“Awful” and “Awesome” are two words that, to an extremely limited degree, capture the thoughts and emotions I felt at the moment of my father’s passing. The official time of death is recorded at the hospital at 17:03 (3:03pm), but I was there in the moment, along with my wife Patty, when we saw his spirit, personality and life leave us an hour earlier. 2:04 pm.
100 years, 8 months and 20 days. That’s a long time to live. When you live beyond the average life span of 75.9 years for an American male, it is even more impressive. When it’s your parent you are cradling as you watch the last few seconds of their life, those numbers become irrelevant.
Sunday afternoon. June 2, 2013. Patty and I had returned from attending church and from picking up dad’s lunch about 1:00pm. He had not been able to attend church since December due to a dry cough, gout and swelling in his feet. We called on the way home so he could give us his order for lunch. Sometimes it was Red Lobster; but today, his other favorite, Arby’s Jr. Roast Beef with curly fries, along with the reminder “make sure they put in lots of sauce.”
Our kitchen table was next to his lounge chair which faced the TV and the rest of the room. We were able to check on him throughout his meal; he seemed normal, just busy eating. After Patty and I finished, we talked with him as he sat in his lounge chair with his tray in his lap finishing his lunch. We cleaned up the table and asked if he was finished. His appetite had been a little low for a while, but today he had eaten his entire meal, curly fries and all.
While we had been eating, he had the sound almost off on the TV. Afterwards, Patty and I went to sit on the couch and as he was flipping through the channels, he stopped on a tennis game. He turned the sound up and asked me “Who’s the champion?” looking toward the TV. I said “Roger Federer”. There was a close up as he was about to serve so I said, “there he is, that’s him”. Then with a mischievous tone and the slightest grin, Dad said, “So I guess, since he’s the champion, he thinks he’s always supposed to win?” Turning to look back at the TV, I said “Well, right now Federer is at two, and his opponent Simon, is at five”. As I turned to look back toward him (he was only a few feet away in his chair), I began saying, “So the champion is actually…” It was then that we heard deep inhales and exhales, his lips fluttering. I noticed that he was looking far beyond me, as if he was focused on something a million miles away. I spoke up more loudly, as I had often done because of his difficulty hearing. I said, “Dad!” with no response. Again I said “Dad!” with more emphasis, trying to get his attention. Then saying “Dad! look at me!” I moved in closer, tapped him on the leg, then the arm, with no reaction.
I cupped his face in my hands as his gaze deepened. He began to stiffen as his arms simultaneously moved upward and into “x” across his chest, not as if he was in pain, it was just physical tension. His blue eyes grayed, and his complexion began to turn throughout his face. He became gaunt as his jaw dropped and his upper false teeth released into his open relaxed mouth. This made his appearance look even more surrealistic and skeletal in appearance. I repeated “Dad, Dad, Dad, look at me”. I looked to my right toward Patty, who at the sound of his deep exhale and flutter of his lips had begun calling 911. Just before they picked up, I looked at her and said, “This is it, he’s leaving”.
The operator answered at 2:04. Dad’s head became limp in my hands and his arms, legs and his body relaxed. He was gone. It was our awesome privilege to be there in that moment. Awful, but awesome at the same time.
Later Patty would tell me that when I looked at her, she could see in my face “disbelief, fear, and acceptance, all in one look”. The operator answered and told us to get him on the floor and begin compressions. The fire station was just a block from our home, so we could hear the sirens as I grasped him by the front of his jacket and shirt, and as Patty held the back of his head, we began to move him from his chair to the floor.
Within moments there were EMS personnel in our family room working to revive him. Our mistake was, we should have been prepared with a DNR (do not resuscitate) posted on our refrigerator. Two police officers were there as well. One of them asked what my relationship was. I said “I’m his son”. He asked my name, and Dad’s name and birth date. When I said, “He’s 100 years old, his birth date is September 13, 1912”, the officer said “he’s had a long life”. I replied, “And a good life.”
They worked on him for approximately 30 minutes. Monitors, shots, someone calling, “clear”. One man was compressing a breathing bag, while someone was doing compressions, alternating with someone every few minutes, while the lieutenant kneeling at Dad’s feet gave directions and counted down until the next man took his turn. Patty and I stood off to the side, watching. A very surreal experience. Then the lieutenant gave us an update and said they were going to prepare him for transport to the hospital.
While we sat in the car waiting for them to prepare Dad in the ambulance, I called my sister Linda who was traveling in Arizona. I said “I don’t have good news.” “Dad is gone”. She exclaimed, “No” and started to cry. I told her we were waiting to follow the ambulance, and that I would call here once we arrived at the hospital.
There were at least eight personnel in the emergency room along with the doctor when we arrived. Dr. Rader told us the status and asked if I needed to call anyone to get agreement as to how long they should continue to pursue trying to revive him. Patty and I stepped to the end of the hallway, called Linda, gave her the update, and agreed that it was time to tell them to stop.
When we stepped back into the room, the doctor showed us the sonogram. He pointed out that dad’s heart was not beating, and that one of the valves was fluttering, but that his heart was not moving any blood to his brain or lungs, and that he was not breathing.
I looked at him and said “Doctor, he’s 100 years old. You can call the time.” I don’t know who called it, I just remember they said, “time of death 17:03”. When I heard that number, I knew that was the official time, but I knew that we saw him go an hour earlier at 2:04.
The details above are just facts.
The power and impact of the moment, as I have thought about it, was that I was having an encounter with my own mortality as I watched my father pass. For whatever reason, I was not affected in the same way when my mother passed about 13 years ago from Parkinson’s disease. Her final moments were much more difficult and dramatic, and lasted about 30 minutes or more.
It’s presumption, but maybe it’s because this was my last living parent. For more than a week afterwards, I would awaken at about 4:00 am reliving that moment that lasted just a few seconds, but is imbedded forever in my memory.
He was here with us, then, he was gone. For each of us, it will be the same.
As a minister, I have presided over many funerals. I have been with families when they have encountered this moment in their lives, but none had the impact this did.
One year later:
Patty and I often say, “if Dad were here he would…say…do…react, ask”, in only the way he could. We miss his humor, and the quirky way he would do some things. Just the other night, we laughed at the idea of his watching an entire movie or TV program until about ten minutes before it was over. He would suddenly stand up and go to bed, not waiting for the show to finish. He had finished watching, and that was all that mattered.
Dad taught us the little things. As I was putting a broom away recently, I remembered when Dad told me to stand the broom on the handle and not on the straw end. He said this keeps the straw straight. If stood on the straw, the straw will bend over time and make it difficult to use.
There are so many things I do the way I do them because he taught me to do it that way. He taught me to think outside of the box. Those around me call me MacGyver after the TV character because of the unorthodox ways I may solve a problem. I owe that to my dad because he taught me to look around and find the solution with what was at hand or think of things that could be applied differently to solve the problem. Thanks, Dad.
There are so many things to say about him, including ways he would say certain words. If a word ended in “a” (and there are a lot of them), he would pronounce it with an “er” sound. For example: Tamper, the city in Florida (Tampa). This frustrated and sometimes embarrassed me as a teen and as an adult, until one day while living with me in his 90’s, he mentioned that his 3rd grade teacher (which was the level of his entire formal education), broke a pointing stick across his body because he mispronounced the word “it”. Instead he said “hit”, so she hit him. So he said he’d always had a problem saying some words. You can only imagine how I felt in that moment. Despite his limited formal education, Dad operated multiple businesses and supported our family comfortably, and served with distinction in WW11 receiving among other recognitions, a Bronze Star. Thank you, Dad. You have our utmost respect.
He was a man who had a personal relation with his Lord, reading daily and praying throughout the day. In fact one of the most profound legacies he has left me is that when he began every prayer as far back as I can recall, he always began his prayer by saying, “Kind, heavenly Father”. His perspective of God has helped to shape my relationship and understanding of God and his love for me and others.
We never heard or saw prejudice of any kind toward anyone. Integrity was a priority for dad as well. I worked with him in various businesses and interactions with people. I never heard him speak ill of anyone or do anything that could be judged as untrustworthy. To this day, I will not stop to use a restroom at a service station or elsewhere without buying something because dad said “you owe the business owner for access and water. If it wasn’t there, you couldn’t have used it.”
He could not have been a more devoted husband to our mother Juanita, or a father to us. He could be stern and directive, but you always knew that he loved you and would be there no matter what. He was loyal, faithful, and always teaching us how to do things and why. He could also be mischievously funny when you least expected. We saw his love and affection for our mother when we were young and as adults. For over 15 years, he cared for her every need as she declined in health in her 70’s with Parkinson disease.
When I was about 12 years old, he taught me to conquer fear by swimming over the water of Lithia Springs, south of Tampa. The water was so cold, and the force of the pressure constantly pushed you away from the cavernous opening of the spring. It was absolutely clear, so you could see how deep it was. Once he thought I was capable, he swam with me to the boil and stayed there fighting the current until I made it across. Later that day he said, now you can do it on your own, and I did.
Dad was a farmer, mechanic, builder, and barber, among other things. He always knew where his tools were and took care of them. When I was a kid he reminded me constantly to clean the tools I use and put them back where they belong. Once I left a hand saw on the grass over night. He found it as he was leaving for work the next morning. He laid it on the dining table on top of unfolded new paper so I couldn’t miss it when I ate breakfast that morning. When I saw it I shuddered, thinking he would be angry.
When he came home that night, I saw him look for it in the barn. I had polished the wooden handle, used steel wool to remove the rust and then oiled it until it shimmered. To this day, I clean and put tools away where they belong. He never said one word to me about the incident. He taught me that it is better sometimes not to say anything, just reveal that you know, and respect the results. Oh yeah, and to put my tools away. And I do.
We watched as he declined in health after he turned 100 years old. He would complain about his loss of energy, and aching joints among other things. A significant lasting lesson, again taught by example, was that he might be in pain but he would walk about a mile almost every day in spite of discomfort. He pressed through it and kept moving. I would say to him, “Well dad, when you are as old as you are it’s expected that your energy level will be low and you will have aches and pains”. His response? “I may be old but I shouldn’t feel this way.” He would not let his age or his condition define him. Only a few months before he passed, he suggested that he and I start a business. An ice cream shop. His favorite? Vanilla.
Not enough can be said. Thanks Dad. We really miss you.
Oh, and by the way. The answer to dad’s question, “So I guess, since he’s the champion he thinks he’s always supposed to win?” The answer is “Yes, that’s why he’s a champion”.
Remembering our champion on this Father’s Day.