Raising Dad: The Final Chapter

NUVO photographer Mark A. Lee, as a baby with his father, James Bernard Lee, who passed away Wednesday, Sept. 4.

If I was to write a book about my father's life, this is where you would skip ahead to see how the story ends. Only by doing so, you would end up missing so many incredible moments in between.

On Thursday, August 30, 2013, my parents celebrated 59 years worth of marriage. And on Wednesday, September 4, less than a week later, my father took his last breath. It's the moments in between that make up this story.

The two weeks prior to my parents wedding anniversary, my father's health started to decline at a fairly rapid pace. On the afternoon of my parent's anniversary, they celebrated by speaking with a nurse from Senior Home Companions of Indiana. For long-term care to continue paying for my father's care, he needs to be evaluated periodically to see if he still qualifies or if any changes need to be made to the type of care he's receiving.

Shock, surprise, he still qualified. But due to his declining health, the nurse suggested we speak with hospice about getting him set up with a hospital bed, and perhaps an extra person or two who could come out a couple times a week to help bathe him.

At one point in our conversation, I looked over at my father's caretaker Kelli, and saw her eyes well up with tears. When I asked her afterwards what she was crying about she said, "I have to be honest with you. I see what's coming, and I'm usually gone at this point. But I promised your brother and sister that I would stick around until your father is no longer here."

Kelli has been with us for a little over a year and a half. And despite the fact I make fun of her - I mean, despite the fact I "tease" her - on an almost daily basis, I'm glad she made that promise to my siblings.

My father used to say he wouldn't tease me unless he loved me, to which I would reply, "Yeah, well, try loving me a little bit less!"

"Roger" on the other hand, wasn't teased near as much as Miss Kelli Jelly Belly, as my father liked to call her. Roger - not his real name for obvious reasons - was a nice man who was in way over his head with my father. He had little to no common sense, and mom and I lived in constant fear that he would allow dad to fall, making it "game over" if dad was to break any bones in the process. He was also a stubborn man, who acted insulted if mom or I offered to help him transport my father from one area to the next.

Mom wanted to get rid of him a couple of months before, but I was tired of the merry-go-round of weekend caretakers. So I offered to do the more difficult task of bathing my father in the morning, and getting him ready for bed at night, in exchange for allowing Roger to stay on during the day.

By the time the nurse sat down to talk with us, the fear factor of Roger dropping my father had reached it's highest peak. I informed her that we no longer felt safe with him around, and I would personally take over his duties if need be. They tried telling us they needed to give Roger 24 hours notice, but fortunately fate intervened. Roger was needed in another home the next day, and we told him to take that job with our blessing.

A sense of calm came over mom and I the next morning. We knew that dad was in safe hands, and all was well. I even managed to get dad to walk halfway to the kitchen before he had to use a wheelchair - something he was unable to do only a few days before.

Later on in the evening, dad managed to bring me and my cocky attitude down a few notches by soiling himself before making it to the restroom. I, of course, blamed Roger. "Damn that Roger! He forgot to take dad to the bathroom in the afternoon! And now look what happened!" LOL! Lesson learned, as I struggled to hold dad up while mom washed him.

The next day went much smoother, but the entire weekend was exhausting. Dad was losing more and more of his strength, as well as his comprehension when I asked him to stand up or hold onto his walker. Still, he was strong enough on Sunday, that I insisted we go to church.

I have not personally sat thru a church service for a couple of years now. Despite the fact dad slept thru most of the service, I'm glad we went. I sat directly behind him, and spent most of my time holding down his portable oxygen tank. The tank was strapped to the back of his wheelchair, and when you push down on the machine it kicks on, allowing him to breath up to 4 hours worth of air. It's set up so you push down on the machine once, and the needle moves out of the red danger zone, into the green area to indicate the machine is working. Only every time I let go, it kept going back to the red danger zone. So I pushed down on the machine the entire service.

At one point in our minister's sermon, he gave a definition of the word "profane." I kept waiting for my father to wake up in the middle of his sermon and spout out a few examples of profanity, but it never happened. Instead, he slept thru most, but not all, of the service.

Sunday was communion. If you were unable to make it to the front of the sanctuary to take communion, an Elder would bring communion to you. Two elders brought the bread and wine - also known as grape juice - to my mother, and when they saw that dad was asleep, they turned to leave. No sooner did they get back to the front of the sanctuary, when dad looked up and asked, "Where's mine?"

I motioned for them to come back, and dad tore off half of the remaining loaf, before dunking it in the grape juice, and chewing for the next 5 to 10 minutes. He was happy that he got what he wanted, and all was well with the world.

On Monday and Tuesday, dad went completely downhill. Kelli was no longer able to bathe him on her own, and I helped turn him from side to side, as she used wash clothes to bathe him in his bed.

It was supper time when that last magical, coherent, lucid and funny moment happened. Dad looked as if he was falling back asleep, when mom leaned over and gave him a kiss. Dad perked right up and said, "Hey! You're a good kisser!" "Well thank you! You're a good kisser too!" "Well I know I am!" LOL! Modest to a fault! That's my dad!

As much as I tried to get him to walk, he was now dead weight. And trying to get him to walk under these conditions would make my name Roger instead of Mark. I did, however, wonder out loud if perhaps we needed to lower the amount of anti-anxiety medication we were giving him so he wouldn't be so sluggish.

Mom called his doctor the next day, and he said to go ahead and cut his dosage in half. By Wednesday morning, mom was cussing me out, and said that was the last time we were cutting his dosage before bed. Dad was awake all night long, and talking gibberish the entire time.

When Kelli and I went in to bathe him in the morning, he was coughing up phlegm and not looking too well. But he looked peaceful when I rolled him to his side and asked him to look out the window.

Once dad was bathed and dressed, and we wheeled him out to the back porch for breakfast, mom asked if I could go pick up a new nebulizer. Kelli thought perhaps the nebulizer we had wasn't working properly, and that's why he was coughing up phlegm - because the medicine wasn't getting down to his lungs where it needed to be. So I drove to the opposite side of town to pick up a new nebulizer for my father.

No sooner did get back in my car to return home when my mother called. She was bawling! And in between sobs she managed to say, "It's over... Your father just passed away... get home as soon as you can!" I knew when we started talking about hospice care the time was approaching, but I didn't expect it to come so quickly.

Traffic was backed up, and I couldn't keep my own tears from falling. She said the EMTs were there now, and trying to resuscitate him, "Please hurry! I can't find the living will anywhere!"

I wanted to scream out to the people in front of me, "Get out of my fucking way!!! I need to get home to my father!" Again, tears were streaming down my face, and I had trouble seeing where I was going. By the Grace of God, I not only made it back to my parents' home, but I managed to call our minister as well.

It's been so long since I've been active in church, our secretary didn't recognize my voice. She kept trying to screen my call and get me to leave a message. I finally told her who I was, and that my father just died

"I am so sorry! Do you want Jennifer's cell phone? Or would you like for me to call her for you?"

"Can you call her for me? I'm driving home now."

When I walked into my parent's home, mom was in the kitchen bawling once again as she told someone else on the phone what had happened. Kelli was rubbing her back. I started to rub the other side of her back in a futile attempt to keep from crying in front of them.

Dad's body was laying on the floor in the back porch, where they tried to resuscitate him, and he was covered with a sheet till someone from the funeral home could pick up his body. A couple of police officers stayed with us till the funeral director arrived, asking a series of questions to make sure he died of natural causes.

The rest of the day is a blur: Calling family and friends to let them know. A steady stream of people stopping by to pay their condolences, and to see if there is anything they could do. And every now and then, I would sneak off into the bathroom to cry once again.

About halfway through the day I went back into the kitchen to speak with Kelli. She started the conversation before I had a chance to.

"Remember what I said to you a couple of weeks ago when you saw me crying?"

"I thought that was last week."

"Nah... That's when the nurse was here. This was another time."

"I'm afraid I've slept since then. What did you say?"

"Once you've seen death, you know it's coming. You can feel it cuz you know what the signs are. We're not allowed to tell you when we see it coming, cuz it's against the law. But it's there."

Perhaps it's best that we not know what the signs are, so we can enjoy each moment as it comes. As devastated as I am that my father is no longer here, I will never in a million years regret the time we were able to spend together. Even those times when I was trying to help him get dressed, and he kept saying, "You don't love me! You don't care about me at all!" It was those times, and many more like them, that made me love him that much more.


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