An unspotted sea sky whispered hope as we drove to the hospital that Thursday. Once settled in Room 47 and kissed dad’s cheek good morning, Jackie, our nurse, brought us up-to-speed. Small wins to celebrate. Small. We still had a long road ahead. A week, at least, to let the swelling in dad’s brain go down, and see what damage had been done. Hundreds joined us in praying for a miracle.
By day three, I was surprised at the insignificant life details that colored this hospital experience. We’d left our home in such a hurry, forgetting some basics and all extras. Face wash. Earrings. Flip flops. Thankfully mom had an extra bar of Dove soap, and at the close of each exhausting day and beginning to every unknown, the simple act of washing my face with something pure and unfussy felt therapeutic and comforting. No time for makeup and mascara, I daily met dad’s bedside donned in jeans and a t-shirt, occasionally wearing one of his over-sized Villegas Middle School sweatshirts. The basics.
But extras. It sounds unnecessary, but I missed them. I longed for my chunky, teal necklace – a nod to an everyday pop of color and fun. And the tiny silver hammered earrings to distract from the ponytail I was forced to wear, having left my favorite curl product behind. Curly hair and no product make for a mad mess of a fro, and by day 3, I felt less a woman, and more a scene. In a weird way, I desired to feel feminine and whole in a situation that was full of mundane holes. Insignificant details taught me this: When someone is visiting a loved one for a hospital stint, I’ll ask them what basics they lack, and I’ll make sure they get them. But then I’ll lean in and seek what extras they desire; what sweater or bracelet or blanket they miss from home. Sentimental accessories and everyday reminders can make mountains of difference when waiting hour by hour in a hospital chair as you gaze upon a loved one.
Lindsay answered our humble homemade meal request and to the waiting room, she set thick, cheesy enchiladas. Green salad and cokes overflowed from her galvanized bucket. A hint of whimsy and gallons of thought, it was the best meal I’d ever tasted, and I devoured it like a starving caveman- hungry for normalcy, hungry for comfort food. Moments later, the worship director at mom and dad’s church, stepped out of the elevator carrying a portable CD player and a recently burned collection of piano worship. These were friends that had children and jobs, responsibilities and schedules, and in that hour they demonstrated their love and time in such tangible ways, a refreshing distraction from the waiting and wondering of What will become of dad’s condition?
Bry and I took time in the afternoon to be with our boys, to pace ourselves in this unsure journey following a stroke/coma hospital stay. We didn’t want to burn out in the beginning, but to stay strong for the duration. We wanted to rest, and play with our children, and excuse ourselves from the hospital to take solace in a home, even if for an hour or two before returning to dad.
While we were out, the neurosurgeon had stopped by to give mom news about the cause for dad’s stroke. When mom called, asking us to come back to the hospital, calmly stating that she had news to share with us kids, I knew. I knew something was wrong. Even as I relive that conversation, the knots return and the bile rises. In those seconds, I quickly learned who my “go-to” people are. The ones I call without thinking, who I ask to come without apologizing. The words were barely out of my mouth before Kim said she was on her way. You want to know who your “go-to’s” are? Receive a life-altering phone call and consider who you dial. Grateful, grateful I am for “go-to” friends.
Within the hour, the four of us stood at dad’s bed, my teeth clenched in preparation for mom’s words.
And so mom shared the devastating and numbing news. Dad’s massive stroke (with resulting brain damage and coma) was caused by the metastasis of his kidney cancer into advanced, untreatable brain cancer! He was terminal. The cancer had taken over his brain and even now, was killing him moment by moment, and would, no doubt, steal his life in the days/weeks to come. And this was fact despite the stroke, regardless of his coma.
I’d like to tell you I uttered a soft prayer at the news. No such thing. Four little letters escaped my mouth as tears fell in hot streams. Our silence was palpable. The room hung with thick sorrow and shock. Our dad, mom’s best friend and husband of almost 42 years, was not going to come out of this. He was not going to hold his grandkids or heave his shoulders in laughter or kiss mom in the kitchen again. My prayer from yesterday flooded back. I’d asked God for complete healing, I’d asked, if possible, if it could be done on this side of eternity. My answer had come. Dad would be healed in heaven.
The hours that followed were the darkest I’ve known. Never have I clenched my dad’s hand tighter or cried a river, then another river, convinced the tears had dried up, before a new stream poured forth. Yet, there was God, in the middle of that room, wrapping us in His peace as we processed unexplainable grief. He unified us in conversation and questions.
How could this be? How could Dad have brain cancer? His last scan, 3 1/2 months ago showed no cancer. He was free. He’d beat it. And he’d been a new man in the time since, the best version of dad we’d ever seen. We’d joked about him turning into Mr. Chatty and having a new spring in his step. But now this? Terminal brain cancer? NO!!
In Room 47, the five of us wrestled with God. With wanting to keep Dad in that bed forever, so we could touch him, and hold his hand, and feel his face. And we wrestled with ourselves, for the best decision, for what would honor dad and glorify God.
An unmistakable God moment was about an hour after mom called dad’s Kaiser oncologist with the news. Suddenly, in walked the doctor, and shut the door behind him. He’d come as a friend, not as a doctor. A Christian, and man of character, dad’s doctor gave us the second opinion and answers we were desperate for. “He has little time to live. Brain cancer is one of the most horrible, painful deaths and there is no treatment available. Give him mercy,” he said. “As believers, we are dying for eternity.”
We sobbed in agreement. Letting dad go was the most merciful decision, yet the heaviest choice we’d ever make. Renal cancer had shifted the outlook from dad’s coma.
I needed air. I had to walk. Bryan followed me down the corridor as I paced. And then he spoke. Imagine if he came out of the coma, even at 50%. Imagine he did rehabilitation and physical therapy and he could hear, maybe even speak. And then imagine if we had to look him in his eyes and tell him, “Dad, you have brain cancer and you’re going to die. Soon.”
I couldn’t bear it. They fell, two floods. Leaning against the window, Bryan held me as I gulped for oxygen and sobbed for my dad and my boys and my mom and our family. I’m confident God gives words when His children are most listening. In that moment, God used my husband.
Funny how minutes and hours can change one’s perspective. Before it was how could this be? and hours later, we were thankful that we had answers. We were grateful to recognize that dad had not experienced ONE symptom in the last months, knowing now his brain was full of cancer. We saw clearly that God had spared the torture at dad learning the horrific news 1 1/2 weeks later at his next oncology scan. The results would have showed that his brain was infested with cancer. He would have been waiting for his death, wondering if this was the day, suffering until his last breath. Even in learning the horrible truth, God spared no detail. A miracle in itself. No wonder the doctors and nurses were wide-eyed at his stroke. It was a blessing in disguise, and we knew it full well.
Music poured from under the door of room 47 that night. We hunkered down as a family, nibbling from picnic baskets and listening to worship and James Taylor, piano music, and Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” a song that floods my wedding day memories of dancing with dad. I remembered dad had cried and asked Bryan to cut in. It was endearing, and even as the song played now and I clutched dad’s hand, I closed my eyes and imagined us dancing.
Each of us read the last texts, played voicemails, and shared recent memories from dad. I was heartbroken to hear dad’s voice on my phone, his last words asking if I had time to stop by his house on the way to see our niece. I’d said no. We’d been in a hurry. Already, the guilt was in full force. Yet, God’s Spirit won and covered those grief hours in grace and acceptance. We laughed, but mostly wept. And we knew with every fiber in us, that we had to release him to be with his Heavenly Father. We had to let him go.
Before we left that night, we held hands and prayed. It was snotty and muffled and desperately beautiful. God completed our circle and heard our cries. We asked for His peace, for His comfort in the days ahead. For our family as we prepared to lose a father and husband. I remember verbalizing the images brought to mind of waves and water, smiling, knowing how much dad loved the beach’s ocean.
As a family, we agreed to attempt sleep and join the following morning to let dad go. We clung to our Savior’s words as we shuffled down the hallway and away from our hero, our father, our best friend.