If I had one more conversation with my father, it would start with me telling him that I remember the Snickers bars. My father was an incredibly courageous man, but I didn’t really learn the extent of his courage until he passed away a few weeks ago.
My father was born in Palermo, Sicily and came to the United States in the late 60’s to marry my mother. He was a captain in the Italian Merchant Marines and had a successful career ahead of him when he got a letter from my mother explaining that she was pregnant. Back then – the only answer was to get married. He did the honorable thing, gave up his career and came to the United States to start a new life.
I wont go into the details, but it wasn’t an easy life. He had a thick Italian accent and had to start from the bottom with his career. On top of this – my mother was an extremely complicated person and I’ll leave it at that. Just know that our home was not a peaceful place most of the time.
My father ended up being extremely successful, but he paid a very big price for it… most of his time was spent working. This means that I rarely got to see him, but when he did find a moment or two to take my brother and I out for lunch, or a drive to the bank – I remember that somehow, he would always have a snickers bar for each of of us. On Valentines Day – even as a child, I would get a single rose. My dad never left me out, nor made me feel ignored no matter how much time I did, or did not have with him.
My mother passed away in 2007, and although that was a sad chapter, it was somewhat of a relief. My father started to find a new life for himself, he even got engaged for a short while. He went to the movies, had parties with friends and in general – just really started to enjoy life. He came to visit us on a regular basis and called every single day. Yes, I said – every single day. He really loved having family around and no matter how much of a social life he found for himself – the emptiness of the house and distance from us made him a bit lonely.
Do you know how many times I would answer the phone just to say, “Dad, I’ll call you back”…. knowing full well that I probably wasn’t going to call him back? Sometimes he would call so many times a day that it was like having a stalker. I knew he was lonely, but my goodness – I was in my 30s, married and had two kids of my own. I cannot express enough how much I miss him calling. When the phone is quiet at night right before bed and doesn’t ring, I feel haunted by his absence.
I really took my father being in my life for granted. I had a lot of reason to. He had never been sick a day in his life. I barely remember him ever having a cold. Even if he was sick – he would drag himself into the office without complaining. I don’t remember my father ever taking a “sick day”. His father lived into his late 90s, and his grandmother made it to 100. The people on my father’s side of the family live very healthy, long lives. I had always imaged that my father would be a very old pain in the ass. That never happened.
In August of 2011, my father finally retired and moved to Florida to live with my family. We had purchased a home in 2009 that was big enough so that my father could comfortably move in with us. He was only 68 when he came to live with us, full of life and energy. In Italy, parents living with their children in their retirement years is a very normal thing. My father could have lived on his own, but it wasn’t what we wanted. My dad absolutely adored his grandchildren. All of them. I truly believe that my father woke up every day excited to see the kids. I have never seen anyone love anything or anyone as much as my father loved his grandchildren. It was as if he would breath them in each day instead of oxygen.
In early October, my dad finally took the time to get his first doctor’s appointment to get settled with a primary care physician in the area. He went in for a regular check up, and nothing more. We had been making fun of him though because he loved Joe’s cooking and it seemed like he had gained a bit of weight since he moved in. The doctor ran some regular blood tests and dad came home chipper as usual. We had noticed that he had aged, but we attributed it to the fact that he moved out of his home of 40 years (that I was born and raised in) completely on his own. It was a big house, our schedules didn’t work to be able to go help him and like usual – he didn’t ask. It was probably very emotionally and physically draining to have to sort through 40 years of memories and figure out what to keep, what to give away and what to throw away. We had limited space at our house and he had to make some tough decisions.
A week after the first doctor’s appointment, my dad got a call that some of the tests had come back a little troubling and he needed some more. His liver enzymes were elevated and the doctor wanted to do some more tests. Dad didn’t think much of it and neither did we. Remember, he was going to live until his late 90s in my mind. I remember even saying that to him, “Dad, don’t worry – you’re going to drive me nuts in your old age”.
The rest went by so quickly that I don’t really know how to break it all down. All I can tell you is that by mid October, we knew that something was very wrong and we suspected Liver Cancer. Dad’s abdomen got so swollen he couldn’t bend over to put on his own socks. He started having tons of very painful cramps in his legs and hands. The cramps were so bad that Joe would have to massage his legs multiple times a day and he couldn’t cut up a piece of fruit because his hands were curling backwards. It was awful to watch, and the doctors didn’t have a lot of answers. At first, we were told it was gall stones. He went to a surgeon, who order a CT scan of his abdomen to check out the stones. The answer came back that he would not perform any surgery because the gall stones were the least of our worries. My father’s liver was shrinking and showing signs of severe damage. But from what? My father didn’t drink.
Dozens of tests later and two hospitalizations – we still didn’t know much more than we know now. I had a huge project going on at work and I was working from home during the day. When he wasn’t in the hospital, I would make him his favorite foods for lunch and dinner. Even though none of the doctors could confirm the cancer at this point, I just knew that we were dealing with something of that nature. I was watching my father waste away. Joe was amazing. My father would refer to Joe during his last weeks as “Joe, my son, my angel”.
The hard part of all of this is that my father asked that none of us cry. If you know me well, then you know that I can come off as hard as a rock. I did my best to keep a straight face with my father, even though I would cry every night after he went to sleep. The hard part looking back is not that I didn’t cry in front of my father, but it made me avoid conversations that I wish I had with him. I made sure that I kept the conversations with him based on what he needed at that moment, that day, to make him comfortable. (Except for the day he made me help him re-write his will. I had to do that not facing him and taking multiple breaks to get more coffee, a snack, anything to walk away when it was getting to be too much).
This whole time I was trying to communicate my father’s condition to his family in Italy, and my brother David in Nashville. Since everyone knew my father as an incredibly healthy, vibrant man – getting everyone to understand how quickly his health was deteriorating was very challenging. I thank God every day that I did get my brother to come down to Florida to see my dad over one weekend to introduce his new daughter. Dad was weak at that point, but still able to sit up, eat dinner with us at the table, have a conversation. He looked sick, but dying? No. They still hadn’t confirmed the cancer in a way that seemed convincing enough for the family. Besides, do you know how hard it is to explain to someone over the phone that although there are treatments for most cancers – we still didn’t even know for sure where his started or ended. Do you know how many times I was asked, “Are you sure?” No, I wasn’t sure – the doctors weren’t sure. None of the doctors ever pointed to a tumor and said, “there it is”. We would get phone calls saying that his tumor markers were high in blood tests and they knew the cancer was there but they couldn’t find it. One doctor told us that he saw a tumor behind the liver – the rest said they didn’t know what he was talking about. It was a very frustrating and confusing time for us.
My father never complained. He never said, “Why me”. He never said, “This is not fair”. Not one complaint. The only time I remember seeing the suffering on his face was one of the last times he ate dinner with us at the kitchen table. We were sitting and eating and he looked at each of us for a brief moment one by one starting with the kids. He was just watching us. I saw the tears well up in his eyes and his face turn red. When he looked straight at me and realized that I saw what he was doing, he quickly got up and ran to his room before anyone else noticed. When he came back, he was composed and never said a word.
During his last hospitalization in early November, I finally cornered one of the doctors and told them to figure it out and that I wanted answers right now. I kept a straight face and asked how long we had. Three weeks to a month. Several doctors has huddled together and gone over all of his blood tests and scans and come to the conclusion that although they believed the cancer was in his liver, it had spread from his pancreas …that they had not originally noticed was swollen. It was confirmed, my father had the worst cancer you can probably get – pancreatic cancer and it had already spread to his liver. It explained why each day was such a change from the previous and his decline was so quick. The doctors told me to gather the family for Thanksgiving and not Christmas. I called my brother and my aunt in Italy and everyone rearranged their schedule. The doctors had not told my father yet and asked me to explain it to him. As he had gotten worse, his voice was really rough and coupled with the strong accent – it was easier for the family to translate.
Do you know what it is like to have to look at your father and explain that he probably wouldn’t be around for Christmas, so we needed to change our goals and get the family together much sooner? Even at this stage, my father was very aware. Joe and the kids were all in the hospital room when I broke the news to my dad. I could barely look at him, I kept fiddling with my cell phone while I was talking just trying to distract myself enough to get through the conversation without crying. When my dad said, “So I wont be here for Christmas. Okay, I’m dying. I know this,” I finally couldn’t hold it in any longer. I started to choke up. I turned to Joe, he was crying. My 12 year old son started to cry and said, “But mom, isn’t there a treatment. There is cancer treatments, I know there is”. For the first time, my dad really started crying. It is a moment I will never forget. My father composed himself, hugged and kissed us all, and said, “I have had a great life. I love my children and I know that you all love me. It will be okay.”
My 32nd birthday was on November 16th. My father had enough life left in him to remember this and hand wrote a check from his hospital bed to cover a birthday gift. Dad and Joe split the cost of getting me a tablet pc that I had been wanting and some flowers. I still have the check stub – I found it after he died and it is probably the most precious thing that I have of his. He wrote the check on November 14th. Dad came home on Wednesday, November 16th, my birthday and he had really gotten to a point that it was obvious he was slipping away. He had not eaten for several days in the hospital due to some tests and procedures that had to be done and it had taken a huge toll. He was not able to walk on his own, and when he did talk to us it was one or two words at a time and then he would slip away again. During one of his lucid moments, he asked me if I liked my birthday present. I told him I loved it and he said, “good, good” and slipped back away.
I realized at that point we probably had a few days left. I called my brother the next morning and tried to warn him that Dad’s condition had really changed dramatically over the last few days. David was scheduled to be at our house early Friday morning to spend the weekend with dad and pick up my father’s car that he was inheriting. I had finally convinced him not to wait much longer.
Unfortunately, on Thursday night – November 17th, the day after my father came home from the hospital and less than a month from the day we knew anything was wrong at all…my precious father passed away in our arms. Only Joe and I were in the room at first. We had helped him sit up and gotten him into a chair. We were both holding him and he had his arms around Joe’s neck. When his arms let go of Joe’s neck… he completely let go. Joe realized he was leaving us and held him up so I could get in front of him and let him know it was okay to go and to talk him through his last moments. One of the things I vividly remember saying to my father was, “you can still come see me in my dreams”. At some point, I called my brother while my father still had shallow breathing and held the phone to his ear so that my brother could say goodbye. Joe and I wanted to get my dad back to bed before he completely passed but we were going to need help. Joe’s best friend Rory arrived shortly thereafter along with the hospice nurse and somehow we got dad back in the bed in time for his final few breaths. The nurse called his time of death. I walked out the room and called my brother. A few minutes after telling my brother that dad had passed away…. Joe came to tell me that Dad had started breathing again. In our opinion, our father really had died the first time, but his body was really strong despite the cancer – and his body continued this really horrible sounding, gasping breathing for two and a half hours longer before his body let go completely.
It took me almost an hour after my father died to let go of his hand. I remember putting my face in his hand for one last time, his hand was still warm. Joe finally convinced me to let go and I left the room. My father’s death, although agonizing for all of us – was very peaceful. What would be better than to die at home in the arms of two people who absolutely loved you unconditionally?
There are more stories to tell about the weeks that followed my father’s death, but I will leave that to other blog posts. This post was really to honor our father and to remind ourselves and our friends that nothing in life should be taken for granted. In the last weeks of his life, my father wouldn’t just kiss us hello – he would literally take our face into his hands and kiss every inch of our face. The hugs were longer, and the smiles were bigger. He still found moments to scold me for working too much and to tell me that he was so proud of me. He found time to tell his family and anyone who would listen that he loved his family and he was so proud of all of us. He also found the time to pass on a message that would take a few weeks to get back to us – my father was okay with leaving me, his baby girl… because Joe was such a loving and kind soul – that he knew I would be taken care of. Joe may never know how much that means, but it is something I can never quantify for him. In my father’s last weeks – he was not only comforted by Joe’s care, but by the thought that we would all be okay, because this great man was in our life. I cannot thank my husband enough for doing this for my dad… he gave him a comfort that no medicine or treatment ever could.
It is not a cliche – the only things that matter in life are your friends, family and love. At the end – that is all you have.