The needle sank into the flesh of his belly. It was easier to penetrate Dad’s skin than I imagined, and I surprised him with my novice injection style—quick and more forceful than necessary. Startled by my technique, Dad burst out laughing. His drug-induced diabetes after his bone marrow transplant was just one of many new adjustments for him. I was gentler with his insulin shot after that first time.
Months earlier, Dad’s ten siblings had rushed to be tested, each with the hope of giving Dad his or her bone marrow, but only one—his youngest brother—was just the right match for him. Uncle D sat in the hospital room chair on January 3, 2006, giving away his cells, hoping they would bring new life to Dad after his nine-year struggle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and more recently, myelodysplasia, a condition resulting from chemo obliterating his bone marrow.
The transplant was a success, and Dad was released from the hospital on January 25. He spent a few weeks at a different brother’s house—another Uncle D—and then at my sister’s house in south Minneapolis for a week. Then he came to us. It takes a village at the beginning of life and at the end too, sometimes.
Husband took six weeks off from work to care for the little ones and do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Our bedroom transformed into a hospital room—complete with an IV pole—and I was Dad’s full-time nurse, cleaning his PICC line, injecting insulin, administering countless pills, bathing him, rubbing medicated cream into his legs, and later, giving him infusions. My sister dedicated her days to him too, accompanying him to medical appointments and covering some shifts at our house, so I could catch a nap.
The neighborhood faded away. Our house was my world. I didn’t stray far, and I didn’t reach out. But the church caught wind of what was going on under our roof, and the Warm Meal Ministry set to work delivering twenty-six meals to us over many weeks. Each giver of a meal would deposit the food into a cooler on our porch and slip away, not disturbing us or our immunosuppressed patient.
“God must think you really need it,” the coordinator of the meals told me when I thanked her. “The response has been overwhelming.”
No sound made it past the lump in my throat, so I only nodded.
The weeks trudged forward, but my time with Dad was golden.
“You know I married your mom to give you kids a chance,” he said. “I’m lucky to have her.”
“You’ve said that before, Dad. She’s lucky to have you too.”
The doctor encouraged Dad to walk for exercise. Charlie, my octogenarian neighbor two doors down, stood on the front sidewalk bent over his walker when Dad and I passed him one day.
“Bless your heart,” Charlie said to Dad. “It takes some effort, doesn’t it?”
“Yep,” Dad said, winded.
“You keep going now.”
Then the setbacks started. I held onto Dad. Husband’s six weeks of leave were up, and he returned to work. Mom came to live with us, and she took over the nursing duties.
Dad grew weaker. Leaving the house one day for an appointment, he dropped onto the couch and couldn’t get back up. Husband lifted him to his feet. Another time, Dad couldn’t pull himself out of the bathtub. Husband shouldered Dad’s weight to get him out of the water and back into bed. I fought discouragement.
I told some women at church about Dad. I started crying, and my girls circled my legs. Ricka looked up, searching my face while I continued talking to the women. She clung to my hand.
“I know why you were crying,” she later said on our car ride home.
“Because Grandpa’s not doing well?” I said.
“No. Because it’s hard for you.”
Guilt sliced me. The truth had jagged edges.
I tightened my grip on Dad’s life and struggled to keep the house sanitary. If the girls had colds, I kept them out of his room.
“No,” Dad said. “Let them back in. It doesn’t matter.”
I relaxed my hold for a while, and the girls clambered up into his bed to see his magic tricks or watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with him. He didn’t fear the germs; he’d even stick his fingers into Flicka’s and Ricka’s mouths to wiggle their loose teeth.
A stomach bug swept through the house. I released my grip on Dad even more because I was too sick to hold on. Then, while we were all still throwing up, the sewer line in the basement bathroom floor—where a toilet would one day be set—backed up, and volumes of raw sewage spilled over onto the cement. My head reeled. I couldn’t control the germs in our environment anymore. I couldn’t control Dad’s healing. I couldn’t control anything.
Dad was readmitted into the hospital on May 2. He had an insatiable curiosity for the hospital staff, remembering their names and asking them about their families and where they had attended high school. He bowed his head to pray before eating the hospital food, now tasteless to him. He didn’t complain about the setbacks.
“Better me than some young mother with small children,” he said.
“Dad, we’ll get through this thing together,” I said.
My sister visited him every day, and every day I couldn’t go for a visit, I called. Mom mostly lived at the hospital. Separated by distance, my three other siblings grieved over Dad. They came to see him when they could. Dad had more setbacks—surgeries, fungal infections, and bad drug interactions, which required more drugs.
My girls saw pictures of Grandpa in the barometric chamber and thought he looked like an astronaut. Their days revolved around happenings with Grandpa, and that summer, their favorite playground was the one next to his building, their favorite treat the ice cream from the hospital cafeteria. But the rules on his floor said they weren’t allowed to see Grandpa anymore.
On August 2, Ricka had big news. I dialed Dad’s number. I caught him in his room just before the staff wheeled him out for more testing.
“Ricka lost her first tooth, Dad,” I said.
“I’ll call you back later.”
But Dad was put under sedation that day for an MRI and then another surgery. Afterward, the doctors tried many times to lift the sedation, but each time, Dad’s oxygen levels plummeted or fluid or bleeding in his lungs forced them to put him back under. We talked to Dad when we visited. Sometimes his eyelids fluttered. We squeezed his hand and sang to him, knowing he heard us. Aunt F played him a recording of their father singing Norwegian songs and hymns. We prayed over Dad. We anointed him with oil.
“We have it better than so many others,” Mom said. She had released her own hold on Dad and only held her Bible now.
I thought I heard the Voice again.
It’s not what it looks like. He will be healed.
I tightened my pointless grasp on Dad’s life. We waited. But after seven weeks of waiting and watching, Dad remained under sedation because of more and more complications. One day, the doctors told us the end was near. In the middle of the night that last night, I left my roll-away bed and approached the nurse in Dad’s dimly-lit room.
“Have you ever seen someone come back from this point?” I said. I flicked my eyes over at Dad. He was motionless—like he had been for weeks. Machines whirred and clicked. A ventilator helped him breathe.
“But that’s not to say they can’t, right?”
“I guess a miracle could happen. I just haven’t seen it.”
She stared at me now, her eyes soft.
Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
It would be a miracle then. An impressive one.
We spent that day by Dad’s side. My eyes told me what my heart didn’t want to hear. I called Husband, at home with the girls.
“Dad’s dying,” I said, “but I thought he’d be healed. I really believed it.”
“Maybe you just misunderstood.”
My fingers unfurled for good this time. I let Dad go.
I left the hospital around 7:00 p.m. on September 18, 2006. The nurse had said she thought I’d have time to go home, relieve Husband of caring for the girls so he could pick up my brother at the airport and drop him off at the hospital. And then I could get back there too—for one last goodbye.
At 9:00 p.m., I was still at home when the phone rang.
“He’s gone,” Mom said. “And it was so good.”
The way my sister tells it, she and Mom felt a lull in the room in those last minutes. The angels surrounding them held their breath, waiting for the command to take Dad.
The following days were an impressionist painting—the edges hazy, the colors melded, the lines undefined. Peace softens everything.
Dad’s retired friend who volunteered at the funeral home in Thief River Falls drove the six hours down to Minneapolis, along with his wife, to bring Dad’s body back up north—back home—for us.
In the narthex of the church before the funeral, five-year-old Ricka edged close to the opened coffin. She stood on tiptoes, peering over the side—her face just inches from Dad’s—and pressed in so tightly, I feared the casket would tip over. She stroked his face and hair. That night, two-year-old Dicka prayed God would “make Gampa bootiful.” Six-year-old Flicka cried at bedtime every night for the next year, and I grieved over her. I worried she would never get over him.
Back at home after the funeral, I faced the hospital equipment again. I hadn’t returned it yet. I called the home healthcare people, and they came and whisked it all away. The leftover pills went away too, along with my memory of the names of the meds and their dosages—something I never thought I’d forget.
All signs of illness were erased from our bedroom. Husband and I slept in our own bed again. Before I fell asleep, I thought of Dad’s last words to me, the unreturned phone call, and about my grasp on him over the many months before the sharp beauty of finally releasing him came.
Releasing someone is how we humans make our time on earth without a loved one palatable. But when I one day see Dad in that Place, I’ll grab onto him again. And then I won’t ever have to let go.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date/
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.