Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Death of my Father

When I watched my father slowly die over several days (or you could say for a decade), I found myself having to think about the science and biology of it.  How one by one his organs were failing.  Oxygen wasn’t getting to his brain.  His kidneys were no longer working.  His lungs were filling with fluid.  His memory was gone.  He was no longer the man I knew.  Near the end he was like a wild animal.

I got the call from my sister while I was doing door-to-door canvassing.  My father was in the hospital.  There was a bit of a reassurance in her voice.  My dad was in the hospital a lot, usually for appointments, though sometimes for medical scares.  This is just another time.

In the past, one medication assigned by one doctor could mess up another medication assigned by another doctor -- the final drug cocktail ingested would make his eyes go yellow from stage 2 kidney failure.  I’ll never forget how bright blue his pupils were when I was home and the doctor called to say the blood test results show he needs to go to the emergency room immediately.  He was scared, but he went in and after a few days and tests at the hospital he would be back home and things would be back to ‘normal.’

I quote normal because things were never normal.  Not when your father is overweight and only half his heart is active.  He had a silent heart attack in 2001.  The doctors gave him 10 years at most with diet and exercise.  I imagine he was terrified and it paralyzed him.  Despite efforts of the family, he overall declined diet and exercise; consequencely putting an unspeakable toll on the family in the decade that followed.  Nevertheless he stuck to the doctor’s timeline.

The time I had in middle school and early-to-mid high school was dark.  Hormones go rampant, drama ensues, and there isn’t much wiggle-room for an overly sensitive kid who is constantly wondering when his father might die. 

I always wondered what it would be like to throw a baseball around with him, or build that homemade go-kart like he promised. 

Then again, I think of my grandfather on my mother’s side when I was a small child.  He was helping build a box-kite for me, as he was a superior carpenter, but we never finished it.  By the next time I visited his California home, the Alzheimer’s disease had mostly taken over and the kite was no where to be seen.  He died soon after.

Perhaps its better my father never got into those projects with me.

My father’s health was like the ocean tides, some days he was himself, others not so much, and sometimes he was a raging tsunami.  Imbalance with diabetes can do that.  Seeing his dependency on medications, and accompanying him on those hospital visits, made me fearful of meds and have a severe dislike of medical centers.

As the years tallied up after his heart attack, death was always a gambling thought.  When would he die?  At times he got really bad and it didn’t look likely he would live to see my high school graduation.  Then my college years continued on, and things became less ‘when’ and more accepting of what it was.  He was always ill, always dying.

I would always hug or shake his hand before heading back down to college.  Sometimes I would stare at him before walking out of the room—would this be the last time I see him?  My father silently caught on to my thought one time, his face showing hints of uncharacteristic sorrow.  I hurriedly turned and walked out of the house.

As I grew up, my room was directly across from my parents’.  I would always see my father napping on the bed, his big round belly rising and falling with this sometimes labored breathing.  Occasionally I stopped and watched his belly, fearful of the day I would look and see it still.

Over all those years I tried everything I could to get him to change.  I would positively encourage him.  I would yell and scream at him.  Only once or twice did he get on a treadmill for a few minutes, and more than a few times I made him cry.  Eventually I had to give up and start trying to focus on my own life, a process that took years and helped with the distance college brought.

Ironically, I had to take on my fears of medication and medical centers when I nearly died in 2009 in the middle of my election bid for Blacksburg Town Council.

A recent google search comes up with this explanation: “hypokalemic thyrotoxic periodic paralysis with thyrotoxic psychosis and hypercapnic respiratory failure.”  In English: I eventually was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a condition that causes my thyroid to be over active.  Due to a surge of thyroid hormones it started to shut down my system and fully paralyzed me in the middle of the night.  I was one symptom away from it paralyzing my lungs and killing me.

Perhaps in the fact that I was always seeing sickness with my father I failed to appreciate my own health.  At the time I thought my paralysis was due to me being really sick, despite my head being clear.  After around 30 minutes of effort, I crawled to the bathroom and found my temperature was just 95 degrees.  I took a hot bath and then went back to bed-- meh, I thought, I ought to feel better in the morning.  I was lucky I ended up being ok after that episode.  I saw a doctor the next day who did blood work that led me to find out about the Graves’ disease.  Three months later, as there is no cure, I had my thyroid removed.

A few years before that, freshman year, I remember being up in the middle of the night on a weekend, lying on the floor of my girlfriend’s dorm.  I was withering in pain as my ears bubbled and popped.  I had a fever and ear infections.  Despite the immediate health problems, I figured I would go to the doctor later and didn’t even consider the ER.  I was again lucky in there was only minor scaring in my ears and no loss of hearing.

More recently, I wasn’t so fortunate. In the last year I had dull pains crop up in my lower left abdomen, even went to the ER after it wouldn’t go away for a few days.  They found nothing after doing several tests.  Months later the pain continued and I decided to get a colonoscopy to get to the bottom of it. 

Hours after that lovely process, which ended up showing nothing, I went to the ER with immense pain in my testicle.  I soon found out I had a history of testicular torsion.  Yes, it is as nasty as it sounds.  Your testicle can twist and cut off blood flow.  I had some symptoms and discomfort for years with my testicle, but always dismissed it and it got better. 

After years of occasional incidents, apparently the pain shot north toward my lower left abdomen.  For this latest incident, I dismissed the pain for too long.  You only have about 6 hours to untwist a testicle.  By the time I was in the ER and despite the heroic efforts of the medical team-- my gurney nurse was a veteran and passionately talked how he helped save his buddy’s testicle and was going to do it again for me-- my testicle was already dead and had to be surgically removed.

That’s one way to be knocked off your feet for a few weeks.  That was one of the first times I had an opportunity to really think about my father passing, 6 months after the fact.  I ended up spending a lot of time staring at the ceiling.

Rewinding to that afternoon where I just hung up the phone with my sister who said Dad was in the hospital, I was shocked and confused.  I didn’t get any details, but I knew it wasn’t good.  I came home the weekend before as it was Memorial Day Weekend; I remember shaking my father’s hand before I left back for work a few states away and recalled how cold it was.  The usual thought of him being close to death popped in my head, but I quickly dismissed it.  It was useless to think that way.

Still holding my phone and standing on the side of a neighborhood street, I called the director of my office and then my regional coordinator of our canvassing operation to let them know I needed to take off the rest of the afternoon (I had already made my fundraising quota).  I went down to a neighboring stream in a forest and sat and embraced the shock. Was I being foolish with my emotions?  Will Dad bounce back like usual?  The day wrapped up without incident.

The next morning as we were gearing up for the day and setting up our turf for canvassing, my mother called.  I stepped out in the hallway to hear my Mom in a choked up voice say I needed to come home, it was a second heart attack.  I knew what that meant.  With my back against the wall, I slid to the floor and starred ahead for a minute as the morning light came gently through the hall window.

I pulled myself together and got up.  Knowing the canvass operation needed my support, I felt guilty.  I walked into the next room and told the three friends there I had to go, my father is dying.  I called the regional coordinator who gave an agitated ‘go now!’ over the phone, understanding the importance of me being with my father.  I walked zombie-like to my car and drove to my apartment, grabbing a box and throwing random clothes in it unsure how long I would be gone.

It was impossible not to speed the several hundred miles home.  Every opening in traffic I took and sped until I got the 2 second distance behind the next car.  I still am impressed with my courtesy not to tailgate, despite thinking every minute is a minute closer to my father’s death.

Finally I arrived home and was eager to get to the hospital.  I then heard the details of the morning my Dad went to the hospital.  My Dad wasn’t responding normally while he lay in bed in the morning.  My Mom called 911.  They had to send two emergency crews to carry him out of the house.  The neighbors gathered and watched.  My parents tend to be very private people; I can’t imagine the hell it was for my mother to deal with that.

I went with my mother and sister to the hospital.  I saw the heart rate of all the patients in the ward on monitors along the hallway.  There was my father’s name, his heart rate stable.

My mother walked in first and said hello to my father like she would to a child.  “...and look, Bryce is here!” 

I slowly walked in.  My father had a breathing mask on and saw me and his eyes widened.  “Brycefff?” He said through the mask.  “What arrr you doing here?!””  I panicked but tried not to show it.  Why would I be here unless he was dying?  He doesn’t know he is dying.  I can’t let him know.

“I got the day off Dad.  I heard you were sick and wanted to come see you.”  He looked skeptical, but also disconnected.  He continued staring at me with wide eyes, like a wild animal would in trying to understand as you coo at it.  Slowly he nodded and leaned back in his pillow.  Over the hours to come I would hold his hand and squeeze it, and he would squeeze back.

Soon it became evident he was getting worse.  Occasionally a fully sentence or two would bubble out of him, but it would take countless ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ of him trying to think what he wanted to say.  Usually he was either trying to say he was thirsty (kidney failure) or that he needed to go to the bathroom (catheter).  Or he would give a one word curse. 

One of the last recognizable moments of the man he was, was when he looked ahead and raised his bushy eyebrows and gave a weary, extended “Ohh, man...”

Given my father’s size, the nurse said it was easier for him to do his fuller bathroom duty in bed.  The nurse tasked me to tell him it was alright to do so.  In one of the less graceful moments of his passing, I spent around fifteen to twenty minutes explaining to my father that it was alright for him to go to the bathroom there.  He would stare at me, trying to understand, he would say ‘um…um…um…’, take a breath, and then try to get out of bed to walk to the bathroom.  I would hold back down his arms and tell him again he can’t get up, you can go to the bathroom here. “Um…”  He stares at me trying to put together the thought-- “um…” 

”You have to go to the bathroom”


”I know, you can go to the bathroom here.”

“Um… uh.. oh, shit.”

“Yes!  That’s the goal!”

This repeated itself many times and eventually I had to give up.  When he finally did go, a group of nurses with malcontent on their faces lined up to change the sheets under my large father.

Soon my mother and sister and I started rotations at the hospital so we could rest at home and take care of the dog.  My brother got the news while he was in Cuba, of all places.  He hurried as best as he could back to Mexico to fly home, traveling for one to two days straight.

After grabbing lunch with my mom and sister, I glanced up at the ward heart monitor screen and my heart dropped.  My father’s heart rate was off the charts.  I felt a rush of adrenaline and hurried around the corner to see a group of nurses going into my father’s room.

My Dad was distraught, flinging his arms and cursing.  He was uncomfortable and felt trapped and was fighting.  The nurses were doing their best to keep him under control.  I think they had to drug him to calm him down.  At a later incident my mother ended up with bruises on her arms; my Dad is a big, but strong man.  Even when dying.

On my phone I took a video of our dog, Princess, and showed it to my father.  “Hey Princess… Hi baby” my father sluggishly said.  

At last my brother arrived, but at this point my father was no longer recognizable.  He tossed and turned, his eyes searching wildly across the room to close for a minute only to wildly search a moment later.  He didn’t notice my brother’s arrival as he stood there and took in the situation.

When I saw my Dad open his eyes slightly toward my brother, I told him to look at Dad.  He smiled and said “Hey, Dad” and with that my father eyes bulged as he leaned in and stared straight at him for several seconds.

“Good.  He recognized you!  He knows you’re here,” said my mother.

The animalistic qualities were all my father had by this time, restlessly shifting and staring wildly around.  As my family stood around, I found myself gravitating away from my Dad’s line of sight and slumped in a chair and tried not to cry. 

There was nothing more the hospital could do that this point.  The conversation of hospice came up and as soon as a room would be made available he would be transferred.  After ten years of my father dying, he may remain in this condition for many more months.  The thought was unbearable.

As my sister and I finished our hospital shift in the very early morning hours, I said good bye and I love you to my Dad.  He, in a tired, muffled tone, said “I muve you.”

My sister and I went home and slept.  A few hours later I got up and was downstairs when the phone rang.


Her voice cracked.

”Dad’s passed.”

I hurried upstairs and my sister was already awake from the expectation.  She looked at me and all I could do was nod.

My mother and brother went to get some lunch.  My mom said to my Dad they would be right back.  My Dad was calm and my mom thinks he gave an acknowledgement of “mmmhmm.”  While at lunch they got a call from a nurse to come back; when they arrived they said he passed suddenly.  Perhaps he just waited to be alone.

At first neither my sister nor I wanted to see him.  We drove to the hospital nevertheless, solemn and hearts heavy.  We got to the ward.  I looked and saw a straight line where my father’s name was on the hallway heart monitor.  The curtain to the room was closed.  Slowly, reluctantly, I walked in.

It’s true what they say, how peaceful someone can look in death.  Heck, my Dad even had a slight smile on his face.  His balded forehead began showing a web of red and white as his blood pooled in his body, but otherwise he could have been alive.  The room truly was filled with peace and warmth.

I took his still warm hand and squeezed it with no response.  I kissed his cooling forehead and that was it.  So it goes.

Ironically after all those years of staring at his belly, fearful of it being still, it still moved in his death as the chemicals of his body settled.  

We walked out of the room. 

The next month was weird, to say the least.

I made a few calls to my supervisors to let them know I needed to take a month off.  At one point when I sheepishly apologized for the inconvenience of it all, I got a scoff: “Inconvenience? Well that’s an understatement.”  I didn’t know what to say, and so I said thank you and hung up. 

I made the calls and arrangement for his cremation; picked up his ashes.  It’s weird to see the red velvet bag on a table and to know the remains of your father are inside.  Though I knew it isn’t ‘him,’ so to speak.  He is gone.

I still took extra care in transporting his ashes, even putting the bag in the front seat belt.  For all the times I transported my father, working with his hefty figure and helping get in and out, this relatively small box was about as foreign of an experience as it could get.

My parents bought a house to retire in just before he passed and so for the next month my mother and sister and I went there to reflect.  It was almost like it didn’t happen, like it was a dream and my Dad is still at our old home waiting for us to return.  On the drive back while playing some music of a Broadway show my parents saw, my mother finally broke down.  “He’s not going to be there,” she sobbed.

I have always been proud of my father.  Despite all the reasons I have to be angry and unforgiving for the burden put on myself and our family for so long, I never blamed him.  He had a challenging upbringing and lacked a solid father figure himself.  He got into the military and had a long and successful career in the intelligence field.  He lived a full life before I was born, a life I never knew.  He knew this, and that is why it was important to him to show a piece of that life by being buried in Arlington Cemetery. 

From his years with the Army Reserves he got up to the rank of Colonel.  He was one rank below having a jet flyover for the ceremony.  My family decided to have only immediate members attend the funeral; it is what my father would have wanted as well.  Two charter buses of military personel escorted my father’s remains.  Horse drawn carriage, the riderless horse with boots on backwards, the band, the absolute precision of the march, the gun salute. 

Back in 2009 while I was running for Town Council, I remember talking with my father about my achievements.  I explained to him that I wouldn’t be the man I am today, being as involved as I am to even run for Town Council at age 20, if it wasn’t for the father that I have.  Filled with pride, he cried.

My father, Robert Carter, was extremely proud of his children.  We meant everything to him.  I consider myself extremely fortunate that I don’t have college debt and fully own my car.  My Dad made sure we were taken care of.  That was his gift to us that I can only fully appreciate now after he is gone.

Given my father’s background in intelligence, he had a habit of following his children online.  Sometimes he would spookily bring up something someone posted on my Facebook wall.  In high school it freaked me out, but in college I embraced Facebook and later Twitter as it was an easy way for my Dad to see and experience what I’m experiencing.  It was always fun if I was on the main field in college and I would call my Dad to check out the school’s web camera and watch me as we talked.  The habit of Twitter remains with me today; I consider it my lazy method of blogging.

In the past few months I’ve visited home a couple times to help my mother finish the move to the retirement home.  I’ve now gone through several things of my father’s including a lot of military pictures and documents.  I never knew it, but he was 50% deaf in one ear, 33% in the other after discharging his weapon without ear protection.

The last year of my life has felt like many years.  My time has been filled with organizing full-time, traveling and adventuring, health issues, relationships, and my father’s death.  There hasn’t been a chance to truly reflect.  That’s one reason why this blog has remained unused.

For a transition to what I’m up to nowadays, I’m watching Mad Men and can’t help but imagine my father growing up in that era as he would have been in his early 20s.  Slowly I am piecing together the man I never knew, and I’m ever more proud of him.

I know today that my Dad would be immensely proud of me, and that is something I’ll hold in my heart until the day I die.