On October 5, 2013, I took my Dad out for the last time. It was a big day for him. In fact, I would say it was as grand as a day could be for someone with his health conditions. I've written about it in detail because I never want to forget any of it. I’m sharing it because I hope those who love him will enjoy it as well.
It was hot that day and, as I rushed upstairs to get ready for a solo trip to the farmers market, I heard my Dad struggling with his portable oxygen tank. He was sitting in his room, trying to hook it up himself so he could go outside, which was rare. We couldn't figure it out at first. It ended up that the washer was stuck to the valve that was removed. I was getting ready to help him outside and I asked him if he wanted to go out with me. And he said yes.
And I acted like it was nothing at all but, once I was out of his sight, I ran to gather all the necessities for such a trip – wheelchair, walker, oxygen tanks, backup valve, liquid oxygen, towels to pad everything. Taking Dad out was not an easy task and he knew that. I know sometimes he stayed home just because it was easier for everyone and I did not want to risk him backing out.
As we pulled out of the driveway, I asked him where he wanted to go. He asked if we would have time to go to the Army Navy store and I told him that would be our first stop. We’d figure out the market later.
I can’t remember if I had ever been in an Army Navy store but I found that I really enjoyed it. My Dad had a wonderful time there. And, despite his limitations, he was able to browse and pick out a few things. He insisted that I pick a pair of warm socks for my husband. I didn't want to spend any time looking for other things, but he seemed set on this.
He wanted to sit a bit and we found a comfortable spot in the shoe section. Just after we settled in, I noticed we were surrounded by piles of army boots and was brought back to a dream I had almost three years earlier. It was the first dream I had with any reference to my father’s death.
In it, my mother and I were choosing head stones and other funeral related items. I remember looking up at her across a table and saying, “This is significant. Why are we choosing these things together? Where’s Dad? Oh my goodness, it’s Dad.” And, in that realization, I rushed onto some porch type room and looked down at a pair of boots. And as I turned in a circle, the boots multiplied to piles of boots.
Standing there in the shoe section, I was thrown and could have cried. But symbols and signals such as this could not throw me on this day. I wanted to be strong for him as he looked over several shoe cleaners and chose one that we both knew he would never use. Even if he had the time, he would never be able to withstand the fumes. But we picked through them anyway, because on this magical day out, my father was not dying. On this day, we were simply shopping.
After this, he decided he should use the bathroom there before we left. And so, the adventure began to find and assess the bathroom. After being directed by the sales lady, I went to the back room to check it out. Although I was delighted by the old-school feel of the back room and the surroundings, I was not feeling hopeful about my dad taking this long walk through the narrow, creaky doors, and into the over-sized and not very handicapped accessible bathroom. On any other day, this would have been impossible, but not this day. He said it was fine and muscled through. And then we sat for a few minutes in the retro feeling break room, which was really delightful.
After all of this walking, on a lower dose of oxygen than he was accustomed to, it was time to switch to the wheelchair. He was worried about making the switch and I told him I would take care of it. I love how he still worried about me having to do too much. This was always a concern of his. He could not handle being an imposition. And, after a few maneuvers, we were rolling to the checkout and out of the store. He was laughing with the sales ladies and even enjoyed a good “country” moment where a long bearded man in overalls said something hilarious that I can’t remember now, but it might as well have been a cast member from Duck Dynasty walking through the door. On his way out, my Dad told the ladies, “I’ll be back,” with a smile on his face and we were off to the next destination.
We headed to the Italian store in Germantown, mainly for balsamic vinegar. My Dad was a connoisseur of balsamic vinegar and somehow, with all of the selections on the market these days, he could pinpoint and remember a good one. This is another place with limited handicapped accessibility. Our choice was park on the street and climb stairs or park in the parking lot and follow a stone pathway. I pulled into the handicapped space and asked my Dad if he wanted to go in. He sighed and sat for a minute.
“It’s such a pain in the ass.”
It’s funny, when I berate myself for crying too much still, I forget all the tears I held back during some of the hardest moments of my life. I wanted to burst out and say, “Please Dad, be that pain in the ass! I love all this freaking oxygen and tanks and walkers. I freaking love them! Because one day I won’t have this pain in the ass and I’ll miss it!”
Instead, I told him that it didn't matter and that I wouldn't have taken him with me if I didn't want to go through the trouble. So, we were navigating this stone path with all the plants and shrubs growing over it. It was kind of like we were in a jungle. And, halfway through, we were laughing about the ridiculousness of it all. Really laughing, and suddenly, there was no oxygen and my Dad wasn't frail, he was holding back branches and leaves and he had enough air to really laugh. There, in the middle of Nashville, on an unusually hot October day, we both got to be silly, probably for the last time while he was on this Earth.
We still have that bottle of vinegar. I actually grabbed a bottle of much more inferior vinegar the other day for a recipe because, suddenly, I can’t pour out the last drop. Suddenly, I want to hang onto that bottle for a very long time.
And so, as we settled back in the car after our Italian market adventure, my Dad had endured more activity than he usually did in a week. I asked him if he wanted to go home.
“No, keep going.”
And so we did.
My farmers market was closed by this point so we headed over to the East Nashville Farmers Market. Last season it was located in front of a school on a small area grassy area, surrounded by tall trees that provided large patches of shade. He got out and walked past a few vendors into the middle of the grass. I was shocked that he went so far from the safety of the car. I was standing there with him and he actually had to take off his over shirt, because it was so warm. It was unusual for my Dad to be warm those days. He sent me off to buy the things I needed and told me he was fine. I shopped fast, afraid that this magical strength and energy would suddenly be stolen and I wouldn't be able to get him back to the car in time. When I returned to him, I realized that time was coming to swap the oxygen tank so I left him there and went back to the car.
One of the memories most imprinted in my mind is the view of him as I headed back with the oxygen. He was standing, so relaxed, just gazing up at the trees. Everything was so green and the sunlight was beaming through, filtered by the dense foliage on the trees. It was beautiful and he was right in the middle of it. I actually still look for him in that little spot every time I pass that school, and I always will.
“It’s so peaceful here,” he said when I returned.
I offered to get the wheel chair but he felt he could walk it so I brought the car as close as possible and he did. And, with just enough oxygen left in the tank, we headed to Five Points Pizza, because it is as close to a New York pie as you can get in Middle Tennessee. Dad stayed in the car this time but I ran back and forth with the menu so he could choose something to bring home for him and my mom. He never got to do that anymore, bring home food, and it was something he did often when he was healthy.
The pizza took forever and I kept running up and down the driveway to make sure he was okay because we only had one phone on us. He kept assuring me he was fine and that I should relax. And he was fine. I remember balancing the pizza on the wheel of the wheelchair in the trunk and just hoping for the best because I didn't have much time to fiddle with it. Amazingly enough, we made it home with just enough oxygen and a fully intact pizza, which my father had the energy to eat plenty of, even after that big day.
You see, lung disease steals a lot from you. And there are so many things we take for granted when we can breathe. It steals your words and laughter, when you have to conserve your oxygen to simply breathe. It saps your energy so that you don’t even have enough energy to eat, or sit, but yet still do not have the comfort to sleep. Walking, getting in and out of a car, and even taking a simple trip to the bathroom, takes a colossal effort. And yet, somehow, we were given this day, a very normal day out together.
Looking back, it seems miraculous when, just less than two weeks later, my Dad’s nurse had to hold back her own tears when she told me he would probably never leave the house again. And less than two weeks after that, I was picking him up off of the floor. And just days later, only one month after this magical day, he left that broken body behind and went to a far better place. Looking back, I think he knew that this would be his last day out. I think he knew a lot more than we did. And I can still hear him saying, "keep going."
I would have driven you to the ocean if I could have Dad, but I loved every minute of that day we had and I’ll be forever grateful for it. Happy Father’s Day in heaven.