10 Years

Dear Daddy,

10 years ago today, you took your last breath.

My world stopped turning.

I still recall vividly the day you called me from California, 6 months and 10 days beforehand. I had just gotten ready for bed. I was sitting in my papasan chair, replaying your voicemail asking me to call you as soon as I could. Something about the break in your voice. Something about the sigh after you said “Hey Tiney, it’s Dad”. Usually those words were followed by “Just checking in.” But this time? This time you just said you needed to talk. This time I needed to call you back. As soon as possible.

As soon as you picked up the phone and heard my voice, I could hear you catch your breath. The words came tumbling out before we could even exchange pleasantries. “I have lung cancer.” Knowing you, telling your children this news was likely the hardest part of this whole nightmare. I started weeping. All I could choke out was “Oh, Daddy.”

Then you told me you had had some scans. And it appeared that the cancer had already spread. “To my spine”. I knew what that meant. I was about to start nursing school. I knew what that meant.

I came home for one of your first chemotherapy treatments. It was a few days before Easter. I sat with you in your big recliner and watched the bag full of innocuous-looking fluid drip into your veins. When it was time to leave for the airport a few days later, I was getting into the car and saw you standing at the garage door, waving as we pulled away. I told Mom to stop, jumped out of the car and ran back to you. I wrapped my arms around your waist. I knew at that moment that I was moving home. I knew at that moment that each hug, each wave, each day with you was going to be a gift.

A few months later, my house in North Carolina was empty. My marriage was crumbling, but I didn’t care. I needed to get home. Kayley and I packed up the rental car with as much as we could fill and I sold or donated the rest of it, or gave it to my husband. I left him the car. I rented out the house. I didn’t look back. I didn’t cry.

We made the 3,000 mile drive. We unpacked and repacked and headed to Catalina to meet our friends and family. You and I drove the golf cart across the island. Riding beside you as I nursed an injured knee, I relished those private moments. You took me to the cliff where you had scattered some of your mom’s ashes. I saw you trying to hold back tears while you told me stories about your relationship with her, the grandma I had never known. About when she called you a few days before her death. About your memories and your regrets. I saw you struggle to pass along your own memories. To tell your own story. To carry forward the legacy you had received.

Those first few days in Catalina were the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. You felt well initially but towards the end of the week you were too nauseous and too weak to do anything except sleep. You and mom took a helicopter back to the mainland ahead of the rest of us, and she rushed you to the infusion center for IV fluids. We spent much of the next month in and out of the hospital, watching your pain and nausea get worse and worse. Sighing with relief that you didn’t have brain mets. Weeping when your ¬†oncologist reassured us he would tell us when it was time to have “the hospice talk” and that the time hadn’t come yet, while the same day he told mom that her dear husband was going to be dead in a matter of weeks.

Mom fought for you to get palliative care. It wasn’t easy. The hospital initially said no such programs existed. Until she saw a brochure about palliative care in the waiting room. We brought you home, got you a hospital bed. Pam walked into our home and into our family and gave us an anchor. Someone who knew what questions to ask and where to find the answers. Someone who could teach us how to care for you in the ways that you needed.

Over the next several days, you became more and more quiet. It was as if you were conserving your energy so that when you did speak, they were words that you needed to say. You pulled us aside for quiet conversations. You ate less and slept more. I would come home to find you and mom napping on the couch, snuggled as close as you could. You started to fear being away from her, begging her not to leave the room. As if each moment was too precious to waste.

Then one night we were watching TV in the living room when we heard mom scream for help. We ran to your room and found you on the floor, barely conscious. You had collapsed when trying to stand up. We couldn’t lift you. You didn’t seem to be in pain. So we pulled up a bean bag chair to cushion your head and covered you with blankets. Mom slept beside you on the floor. We slept in your bed, too afraid to leave you both. The next morning the fire department came and helped us lift you into bed. They wanted to take you to the hospital but you had made us promise. “No 911.” So we kept our promise.

You never woke up again. We held vigil for days. We gave you pain meds when your breathing sped up or became ragged. Dear friends who worked in health care stopped by and offered us support, assessed you for distress, advised us to raise the head of the bed a bit or tenderly washed your face. Pam helped us move you to the hospital bed that Papa Don had deconstructed in the living room and then reconstructed in the bedroom. We learned to reposition you, to bathe you gently. You didn’t like being moved.

We played music around-the-clock, old Harrington favorites. We held you and told you we would be okay, it was okay to let go. You didn’t listen (of course). It seemed that as long as we were by your side, you had to watch over us. Had to protect us from our grief.

Until one afternoon. September 26, 2007. We had been taking shifts around-the-clock. We were exhausted. Mom and Thom and Kayley had fallen asleep in your room. I had come to the kitchen with Pam as she called the doctors and discussed how to manage your worsening pain. Our friends Pam and Les came to see you – they had picked up more medications from the pharmacy. They came into the kitchen after peeking into your room. Les said “I think it’s over.”

“No”. The desperate cry.

I sprinted down to your room faster than I knew I could. I walked in and could feel that something had changed. Thom had woken up and seen you still. He had checked for a pulse. There was none. I took a position at the top of the bed, grasping your head in my hands, leaning my forehead to yours. Begging it not to be true.

Pam laid her hand on your chest. She nodded and started to sob. I remember whispering over and over “I’m so sorry, Daddy. I’m so sorry. I should have been here. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here.”

A chorus of choking and weeping. We held each other. We shook with grief.

We took turns lying next to you. Closing the door to the room so each of us could say what we wanted to say. I don’t remember what I told you. I only remember the tremendous loss. The sense that I would never be the same. The pain in my chest. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. It hurt to feel.

I have never known such pain. Even today, I can feel the searing, burning ache deep inside me.

But holding that pain is love. It hurt so bad to lose you because your love was everything I needed. You taught me how to live thoughtfully and prayerfully. You taught me how to love. And that love is as strong today as it was 10 years ago. Stronger than the pain. Stronger than the loss. It still sustains me. It still helps me live thoughtfully and prayerfully. It still gives me peace and calm in the midst of uncertainty.

It hurts for you not to be here.

I miss you.

I love you.

From the garage door to the living room wall, around the world. Times infinity.

You’re still here. Beside me. Every day.

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