What Happens When You Lose Your Father

A piece by Michelle Herman

It was my brother’s idea. He and my mother were already halfway out the door of my father’s room in the cardiothoracic ICU when he turned back and said, “You should write his obituary. Tonight.”

I thought it was a terrible idea but I didn’t say so. I was too exhausted to talk, certainly too exhausted to protest, or to argue. The only time Scott and I had argued — the only time we’d been anything but gentle to each other — since our father first got sick, it was because he thought I was being “too negative.” I’d been traveling back and forth between Columbus, Ohio, where I live, and New York City, where my family is. Some weeks I spent 48 hours there and 48 hours here, then went right back. I was wiped out. And every time I left, I felt guilty and anxious — and I wanted to be there; it wasn’t only guilt. I wanted to be with my father in his hospital room, wanted to keep him company and ease his mind and hold his hand. I couldn’t bear the thought that he might die without me there beside him. “But he’s not dying,” my brother shouted at me over the phone as I sobbed. Why was I so sure he wouldn’t get better? What made me think I knew more than the doctors did?

But I didn’t think I knew more. What I thought — what I knew — was that the doctors were so focused on doing The Next Thing, whatever that next thing might be (anything they could think of, whether it would make him better or not — and nothing made him better, but they had to do something; they couldn’t stand not doing something), they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I could see the forest.

I loved my father — I needed my father — but I knew he was dying. I wanted to be able to let him go.

It was Tuesday night, May 13. As recently as Sunday there had been talk — infuriating talk, as I saw it — about reducing my father’s oxygen intake sufficiently to send him to rehab. “And what then?” I asked the pulmonologist. “What happens when he needs a higher flow of oxygen and the rehab facility can’t provide it? They stick him in an ambulance and bring him back here, right? If there’s even anyone paying attention.” We’d been through rehab once before — I knew the drill.

“What are you proposing instead?” the pulmonologist asked me. He didn’t even look at me. He was fiddling with the dial.

“Stop it,” I said. “He only just stopped gasping for breath. Let him be.”

Now he looked at me.

“Fine,” he said coldly. “Then I will.” He stalked out of the room.

For days I had been trying to get the doctors to consider hospice. “Death is not the enemy,” I wanted to tell them. “Everybody dies.” But they knew that, didn’t they? They didn’t act as if they knew that.

I would ask them, again and again, “You can’t live if you don’t have a good working heart or good working lungs, right? You need one or the other?” But instead of answering they would tell me there was this or that they could still do, and when I said, “But that won’t make him well, will it?” they’d say, “It depends on what you mean by well.” And then, one by one, they stopped coming around.


My father and I had our last real conversation on Saturday morning, before I made the trip up to the Bronx to look at Calvary Hospital — astonishingly, the only residential hospice in the city for patients with less than six months to live (there are, I discovered, a number of small programs — 8 beds, 25 beds — for people whose doctors will testify have two or three weeks left). That morning my father had woken up early, convinced that this was the day of his death. It frightened my brother — who still believed he wasn’t dying, that he would get better (the doctors had told him just the day before that “all the numbers” were good, Scott reminded me) — even though Dad told him, in a 5 AM phone call, that it was okay, he was at peace, he was ready to go. My father had never been at peace, not for a moment of his life. It may be that this scared my brother more than the possibility that he’d had a true premonition.

He told Scott to tell my mother and me that he loved us and that he was ready to go. He had tried to call me too, but — I saw this later — he had accidentally deleted the final two digits of my cell phone number on his phone. He would have called my mother, I’m sure, but I could see that he’d deleted his and my mother’s home phone number too, and all but one digit of my mother’s cell phone — he’d been fighting with his phone for weeks. My brother’s was one of the few numbers left intact.

Dad had been sick since December, and there’d been plenty of times he’d said he was so miserable he wanted to die, but he hadn’t meant it. He howled when the nurses adjusted him, when a piece of tape pulled at the hair on his arm, when I tried to put a sock on his bare foot. He would say, “I’d rather be dead than suffer this way!” I called him on it every time: “Seriously, Dad? You want to die? Death would be better than ______?” — whatever the latest indignity or misery was: the BiPap covering half his face, the order not to eat or drink anything in preparation for a lung biopsy I’d been dead set against, the nurses changing the bed after he’d soiled it (a week before he died, they put a feeding tube in his stomach and after that he had constant diarrhea, and of course he was too frail by then even to use a bedpan). He was sore, he was thirsty, he was hungry, he was completely worn out, his breathing was labored, he had tubes everywhere, and each time he said he wanted to die and I said, “Really? You do?”, he would say, softly, “No, I guess not.”

He didn’t want to die, that Saturday morning at 5 AM. He just finally knew that he was going to. I don’t think he ever believed it before then — no more than my mother did, no more than my brother did.

I arrived at 7 — I’d been staying overnight whenever I was in town, but I was running out of steam and had hired an aide to sit with him on Friday night — and he was lucid. Not so much at peace as he had claimed to be on the phone with my brother, but not nearly as agitated as he had often been during the five months of his illness and repeated hospitalizations. I took his hand and told him that I wasn’t going to argue with him or dismiss his intuition but that my own intuition was different. “I think it’s a false premonition,” I said gently. “I don’t think it’s going to be today.” That was all I said, but it calmed him.

Later that morning, in between fitful naps, in and out of lucidity, he pointed at the clock on the wall across from his bed and said, despairingly, “They’re adding a minute to every hour. I wish they wouldn’t. I wish they’d take it away. I don’t need an extra minute. I’m wasting it.”

I promised him I’d arrange to have it taken away and he fell asleep again. The next time he woke up, he wanted to talk about elementary school, about his father’s hardware store — we’d been up all night two nights before, talking about his father’s store, the store he’d hated working in, and how he’d joined the army because it was the only way to get out of working in the store. I’d never known that before. I’d never wondered why he’d been in the army. I assumed everyone was in the army in 1948.

He remembered that I was heading up to the Bronx that afternoon, and he asked me the address of the hospital and what it was called. When I told him, he cried, “But I know that place! I lived around the corner from it.” He had me take out a notebook and write down his address — both of his addresses in the Bronx, where he was born and where they’d moved when he was 4. And then the address of my grandfather’s first store.

I hadn’t even known there’d been a store in the Bronx — I’d known only about the one in Brooklyn, on Brighton Beach Avenue. “That was later,” he said. “That was why we moved from the Bronx — because he bought the store in Brighton.”

He had me write down the address of his elementary school, the name of his favorite teacher. Before I left for the Bronx, he told me to be careful, to take a cab. “Put it on my credit card,” he said.

After that — all day Sunday and half of Monday — he was fretful, scared, his thoughts confused. He’d forgotten about his premonition and the fact that he’d been wrong; he wasn’t always sure where he was. He kept asking me if he was “safe” and if he was “making good progress.” He was safe, I told him. He was making excellent progress.

By Monday afternoon he stopped asking me anything. He stopped talking at all.

We were going to move him to hospice on Tuesday afternoon, but by then he was too sick to move.

I’d been with him since 6 in the morning on Tuesday — I’d once again had an aide come in to sit with him while I went to my mother’s apartment and tried to get some sleep — and my mother had been there since 11. Now it was after 9. My brother was going to take her home and drive back to New Jersey himself. That was when he suggested I write the obituary.

I didn’t start on it until after midnight. By then I’d been talking to him and singing to him for hours. Eventually I ran out of things to say, songs to sing. So I took out my laptop and I began to write, sentence by sentence, reading aloud to him as I went along, asking him what he thought even though I didn’t expect an answer.

Could he hear me? I don’t know. Maybe.

I never stopped talking. Even when I was satisfied with what I’d written, I kept talking to him about his life. I retold him the stories he’d been telling me for the past five months. I told him all the same things I’d been telling him for days, for weeks: how much I loved him, how much we all loved him, what a good job he had done raising us. It was all true. I told him there was nothing in his life he needed to regret, reminded him how much he’d accomplished, how much good he’d done. And I promised him that Scott and I would take care of our mother — our mother who couldn’t remember life before she’d met our father. They’d known each other for 67 years, since she was 14. I told him we’d take care of each other, too, told him he’d taught us how to do that.

And then I told him it was all right to go. I held his hand. I watched him take a breath and then not take another — watched him let go. Through the trees, I thought. Into the forest.

featured image – João Almeida

Michelle writes about life, loss, love, and what she’s learned over the years.

Keep up with Michelle on Twitter and michelleherman.com

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