I remember as a kid, my dad playing silly practical jokes on me all the time. We were at the seaside; I was about 10 or so. Dad thought I might like to feed the birds, so he told me to take a piece of bread and hold it up over my head – so I did. Which, of course, brought a million seagulls to the surrounding area and if what they say is true about it being good luck if you’re pooped on by a seagull, I must be the luckiest person in the world?
My dad and I were visiting my grandparents in Florida when I was about 19 – they had a lovely grapefruit tree in the backyard, so both my dad and grandfather told me to pick as many as I wanted. I picked one – it was HUGE! It took me forever to peel it and when I did and took that first bite – my face turned inside out and tears poured from my eyes. They failed to inform me that it was the kind of grapefruit they used to make marmalade. Had I been able to see properly, I’m sure the sight of two grown men rolling on the grass would have been very funny indeed.
There were countless other times when dad was just being dad and I can’t imagine him ever being any different. He could cheer me up when I was down, piss me off to no end about something stupid – but he was my biggest supporter, always helping when and how he could.
Back in about 2003, he started changing…it was so gradual; I didn’t really notice (nor did my mom or sister). He lost weight (he’d always been a big, robust kind of guy). He started slowing down, he got tired more often and he seemed to always not feel well. That went on for about a year, with numerous trips to the doctor and a few emergency runs. Doctor’s kept telling him he was fine…just age (he was only 74).
In November of 2004, my sister and I went to see his doctor to see if she could provide any information on what was making him feel so poorly. Of course, we adhered to the confidentiality clause, understanding she could only give us basic information – so she told us that she thought he was ‘just depressed’. Okay, well that made sense (living with my batshit crazy mother would make ANYONE depressed). So, we had a family meeting and we told dad what we’d learned and that we wanted to help him by being more active and if he didn’t want to see a counsellor, we’d be happy to have him talk to us.
Now – I should stop here and provide some information on my mother. During this entire time, my mother thought my dad was just being a lazy ass and ‘faking’ his symptoms. She’d constantly complain about how his issues were affecting HER (my mother was a bit of a narcissist). Both my sister and I would receive phone calls about how his complaining was causing her to fall into another depression (not that I’m belittling depression; I too suffer from it – but my mother made it her life mission to never NOT be depressed) and she ‘couldn’t stand much more’. It was very hard to feel any sympathy for her.
So dad, being dad, said he’d shape up and I told him in an email that anytime he needed to vent or cry or whatever – to please talk to me, because mom was having a hard time with everything – to which he readily agreed.
January 2005 – I was visiting my parents when all of a sudden – my dad passed out and slumped to the ground. I immediately called 911 and they came right away. Before they had even reached my father, my mother had kidnapped two of the paramedics to tell them that he was faking it and it was she that was REALLY suffering. They bundled dad up, took him to emergency and after hours of tests – they told him he had a bladder infection, and sent him home with some Bactrim.
A couple of weeks later, I was at work and my dad phoned and said that he and my mom had doctor’s appointments, but he didn’t feel well enough to drive. My dad had been driving since he was 10 years old, so I knew something was very wrong. I left work and picked them up and took them to the doctor. Their regular doctor wasn’t in; it was a med student who was filling in. She saw mom first and when she came out, my dad went in. My mother started whining about wanting a cigarette, so I told her to go out and sit in the car. Awhile later, the med student came out and looked very upset. She asked to speak to me and I said sure and she said ‘your father is a very sick man and he needs to go to the hospital straight away’. I went in to see dad, and he was lying there with tears running down his cheeks. ‘I’m scared’ he said to me – ‘Am I going to die?’ Trying to remain brave, I told him not to worry, I would take care of everything. He needed to have blood tests before he left, so I had to get him down some stairs, when he passed out. A couple of people got him down the rest of the stairs and situated in the waiting area. I told the nurse that he needed his tests done NOW, as I was taking him to the hospital, so she brought everything out, got ‘em done, and with the help of the kind strangers, got him up and into the car.
As I got him seated, my mother said with derision ‘so NOW what’s his problem?’ – I looked her straight in the eye and said ‘dad is very sick, I’m taking you home and taking him to the hospital and I don’t want to hear another single word from you’.
With mom dropped off, we headed for emergency where I got him into a wheelchair and up to the triage desk. ‘Please take a seat’, the nurse said without looking up. I said ‘no, you will see him NOW and if you don’t, I will chain myself to your desk and won’t move and if you think I’m kidding, you’ve got another think coming’ (I can be a super bitch when I need to). With a sniff and a huff, she took his blood pressure. It was so low; he basically should have been dead. They rushed him into a suite and started a complete workup. He stayed in emergency for 3 or 4 days, and they did test after test after test and couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Meanwhile, dad continued to crack jokes and pick on the nurses.
The finally admitted him to a ward and started more tests and finally, and exploratory surgery. What they found was horrific. Basically, his intestines had turned into concrete. Anything he ingested was not passing through and was causing horrible toxicity to take over his body. He was hooked up to a nasogastric tube suction machine and the shit that came out of his stomach was black. And there was a lot of it. From there on in, he wasn’t allowed ANYTHING to eat or drink – not even water. It was beyond awful and dad, although he was really trying to remain upbeat, was slowly starting to wane.
I’d go to see dad and he’d be crying because all he wanted was some water. Nothing else. Just water. I’d often give him tiny sips to ease his pain and even the nurses started slipping him the occasional orange popsicle. You’ve never seen anyone so happy to have a popsicle in your life.
They tested him for this and that and everything in between. ‘He has cancer!’ they’d proclaim, but couldn’t back it up with blood work. He had 2 or 3 more exploratory surgeries; they brought in some of the top doctors in the region – still, nothing. They could not for the life of them, figure out what it was. By this time, dad was tired. He didn’t want to play any more. We’d visit him every day, taking shifts. (I should say that by this point, mom had stopped telling everyone ‘it’s all in his head’).
February 17, 2005: Dad was scheduled the next day to have yet another exploratory surgery. My mom, sister and I met up with his surgeon in dad’s hospital room and he explained what they would be doing. Dad was feeling pretty good that evening, cracking jokes, making us smile. Towards the end of the meeting he said ‘when you all come in to see me tomorrow, please bring me a coffee!’ – And of course, we all agreed to do so.
February 18, 2005 – 10:00 am: I was at work and received a phone call from the hospital indicating that they had given my father too much morphine and he hadn’t woken up from his surgery. They indicated that they had ‘reversed’ the dosage and that it was still within normal limits, just on the high side. So, I went to the hospital, and there I saw my poor, beautiful father lying there with his eyes wide open – but no sign of life. The nurse kept trying to get him to close his eyes, but even in his unconscious stupor, he was being a pain in the butt. I went over and said ‘C’mon Harold, you gotta close your beautiful brown eyes or they’re gonna dry out!’ – And I gently closed them for him, and they stayed that way. I spent the rest of the day talking to him, telling him stories about work and other things…and he never woke up. The doctors indicated that they did fully expect him to wake up soon. Later on in the day, my mom and sister came and as I left, I gave him a big kiss and told him I’d see him again tomorrow with a cup of coffee.
Tomorrow never came. Later that evening, after my mom and sister left, my wonderful father passed away ½ hour later.
I was very grateful to have had a friend over, because when I received that phone call, I fell completely apart. My friend and a couple of other friends came with me to the hospital and there I met up with my sister and mom. I walked into dad’s room and he was just…lying there, like he was sleeping. I slumped to the ground and started weeping like I’ve never done before. My brother in law crouched down and just held me until I could muster up the courage to actually go in the room. My mom, sister and I sat down and the surgeon came and joined us and he actually had tears in his eyes and apologized to all of us for not being able to save him. He explained that they just could not figure out what had happened and asked our permission to perform an autopsy, which we agreed to. When the meeting was done, my mom and sister said goodbye to dad and I stayed behind. I went over to him and kissed his forehead and brushed back his hair and told him how much I loved him. Looking back over my shoulder, I said goodbye to my dad for the very last time.
It took weeks for the results to come back. He was finally diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma – a form of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos. Dad never worked anywhere with asbestos – where had that come from?
I did months of research and through a friend of mine I was able to figure it out. Dad was in the RCAF in the 50’s, living in the barracks – which contained asbestos in the walls. These asbestos fibres can live in a body for up to 60 years. The timing fit, it all fit and I was on a mission.
I called my dad’s doctor and asked for his medical records and was met with ‘do I need to call my lawyer’? As you can imagine, by this time, I hated her with a burning passion and said ‘I don’t know, I haven’t looked at them yet’. I received those and then I filed a claim with Veterans’ Affairs and they gave my mother a nice settlement – it wasn’t going to bring my dad back, but it would help her to remain comfortable for the rest of her life. She passed away in 2010, never having bounced back after dad’s death.
I write this for me – and for anyone who wants to read it. For anyone who has gone through the agony of losing a loved one to cancer or any other disease. For anyone who misses someone and wishes they could say ‘I love you’ and ‘goodbye’ – just one more time.