This is the second of three posts by Jason Coker, written in the days before and after his father died on Jan. 27. The first post can be read here.
Jan. 16, 2015
I didn’t realize that this phone call was the beginning of a series of goodbyes. In fact, I’ve just realized it by writing it down. My mother called me two weeks before Thanksgiving. “Jason, I had to call the ambulance last night to take your daddy to the hospital because he was in so much pain.” My father has suffered with diabetes for over four decades, and this last decade has been the worst.
All I’m saying is that this phone call was troubling, but not out of the ordinary — at least at the time I was on the phone in the middle of November. Now, in the middle of January, I painfully realize that it was my first goodbye in a series of goodbyes.
After being in the hospital for a couple of days, the doctors decided that they needed to amputate my father’s right leg above the knee. At this point, he was already a double amputate — one amputation above the left knee and one below the right knee. They needed to take his final knee. It would be a life changing event — every amputation is. He would not be able to maneuver from chair to chair, or wheelchair to car seat independently. He would need months of physical and occupational therapy. He would be top heavy and not have as much of a base for balance. No one told us that my father was going to die — until later.
Before the surgery, I talked with my father on the phone (this is part of living 1,300 miles away) to see how he was doing. He told me that he was in so much pain that it didn’t matter. I could hear the pain in his voice as he spoke to me on the phone like you can hear the wind blow through trees. I told him I loved him; he told me he loved me. Then we said goodbye. In retrospect, this was the last fully lucid goodbye I shared with my father. Neither of us knew or expected it to be the last fully conscious goodbye in a series of goodbyes.
Dad never fully recovered from the surgery. He was in more pain afterward than he was before. He had a heart attack in the aftermath of the surgery followed by mini-strokes followed by a major stroke that laid his left hand and arm to rest. The wound from the surgery did not heal. Mom let me know the situation as it was happening.
After the heart attack, I came to see how everything was progressing (in early December). It was then that the mini-strokes started. While I was there, dad moved from partially incoherent to unconscious. We never knew if he was fully aware of his surroundings when he was conscious. Every night when I would go to my hotel room, I said goodbye to my father. The last night I was there, I thought it would be the last — the very last — goodbye. I built up enough courage to ask my mother if she thought he was going to make it. She said no. I stayed by my father’s bedside for a longer time, this last time. I leaned over and hugged him as much as you can in a hospital bed. I kissed his forehead and said goodbye. I had to get back to my wife and children. I had to preach on Sunday. I had to ….
By the time I turned my phone off airplane mode, I had received several texts and phone calls. My mother told me that Dad had woken up and was a little more conscious than he was previously! I was flabbergasted. Our hopelessness was somewhat delayed. This last goodbye didn’t seem to be the very last goodbye. On the other hand, this was by no means a “recovery.” Now we realize it was more of a delay — a delay of the inevitable. The wound that would not heal was still the main problem and the doctors were trying to determine if they could do another surgery to debride the wound. Dad’s vital signs took a nose dive and the doctors decided that a surgery would only increase and prolong my father’s pain. This was our Christmas gift.
After pushing back a little, we accepted this hard truth. This was another goodbye. This was the goodbye when we fully realized and accepted that there was only one outcome: my father’s death.
The weight of the waiting was nearly pulling all of us under the water. Dad was moved to palliative care for comfort. His vitals dipped, I came back to be present with him. The doctors told my mother to call the family and begin making preparations. When I arrived in his room, dad had aged a hundred years in a month (it was now the middle of January). I gently held his hand and told him I was there. He opened his eyes just a little, looked at me, smiled, and struggled to whisper: “Hey, Brother.” (It’s just my sister and me, so these were our terms of affection — Sister and Brother). This was a true gift.
One morning while I was there, he was the most cognitive of the whole trip. I looked through a picture book my wife and I made for Mom and Dad for Christmas — 2014 best of! This was another gift. He even lifted his right hand enough to thump a picture of one of his grandkids on the head. It was a sweet moment. By the end of the day — my last day — he was unconscious again. I didn’t know if he was sleeping very hard, or declining again.
I asked my mother to give me some time alone with Daddy. I felt like this would be our last time together. I stood there with my hand on his head and I prayed for my father. I asked God to give him a safe passage between this life and the next. I prayed for my father to have peace and comfort; I prayed for God to have mercy. I prayed for my father to die. I whispered to him that I loved him. I walked out of the room and as I slowly closed the door, I paused to look at my father alive for the last time, and I said goodbye. I know there is at least one more goodbye to go in this series of goodbyes.