Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thirty Hours, or The First 23 Years

So today isn’t the calendar anniversary of the day my Dad died, but it might as well be. We’ve now made it through an entire year of first holidays without him, each of them difficult, but Easter is the one that I’d been dreading. A lot of people don’t realize it, but Easter Sunday last year was the last day that I got to spend with my Dad. Since it’s on my mind today, I feel like it’s time to revisit a little bit of that.

For those of you who were around for the three years that my Dad battled the amyloidosis, you know just how tough that was on all of us, but especially him. It started out as a minor annoyance — his hands hurting off and on, lots of doctors’ visits, EKGs, and other tests to figure out what the issue was, along with a carpal release surgery that we eventually figured out wasn’t necessary.

Eventually amyloidosis broke him down from the handsome, 180 pounds, healthy guy that we all know and love. He slowly became this tiny man whose body was in mutiny. When he died, his weight was depressingly less than my own 130 pounds, and during the last months of his life he was unable to walk without a great deal of help, was prone to dizzy spells, fainting, constant nausea, and probably most terrible of all, the loss of the use of his hands so that he literally couldn’t do anything he liked.

I could run you through the whole three years milestone by depressing milestone — when I returned from study abroad to hear about the illness, the day the cough appeared, the first time Dad scraped/burned the skin off his fingers without realizing it, the 6 weeks in Boston for treatment, the day I realized he weighed less than me, the day he broke his hip which left him wheelchair bound, the day I realized he would never see my second floor apartment, the day I realized he would never be there to walk me down the aisle or meet his future grandchildren — but there’s just too much. I’ll just start with one week before he died since that’s really the week I’ve been reliving over and over in my head these past few days.

There were a lot of bad days in the months leading up to my Dad’s eventual passing, but the Friday before Palm Sunday last year was easily one of the worst for me. My Uncle Paul had passed away in the days before from cancer, a disease that had progressed very similarly to my Dad’s. That night was his viewing. I had worked all day as had my Mom. She got home and relieved Dad’s home care nurse for the day and Dad showed her that he had a new symptom — redness creeping up the veins of his arm from the chemo injection point. So before we could go to the viewing, we had to take Dad to the hospital. We were pros at that at this point, so we loaded him into the car, unloaded him into the wheelchair at the hospital, and took him to see the waiting doctor we had called ahead to on the 4th floor. After a scary trip and figuring out that everything was okay, we loaded Dad back into the car and went off to the viewing.

At the viewing, I wheeled my Dad through the line with my Mom not far behind and visited with family and friends. It wasn’t until we got to the front of the line and my Dad got up to the casket that I realized how much this loss was going to affect him. Dad and Paul were support for each other through their respective illnesses, and I remember thinking as my Dad cried over his coffin that there was one less reason for him to hang on now. I think it was then that I first realized that I would be standing where Karla, Kyle, and Mason were long before I was ready to. It was seriously one of the hardest moments of my life.

As hard as that night was, one of the happiest memories I have of those last few weeks was only two days later when Mom, Alex, and I got to take Dad over to Dolly and Lou’s for Palm Sunday dinner. Dad hadn’t had many good days that week, but he was feeling well enough to go, so off we went. He even put up with being carried into the house in the wheelchair which I know was hard for him because he hated not being able to do things for himself. And God Bless the Papilis — even when he couldn’t feed himself and ended up being sick before the night was out, each and every one of them loved him anyway and ignored that illness. There was nothing normal about that night because things had gotten so bad, but everyone let us pretend and gave Mom and I a break and all of us enjoyed ourselves for a little while.

I know I was over there almost every single day that week because I think I knew in my gut that things were really bad. I remember Easter morning pretty vividly, because I woke up at the apartment with Alex and was sad as I was getting ready to go over to celebrate with my parents before going to his parents for dinner. My parents were of course invited, but Dad was already having a bad morning after a rough night and wasn’t up to it. I headed over there and spent time with my parents and exchanged Easter gifts. I was scheduled to leave for my very first conference the following morning in Anaheim, and part of the reason I was sad getting ready earlier was I didn’t want to leave my Dad. I remember telling him over and over again that I would be back on the following Monday and that he’d better stay out of trouble until then. I remember insisting on the date over and over because I just didn’t want him to be gone when I got back. I think I already knew that that’s exactly what was going to happen whether I had allowed myself to think it consciously at that point or not.

I said goodbye to my parents that morning and they wished me a safe trip before I headed back to the apartment to shower and get ready to go to Alex’s for dinner. I cried in the shower and couldn’t get myself together. I remember coming out of the bathroom dripping wet, wrapped in a towel, red-faced and crying. Alex took one look at me and pulled me down into his lap and just let me cry. After a while I was able to finally get out that I didn’t want to go on this trip because I knew my Dad wasn’t going to be here when I got back. All I could imagine was me alone in a hotel room on the other side of the country not being able to do anything.

After returning from dinner with his family, Alex even suggested that I go back and spend some more time with my Dad because it might make me feel better, but I was such a mess that I didn’t want to upset my Dad by showing up all tear-streaked and sad.

Now I kind of wish I had. My Mom told me later that my Dad cried after I left on Easter morning and said he was sad that I was leaving him. She had told him to stop being silly and that I’d be home in a week, but of course she knows now that he meant he was leaving us, not the other way around.

The following day is what I have come to refer to as the 30-hour day from hell. I started my day at 3am because DE Express was picking me up at 3:30 am. I got myself together, kissed Alex goodbye, and got ready for a really long day on my way to the conference. Our flight was at 7 something, so I ended up beating Keith, my manager, to check in. We checked our luggage, he gave me a company stipend towards food for the trip, and we headed to our gate.

The first flight was uneventful but I was worried about my Dad, so when we stopped over in Salt Lake City, I gave the house a call. Mom was home, so she answered and I talked to her. Told her about my morning. Told her about the weather. Asked how Dad was doing because I was nervous about being halfway across the country. I could hear him in the background because he was yelling things towards the phone so I knew he was there and giving my Mom a hard time. Mom told me that he was having a good day and that Uncle Kevin had stopped by with Seamus, his new bulldog. Also, Katie Kerr had come and hung out with him so my Mom could run and pick up his medicine at the pharmacy. So he had had a few visitors and was pretty happy.

She suggested that I just enjoy my flight because while you’re in the air, there’s really nothing you can do about anything whether you want to or not, so I should just relax and try to calm down. I took her advice, bought myself a cup of really good coffee, and boarded the plane with Keith. We had separate seats, so I just sat and looked out the window and was the most relaxed I had been in literally months.

Keith and I got to Anaheim, the weather was beautiful, I had a room all to myself, and I was feeling pretty good. We planned to set up our booth and then grab something to eat. Keith had gotten a few phone messages from work, so he said he’d be right back. I was proud of myself because I managed to cut away the shrink wrap on the pallet, get some of the products out, and had actually made leeway on getting the booth to look like a booth.

Keith came back to the booth looking distraught, so I started trying to joke with him figuring he was just stressed about the SAP upgrade at work or something like that. He told me to come outside with him and sit down. This is where it got surreal for me. We went out into this little courtyard and there were two chairs facing each other. All the other chairs were stacked neatly against the wall and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, it’s as if someone set out these two chairs just for us.”

Keith told me to sit down, and my immediate reaction was bewilderment as it hit me that he had to have been the one to move the chairs into the middle of the courtyard. Was I being fired? Why in God’s name would they fly me all the way out to California and THEN tell me I was fired? What the hell is going on? I seriously had no clue at that point.

So, poor Keith. Poor Keith, my manager, only 6 years my senior was elected to tell me that my father had passed away. That’s what he said in his most serious voice in that courtyard with the two chairs, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your father passed away. I’m so sorry.” It was at that point that all rational thought left me. I literally couldn’t get a hold of myself. I cried because I was sad. I cried because I was in disbelief that my worst fear was coming true. I cried because I knew that’s what I was supposed to do. It was a very weird experience.

I remember apologizing that he had to tell me. I remember saying I needed to call my family and not wanting to call my family because that would make it real. I remember the mascara on Keith’s shirt because I had no one else to hug, so that day Keith became my stand in family and friend. He was the one who led me to the door of the ladies room and told me to take a minute. He was the one who brought me back over to the hotel where I could call my family in private and not be a hysterical heap in the middle of the Anaheim conference center. I remember trying to be funny at least once or twice and saying that Disney Land was not the happiest place in the world that day.

So I locked myself in my hotel room, alone, not being able to do anything else. I was glad that I hadn’t had my cell phone on me all day because it appeared that the whole world knew my Dad was gone before I did. The text messages were overwhelming. Later when I checked Facebook, the support was overwhelming there too. I’m just glad that for once social networking and text were not the first line of information for me. I don’t know how I would have handled that. I barely remember talking to my Mom, but I know I couldn’t understand half of what she said on the phone. I could tell that everyone was at her house and I wanted to die because that’s where I needed to be.

While Keith was frantically talking to airlines in the other room, I had the task of telling Alex. Pretty much everyone else knew, but I knew that he wouldn’t have gotten word because Mom didn’t have his cell number and all of my other friend wouldn’t have thought to call him. So I call him in my teary voice and tell him that I’m coming home as soon as possible because my Dad was gone. I think he was in shock because as many times as he’d heard me say it, I don’t know that it ever sank in that my Dad was really dying. I know it didn’t for me until it actually happened. He tried to comfort me as best he could from where he was, but I could tell that this was killing him. He told me later that he had mentally prepared for how to support me in all of this, but he’d never imagined that he wouldn’t be able to hug me and cry with me when it actually happened.

As far as getting home was concerned, that was a total fiasco. I went over to Keith’s hotel room where he had been on the phone for about 40 minutes trying to get me the first flight home. Apparently bereavement emergencies don’t constitute any sort of help from airlines this day and age, so he was getting nowhere. Eventually he did the best he could and got me a 10pm flight from LAX for that evening putting me home at 6:30 am.

Because of the time change, it was only early afternoon where we were, so that seemed a long way off, but it was better than waiting to leave in the morning. When I called home to tell my Mom I mentioned that I was going to call Alex to come pick me up because she and I probably shouldn’t drive. It was about that point in the conversation that he walked through her front door and into the crowd of family that had gathered. That meant more to me than he will ever know, because not being there was killing me but to have him there with my family made it better.

After figuring out tickets, Keith insisted that we get something to eat. I let him lead the way and we ended up walking forever because neither of us knew where we were going and I think we both just needed to walk. We ended up walking pretty far, but ended up in Downtown Disney, so I did get to at least see a little bit of the park from the outside before the whirlwind trip back home. After the long walk back, poor Keith headed over to the convention center to finish setting up since the conference was in the morning.

I took a shower and called Robin because if I had to leave from LAX, I might as well spend some time with the family I had out here. She couldn’t come pick me up because she was at school, so I took the world’s longest cab ride from Anaheim to LAX for a whopping $120. Luckily Keith had told me to use the stipend money that he had given me to get to LAX, so my company helped me out with that one. They really were more accommodating than any company should ever have to be, and I’m eternally grateful to them for getting me home.

During that cab ride, I tried to respond to some of the text messages that had come through but just ended up crying behind my sunglasses. Eventually I spilled my guts to the cab driver and he and I had a very existential conversation as I gave him directions to Robin’s place. I was actually sort of impressed with myself for being able to tell him how to get there even though I was a total disaster.

At Robin’s I know we talked about my Dad and Paul, but I was so cried out that I don’t think I cried while I was there. I know we had pizza and Duffy came over and rode with us to the airport. I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about the conversation, but I was just so happy to have family around me since I was on the completely wrong coast that day.

The flight itself ended up being a nightmare because the computer systems were down. All I had was a handwritten confirmation number and the time the flight left, so it took forever to get things straightened out. Because of the computer issues, they at least held the plane until all passengers were on, but between finding my records sans computer, checking baggage, and being a red-faced mess it took a bit of time to get through security and on the plane.

Once on the plane I couldn’t tell you if I slept or not, but I don’t think I did. I remember staring out the window and trying to keep my crying to a minimum. I had also forgotten my glasses on this trip so I was extra bleary-eyed because I couldn’t take my contacts out. Turns out the other two girls in my row were both returning home for funerals as well. Neither of them were in great shape either, so we affectionately became the self-proclaimed “death row” for the remainder of the flight.

By the time I got into the airport and wandered down to baggage claim, I was totally destroyed. I had been awake since 3am the day before for the most part so I was just a disaster. I have never been happier to see Alex in all my life and the second we saw each other, we both started crying even before we even got to each other. We hugged for a good long time and probably scared a few people in the airport before making it to the car.

When we got back to the apartment, I wanted to shower and go straight to my Mom’s, but I couldn’t stand up straight let alone function, so he made me go to sleep. I wouldn’t lie down because I was just too much of a mess, so eventually he laid down with me and hugged me until we fell asleep.

He hadn’t slept the night before either so we both were out for about two hours. I got a shower and pulled myself together and then he drove me over to my Mom’s. Once he made sure we had what we needed, he went to work and told me he’d come pick me up as soon as he was done. Actually I think he dropped me off and picked me up from Mom’s more than a few days that week because he wanted to make sure I was safe.

I actually don’t remember much of first seeing my Mom after this all happened. I just remember drinking a lot of coffee that week. I remember pulling out photo albums for picture boards. I remember the Papilis coming by and Aunt Eileen being there a few nights, Kitty and Dan came one night when I wasn’t there, and a lot of other folks were in and out of the house. There was a lot of food and I remember setting out platters of stuff Allyn had brought and her coming by a few different nights. I remember lots of conversations with my Mom about all sorts of things.

I remember the day I returned from California was also the day that we had to make funeral arrangements and that that was the very last thing I wanted to do. I remember feeling sick to my stomach through the whole thing. I remember feeling dizzy and sick and walking through the shop that’s attached to the funeral parlor with Chick Mealy looking at urns. I remember making quick decisions and thinking that it really didn’t matter. We did the same thing with the funeral mass at the rectory two days later on Thursday. We sat down with Father Dillingham and talked through everything.

And I must have already written the obit at that point because I remember Father D talking about it while we sat there. The obit was hard to write, but there was no way I was letting anyone else do that. I must have done that the day I got home for it to have hit the papers that soon. I still have no clue how we made it through that week.

The viewing was pretty awful too, but as much as it was sad, it was also comforting. They did a great job making Dad look like Dad. There was very little trace of the illness. They had bulked up his shoulders and gotten his skin color just right. He looked like Dad in every way except for his mouth. I honestly can’t recall a time when my Dad wasn’t smiling at least a little bit, so to see him with a straight face didn’t seem right.

I stood between my Mom and Alex that day and spoke with hundreds of people who had known and loved my Dad. Everyone liked the picture boards and the memorabilia that I had poured my heart and soul into in the days before to keep from coming apart at the seams. I think my favorite part of the day was the fact that in my dad’s funeral procession (which was pretty long to begin with) we had no less than a dozen Standard and NKS trucks with former coworkers and friends. I think he would have liked that.

The funeral itself is a blur. I just know that we sat in the front and the Papilis were standing behind us which, as always, was literal as well as symbolic. Alex held my right hand and my Mom held my left. Father D did a great job and I held it together through the whole thing. Afterwards I remember a little bit of the reception in Grant Hall and mostly remember going back to my Mom’s house and going to sleep.

So now, here we are — almost an entire year later. Like I said, today isn’t the day, but it might as well be. The day following Easter last year was one of the longest days of my life. I’m sure that I’ll be upset on the 13th because that is the actual day, but today holds the weight of all of the emotions that have just come spilling out onto this page. And now with all the new chapters in my life unfolding, it’s hard not to reflect on how difficult those times were and how hard it was to see in the midst of all of that that it is possible to be happy after all of that.

There is still a hole that will never be completely filled, because no one is as important to a little girl as her daddy, but I am able to see that there is still joy. Every day I am building new traditions and perpetuating the old ones. I think of my Dad every single day as I’m building my own little family, and I’m glad that I’m able to see that life does go on and that no matter how terrible things seem, there is always joy. I am glad to have had my Dad in my life for the first 23 years and feel lucky to have learned all the lessons I did from him.

Even though he can’t be here in person for all of the milestones that I will experience, he lives on in me. And my Mom. And all the others that loved him and laughed with him and shared in the infectious joy that embodied everything he did.

Here’s to my Dad.


  1. I miss your dad all the time. He was the best. I'm so glad I got to hang out with him that day.

    Btw, I didn't know until you called me.

    You have no idea how much I love you and your family. <3

  2. And we love you too. You're more a part of my family than most actual family :-)

    Love you <3