It’s an odd thing, watching your father die.
On January 15, 2013, just a little more than a month shy of his 87th birthday, my father, Eugene B. “Buck” McLemore, died in a Fort Worth hospice. For most of the nearly two weeks it took him to die, my wife, my brother and his family and I stood watch at his bedside. It was not at all what we expected.
This was no 19th Century death-bed scene, full of Romantic drama, a dark, flower-filled space filled with black-clad mourners sobbing over the invalid breathing his final words. Instead, it is a bright, simple room with a TV (not sure why there’s a TV in a hospice room). Dad’s rest is peaceful, he appears to be in no apparent pain. We sit and talk and record any moment his eyes open and struggle to decipher the sounds he utters. My brother’s youngest kids, ages 13, seek out snacks and twiddle with iPhones and the dying lasts a long time. It is, as the hospice workers, told us, an individual thing. Everyone dies at their own pace and at their own time. There is something comforting in that knowledge.
Dad went through a hard two years, facing a cycle of lost mobility, then falls that resulted in hospitalizations and bouts with nursing homes and rehab centers. My 82-year-old mother, dealing with her own medical decline, suffered poorly from diabetes and congestive heart failure and her own cycle of home and hospitalization. On May 20, 2012, a time which amazingly found them both in their townhouse near Fort Worth, Dad woke to find Mom dead in her chair in the living room. A month earlier, they had celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary.
For several months, Dad seemed to do well. He grew stronger, moved about more easily on his red walker. Old friends came by and took him to dinner and to church. I visited him in June and it was like old times. He told jokes, worried about the Cowboys and and we went to The Cracker Barrel restaurant – for pancakes and eggs. Twice. And then to IHop for variety. The man liked his pancakes. When I left, he said as he always did, “Well, I hate that you have to go, but I know that you do.”
Sometime in the summer, the mental lapses worsened. He’d ask my brother when Mom was coming home. In early October, a niece who was helping take care of Dad, came over and found him on the hallway floor in a trail of blood. He had fallen and hit his head. She called EMS, who took him to the hospital. He never came home again.
Hospital. Then rehab center. Then nursing home. The cycle then repeats. At the nursing home – a perfectly fine place with attentive staff and clean rooms, Dad fell again, breaking his hip. Back to hospital. Then rehab where he lasted only a few days and was moved back to the nursing home. Shortly before Christmas, he was admitted to the hospital ICU again for internal bleeding, which led to pneumonia. On New Year’s Day, my brother called to say we probably ought to come up to Fort Worth.
He lay in the bed, surrounded by a cacophony of beeping, flashing medical technology. Dad has lost the ability to swallow. a bad sign. So a feeding tube ran from an IV bag of white goop into his nose. He opened his eyes and they widened in recognition. He spoke Ginny’s name but could say little else. Mostly, he slept in a cloud of morphine. So we waited. And watched. The winter sky filled the room with a gray, clear light. And we waited. The next morning, the attending physician, an exhausted young woman, told us Dad had perhaps two or three days and that hospice care would be a better choice for him than staying in the hospital. My brother and I agreed. On the evening of January 2, two polite young men loaded Dad onto a gurney, placed him in a modified mini-van and drove him to the place where he would die. Ginny and I followed through the dark streets of Fort Worth.
This place, Odyssey House, was like a strange combination of hospital and mid-level traveler’s motel. The purpose here, the nurse told us, was to give people a quiet and peaceful place to live out what remained of their lives. We told her the hospital doctors said it would be very soon. She smiled, ‘We’ll see,” she said. And so we told Dad goodnight and we’d see him in the morning.
Thus began a new time for us all. Dad lay in clean sheets, still sleeping. There were no machines, no clicks or beeps. The feeding tube was gone. Freight trains rolled by outside his window in almost comforting rhythms. We would talk to him, to remind him we were near. Occasionally, he’d stir from the depths, eyes open. I told Ginny about some childhood memories. My early family vacations meant long drives through a Texas night to one grandparent’s house or another. I’d sit in the warmth and dark of the backseat of a ’53 Plymouth and listen to my father sing. Hank Williams was a favorite and he filled the car with tales of honky-tonks, train wrecks and lost love. I still know most of the verses to ‘Hey, Good Lookin’.’ We sang some of the old songs, Ginny and I, hoping to break through the fog of unconsciousness. Dad slept. Breathing in. Breathing out. This went on for days.
Something strange happens at the death-bed. Waiting becomes its own reality and life – other life – suspends. You watch the chest rise and a fall, counting breaths in their ever-slowing beat. You see the a pale sheen come onto the face and feel the cold creep into the finger tips and ends of toes and begin to rise up the extremities as the blood retreats, fighting its final battle.
You begin to wonder when this will end. After the first five or six days, Dad ceased opening his eyes or trying to talk. His respiration slowed to the almost imperceptible. We hoped to gauge some clarity, some sign of what was to come. The nurses and aides came in regularly, to move him, to tease and flirt with Dad and clean him. And each one offered various clues – the folding under of the earlobes, the mottling of the knees – as a sign that death was near. Or at least closer than it had been. We asked, how long can this go on? One told us, with a wise shrug, “It varies.” Sometimes it’s days. Sometimes weeks. “Everybody goes on their own time,” she said. “You just can’t say when.”
Well, yeah, but… when? And then you’d feel washed over in guilt for wishing, however remotely, to hurry on Death. For your father. It’s not you want anyone to die, you conclude after some soul-searching. It’s just that you don’t want them to live like this, in suspended animation. And then you learn, perhaps for the first time, that the Universe moves on when it’s ready. It ain’t your timetable.
And so, we waited. And talked some more. And made plans around Dad’s bed. We agreed that if you have to go – and nobody gets out of here alive – that dying in a clean bed, restful and without pain and surrounded by love wasn’t a bad way to go. We told jokes and read books and listened to the train stream just outside his room, making that sound of yearning and sadness only trains can make. We’d have lunch with my brother and family and learn more about them and their lives than I have in more than 30 years. We waited.
On Janurary 13, a full 11 days after Dad moved to the hospice, Ginny and I returned to San Antonio for clean clothes, a refill of medication and our own medical treatments. When we left, Dad’s was breathing ever slower but still steady. On January 15, the day we planned to return, my brother called at about 7 a.m. to say Dad has died less than an hour earlier.
The irony was not lost on any of us. Despite our best efforts to “be there” when Dad died, none of us were. He went on his own time. As it should be.
We journeyed one last time to Fort Worth to bury Dad. It was an achingly beautiful day, the sky bright and clear blue with the sun taking the edge off a January cold. Ginny and I, our two sons, Paul and his family, a cousin I haven’t seen in a decade and two ministers stood around the grave and said goodbye. He was laid to earth in Newberry Community Cemetery, about an hour west of Fort Worth, near the place where he had grown up. We buried Dad next to Mom and only a few yards from his mother and some of his brothers and sisters, including his twin who died as a baby.
We watched the coffin sink into the hole, then as two men filled it with red North Texas dirt. It was time to go. Under my breath, I said, “Goodbye, Dad. I hate that you have to go, but I know that you do.”
Then Ginny and I drove home to San Antonio.