheel to drive us up Trancas Street, past Trader Joe’s and Long’s, past cars full of people who haven’t just had the life sucked out of them.
As we wait for the red light next to Target to change, Dad says simply, “Well – I guess that’s it. Is that what he was saying?”
I want to make it less hard-edged, less true, more gray. But I can’t soften it, so I grip the steering wheel and say, holding most of my breath in, “Yeah. That’s what I understood.”
And there is nothing more to say.
We tromp up the stairs from their garage to their family room. The staircase walls are bare, unable to absorb the hollow sound of our heavy steps on the wood below our feet. Dad grasps the rail tightly as he pulls himself up. At the top, Mom opens the door and we enter the carpeted family room, where everything feels a tiny bit less cold. I shut the staircase door behind us.
I don’t know how much Mom understands, and I do not want to ask her. She sets her purse down on the oval dining table, its stained green tablecloth sprinkled with bread crumbs, and then starts bustling in the kitchen, making half a tuna sandwich for her lunch. Dad drops into his beige corduroy recliner and reaches for the TV remote. But he doesn’t use it. He just holds it.
I pull off his black faux-leather shoes from Walmart, and he pushes up the footrest on the recliner. Then my father looks at me with his brown eyes that are just a shade lighter than mine and says, “So what are we going to do about Mom?”
I strangle myself inside so no tears will come out. I say, “We’ll always take care of Mom. She can live with me and John. Ann has said that she can live with her and Jim and the boys. We won’t ever leave her alone.”
Someone else is inside of my body, making the words come out of my mouth. I cannot be having this conversation with my father.
Mom sits in her own beige recliner, just four feet to Dad’s right. Content with family around her, she calmly eats her tuna sandwich.
Dad answers me. “I don’t think she should live with any of you. You guys have your lives. What about The Redwoods? Edna Bertinelli lives there. We’ve looked at it before. It’s nice.”
I will agree with anything he says. I take very shallow breaths and say, “Do you want me to go check it out? I can go now, if you want.”
“Yeah,” says Dad.
And so, twenty minutes after I’ve watched my father learn that he is about to die, I drive three miles to the lovely retirement community on Redwood Road, off to find a new home for my mother.
Dad is right; it is very nice. A large fountain bubbles in front of a wide expanse of lawn. Arches of fragrant red baby roses line the walkway to the front door. Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows ring the center atrium, which houses a gleaming grand piano. Instrumental music floats from an unseen speaker. The melody is still audible over the hum of voices off to my left and the clinking of silverware on dishes, as residents finish up their lunch in the large, warmly carpeted dining room.
And all I do is cry. I sob. I brush the lustrous wood of the piano with my fingers, I enter the office and ask for the manager, I go see an empty one-bedroom apartment, I put my mom’s name on a move-in list, and I stumble back out to my car. I cry the entire time, in huge sobs that rack my body. Everything pours out of me, everything that I choked back when I was in front of my dad.
I wipe my swollen eyes dry, drive back to their home, and tell my dad that it’s a really nice place and that Mom can move in whenever she wants. His forehead smooths, and his eyebrows lower; the news helps him.
Mom looks as if nothing unusual has happened. She is comfortable in her recliner, her feet up and a thick word-search book open on her lap. She smiles at me. “Have you eaten yet? What do you want for lunch? Do you want a sandwich? Do you know where the bread is?” She is already kicking the footrest down, ever the mom, ready to feed me.
“Thanks, Mom, but I’m not hungry yet.” I don’t tell her that I was hit by diarrhea at The Redwoods, and had to stagger to the bathroom.
My father then says, “Sue, grab me the phone, would you?”
I hand it to him, and he starts punching in numbers, always the talkative extrovert. I listen, frozen, to his side of the first call. “Yeah, Frank, I just got back from the doctor. Well, I guess I’m at the end of the road.” His face looks like it always does when he’s on the phone, which is often. He’s gazing straight ahead with a light in his eyes and a slight smile on his face. It looks like he’s talking to someone he can see right in front of him.
After a few moments, a high-pitched beep signals to me the end of that phone call. Then come the musical tones of the next string of seven numbers, and I hear it again: “Yeah, Dino? I just got back from the doctor….” I leave the room and head for the back bedroom. It’s as far away as the house will let me go.
There is a hand clutching my heart, and my breath catches when I inhale. I want to escape this, but I can’t, because I was there on the floor of the doctor’s office. I heard his words, and I saw Dad’s face as he heard the words. Those words overpower everything.
I don’t know if I can survive my father’s death.
The next three days pass in a surreal swirl. It is night and I’m leaving message after message for my sister Nan, who is on a cruise in the open seas off of Nova Scotia. I’d promised to call if something went wrong with Dad, but I know from her itinerary that this is one of the two days when she has no phone or internet access. And so I’m leaving messages, knowing that they will rip her apart when she can finally retrieve them, but hoping that will be soon.
I am back at my Hayward teaching job for one day. It’s only an hour from my dad, but the distance pulls too tightly on the cord connecting me to him. I do not tell my third-graders that I am taking a leave of absence until my father dies, which will be soon. I do not tell them that I am only there so that I can write up several weeks of general lesson plans for the person who will take over for me. I am nervous all day, too far away.
Nan calls me early in the morning, hollow. She will leave the cruise immediately, but it will take her more than twenty-four hours to complete the emergency transportation patchwork back to Dad. She instructs me on exactly what to tell Dad: that he must wait for her, that she loves him, that she’s grateful for everything he’s ever done for her. She cries and begs me to tell him all of it. I promise that I will.
I am back in Napa, staying at my parents’ house. I drive to Brown’s Valley Market to get chocolate milk for Dad. He’s had a lifetime of loving to eat and struggling against gaining too much weight, and I feel something stab me inside when he shrugs and says, “I guess it doesn’t really matter now.” I hand him the chocolate milk and a sweet roll. He picks off the crumbs that fall onto his thin white tee-shirt, and eats those, too.
I meet with the hospice nurse, and though a tiny part of me hates her before she comes, I now feel how much I need her. I’m afraid for her to leave. She gives us a binder with phone numbers and lists. She tells us she will come back the next day to teach us to give the morphine.
Nan is still en route from Canada. My sister Ann and my brother Mike scramble to rearrange the details of their lives, of young children and jobs, in between their daily two-hour drives to Napa to be with Dad. I live the closest to Napa and I’ve taken a leave from my job, so I offer to stay full time with Dad while the others commute. We siblings are in a dreamlike dance as we come and go, in and out.
During the days, Dad naps on and off, but I can’t sleep because I’m running to Long’s, talking with Mom, calling relatives. The nights are blurry. I try to sleep on the floor next to his bed, but Dad can’t lie down for more than two minutes at a time. His organs are under pressure because of his failing heart, and when he lies flat, his squashed bladder tells him not to. Every few minutes, he struggles to rise again, bouncing back up as if on a slow-motion trampoline.
“Oh – I think I have to go to the bathroom.”
He sounds surprised every time, but, somehow, not irritated. In the dark, as my mother breathes deeply in her heavy sleep, we shuffle to the bathroom, my arm curved around his shoulders. Together we shift his weight until he’s seated on the toilet. Then I slide to the carpeted floor, facing him, my back against the wall and my knees bent and up against my chest. We stay there for a long time. The elevated toilet seat seems to be where he has the least discomfort. I am so weary. My eyes close and we sit in companionable silence in the tiny half-bathroom.
In these moments-into-hours in the bathroom, it’s in my head over and over: “He won’t be here very much longer…and we’re here now. I have to hold this moment.” I am conscious. I grasp the moments.
We talk. He, naked, on the toilet seat, his bare rounded knees eight inches from my eyes, and I, back pressed to the wall, head resting on my knees. Both hearts broken, in different ways.
He says, “So I guess this is how it goes. Once you get to this point, people don’t come by.”
I breathe in shallowly, wanting to shield him from this, my dad, whose whole life has been about friendships and connections to people. The phone has been ringing a lot, and a few people have come. But I see it’s not enough. Dad is feeling that he’s alone, isolated, a pariah to his myriad friends. I can hardly bear this.
I want to remind him about the people who’ve called, the ones who’ve come. But more than that, I want to affirm whatever he’s feeling. I think he’ll feel even more alone if I don’t. So I say, “Well, Dad, I think a lot of people just don’t know what to do or say. You’re braver than most people about going to see friends when things are bad.”
He nods, considering. We’re quiet again. I grab another moment, breathing it in.
I know he wants me to be happy in life, so I say: “You know what John said to me the other night? He said I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to him. We’re so happy together.”
Dad nods again, smiling this time. “That’s good. That’s real good.”
Somehow, they are peaceful, inexpressibly sweet, our soft times together in the bathroom in the middle of the night. Somehow, when the whole house is dark except for this one light overhead, and everything else is quiet and I can still see Dad in front of me and still touch his leg and still hear his voice – somehow, I feel that maybe I can survive this. That maybe I won’t die when he does.
And then it’s daytime. I’d heard that hospice takes care of everything, but what I most desperately need is something they don’t do. I need someone to stay awake with Dad at night, because I need to sleep. Even in his recliner, he can’t lie down for very long before needing to get up, and he can’t get up by himself. So I’m up with him all night. And during the day, there is too much happening for me to rest. It goes by in a blur.
I am bone-tired. My need for sleep is primal and makes me frantic. I haven’t slept more than one or two hours in a row since Tuesday night, and it is Friday. I know that once the weekend comes, one of my sisters can take over. But I need help now. I’d been so sure I could handle it that we siblings hadn’t discussed what to do if I couldn’t. I thought I could make it, but I am spiraling downward, falling. I start thinking about hiring someone to help, and I wonder if I can decide by myself to bring a stranger into the house to sit with our dying father. Should I call everyone and make sure we all agree? I think so. But what if someone says no? I want to respect everyone’s wishes, but my exhausted body and the weight of the impending loss are crushing me, and as the hours pass, I realize that “no” is not an option I can handle.
I call the hospice number, but she tells me to find the “home help” section in the binder and start making calls. It is four o’clock in the afternoon, and in between doorbells and bathroom trips and microwaved meals, I am punching in strings of numbers and asking about cost and if someone can come right away.
I am breaking.
I keep pressing numbers, my mind spinning. What does “bonded” mean? How much money is too much to pay someone to sit all night in the dark next to Dad in his recliner? I vacillate between personal need, family accord, and guilt. Dad is very clear that he doesn’t want to have someone come. We need to respect what he wants. I want to respect him.
But I am breaking into tiny pieces. I don’t see how I can survive my father’s dying.
I keep making calls, not sure what I’ll do if anyone says yes. And then it’s too late in the day. There is no agency left to hear my question. I am panicked.
I call my friend Beth, whose Napa friend Eleanor is ninety-four and has a live-in caregiver. Beth gives me the name “Constance,” a woman who has filled in once or twice when Eleanor’s caregiver is out of town. My hand trembling, I write down the number.
It is nearly eight o’clock. Mom is already in her nightgown, and I’m terrified to face another long night in the darkness without sleep, without relief. I have never felt this exhausted, this fractured. I am shaking, I am so tired. And I know that this is what grief feels like. Slow-motion grief, a heavy mallet pounding me over and over. I can’t imagine remaining conscious, continuing to feel. I can’t.
It is my last, desperate chance. I hold the scrap of paper with Constance’s number, and I call. I’m not even sure what city I will reach. I get her voicemail. It all pours out, the words with the tears.
“You don’t know me. I got your number from my friend who knows Eleanor, who lives in Napa. I heard you do home-health care and my dad is dying and I need help, someone who can come here tonight and sit with him so I can sleep. I have no idea what you charge, and I know this is completely last-minute, and I’m sorry. I just don’t have anyone else to call. I know you probably can’t come.”
I give my parents’ phone number, and it is done. I can’t do anything else. I hang up and sit in silence. I hear my mom murmuring to Dad in the next room.
And then the phone rings. I hold it to my ear and hear, “This is Constance. I can come. I’m working another job until eight, and then I have to go home to sleep for a few hours. I will be coming from Vallejo. I could be there after I sleep, around midnight or one o’clock.”
She can come.
I breathe in the miracle, choking out my parents’ address between my grateful sobs. She will show up in the middle of the dark night, and I will entrust my precious father and some of his last few hours on Earth to this stranger. My need is so great that I am willing to sleep through some of his final moments. Constance recognizes my need so fully that she is willing to forego her own sleep for me, a stranger. I am certain that this is the single greatest act of kindness that has ever been done.
Constance is saving my life.
I hear a gentle tapping at 12:45 a.m. I pad over to the door, pull it open, and there, at the top of the brick staircase in the dark of morning-night, she enfolds me into her arms. I find comfort in her embrace, my cheek against her strong shoulder. I feel an intimacy with this woman I’ve never met, and I know that I will never forget her. She has never seen me, but she does this work so she knows my grief. So she knows me.
I can’t stop crying, can’t stop saying, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” I bring her into the family room to meet my dad where he’s propped up in his recliner, now that he can no longer lie down. He greets her, and I am relieved that he doesn’t question her presence. Constance lowers herself onto one knee so that she can be at eye level with Dad as she introduces herself, and I am touched by this simple gesture of respect.
“I can help you whenever you need to get up,” she tells him. “I’m strong.” I feel the truth of those words. He is in good hands. Then Constance sits down on the black vinyl couch, and asks if it’s okay with me if she lies down while she stays. It is. I am just so grateful that she’s here.
I go into the back bedroom, far away from the entire world that has been happening in the family room and the bathroom. I fall into bed, and I sleep.
For those hours, I do not have to feel. I do not have to ache. I do not have to grab and hold moments, knowing that they are the last there will ever be with Dad. I do not have to imagine the future without him. My heart has a little time to rest, to breathe into me a bit more strength to help me survive my father’s death.
I wake up at eight, in time to tell Mom to grab her checkbook and write Constance a check before she leaves. I say good-bye to Constance. And three days later, we say good-bye to Dad.
I still place a protective shell around my heart when I think about Dad, especially about his last week before dying. Though it’s been six years, it still is unbelievable to me that I can exist in this world without him in it. How can he not be here? Even now, sometimes it hits me anew, raw and fresh. I don’t know if that will ever totally go away.
But when I remember those days, something else surrounds my heart, too, permeating my protective shell. I see it as golden light, and feel it as warmth. Constance’s compassion encircles me. Her kindness, a willingness to extend herself toward another human in need.
It has stayed with me, and I am sure it will never go away. Her gift six years ago didn’t erase my pain. But it did alter it, softening it with a gentle touch of kindness. Infusing it with hope that maybe, somehow, I could keep going.
I think of Constance on Dad’s birthday, on the anniversary of his death, on New Year’s Day, and whenever I hear the words “home health aide.” I would not recognize her if I passed her on the street. But I will never forget her. Constance saved my life as my father was losing his. I will never think of it any other way.
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