On October 10, 2006, I lost my dad, and in the ten years since, I have carried the weight of his death on my back like Atlas carries the earth. I’ve grown accustomed to the heaviness that predominates my life—wear it like a cloak, like an armor. Sometimes I can’t feel it. Others it threatens to flatten me to the pavement, causing my joints to groan and ache. My life is divided into before and after, and there are moments when I can’t even remember a before. That scares me.
I was fourteen when my dad walked into my room in the middle of the night and asked me where my asthma inhaler was. He had been battling what a nurse practitioner had told him was a nasty cold, but that night his chest was constricting. It didn’t take long for him to decide to go to the hospital. My mom swept into my room and took him away, promising she wouldn’t be long.
It was 3:12 AM on September 11, 2006. I climbed into my parents bed, trying to feel the warmth in the sheets, but the house was already cold. I had never been left home alone overnight, and I didn’t realize then that being home alone was something I was going to have to grow comfortable with. That night I didn’t sleep much—it was a blur of endless tossing and turning, jumping at any noise that might be my parents coming back.
My dad would never cross that threshold again.
In the morning my mom came back to take me to school. I don’t remember anything about that day other than walking outside in gym class and feeling this vague sense of dread.
That night I think I remember visiting him and sneaking in supplies like juice and cake. His bed was next to the window. Night had already fallen and the glow of the streetlights outside served as a backdrop to the small TV that was on a mechanical arm.
It all comes back to me in fragments. The next thing I remember was visiting him in the ICU, which he got moved to when his blood oxygen levels dropped too low. I hung up a campaign poster on the ledge below his window since I was running for freshman class president—an election he’d never know the result of. My dad never got to see me serve my term. It was the first of many milestones he’s missed.
At one point he started choking on an ice cube, and every machine in his room struck up an orchestration of noises so unsettling I had to run out into the hall. Outside his room I mentally shut down, and sometimes I think I never started back up again. In that moment there was something inside me that knew he would never come home. The nurses rushing past me, the endless beeping, the palpable panic…
That wasn’t the night he died. It was much more complicated than that. That was, however, the last time I ever got to speak to him. When the beeping stopped and the nurses all filed out, I went back in to say my goodbyes. A lot of people end up putting a lot of emphasis on the last thing they say to someone they love at the end, and while I know that doesn’t make or break years of other words exchanged, I think it’s human nature to place so much stock in that final exchange. It brings me comfort to know that the last conscious interaction I had with my dad was my squeezing his bright, hospital-white socks and saying, “I love you, Daddy.”
The timeline is fuzzy after that. He went in for surgery the next day, and since my mom wanted to be there for it, I had no way to get to school. The principal came to get me in a light blue pickup truck. We had to pass the hospital on the way to school, and I’m glad I didn’t know what was going on inside its walls.
The next memory I have is of my mom sitting me down in the living room. I remember everything about that moment, from the light streaming through the window to my left to my mom crouched down in front of me and to my right, her hand on my knee. She told me that my dad was in a coma—one from which he’d never wake. Looking back, I can’t imagine how she had the strength to deliver that news. I was calm, mostly due to denial, and asked if they were sure. They were.
I’m still shaky on the particulars of what happened, and maybe it’s better that way. My dad had strep pneumonia. There was fluid accumulating around his lungs, so he had to have a surgery to insert a drainage tube. During the pre-op vitals and paperwork, my dad couldn’t manage to sign his name to the consent form. My mom joked with the nurse and asked, “What kind of drugs do you have him on?”
The nurse was confused. “He’s not on anything.”
It was the first of many warning signs. Years later I found out that my dad begged for them not to put the mask over his face for the anesthesia, but they did it anyway. Somewhere in the procedure, his heart stopped. They didn’t read his chart, so no one realized he was difficult to intubate. I imagine them ramming a plastic tube down his throat over and over. He was dead on the table for eight minutes before they got him back. Irreparable brain damage happens after five minutes of oxygen deprivation.
When my dad got back to his ICU room after the surgery, my mom went in to see him. She asked why he wasn’t awake, and the nurse told her that they had him on sedatives so he wouldn’t pull the tube out. She left to get me from school, and when she dropped me off at home and went back to see him, she asked the night staff how he was doing.
“Well, he hasn’t had a seizure in a couple of hours,” a nurse told her. That’s when she was told he was in a coma, though they told her he had flatlined in surgery for 30-45 seconds and they expected him to come out of the coma soon.
And then there was the truth: my dad was clinically braindead.
I found this out in bits and pieces later on. At the time everything was a giant blur, and inside I was numb. Parts of me still are and probably always will be. I continued going to school, but I remember none of it. In fact, I only remember chunks of my freshman and sophomore years. The only way I can recall most of it is by reading my journals from those years (but we’ll get to that later). The one thing I remember from that period of time was watching Whose Line is it Anyway, lying on the floor of my living room with my sheepdog. My mom went to the hospital after dinner every night and sometimes wouldn’t get back until after midnight. She would read to him and talk to him, hoping that her voice would somehow bring him back. We knew what the doctors had said, but visions of hope and miracles and Hallmark movies danced in our heads. We prayed. We waited for that miracle, but it never came.
We needed time to process. TV shows joke about “pulling the plug” on a relative, but it’s not simple. My parents had made an agreement that if either one of them were on life support, they would want to be taken off, but we needed time. One of the physicians didn’t understand this and, on more than one occasion, urged my mom to pull the plug.
I try very hard not to hate the people involved in what happened to my dad because we’re all human. The surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists were all human, and as humans, we make mistakes. It’s more how you handle the mistakes that define how you should be judged, and for that, I feel I’ve earned the right to feel at least a deep contempt for the handful of people who made the series of mistakes that lead to the death of my 53-year-old father.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It wasn’t until October that I could bring myself to visit my dad. The ICU nurses buzzed us in on sight; no need for us to state our business, since they knew my mom from her being there every day for at least three weeks straight. I know that if I had never gone to see my dad I would carry that regret with me for the rest of my life. Instead, I carry the regret of actually going to see him, because that man in the hospital bed with the tube sticking out of his trachea was not my father.
Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I see him like that, with the tubes and his bloated face and his lopsided mouth. I remember the way his eyes opened when he heard my voice, like there was a glimmer of recognition, and then the unbelievable pain of watching his unfocused, roving eyes, knowing that he was already gone.
He was dead before he died, but I went back a few more times as if I needed more proof. Each time I went, it further burned that image into my brain, like when you leave an LCD TV on for too long and the image on it becomes a permanent part of its screen. Every time I try to call up his face—his real face—it’s like the image of him in the hospital is superimposed on top of it.
Late on October 8th, my mom made the decision to take him off of life support. He was given morphine and disconnected from the respirator. I continued going to school, wondering when the call would come that my dad had stopped breathing. He made it through October 9th. On October 10th, my mom left the hospital for the first time since making the decision (my aunt had been taking me to school). We went to Walmart to get food, and as we were leaving, my phone rang. I guess my mom had given the hospital my number since her phone was dead or lost.
It was The Call. We only had minutes to get from Walmart to the hospital, and my aunt, God bless her New York roots, sped and ran every red light on the way. My mom leapt out of the car as soon as we pulled in front of the hospital. My aunt found a parking spot and ran after her.
I was alone and waiting, like I had been for almost a month. I sat in the back of my aunt’s Subaru, not feeling anything. Nothing around me felt real, yet I knew it was happening. My concept of time was kind of skewed after that. At some point my aunt appeared at the window, her face red and streaked with tears, and just nodded. She hugged me, but I felt nothing.
I think I cried once for maybe thirty seconds, but it’s like my body couldn’t grasp the concept of grief. I didn’t want to be alone, but I didn’t want to be anywhere near where my dad’s dead body would be. I called Casey, who is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sibling, and she stayed on the phone with me, presumably for hours, since it was light when I called her and it was dark when the conversation was over. I only remember that she was there—not what she said. I also remember pacing on a curb over and over again, teetering like I was on a balance beam. I remember the orange glow of the lights of the parking lot. I remember Casey’s steady presence and that, at some point, she got off the phone to take a shower but called me back as soon as she was done. The rest is buried.
It’s strange to realize what I remember and what I don’t. There are so many things I can recall in shocking detail and even more things I don’t remember at all. I don’t remember going home that night. I don’t remember my mom coming back.
It was the most pivotal moment of my life. My childhood was taken from me that night and was replaced with the burden of trying to step into the shoes my father left behind. A giant chasm opened up inside of me, and it will exist in me until the day I die. I’ve tried to fill it with relationships, food, positive life experiences, writing… but that emptiness will always exist in me—and it should. It means that my dad is someone who can’t be replaced.
But a decade of emptiness is not an easy pill to swallow.
(You can find part two of this series here.)