When people ask about my father’s death, I always respond the same way: “Except for the fact that he died, everything was perfect.”
Perhaps because I am an oncology nurse, they expect a different answer. But after a six-year battle with colon cancer, he died on his own terms — perfect for a less-than-perfect situation.
He was home on hospice. He was comfortable. His wife of 53 years, his six children and several grandchildren surrounded his bed. We are stoic folks, but as Dad drew his last breath, one sister, perhaps tapping into our Irish heritage, started a keening wail. Her cries rose like sacred smoke, mournful and sad, yet wholesome. She spoke for all of us. The moment we were waiting for had finally come, and Dad was released from us.
The day before he died, Dad lay on the couch. I had gone to pick up our close family friends, and we raced back from the airport, afraid we might be too late. Monsignor had just finished praying, his palm resting on Dad’s forehead. “We’re here,” I said, relieved to see Dad was still breathing. One of our friends is an opera singer, and she took his hand in hers and started to sing, first the “Our Father” and then Dad’s favorite, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Everyone who mattered to him was there: my two brothers, who had come from overseas; Monsignor, a much-loved member of the clergy as well as a golfing buddy; our friends. We loomed over him, watching him listen to her singing. When she finished, we held our breath, waiting. Surely this was it. But after a long pause, Dad started to laugh and shrugged his shoulders. “I guess it isn’t my time yet,” he said. We laughed too, nervous but strangely satisfied with his contentment.
That evening he called us kids to him, waving a hand to come closer. He had taught my brothers to catch a baseball and how to look an adult in the eye when they shook hands. He had run beside me, holding the seat of my two-wheeler and pushing me toward independence with the encouragement, “You can do it, go, go!” Though he was weak, his voice was strong as he gave us his last parental directive: “You kids take care of your mother.”
He said he had dreams and in them he was half in this world and half in the next. In one dream, his friend Jack waited to tee off. In another, his father was returning from his assembly line job with his metal lunch pail in his hand. Ever the engineer, Dad said, “Someone should make note of these dreams; they must mean something.” I asked if the dreams frightened him, but he shook his head. “Just the opposite — they are happy dreams.” I must have looked dismayed because he quickly added, “You know, it’s going to be OK.” Even as he was dying he comforted me.
There was plenty I wanted to say, but I was afraid it would make me cry, and he’d told us he didn’t want any tears. I nodded in silence.
In my work with cancer patients, I’ve seen families cringe when hospice is mentioned, some even calling it “the dreaded H word.” But the time our family had while dad was on hospice was intimate and special. He lived even as he was dying — laughing with us, reminding us of the importance of family and responsibility, comforting us. He was the leader of our family, so he led us through this too, showing the way.
We kept vigil, waiting for what we knew was coming but what we didn’t want. Dad waited too. He was ready to die, but he waited long enough for us to be ready. It was difficult to say goodbye. All treatment had been stopped, yet there was a little magical thinking still going on. Maybe he could regain his strength; maybe there was another chemo drug just about to come out. When any of us spoke of not giving up, he said, “It is what it is.” Somehow he mustered the strength to say goodbye to all of us. I can only imagine how painful that was.
He comes to me sometimes in my dreams. Often I don’t remember the dream, but I wake with a feeling of his presence, quieted and comforted, as if we had just chatted over coffee. My father is gone, but I carry him and his death with me, a serene acceptance that disregards the fairness or unfairness of a cancer diagnosis and instead embraces it for what it is.
When I am uncertain of what to say to my oncology patients, I draw on that feeling of calmness and let it direct me. Dad walked on a path that he did not want to be on, yet he hiked it with gusto. He led the way for his family, showing us how to live.
Ann Brady is a registered nurse and symptom management care coordinator at Huntington Hospital’s Cancer Center in Pasadena.
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