It was my fourth trip to Arizona in recent months. Each morning I got up before the sun and headed to the rehab facility so that we could attend physical therapy together. I believed that if dad showed up each morning, tried to stand, and accomplished everything the therapist scheduled for him, it meant he was getting better. I was desperate for reassurance.
My dad had stage four prostate cancer that had aggressively metastasized into his bones and lymph nodes. He had been in and out of hospitals over the last few months battling the side effects of an aggressive chemotherapy regimen. Every doctor I spoke with said the disease was incredibly painful, yet my father never complained. Not once. But despite his strength, the toxins were too powerful for his body and caused more harm than good. It became clear in this final visit that the cancer was winning.
I had a hard time accepting the inevitable and needed to hear it directly from his oncologist. I pushed to get dad in for an appointment before his doctor left on vacation. Then at the appointment, I pushed his doctor to be brutally honest with us. And when my dad said he didn’t know what hospice was, I urged the doctor to explain. His words, “My friend, this is the end,” seemed surreal at the time.
When we walked out of the doctor’s office, we had to wait for special transportation. My father was wheelchair bound from a hematoma and for the first time in his life he was dependent on us rather than the other way around. As my mom and dad waited for the van, I went back to the doctor’s office to use the restroom. I was too busy processing the doctor’s words and my own feelings to pay attention to what was going on with dad. It wasn’t until I exited the doctor’s office and headed back to my parents that I saw it; the heartbreaking expression that covered my dad’s face.
That night I had a very vivid dream. In the dream, my dad was seated in his wheelchair looking at me with the same expression I witnessed outside the doctor’s office. He didn’t say a word. He just sat looking right through me. His wheelchair, a new appendage, was parked at the entrance of a dark tunnel. It was my own voice and the words, “Are you afraid?” that abruptly woke me. Hours later he was dead.
That morning was the first time I chose not to go to the rehab facility to see him. That morning was supposed to be about my grandmother who was celebrating her 100th birthday. I told myself I would have many more days to focus my attention on dad. He was getting better, he stood for the first time in weeks, and his physical therapist said that on Monday he would take his first steps. More importantly, he was talking and communicating. I had flown out to Arizona on short notice because my family claimed he was no longer lucid. Yet the day I arrived, from the first moment I saw him, he smiled and told the physical therapist with pride, “That’s my daughter.”
We spent the next two days engrossed in our simple routine: morning physical therapy, sitting quietly together in his room, chatting briefly over lunch, tucking him in for his nap, returning again for dinner, and then saying goodnight at bed time. The night before he died, my brother, sister-in-law, and their four kids came to visit. It was loud and lively as each grandchild took time to tell him about their latest developments. We all planned a birthday party for my twins who would be in Arizona over spring break with my husband and oldest daughter. I tried to connect with my family on FaceTime so they could visit with grandpa as well, but my husband didn’t answer the phone.
When I left that evening, I paused under a large tree next to my parking spot. It reminded me of those I climbed as a kid, while my dad simultaneously watched my brother on the soccer field and made sure I was safe. I thought about going back inside the rehab facility. I almost did. But, I decided to wait. I would spend the next week by his side; talking, asking questions, making sure he was OK. I would help him get better, then we would spend time together over spring break, and figure out a way for him to see the Diamondbacks play one last time. Instead, he slipped away quietly the next morning with my mom by his side and his beloved Diamondbacks on TV.
My dad was gone and I was left with so many questions. Why didn’t he wait just a couple hours for me to return? Why didn’t he wait to say goodbye to my family? Why now? It hurt so bad that for days I felt like I couldn’t breathe–the crushing weight of grief and guilt bearing down on me. I went back and forth between feeling grateful that I made the trip out there and feeling terrible for not being there the morning he died.
I was angry with my grandmother for turning 100 that day. I was angry for having to share my last evening with him with my brother’s large family. I was angry that my husband’s hands were too full with groceries and three kids to answer the phone. Most of all, I was angry with myself because I didn’t know if he was OK. What went through his mind in those hours after the doctor’s visit? Did he give up hope? Did I set all of this in motion? Or just maybe, for my dad, it was the perfect time to let go and say goodbye.
Ten days after my dad’s funeral I returned to Arizona with my family for spring break. One quiet morning we filled a basket with plastic Easter eggs and placed it, along with a cup of coffee and some flowers, on his grave. The kids were restless so I decided to return later that afternoon on my own so I could take my time saying goodbye. I knew I would not be returning to Arizona for a long time.
While the kids napped, I trekked back out to the cemetery, hoping for some quiet time to reflect. Instead, I ended up running around like a wide-eyed, wild, five-year-old on Easter morning. Strong winds had knocked over the basket and scattered the eggs we had left earlier all over the cemetery. I canvassed the grounds, crawling under bushes, digging through the dirt, running along the fence on the outside perimeter of the cemetery, and smiling each time I found a “hidden egg.” Dad had sent me on one, final egg hunt; much like the ones he had created for me as a child. I collected all the eggs, refilled the basket, and this time put a heavy rock at the bottom. Then I read dad’s headstone one last time–still in disbelief, still searching for answers, and still unable to say goodbye and walk away.
As I stood looking at the ground, tears streaming down my cheeks, I heard the loud roar of a plane’s engine overhead. It was a small Cessna like my dad used to fly in his youth. This plane flew slowly, almost purposely overhead. I watched and waited. Whoever was up there seemed to be watching me, too. As the plane descended even lower, it took a final turn around the cemetery, and then quietly flew off into the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. Sometimes, the universe simply provides a metaphor when you need it the most.
I found my perfect moment to say goodbye.