My dad died Friday. He was 80. I miss him terribly.
His adventure started late at night on Friday, September 28. He knew he was having a heart attack, and while I slept, he drove himself to the hospital after taking two doses of outdated nitroglycerin. He waited until 5 a.m. the next day before letting the nurse call me. He didn’t want to wake me. The hospital was a half-hour away and when I got there he was stable, but not well. Still, I scolded him for not calling me and for not calling 9-1-1. He just smiled.
A few days later, the heart doctors did a cardio catheterization on him. More bad news. The bypass he had back in 1984 had run its course, he had a leaky valve and the arteries surrounding the heart were almost all clogged. They could operate, they said, but the operation and subsequent recovery made it a risky endeavor. You see, Dad was also diabetic, which – in case you don’t know – wreaks havoc with complications when the body is invaded with scalpels and dyes.
It was the dye used during the heart cath procedure that began the two-and-a-half month battle between Dad’s kidneys and heart. He was discharged from the hospital October 3rd. My sister from Connecticut (God bless her) flew out to stay with the cranky old man. My brother flew out, too. In a day or two, they had to take Dad back in. His blood sugar was going crazy. He was discharged a few days later, but my sister and I were back in the emergency room within a week. Congestive heart failure and pneumonia, they said. This hospital stay was longer, but he eventually got out. When it came time for my sister to fly back home, a nursing agency came to stay with my Dad round the clock. He didn’t want a nursing home and there was no way he’d impose on my family by living with us.
He went into the hospital for the final time on October 30. His nurse was with him when I got there. Congestive heart failure again. He was released a week and a half later. One day as I sat with him working on a jigsaw puzzle, I asked him if the doctor has ever told him if he thought he was going to die.
“Nope,” he said, “And I don’t wanna know.”
But I knew. I’d seen congestive heart failure before and the seesaw battle between a man and his failing organs. Docs prescribe heart drugs to pump harder, increase blood pressure in an effort to clear the body of fluid. Meanwhile, the kidneys – often the victims of diabetes - can’t keep up with things, and they wear down, too. Fluid builds up, the heart works harder, the heart gets bigger, and, well, something’s gotta give.
On Friday, December 14, 2007, something gave. My sister called, letting me know that my dad gained three pounds overnight. When I called Dad’s house, the nurse answered. She was keeping the line clear for the doctor to call back. A trip to the ER was imminent. I asked her if I should go, too, and she said, “No, it’s just the fluid retention. I’ll call you if it gets bad.” I didn't get to talk to him.
I’ll never get that moment back. I’ll never get a do-over.
She called me back around 11:30 a.m. to let me know the doc told them to head to the hospital. I called my sister to let her know. A half hour later, the nurse called back. She was hysterical and I knew Dad was dying if not dead.
I was right.
He died like he wanted to, though. He wasn’t wasting away in a nursing home. He was on his feet, walking to the nurse’s car when it happened. And he never saw it coming. The doctors think he died immediately.
At the hospital, I kissed him goodbye, knowing he couldn’t feel it. Knowing he was too busy reuniting with Mom. Or, playing catch with my brother Tommy. I stood there, eyes closed as I ran my fingers through his gray hair. “See ya soon, Dad,” I whispered.
Ever since Mom died, I made it a point to try to talk to Dad every night. Sunday nights were special because he and I (along with my brother and cousin) would bet on each football game played, and on Sundays, Dad would pick up the phone and either say, “Hello Winner” or “Hello Loser”. Ha. He loved it, and we’d go through the remaining games, scenarios, etc, and assess which teams needed to win and who would be the big loser for the week. We always hoped it would be my cousin.
When I talked to my Dad the night before he died, he asked me what I had going on for the weekend. When I told him my son actually had no soccer games on Sunday, I cringed, because I knew it was my last weekend day to Christmas shop and I thought he was going to invite the family over. Instead, he said, “Great! This’ll be the first Sunday all season where you can watch football all day and not go to soccer!” Not a sniff about me coming over. Typical Dad. Selfless. Thinking about me. How can it be that I am his son?
I called so many of his friends yesterday. I didn't want them to find out by reading the newspaper. Many cried. Many didn't know what to say. I had to stop after every two or three calls, just to get my bearings. I have a few more out-of-state people to call and I'll be done. Maybe I was putting myself through unnecessary stress, but this is my way of honoring my father. Tom Henshaw was too loved by too many to have an unheralded death.
Today will be hard. But it won't be the phone calls. Instead, it’s the first Sunday I have ever known without my father. Something tells me I won’t be able to watch much football.
So long, Dad.