A Good Death

The morning of December 21, I was driving to Santa Barbara from Carpinteria and placed my morning call to dad. Had to see if he ate the dinner I’d made him the night before and gotten the orange juice I’d left on his front porch that morning. Our new normal was me cooking for him then pestering him daily to eat it. I mean if he can eat a dozen mini cupcakes surely he can eat some butter rice, meatballs, and homemade gravy. Stubborn as hell, that man. And not feeling lately.

We had been next door neighbors for the past year. My brother and I shared a house just above his on the property we’d grown up on.

He didn’t answer the phone the first time I called. Worry bubbled. I called back. He answered the phone seconds before the machine and winded said, ‘Why do you keep putting turkey in my pajama sleeves while I sleep? You are the strangest daughter.’

Oh. Fuck. 

I got off the freeway and headed to dad’s. It had been three days since I’d last laid eyes on him… I was working in his garden and he was sitting on his porch steps, smoking a cigarette, giving me shit about how I was gardening, and nose my piercing. And thanking me for the yard work too but mostly haranguing me in his odd, but kind, way. God forbid I cut back the crunchy dead sweet alyssum! There was still a flower on that one crispy stem way over there, better leave it all alone.

I smiled at his stubborn, sentimental self, ‘Okay dad, have it your way.’ It’s easier to acquiesce than argue with crazy.

Later that same night or maybe the one before, my brother went down and gave dad a good shellacking at whatever video game they played together. Their bonding time included hurling expletives at each other, smoking cigarettes, and hollering to shake the rafters. I could usually hear them from my house next door. Boys at play, both of those men.

When I got to his house he was sitting on the edge of his bed, back curled over, head hanging low. He had me check his sleeves.

 No turkey. 

He drank some of the orange juice and I stared, appalled at his turn in just a few days. Panicked, I called for visiting nurses to come evaluate him. We’d been begging to take him to the doctor for two months. But dad… having it his way as ever, refused. 

I did my mother’s palliative care some twenty years before and I knew what was happening. Dad was dying, if not today, soon. I called my daughter, Julia, she left work to be here with him and to support me. The nurse, Bruce, came within a couple of hours and two hours after that and admitted dad as a home hospice patient.

When I asked how long, Bruce gently said that dad probably wouldn’t be here in a day or two. Maybe less.

He slept a lot that Friday. Waking up periodically to drink some milkshake and flip me off for trying to get him to drink more. He woke up from one nap, really groggy, and asked me where all the puppies were. He was just with all the puppies. 

I told him the dogs were up at my house and I could go get one or the other of them for a visit if he liked. He said no, not my dogs, there were lots of puppies, lots and lots of them. He was playing with tons of puppies. And Slufoot was there too. Our family dog of 16 years, gone now for decades.

He was bridging and Slufoot was coming to get him. Sweet dog. He was dad’s favorite. I cannot imagine a more perfect emissary from the other side than dad’s favorite dog.

When my brother John got home he, Julia and I sat with him and played him vinyl after vinyl, all of his choosing. ‘Louder’ he said. Always louder. Beatles, Bob Dylan, and more I don’t recall. Doobie Brothers was his last request. Dad did love his music. 

He asked for Gaia, my small dog. I was worried she’d be too hyper but as soon as she walked inside his house, she stilled. She knew. She licked his hand and snuggled up next to him. He petted her until he fell asleep again. 

Around 10 pm he smoked the last cigarette in his pack and a joint. I propped him upright on a stack of pillows to ease his breathing. He was drowning in his own lungs. 

He died in his bed, in his little house, three hours later with John sitting at his bedside and me curled around his skin over bones body, holding him to his last breath.

COPD is a wicked thing. It kills you slow until it kills you quick. He lived his last days as he desired, at home, with his oreo cookies, smokes, bossing his kids around, and pretending he just felt ‘fair to middling today’ and he was actually fine. 

That stubborn old fucker died exactly how he wanted, and John and I think, when he wanted. He hated anyone making a fuss and never wanted us going out of our way for him. In the early hours of December 22, barely eight hours after hospice admitted him… he was gone. 

He never suffered the indignities of being bedridden, never had a stranger give him a sponge bath, never took a pain pill. Miraculously, he had no pain. He hadn’t been to a doctor in nine years. Didn’t have oxygen, rode his motorcycle just a few months before, was on his roof for some damn thing in October… John standing under him ready to catch him, me standing on my porch berating him for being so god damn foolish. But he did it. His balance good to the end. 

Dad died a good death, he really did and he deserved it. He got short changed on life in a big way and I’m happy for him that he lived his end on his terms. And on a full moon solstice during a meteor shower no less. Way to time it Daddio!

We’re all still reeling. It is a shock, but not a surprise, you know? Two packs a day for 50+ years, hard not to see it coming but still… feels like I’ve been hit by a truck. It’s good we’re all living together, on his property, in this house he loved and worked whole adult life to hold onto for us. 

Thank you, dad. This past year has been a blessing, we’ve never been closer, you and I, not in my entire life. I am so grateful. I love you, dad, so very much.


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