I almost don’t answer the phone because it’s time to leave for yoga.
Then I see it’s Mom so I drop my keys and sit, bracing for something, knowing it can’t be good news at this hour on a Sunday morning.
She is speaking in her practical voice—the one she uses in emergencies to keep us from losing control. Her words are too fast for my brain, which has shifted into slow motion, making her sentences float by like she’s talking underwater. Bits of garbled information seep in.
She is at the emergency room. Dad has had a massive stroke.
“It’s bad,” she says.
I hang up and start moving with no purpose, trying to figure out what to do. I feel disoriented, like I’m trying to do a handstand in yoga class, where all is in reverse. It’s like I’ve placed my hands on the ground and am trying to kick my feet in the air. But I can find no equilibrium.
Same as in the yoga studio, my legs flail with no direction, no real foundation.
Mom has told me not to come to Florida, offering up the let’s wait and see approach, which never seems to end well. After a constant stream of phone calls with my siblings and aunts, the reality sinks in that Dad may not make it. Despite Mom’s measured approach, my brother and I decide to go to Florida. We can’t get a flight, so we begin a 10-hour drive.
The time in the car allows things to sink in and disorientation gives way to reflection. I think about the next few days and how I’ll manage my emotions.
My yoga teachers tell us how we react on the mat is how we react in life.
If the difficult poses frustrate us, or make us cry, or angry, that’s how we’ll deal with the hard parts of life. Notice that, they say. And breathe.
I decide that I will play out the next few days, however they unfold, being fully present to the experience. Rather than getting caught in the undertow of trauma, I want to feel every small turn of events. I want to feel the consequence of every decision and the weight of every emotion.
I know my world is about to turn upside down and I decide not to miss the view from that perspective.
We arrive at the hospital late that evening and we all hug each other with shock and wonder. Dad is lying on the bed, eyes closed and mouth open. His struggle for every breath takes mine away.
I stare at Dad and try to line up this scene to what’s familiar to me—a quiet and clever man to whom deference was always paid. His sisters called him the prince growing up because he always got what he wanted. Fellow attorneys dreaded going up against him and judges listened with anticipation to his arguments. As children, we hung onto his praise while our mother got up from the table to refill his iced tea. There was something about dad that commanded attention and respect. Yet here, at the hospital, he barely feels present.
Later, back at the house, I find a piece of paper on which Dad has written notes about a podiatry appointment. It has all the precision of a legal brief.
Appt. for toenail clipping and evaluation. Last visit c. 4 years ago. What past medical history needed? Problem: Age 75. Can no longer clip nails.
I tear the note off the pad and tuck it into my journal. I’m not sure why.
We all return to the hospital the next day. Dad has not awoken since the stroke. While he’s not responsive, we sense he knows we are there.
The doctor arrives sometime after lunch. He is very direct, telling us that Dad will likely die soon. This is the first time we hear those words and a new reality begins to set in.
I realize that a new family member has joined us.
It’s the New Dad, this person with his head askew and mouth agape, unable to respond. He’s replaced the Old Dad, the one who sat quietly when we were together, clearly commanding the room. We have adjusted to this New Dad quickly, as if he’s always been here—a clear sign that we are living in an upside-down world.
I whisper in his ear that we are okay and he can go whenever he is ready. My sister and niece are on their way from New Zealand and will arrive on Wednesday. I tell him it’s okay if he wants to hang on until then, but that it’s also okay if he’s ready to leave. I’m kind of lying.
New Dad struggles with his breath. His right side is paralyzed but his left hand flails from time to time. He squeezes my hand a bit when I hold it.
Later, I go to the cafeteria with my brother and say, “The days are going by so quickly.”
He looks at me. “Mary, we haven’t been here for 24 hours.”
“Oh,” I respond, my world spinning again.
I know New Dad is only a temporary family member, but I welcome him with all the love and respect we gave Old Dad. In the coming days, I begin to be grateful to New Dad for bringing our family together in such a loving way.
I begin to think that he’s holding on just because he loves to be with all of us while we’re laughing and crying and loving so openly. It’s not something we did every day with Old Dad.
The next morning the neurologist visits. He seems genuinely concerned—not just about Dad, but about us. He tells us the real truth in a caring way. Dad has lost his language ability, along with his ability to move and swallow. Even if he were to wake up, the life awaiting him would not be one that we would wish for him.
The view from this upside-down world is so disorienting that before I know it, I find myself praying for my own father to die.
In the afternoon, everyone but me leaves for a break. I have brought a book from the house, written by a former Pope. I read it aloud. It’s a heady read, hard to follow unless you are a biblical scholar, like Dad. I am not, but I fumble through it nonetheless. I imagine him participating in the intellectual and spiritual debate put forth by the author. The theme of the first few chapters is be not afraid.
When I tire of reading, I hold his hand and cry and tell him things I’ve never told him before. While I miss Old Dad, I’m beginning to love New Dad, because I can tell him everything I’m thinking.
For a long time, I’ve worried that Dad doesn’t think I’m good enough. Maybe that’s because my political and spiritual views are so different from his. Maybe it’s because the standards he’s set are so high that I don’t believe I can measure up to them.
Curled up on an uncomfortable hospital chair, I am remembering an evening about 15 years earlier. Talking about dreams over a scotch, Dad shared with me a recurring dream he had had since childhood. In the dream, he walked home to find his neighborhood run down and over grown. The house of his childhood was there, but it was ramshackle and strewn with trash. He had had different versions of that same dream his whole life. What did it mean?
At the time, I think he was trying to challenge me in a good-natured way, sure that I couldn’t put any meaning to his silly dream. It didn’t seem so silly to me. Stepping into intimacy that was unfamiliar to us, I told him it sounded like the dream of someone who was afraid he didn’t measure up.
A brief shock of vulnerability crossed his face as he left the room. When I heard him quietly crying, I realized—with disappointment and relief—that he suffered the same insecurities that haunt me at night.
Back in the hospital, I hold my father’s hand and put my cheek against his, wetting his face with my tears. I tell him that it’s all right and that we are both good enough.
The days run together. I have found a yoga studio in town that provides me retreat once a day. Robin, the owner, becomes a friend in the brief time I’m there. I tell her about my father, about the handstands and my upside down world.
When Dad is moved to Hospice, I read the book they give us. It outlines what to expect as your loved-one approaches death. Dad’s got some of the mottling on his feet and legs they describe and his breathing is shallower. But the nurse says it could still be another week, we’ll have to wait and see.
On day nine, Mom and I go home to take a break, bringing my niece along. My sister and aunts stay back at Hospice. I am standing in the closet with Mom, who is wearing a black suit and trying on scarves for the service we know will come.
When the phone rings, I shout to my niece to answer it and hand Mom another scarf. Suddenly my niece is there at the door of the closet, with the phone to her ear. She hands it to me. Her mouth is moving but no words are coming out.
It takes me a moment to get it, what has happened, and the world again slows down.
The time of After-Dad begins. We busy ourselves with funeral arrangements, selecting music and bible verses and flowers. Friends and neighbors organize food patrols so that no one goes hungry. I write and practice the eulogy Mom has asked me to give, reciting it over and over until I can get through it without my words choking with tears.
At the yoga studio on the morning of the funeral, I do a handstand on my own, easily. A simple, measured kick and I’m upside down, with total control.
Robin tells me it looks elegant. I crumple into child’s pose and cry.
Mary Tribble is a writer, adventurer, yogini and crazy cat lady. She is currently writing a book about her career and travels. Follow her blog here.
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- Assist Ed: Olivia Gray
- Ed: Brianna Bemel