Unlike his physical strength, Dad's strength of will never waned. And he showed us what it is to face death with dignity—and a sense of humor. Like the time he solemnly sent for my brother Lou. We all held our breath as they talked behind closed doors. Could he be making a last request? Yes, he was. He wanted to make sure Lou would be prepared the next morning to head to Denny's and bring him a Grand Slam.
Or the morning he looked up at me and, straight-faced, told me he'd been struggling all night with a decision: In his dreams, he'd had to choose between an Egg McMuffin and a Jack-in-the-Box breakfast sandwich. Now awake, he still wasn't sure which to choose. Of course, he got both.
Kids, cats, and yard work always made Dad happy. That didn't change at the end. Days before his death, his energy sapped by cancer, Dad let his will take over. Wheelchair-bound, he declared he'd walk around the backyard. Incredulous, we wheeled him outside. My brother Martin and I gently lifted him to his feet.
"I want to touch the wall," he said. Slowly, very slowly, we walked the six feet and he placed his hand on the block fence. But he wasn't finished. He wanted to feel the rough bark of the enormous silk oak on the far side of the yard and walk through the grass he'd so carefully tended. He did. Then, exhausted, he sat down—and was promptly rewarded with a "roly-poly bug" by granddaughter Lina, then four. No one smiled wider than Grandpa.
These daily vignettes were far more than that, explained Pam, our hospice nurse. I say "our" because she truly took care of us all. Dad, she said, was saying goodbye to the things he loved. One last touch, one last step, one last savoring of a syrup-covered pancake and crisscross-cut fried eggs.
We laughed. We cried. We were exhausted.
Those three weeks of caregiving took a toll far beyond the emotional turmoil of losing a parent. I lost eight pounds and still have a bottle of cough syrup with codeine bearing the date of my father's death: February 10, 2009. There'd been no time to visit the doctor. One of my brothers took me early that morning, before we knew Dad would leave us that afternoon.
Still, I'm one of the lucky ones. My time was Dad's. Work wasn't the major issue it is for most caregivers. My employer, AARP, supported my caregiving decision, and my colleagues assumed my workload as I plowed through sick and vacation leave.
At the end, Mom and all eight of us—including, our youngest sister who lives in Egypt with her husband and daughter Lina—were at his side. A little while later, seeing the door to Dad's room open, I peeked inside.
Lina stood silently beside the bed where my father still lay. "I brought flowers for Grandpa," she said, pointing to a small bouquet gathered from one of Dad's many flowerbeds.