Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Measure of Comfort

     Today is Father's Day, and I miss my dad. He died almost ten years ago, rather suddenly, from an aortic dissection. Shortly after Christmas in 2002, he developed atrial fibrillation, and was admitted to the hospital for a cardiac work up. An echocardiogram of his heart revealed a huge aortic root aneurysm with a severe, concomitant decrease in heart function; he was in congestive heart failure. Electrical cardioversion failed to restore his heart to sinus rhythm. He was stabilized on medication with only marginal improvement in his heart function, and was discharged home not long after New Year's in 2003. Although open heart surgery to repair the aneurysm was presented as a possibility, Dad, who was 81 at the time, immediately refused this option; in fact, he was quite adamantly opposed to it. I can still hear him saying, "I don't want to become a VE-ge-ta-ble" in his Polish accent. "What will be, will be." His cardiologist informed us that my father might survive a few more weeks or even a couple of years, but Dad and I both understood he wasn't long for this world.
     At the time, I was in my first year of anesthesia residency. My gestalt about the situation, which later proved correct, was that my family needed to start the process of saying good-bye to him. I telephoned my five siblings to convey the gravity of Dad's condition. Those of us who lived here in town spent as much time as we could with my parents, just hanging out and enjoying each other's company. Despite our terrible collective knowledge that Dad was dying, the atmosphere surrounding him was appropriately light-hearted, very much in keeping with his infectious joie de vivre for which he was so adored. He died on February 2, 2003. He and Mom were in bed that night, and he'd gotten up to go to the bathroom. He returned to bed after what Mom described as a forceful cough or sneeze, and after lying back down, he was cold, clammy, and unresponsive. Although he was briefly revived by paramedics, his aneurysm had ruptured, and he was essentially dead upon arrival to the hospital. The last time I heard his voice was during Mom's frantic 2 a.m. phone call to me. Dad was being whisked away naked, save for a thin sheet, on a stretcher into an ambulance, and he was asking, "Where are you taking me?" At that moment, I knew I'd never hear his voice again. I drove alone to the emergency room, dreading the thought of seeing of my father's newly lifeless body. None of us will ever know what went through his mind during those last few minutes of life...was he in pain? Was he frightened at all? Did he understand what was happening to him?
     I returned home a few hours later, but couldn't sleep. Pierced with grief, I wandered aimlessly from room to room in a melancholy funk. It was Sunday. My husband, who was a realtor, had gone to show one of his clients a house, and I was alone with my 12 year old twin sons, Nick and Rory. I think they were both a little freaked out by my despondence. At some point, Nick came upstairs and offered to make me a sandwich. He had gotten quite good at making grilled ham and cheese, and I must say, that sandwich was the BEST sandwich I'd ever had in my life. This was a pivotal moment for me. At a time when I couldn't even remember the steps involved in brushing my teeth, let alone taking care of my family, my baby was able to anticipate my needs, providing me with a measure of comfort. I'll never forget his thoughtfulness that day.
     For several months after Dad's death, I was nearly incapacitated by the sense of loss I felt. I'd lost not only my father, I'd lost my kindred spirit, my mentor. I went back to work a week after he died, overwhelmed by despair, barely able to function. Everything felt so mechanical. I was no longer certain that life was worth living. Todd, my friend from anesthesia residency, came over to my house on quite a few occasions, literally dragging me out of bed to go with him for coffee or lunch. His support single-handedly prevented me from quitting residency. Like Nick, he understood the value of going through the motions, of how seemingly ordinary things, like a hot sandwich or a friendly conversation, are capable of affording extraordinary sustenance during times of crisis.
     According to my father's wishes, we took his ashes to Poland the next year, where they were scattered at the confluence of the Dunajec and Poprad Rivers, near his hometown of Stary Sącz. During the ceremony, Mom pulled each of my siblings and me aside individually to tell us what we meant to Dad. When it was my turn, she tearfully hugged me, and said, "He saw himself in you." Words cannot sufficiently describe the impact of her statement...it was as if everything I'd always known about the indescribable bond I shared with my father was confirmed: I was, and still am, my father's daughter. Like him, I am a person of the world, a parent, an artist, a physician, a free spirit, an unboxed thinker, a lover of life. Not a day goes by without some earthly reminder of him; I am fortunate to be surrounded by his paintings, sculptures, photographs, letters, even the cooking supplies he bought for me when I was in high school. Although I miss Dad's physical presence, his spirit is very much alive within me. The grief I once felt over losing him has gradually been replaced not only with fond memories, but through my daily channeling of his creativity and his remarkable enthusiasm for the ordinary. I'm tapped into him, wherever he is, and happily, so are my sons. We are living reflections of his unconditional love and generosity, his wild artistic genius, and his lust for life. We defiantly savor each moment as it arrives. We embrace his stillness, his quiet comfort in recognizing the exceptional in what appears commonplace, where everyday experience is transcendent, not mundane, where art is life, not an imitation of it.
The Perfect Exit (a related story about my father)
The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree (a related post)
Writing By Osmosis (Dad's posthumous guest blogger appearance)
Mom, me, & Dad, 1964ish

Rory, me, & Nick at my anesthesia residency graduation, 2005

Todd and me, at our residency graduation, 2005

11 comments:

  1. What a beautiful and wonderful post about a father you cared about. It is nice to have such fond memories. I really hope you have a very lovely day today. Thanks for such a wonderful post.

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    1. Thank you, Rum-Punch Drunk! I cherish my memories of Dad, and am happy that his spirit is alive within me.

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  2. What a heart-breaking story. It sounds like your dad was a wonderful man. And what your mom said about him seeing himself in you. Whoa. I understand the impact. Luckily, I still have my father. In fact, we're all going to see him today. I'll give him an extra-long hug, thinking of you while I do. Take care on this bittersweet day.

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    1. He was wonderful, Janene. I am so lucky to have had him for the time I did. Enjoy your day with your dad...Happy Father's Day!

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  3. Beautiful post and tribute to your father, Kris! I can tell you loved him very much. I am so glad you had the awareness (and medical training) to realize your family needed to begin the process of saying goodbye when you did so all of you could spend time with him. I’m sure that helped in some small measure to later ease the pain. I love that your father had such a joie de vivre for life and “a remarkable enthusiasm for the ordinary.” That your mother said your father saw himself in you is a beautiful statement to your closeness and love! I understand; in many ways, I am my father’s daughter too. Btw, your sons are pretty special and good-looking young men, and they look a lot like you! Thank you for sharing your personal story and I love your photos!!

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    1. Thank so much, Madilyn! BTW, I've really enjoyed learning about your family's history in our BC discussions...I am looking forward to your upcoming book about your mother.

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  4. Kris, when my mother was dying in hospice, the head nurse there gave me the most incredible compliment I'd ever received. She said, "Your mother must've been a remarkable woman to have a son like you." So I'll now pass that same compliment over to you. What an extraordinary man your father must've been to have a daughter like you.

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    1. Marty, what a beautiful sentiment; thank you for passing it on. I'll remember it, and pass it along as well. Happy Father's Day, friend!

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  5. Awww. What a very very loving and heartfelt tribute to your father. I'm glad you have such fond memories!

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