In the Past Tense

Tomorrow, it’ll have been a month since my dad died.

Wasn’t I Just talking with him over the phone, telling him about much I like my not-so-new-anymore job? Weren’t my brother and I listening to him explain why he was born in Missouri rather than Florida (his immediate answer to my brother was “because my mother was there”)? Wasn’t he just tipping Lizzie upside-down and caling her Snickelfritz? No? Oh. Right.

I’m still struggling to talk about him and even think about him in the past tense. He is still my dad, that won’t ever change. But he “used to like to say” and “often did..” not “says” and “does.”

Some things, I’d gotten used to saying. He was going to be a dentist but decided just before his internship and dental school to become a laboratory botanist. He met my mom when they were both in grad school. He taught high school science for over twenty years after taking a temporary position at his alma mater. He moved into a role as Assistant Principal when I was in 11th grade. He was moved to the rival high school a few years later, eventually becoming its Principal. He had retired after the 2016-2017 school year. He was diagnosed with colon cancer less than six months into that retirement.

Now, there’s another past to mention. How he took Chemo for a year that gave him tingly fingers but otherwise left him feeling fine. How he was told a year later they needed to switch medications as his was no longer keeping the cancer at bay. How he was switched to an immunotherapy trial at a cancer hospital on the other side of the state, his genetics perfectly suited to participate. How he had major surgery last November that showed that wasn’t helping much, either. How his doctor sat him down in February and told him to get his affairs in order, that the news was hard to take but the doctor shared because he knew my dad wanted always to have the facts. How I got a call on a Monday morning that my dad had passed out and hit his head…there were tests…we needed to come down as soon as we can.

(A quick aside: I was supposed to be in Los Angeles for a work conference that week. My customer/client put a stop to all travel, foreign and domestic as a precaution. One of the first to do so in what seemed like a crazy overreaction at the time (February 28th). Instead, I was at my desk to get the first call and walking out of work, returning a voicemail, when my brother told me to come quick.)

We flew down the next morning, the first flight into the medium-sized airport nearest to my parents’ house. The drive seemed to take an eternity and we had trouble finding parking at the hospital. Eventually, we got out temporary visitor badges and made it up to see him.

He was sitting up and talking. Quieter than he’d been before the last six months but still talking. Asking us how the flight was and did the construction on the main drag into town slow us down. You’d think he’d just had some minor surgery until the Hospice nurse and case manager came in to talk about moving him to their inpatient unit.

(About that Hospice nurse. Turns out, my dad had her as a student years before. He lit up the second she confirmed she’d been a student of his and he went on to describe how she was a good kid and the very skinny girl who tried to get her into trouble. He wasn’t at all surprised at her chosen profession, that her soul was meant to care for others.)

He had what they call in Hospice a rally. A few days of seeing mostly like he was before being there. Chipper, talking, not eating much but finding joy in Italian ices and his beloved unsweet tea. He had tons of visitors for three straight days, wearing out even those of us who were with him. We made all of the arrangements for him to move home – equipment orders, where to put his hospital bed, observed how the nurses gave him pain medication via a special catheter.

He didn’t get to go home. The day prior to his scheduled move, he turned a corner and things got worse and worse. Not eating. Agitation. Real doses of pain killers needed (for he who was famous for having a high pain tolerance). He pulled out his NG tube and we decided there was no reason for him to have to deal with it anymore.

A few days later, we all woke up early, well before the usual 8 or 9 we’d been sleeping in to. We were watching something on TV, paying more attention to our phones than what was on, when we got a call from his nurse. We needed to come over right away.

All of us were there with him. My mom, my brother, me, my aunt (dad’s baby sister), and a woman who was my dad’s mentor and friend. Only my brother was right by his side, the rest of us sitting back a ways, all of it too much to witness so up-close. (I was trying not to have a panic attack, clutching a pillow like it would save me.) My aunt walked out suddenly and back in with Suzie, the nurse who’d called us that morning. “Is he?” was my brother’s question after she examined him briefly. “Yes. I’m sorry.”

He’s not here, anymore. I can’t discuss with him how Dr. Fauchi went to Jesuit schools and you can see their tennants in how he approaches the current pandemic. Can’t whine to him about how easy it is to STAY SIX FEET AWAY from others. Can’t show him what Lizzie is doing in her lessons since schools closed. Can’t joke about how barking spiders are to blame for flatulance sounds. Can’t talk about how I want to take him to the Galapagos to see the giant tortoises.

Eventually, I’ll settle in to the fact he’s in the past tense. Eventually.

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