“My legs are swollen and I don’t feel like going up to the coffee shop today.”
As soon as I heard my father utter those words on the telephone, thousands of miles away from his bed in the nursing home in Sydney, I knew that everything was different, even though I didn’t want to believe what was happening. Dad was no longer able to dial my number, so I would call him instead, all too often finding him in his room. Time was slipping away.
My mother had endured a prolonged suffering in the same nursing home—ironically in the room right next door to Dad. She sadly had not lived to see her four beautiful grandchildren blossom into precious little people who would soon surround their grandfather by his bedside next door, succumbing to a similar fate, almost six years to the day later.
For weeks, I agonized over my decision to change my plans and go home two months earlier than originally scheduled. I had endless conversations with the social workers, nurses, doctors, friends, my family—anyone who would listen in the hope they would convince me to stop procrastinating and just get on an airplane and fly home. I was in denial of the truth. Dad was dying and I couldn’t bear it. It was easier to keep burying myself in my work and numb myself, rather than facing my unbearable sadness. Secretly, he knew by now that it was only a matter of time, and of course, I did as well.
We discovered that he had cancer when he was 89. My dad, who never endured any serious illnesses throughout his entire life, had survived the horrors of holocaust, and had lived through the most tumultuous economic hardships more than once, was not about to let this disease beat him when he first heard the diagnosis. In fact, he refused to believe it. He felt absolutely no symptoms whatsoever and his own doctor never suspected anything, even though the disease had no doubt been dormant for many years. Nonetheless, he had some concerns regarding my father’s mental state and in August 2009 made the decision to have him admitted to hospital for a thorough aged-care assessment.
Dad did not take kindly to undergoing a multitude of tests over the course of ten days, and bitterly complained that he wanted to go home. It was his persistent cough that caught the attention of medical staff. The diagnosis of bowel cancer as well as secondary tumor in his lung left our family dumfounded. Dad refused to believe it because he didn’t feel sick. Because of his feisty attitude, I too wondered if the test results were incorrect.
My brother, however, knew that there was no mistake. As he lived locally, he took it upon himself to organize my father’s admission to the same nursing home where my mother had spent her last years. Because he was a palliative case, we were told that he would likely be admitted quickly. We were savvy enough to know that “quickly” meant between six months to a year.
How do you tell your fiercely independent parent this news? How do you help him accept it? What do you do to prepare him for the inevitable reality that the next place is the final place? As a grown woman who now had to “parent” her own parent, how was I to compartmentalize the actuality of the situation into my busy life, while allowing the excruciating grief of impeding loss to rise to the surface? I had to accept reality. I knew that soon, I was to face being an adult orphan.
I had last visited my father in August 2010. He was by then a resident of the nursing home and although he was a palliative case, there was no need for him to be placed in critical care, at least not initially. My husband accompanied me on that trip and we were both relieved and delighted to see that he had put on weight and was receiving excellent care.
Dad adapted to the rituals and surroundings and the staff adored him. He charmed them with his life stories and sense of humor. They admired the fact that every day he was decked out in one of his business suits (and the occasional tie) to have lunch in the elegantly set dining room. Dad’s attire was fitting for the occasion as he sat at the table, adorned with white-linen table clothes and flowers. Classical music played in the background. The staff felt it was their duty to ensure that every meal was a dignified, special experience.
One of Dad’s closest friends, Herman Fisher, was also in the same section of the nursing home. Herman had run a highly successful business as a tailor. His hand made, high-end suits were the only ones my father would wear. Dad’s business partner Tony Dale, was in the section upstairs for those requiring a higher level of care. Tony had helped my father 40 years earlier by taking him in as a partner in his retail clothing stores when dad was unemployed.
I never could have imagined that all three men would be spending their final years in the same nursing home. Yet there they were: strong and vital members of their generation, together in what would become the place they ultimately would bid each other goodbye. The unexpected and remarkable reunion of this triumervate seemed unreal to me. I am certain they never dreamed of this outcome, nor could our respective families. However, we came to appreciate that they were together, despite the circumstances.
There was no question that Dad was the best-dressed man, surrounded by a bevvy of elderly ladies, one of whom became his constant companion for regular rounds of gin rummy and concerts in the main hall. After my mother passed away, Dad had endured years of loneliness. Although I was heartbroken upon hearing the cancer verdict, I was comforted knowing that he had company and friendship until the end.
Finally, I made up my mind to spend time with my father while he was still conscious. Had I not done so, I knew that it would have been one of my greatest regrets. This was my highest priority and nothing was going to stop me from getting on the plane. Earlier on the day of my departure, I had conducted a three- hour training session. I told the meeting planner as well as the entire audience what I was about to do. I wanted them to know that priorities rule. I did not care about paying the change fee on my airline ticket that was originally booked for a later date.
When I boarded the plane for Australia, I could barely wait to get there. I arrived in Sydney after the long flight and immediately headed to the nursing home. I walked into the dining room just at the end of the lunch hour.
The sight of my father walking toward me, with every ounce of energy he could muster, supported by his walker, took my breath away. The drastic change in his countenance since I’d last seen him just six months earlier was astonishing. I fought back the tears as I looked at his withering form, and hugged him close. He was wearing a navy blue suit, the one he had worn on my wedding day four years prior. Only this time, it was hanging from his body.
I stayed by his bedside for five consecutive days. He slept a great deal and he told me he knew he was going to die. His feet were severely swollen and it was extremely difficult for him to stand up, let alone walk. Morphine was introduced for the first time. My father was experiencing tremendous pain as the cancer was advancing rapidly. The doctor explained that the cancerous mass engulfing his lungs was now quickly spreading. The X-rays brought home the horrific reality. His longstanding cough had now become a gurgling sound, drowning out any attempt Dad would make to communicate.
My brother also visited him daily, along with his wife and four children. We reflected on his life, laughing out loud as we recalled Dad’s passion for chicken schnitzel and the fact that he expected every restaurant (and bar) to have it on the menu. I told them stories about Dad’s many visits to Canada and how my husband and I went to great lengths to ensure that his quirky meal requests would be satisfied. The life he’d lived—one that was joyous, turbulent, sorrowful, enchanting, exhilarating, and often laborious—was now culminating in this tiny room, surrounded by those closest to him. It was an honor and privilege I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
Doing the right things
How many of us can honestly say that we are living life with no regrets? Do we appreciate every moment we experience with those closest to us? Are we able to cherish the memories and fondly reflect on the milestones? Are we comfortable with our own decisions, as opposed to second-guessing ourselves, rehashing what could have been . . . if only? Have we made peace with our past?
I recall the significance of sharing the turn of the millennium with my mother and dad in Australia. I felt safe and comforted in my mother’s kitchen, and surrounded by the pure joy she experienced preparing my favorite dishes, I marveled at the fact that my parents had lived to see the dawning of a new century. Later that night, we watched the famous fireworks over the Sydney Harbor Bridge live on TV and toasted the New Year together. There was great fanfare on the screen, but sitting there in the living room, sharing the simplicity of the evening after a meal of mother’s home cooking, surpassed any fanfare or celebration I could imagine. Home, sweet home.
Moments of Truth
When we are very clear about the most important things and take the appropriate actions, we have no remorse. We are leading ourselves and our conscience is clear. Being at peace is the priceless gift we can give ourselves whenever we choose.
Being at the crossroads when assessing personal or professional priorities and subsequently taking action on them is an opportunity to look in the mirror. Practicing personal leadership necessitates self-reflection. These moments are moment of truth. They may come in the form of a pivotal, life-altering moment that is occurring for reasons that may not be immediately clear. At some point, the reason may be revealed, or perhaps, it may remain a mystery.
Being present for the passing of my parents is not something we think about frequently during childhood and much of our adult lives. When I realized the moment of death was close at hand for both my mother and dad, it was an overwhelming and painful experience. However, I understood that I was exactly where I was meant to me. The fact that they knew I was in the room was a comfort to them. There could be no greater moment of truth.
By Michelle Ray, Changemakers Books – 2014