Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Perfect Exit

     Throughout my life, my father, a Polish immigrant and psychiatrist, was a continual source of inspiration to me, sort of an eccentric, kindred spirit. He spoke Polish, English, German, Italian, French, and Spanish fluently, and taught himself Farsi at the age of 65. He was a gifted artist and pianist, and he frequently used elements from his patients' dreams (yes, he actually did psychotherapy, not med management!) in his paintings, collages, and sculptures. He was the first person I ever knew who recycled...we had a HUGE aluminum foil ball in our kitchen, back in the mid 70s. He was very enthusiastic about tofu. He loved all kinds of ethnic cuisine, and I fondly remember lunching with him at Ethiopian and Indian restaurants when I lived in Atlanta. He wholeheartedly supported my dreams of being a chef, and later, a physician. He stayed with me in the hospital when my twins delivered prematurely, while my husband and the rest of my family were moving us to our new house (believe it or not, it all happened simultaneously). He loved being naked, and used to drive my mother crazy, traipsing around the house without any clothes.  Thinking back on it, nakedness was never a big issue in my family. He was also one of the only people/physicians I knew who was fascinated by alternative and holistic medicine, before it was considered fashionable. We all thought he was a little bit crazy...he read books about Ayurveda, the blood type diet, tried steaming fish in the dishwasher, and developed an interest in herbal medicine.
     His health problems included high blood pressure and diet-controlled diabetes. He did not like the side effects from his blood pressure medicine, which included a cough, from which he developed an inguinal hernia, as well as "sexual side effects." These were very distressing to him. He stopped his blood pressure medication, went to a naturopath, and was prescribed rauwolfia, a very old blood pressure medication. He was fanatic about recording his blood pressures, sometimes every couple of hours during the day, especially after he and my mother had disagreed about something. He was a little bit manipulative in that way, and I am not certain about exactly what measures he took to relieve his stress. At that time, he was 81 years old, still working and traveling to Buford, GA to spend time there with his artist friends.
     During Christmas of 2002, I was on an anesthesiology rotation at the VA. It was a wonderful time of year to be part of that service because the surgery schedule was so light. I had lots of free time, which meant lots of time to cook. I learned how to make marshmallows. My husband, an avid hunter, made excellent venison jerky. Because Dad seemed to have everything, we gave him marshmallows and venison jerky as a gift that year. Shortly after New Year's Day, Dad developed an arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, and was admitted to the hospital for a cardiac workup.
     In the course of just a few days, my life changed forever. Dad's echocardiogram revealed a massive aortic ring aneurysm, presumably a result of poorly controlled hypertension, and his heart's pumping function was extremely low. Attempts were made to electrically and pharmacologically restore him to a regular cardiac rhythm, but they didn't work. His cardiologist told us that, without surgery, Dad could live 2 years or just a few weeks. This information terrified me: as a physician, I knew too much. I phoned all of my siblings, and told them to go ahead and say their good-byes. Dad was emphatic about not wanting any cardiac surgery; his greatest fear was becoming "a vegetable" after bypass. I remember being at my parents' house, and seeing all of Dad's medical texts from the 1950s, spread out on the coffee table, with the page turned to "aortic root aneurysm." What was so strange was that he refused to acknowledge to me that he indeed had an aneurysm that could rupture at any time. Over the next few weeks, my family (most of us lived locally) got together frequently with friends of my parents, hanging out at their house, playing board games, reminiscing, and simply enjoying each other's company. There was an unspoken understanding between Dad and me: he knew that I knew that he wasn't long for this world, but we didn't discuss it. He informed me and my husband that he was "perilously low" on his supply of marshmallows and venison jerky, and we brought him some more.
     On a blustery winter night, early in February 2003 at about 2 a.m., I received a phone call from my mother. I could hear my father's Polish accent in the background, asking "Where are you taking me?" Mom was frantic. She and Dad had gone to bed that evening, and he had gotten up to go to the bathroom, after which she heard him coughing a lot. When he came back to bed, he was clammy and lethargic. In her panic, she called 911. Although he was a DNR (do not resuscitate), the 911 team began resuscitation, and briefly got him back. That was when I heard him talking, as he was being taken out of their house, into the cold night, completely naked, except for a thin cotton sheet which blew off as he was lifted into the ambulance. He died upon arrival to the hospital. As we were standing around his bedside, looking at his body, searching for some last little glimmer of life, my mom remarked that he left this world just as he had entered it: naked. Although this may sound strange, if you really knew my father, you would recognize that it was the perfect exit.
Dad and me, 1963


  1. Kris!!!You are KILLING me with these posts!!! You're such a good writer!

    Oh my, I wish I could have known your father. Sigh.

    May I share your blog w/ my BFF Bethie who is a pediatric surgical nurse?

  2. Dad was such an interesting person. There are many days that I wish I could once again have a conversation with him and hear his opinions about things. You would have loved him! Please feel free to share with whomever you'd like!

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Kris. I'm still amazed how much I don't know about Dad - probably since I'm the youngest.

  4. When I called and said my "goodbye" and later in the month Dad even emailed me -- stating I was the first recipient to get an "electronic composition" from him.... he let me know very matter of factly that he was not scared; he knew his exit was going to "be sudden and excruciatingly painful" but assured me "the pain would be so brief; like the blink of an eye" and then it would be done. He wrote of afterlife and heaven in the Jan. 2002 email and we in a later conversation we joked about heavenly Styrofoam. His last spoken words to me over the phone, which I cherish were: "goodbye my baby daughter -- Emilia Daria -- I love you....(long pause - I thought the phone battery died.....) more than you will know."

  5. Emi, I would love to see the email Dad sent you. It was such a strange and stressful time, and although I spent quite a bit of time with him during the last weeks of his life, my experience with him regarding how his life would end was very different. I wonder how he conveyed his thoughts to our other siblings. I think I may be the only one of us who didn't really say a formal "good-bye" to him; we had more of an unspoken understanding, yet were definitely on the same wavelength. From time to time, I experience very intense split-seconds where I am aware that he is near me, and I can almost hear his voice.

  6. Kris,
    I knew your father very well .
    As you well know he and my parents were close as were our families .
    I knew your father's mother from Poland . She was a saint . All I wanted was her to pray for me . I knew her prayers got to heaven.
    My father was also a Polish immigrant and a physician .
    Our families created many wonderful memories.

    I visited your father and mother in Atlanta shortly before his death .
    My mother was with me . My father had passed away several years ago.
    We had an incredibly wonderful visit .
    I understood him and where he was coming from . We were on the same page and he was so happy to talk to me .
    We spoke Polish and reminisced .
    YOur father showed us his art work and his studio in Atlanta .
    Importantly we saw his art tribute to 9/11 that was featured in the Atlanta papers . You should be so proud . I was so proud .
    Your father wanted goat cheese and hearty bread .
    We went for breakfast in Buckhead the next morning and enjoyed some
    great coffee and European pastries .
    I invited your father to my home to set up his easel and paint .
    My mother would prepare wonderful Polish dishes . She was an incredible chef .
    He was planning on coming and excited at the prospect .
    I promised a deep supply of goat cheese and great coffee .
    I was so looking forward to his visit .
    I missed my own father . Your father was so much like mine but different.
    I received the ominous call from your mother .
    I realized how important time is and how every day counts .
    I had made my visit to your father too late .
    I knew how often I had said " I need to go there" only 3 hours away .
    Yet "stuff' kept sweeping me away .
    I was so sad .
    Something very special was taken away from me forever.

    Carpe diem .
    I really mean this .
    Love, kiss, hug, tell people you care , appreciate , do not hold it inside of yourself , share , don't expect people to know , tell them , do something thoughtful , experience the real joy of giving . Basia

  7. basia, this is lovely...i especially love your recollection of how Dad wanted goat cheese and hearty bread! thank you for posting these memories.

  8. What a beautiful, moving post and what an amazingly quirky man your father was! I think this could be a story, you write fantastically! I would have loved to have met him, I would love to have the natural ability to learn languages and would have talked to him for hours :) I loved the fact that you could all see the fitting end that was him passing on naked! :) Beautiful, beautiful post

    1. Jade, thanks so much for your comments. My dad was a true lover of life, so passionate and curious about everything.

  9. This is beautiful, and very sad but through the whole story it shows that even though he suffered so much till the end he still left with no regret, everyone was by his side... you could say even if he didn't see you all at least he heard you all and was able to feel your presence until his last breath.


  10. Your father seems like a facinating peron to have listened to. Sounds like a super innteresting man. Great post!

  11. Chester Bo Bester !February 2, 2014 at 6:23 AM

    Wow ! Great person. Reminds me of my father and memories........maybe see him next time around !

    1. Chester, I am looking forward to exchanging stories and recollections of our dads.

  12. My dad used to love to be naked around the house too! I'm glad you got to have him for so long!

    1. Me, too, Aim-why. I think both of us probably take after our dads, don't you?

  13. Hey, Kris! He reminds me of my own! But this is a post about an extraordinary man. Just the fact that he'd had mastered so many different languages and arts left me breathless. I am sure he was headstrong -a true artist can't be otherwise. I am glad I share something with that gentleman -I hope you can guess. ;)

    1. I think I may have guessed it, Uma; I share the same trait (as evidenced by my FB profile pic). Dad was an amazing man, but managed to remain humble about his accomplishments. I think his humility was probably what I admired most about him.

  14. Kris, this is such a beautiful remembrance of your father, it brought tears to my eyes, and made me think of my dear father too. Not that they were alike, just that you were close to him the way I was close to my father. I can readily see how he’d be your kindred spirit; you clearly inherited his free spirit, artistic talent and creativity. What an amazing skill he had with so many languages! I really love that he was so supportive of your dreams, that he stayed with you when the twins were delivered prematurely, that he was interested in holistic medicine before it was fashionable, and even his penchant for nakedness, it suited his free spirited personality so perfectly. Yes, your father’s exit was perfect (although sad for you and your family), and you will always hold those wonderful memories of him close to your heart. That’s a sweet photo of your Dad holding you. Beautiful post, Kris, and thank you for sharing your memories with us. I wish I could have known him.

    1. Thanks, Madilyn! Even though it's been 11 years, I still miss him terribly. I wish I could talk to him again. I also wish my husband could have known him, because they have various quirks in common. I am grateful for every memory I have of my father, and for the closeness we shared.

  15. What an incredible man and a fittingly touching tribute. I'm sure there are many more stories you could tell us about his life, I can just see the cover of his biography now: "The Naked Polyglot".

    1. Thank you, Dale. Yes, there are so many wonderful stories! I'm really glad that my sons both got to know their grandfather. Dad would have loved your biography title suggestion!