It’s late at night and I’m poring over flashcards and I have a 10-pound pathophysiology textbook in my lap. It’s nothing new, except that I’m currently in a hospital room crammed into a recliner that is too big for the room; but some kind soul brought it in because they knew the patient’s daughter was spending the night.
My dad has had a third back surgery after being diagnosed with cancer only days before. He is pale and has spent several more hours in the recovery unit than he should have normally, receiving IV fluids and supportive medication to keep his blood pressure within a normal range. Keeping him alive.
Tubing, IV pumps, equipment, computers…this is all familiar territory to me; except that I am now on the opposite of what I am used to, this is another dimension entirely. But in my gut, I know exactly what this is, I know exactly what this looks like…the day shift nurse told me his lab values, my dad is a whisper away from dying.
My massive textbook doesn’t have to tell me this—I’m an emergency room nurse. I know these medications, I know what all the numbers mean, I know that his blood pressure is too low, and I can only assume what the nurses and doctors had to do to get him here. I selfishly pray for more time while holding his hand in mine. He told me before going into surgery that he was ready, it was his time; but I am not ready, not even a little. I mentally criticize myself for spending so much time studying, so much time away from my family while in school and working, for not seeing the signs of his physical deterioration sooner.
The next two weeks are tumultuous. My dad goes on dialysis to stimulate his kidneys and the doctors talk about treatment options for his cancer. I remember having conversations with my father about wanting my advice for a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order in his hospital file, about where all the passwords for his accounts were, and who to call about financial things when he could longer make those calls.
Suddenly, it’s the day before my first pathophysiology exam of the semester, because unfortunately when you’re getting your master’s degree—there’s always an exam. I’m studying at the library and then at Starbucks—because more coffee, always more coffee. I glance at my phone and I’ve missed a call from my mom; I call back, and by the way she answers, I know it’s time.
As I drove to the hospital one last time, all I could think is, “just still be there when I get there…please, please, please,” sending my dad messages through metaphysical space, willing him to be alive when I arrived.
He was barely conscious when I got to his room. I could not believe that just the night prior would be the last time I would talk and joke with him, or the last time I would hear him say, “goodnight, ‘Lis, I love you too.”
I’m still not ready. But every strawberry Twizzler I eat; every Fleetwood Mac song I hear; every time I wear his class ring; every time I smell Brut aftershave; and every time I watch a sunset over Lake Michigan, I remember my dad.
Rivers and Roads by The Head and the Heart
To me this song is the epitome of remembering a loved one.
New York by The Milk Carton Kids
This became my lullaby when I visited my parent’s house, as my dad would practice this song late into the night.
Linguine with Turkey Meatballs* and Quick Sauce
*My dad made these smaller in diameter, approximately 1-1.5 inches diameter. Trust him.
When I was little, my grandma had started a tradition of fancy salads and hot fudge cream puffs for lunch in the restaurant at Hudson’s to celebrate your birthday. Spoiler alert: my grandma died several years ago. But I took my mom to Hudson’s Macy’s for a birthday lunch this year (we hadn’t celebrated this tradition in a few years), and we shopped and stopped at the Clinique counter and got free makeup bags with our purchases (one of my grandma’s favorite hobbies).
Later that day, my mom thanked me for lunch and told me that she always hated traditions a little, because she thought it sucked when somebody died and you couldn’t celebrate them anymore with that person. She said she missed her mom that day, but instead of thinking how much it sucked that my grandma wasn’t there, she had fun imagining what we would talk about, what she would buy just to get the free makeup bag, and what she would write about the day in her journal later.
Memories of the people we love and the things they loved have a strong, beautiful power. Take stock of your beautiful life, and share your memories and traditions. Don’t let fear of missing someone or something ruin the memories you have, or have yet to create.
“When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate…when life is bitter, say thank you and grow” (Niequist, Bittersweet).
God, help us to be the kind of people who can say “thank you” in all situations while being kind, patient, and wise—to live a full life, one worth remembering.