Written on Oct. 20, 2016
Some days, I’m inexplicably sad.
Today, I’m angry.
I’m angry that I have probably a dozen hours of schoolwork to catch up on. I’m angry that I can’t get the image of Dad’s dead body out of my head – eyes and mouth open, peaceful, yet bringing a sense of finality I hoped would never come.
I’m angry that people think they understand.
I’m angry that my boyfriend lives 1000 miles away and can’t give me a hug when I need it most.
I’m angry that it’s been nearly two weeks since my dad died and I’ve barely shed a tear.
The evening before Dad died, I wept through the entire night. I knew it was coming.
I slept on the floor in our living room next to his bed. I got up every two hours to give him his medicine. The alarms were all still on my phone until a few days ago. 10 p.m. Midnight. 2 a.m. 4 a.m. 6 a.m. 8 a.m.
I woke up, measured the amount he needed, and slowly released it into his mouth. He couldn’t really swallow anymore, so I did it slowly so it would gently go down his throat, or maybe just dissolve into his cheeks. I used a sponge to moisten his lips and wash the horrid taste out of his mouth as best I could. Then I grabbed his hand.
“I love you, Daddy,” I’d say over and over again as big, wet, sloppy, slow tears streamed down my face. “I love you, Daddy.”
I’ve cried those tears with my therapist. She says the slow tears signify deep sadness. They’re not fat, choking, fast-falling sobs. They’re slow, like molasses or honey or expensive shampoo on my cheeks. They’re large, foggy tears that wet my shirt, my cardigan, my jeans. Tissues can stop them, but tears soak the tissues.
“It’s not a fleeting sadness,” my therapist told me. “It’s a deep sorrow. It’s going to take a long time to move past it – and you will probably never get over this.”
I appreciate her honesty. Honesty is more comforting than the countless people who’ve said “Everything happens for a reason” or “God has a plan” or “The Lord always takes the special ones first” or “He’s your new guardian angel.” Besides the many theological issues I have with all of those statements, they seem like cop outs to me.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. Even “I’m sorry” is useless – but that’s all we can say. I’m sorry, too.
I rushed home a few days before dad died at the recommendation of his hospice nurse. For four days, I held his hand and talked to him and cried by his bedside. I wept. I sobbed. I couldn’t control the tears – they seemed endless.
Then, he died.
“Vanessa,” my brother shook me awake. I was on the white couch next to his hospital bed in our living room, a place I had seldom left since coming home a few days before.
“Vanessa,” B said again. “Dad stopped breathing.”
Relief set in like an Advil finding my pains and slowly soothing my body.
I looked at Dad. He looked the same as he had when I woke up to check on him an hour ago, except his chest was not making the steady up and down movement I had been so closely watching for the past four days. It was still. He was so peaceful.
There’s nothing like watching someone die. No amount of violent movies or TV shows or books about grief or articles about cancer can prepare you for what it’s like to sit in a room with someone who has died. Nothing can prepare you to sit with them in that room as they suffer through the slow and painful death that cancer brings.
There aren’t enough words to describe what it’s like to watch someone you love and look up to lay in discomfort, unable to move or do anything for himself. There’s no way to describe the feeling when he finally musters up the energy to say, “I’m ready to die.” There’s no way to know how to be ready to say, “We’re ready, too. Whenever you are – we’re ready.” There’s no way to explain the sorrow that comes with sitting by his bedside, talking with him, knowing he can hear you even though he can’t respond.
The last real conversation I had with my dad came exactly one week before he died. It was a Sunday. The day after the Nebraska Homecoming game. My mom and I were at breakfast. Dad called. Mom put me on the phone.
“Hi, Dad!” I said.
He started crying hysterically.
“Nessie, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was fine when I was talking to Mom. I just love hearing your voice.”
I blinked and suddenly became aware of my wet face. I looked outside. We were at a booth in the Egg & I. Orders were in. It was cloudy and cold. Dad was hundreds of miles away in a hospice facility.
“I’m so proud of you, Nessie, you have no idea,” my dad said. “I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The rest of the conversation was about Nebraska’s mediocre defeat of Illinois and how the Huskers would likely go up in the rankings, much to our shock and his dismay. We talked strategy. What did this mean for our season? What did this mean for the Big 10?
I will always treasure that conversation.
My dad taught me how to throw a football when I was young – maybe 4 or 5. I’m convinced he taught me how to throw a football before he taught me how to ride a bike.
Football was something we always shared. I remember being allowed to stay up late for the College Football Championship games in middle school and high school. When I was in middle school, Dad bought me football books so I could learn more behind the strategy. When I covered the Huskers in 2015, he called me every Saturday to talk about the game. He was my biggest fan, my biggest supporter, my biggest inspiration – the reason I grew to love the sport.
My prayer each day is that I remember. I want to remember every detail of Dad – how he was before the cancer and how he was after. I want to remember his likes (the Miami Dolphins) and dislikes (a messy home). I want to remember his hobbies (guitar playing) and best dishes (Shepherd’s Pie). I want to remember the sound of his voice, the smell of his jacket and the twinkle in his eye when I’d sheepishly ask for money.
My faith hasn’t wavered through it all, but I have had more questions. I love God. I don’t doubt God has been present and faithful and constant through this battle. But I wonder.
What’s heaven actually like? What are our bodies like there? Do we even have bodies, or are we just beings existing in an incomprehensible form? Is it another dimension? Can Dad hear me every time I talk to him, or only sometimes? Does God allow Dad to have a peek at us when we need him, or when we might be making him particularly proud?
So many questions that won’t be answered until I go there myself.
I am 21 years old. The sadness, the anger, the questions haunt me. That’s something I’m trying to accept.
But like everything else in this world – it’s easier said than done.